View from the East: How We Can Save the World

View from the East: How We Can Save the World

Greg Sandow

Well, maybe not the world, but—just maybe—classical music. By “we” I mean all of us active in new music. And I know I’ve written before, either in a column here or in a response to a comment, that we can’t replace the classical music world. It’s too big, too mainstream for the way we operate. But maybe—just maybe—we can change it.

Mainstream classical music is in crisis. To some extent, the crisis is quantifiable. Classical recording is tanking, classical radio is shrinking, and so is media coverage of classical music. The biggest fear is that the audience will disappear, and while conservatives in the business think that won’t happen—”So what if the audience is old?” they cry, “it’s always been old!”—reports from the National Endowment for the Arts show that even in the past 10 years the classical music audience has gotten older. (And the conservatives’ claim may not be accurate in any case. I’ve seen as study from the late 1930s showing that the audience for orchestral concerts then was, on the average, about 30!)

Look at these charts I made, using NEA data (derived from the census). They show what percentage of the American classical music audience fell into various age groups, in 1992 and 2002. I adjusted the data for population shifts—America as a whole got older, so I’ve adjusted the data to show how the audience would have changed if each age group still were the same proportion of the population as a whole:


Clearly, the audience grew older in the past 10 years. Fewer younger people now are going to classical concerts. Maybe some of them will catch classical fever when they’re 40 or 50, but—if fewer are going now—probably fewer will convert than used to be the case. And so the classical audience will very likely shrink.

How can we change that? Well, classical music also has problems that aren’t quantifiable. It’s mired in the past—or, more precisely, it does things in ways that used to work, but don’t make sense in the culture we live in now. To paraphrase Public Enemy (“Too black! Too strong!”), classical music is too white and too blank. Concerts are too formal. The audience is expected to be passive, too passive for today’s world; it’s supposed to sit there and shut up, maintaining reverent silence during the parade of masterworks.

The classical music world, on the whole, has no discernable relation to the present day. The music is mainly talked about in scholarly terms, as structures of abstract musical elements, or else as history. Or if emotion ever enters the discussion, there’s a tone of piety, or sometimes vague inspiration, a feeling of transcendent exhilaration that, upon examination, has nothing to do with any specific piece that might be played. It comes from classical music as a whole. We’re never told what, in any specific piece, might be expressed. Or, more generally, what’s being expressed at any classical performance. It’s a world unlike any other, or at least unlike any other kind of secular performance; it’s closest, maybe, to being in church.

For classical music to survive, these things have to change. Classical performances have to get more friendly and familiar, more like other things we go to. And this is where we—the new music “we”—might come in. Classical music institutions are trying to create friendlier events; I’m even involved in one of the many experiments along these lines, with the Pittsburgh Symphony, for which I plan and host a concert series aimed at people who usually don’t go to classical concerts.

But these innovations are a little tentative, and might feel artificial. Classical music institutions haven’t quite figured out how to do them. What’s the tone? What’s the dress code? How should the audience behave? There’s general agreement that the concerts should be short, that the musical selections (though they might be quite adventurous, by mainstream concert standards) should be short as well, that drinks should be served before the performance, that the hosts or performers should talk to the audience, and that the audience doesn’t have to dress up.

But still the tone of the event isn’t always clear. We’ve grafted new behavior on the traditional concert framework, and while my Pittsburgh experience (along with reports I’ve heard from other places) shows that a new audience can have a roaring good time, there still can be something artificial about the experience. Nobody—musicians, audience, administrators, marketers—yet knows where anybody fits.

Cut now to a new music concert. At least in my experience, in New York and (though not often enough) elsewhere, everything is comfortable. People (musicians and audience alike) dress any way they want. Musicians might talk to the audience, and if they do, they do it naturally, without scripts or fancy, hyperactive presentation. If they don’t choose to talk, that feels right, too, because everybody knows why the concert’s happening. The music speaks for itself. If anything has to be explained, that’s because it’s genuinely offbeat (there might, for instance, be some extramusical association, an unusual one, that the composer wants to share). But the styles and tones of the music tends to be familiar. We all know the flavors of new music, and—at least if the concert’s good—we enjoy ourselves, with no need for any educational apparatus (program notes, preconcert lectures) to tell us what’s supposed to be going on.

The classical mainstream needs to feel like that. So—just maybe (once again)—they could learn from us. Mainstream classical concerts could become more like new music events, and would be wonderfully improved. I’d certainly be happier to go to them.

But how can this happen? People in the mainstream classical world aren’t taking new music concerts as any kind of model. Instead, they’re imitating some general idea of what big-star pop concerts are like; they’re also drawing on other things in popular culture—TV shows, award shows, anything where somebody gets up and talks to an audience. Maybe we don’t inspire them because we’re too small, too much in our own world, and above all because we don’t need to do what they think is necessary—to consciously reach out and reassure and entertain their audience.

So one thing we might do is urge them—even more strongly than we do—to play more new music. The very sound of the music can be reassuring and familiar to the new audience these mainstream institutions want. Not to the existing mainstream audience; they want the canonical classics. But the new audience doesn’t have many preconceptions—or, rather, their preconceptions might be that established classical music is variously old-fashioned, glorious, romantic, stuffy, and over their heads. They’re reassured, in my experience, when they hear something they immediately know that they can understand without any help. That can even happen in a large hall, with a giant audience, as I saw in Pittsburgh in December, when we did the second concert in my series. One piece we played was Todd Levin’s Blur, a fabulous orchestral recreation of a techno sound. People in the audience were making little dance moves in their seats, and broke into applause after a percussion break.

If mainstream classical concerts had more new music, they’d change their tone. And yes, of course this is a battle we’ve been fighting for generations now, but the crisis in classical music gives us an opening we never had. And, I think, it creates an openness inside the classical music world. So when we make our various pleas for more new music (not that all of us want to bother; for some of us, it’s just enough to do what we do—and without that, we wouldn’t be anywhere at all), we should insist that this is how classical music should be saved. (We should also protest loudly when any mainstream institution—like the Boston Symphony, in the upcoming first season under James Levine—picks new works exclusively from the old high-church school, Carter, Babbitt, and the like. We should yell, even scream, that this isn’t representative, that it’s not where new music is now, and can only alienate any possible audience, existing or new.)

There are many ways to make our case, including, just possibly, institutional cooperation. Bang on a Can might think it has no possible relationship with the New York Philharmonic, but is that really true? I’ll grant that the obstacles there come mainly from the Philharmonic side, but suppose Bang on a Can (or some other new music group) worked quietly to establish contact, without preconceptions about where it all might lead. I can understand that new music groups might feel this was a waste of their resources. But suppose a few Philharmonic musicians got involved in a future Bang on a Can marathon. Suppose the Philharmonic, in some future new music festival—and don’t laugh; they’ve done some in the past—programmed some Bang on a Can-style music, or booked the Absolute Ensemble, or Maya Beiser. Again, don’t laugh; in their 1984 Horizons new music festival, the Philharmonic did in fact give us Diamanda Galas. They did it partly because I hounded them in print and privately about the exclusion of “downtown” music in their festival the year before. Jacob Druckman, who curated the festivals, called to ask me who I’d recommend, and, from several names I mentioned (and, of course, that others may have mentioned; I trust he called other people, too), picked Diamanda. So it can be done (or at least could be back then), if we ourselves don’t bar the doors.

I could add that mainstream classical institutions soon may realize that they need to move out to (so to speak) the left—that they need to show that something new is going on with classical music, that classical music is still an exciting and evolving art. To me, this is important, even crucial, even if events in which classical institutions do these things don’t draw so large an audience. Classical music institutions need to excite some kind of buzz, some sense that something new is happening. Handled right, this could inform even their mainstream concerts, making people feel (in the best of all worlds), that the Metropolitan Opera—to pick a most unlikely example—is a place where something’s going on, a place that’s worth checking out. (I have to smile, though: the Met has to be the most backward institution, in its planning for the future—assuming it does any—in all classical music.)

We can also bang on the doors of music schools—insisting (for instance to schools like Juilliard, where new music is still largely conducted on the old model) that they make new music more informal. Looming behind all this is a fascinating, and I think, stupendously important fact. While classical music has all the troubles I’ve described, there is still no shortage of young people studying it. Youth orchestras, from everything I hear, are surging, and kids still apply to music schools, wanting to study even less popular instruments like the bassoon.

These kids then graduate from music school, and go out into the profession, in such numbers that something astonishing has happened—orchestras (even the biggest) are now younger than their audience! This has to be the most hopeful development in the classical music world. If orchestras grow younger—and as even newer, more informal generations of young musicians come into them—they’ll be far better equipped to reach new and younger audiences. The musicians themselves may not want to put up with all the stuffiness of mainstream classical music. And simply because of their age—and their orientation toward pop music—they’ll be more open to where new music is now. And, we can hope, more open to bringing that into orchestral concerts. We should help them, by ourselves finding ways for that to happen.

And if classical concerts start feeling more like new music, something else—something I really long for—might occur. We might learn what the standard classical repertoire means today. Clearly, it means something, because people still play it and listen to it. Clearly, it ought to mean something, because it’s part of our history. But the meaning, whatever it might be, is obscured by the blankness of most classical performance. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” could easily be everybody’s guideline. You can do a whole evening of 18th-century music, and point out differences between the young and mature Mozart (if, as at one concert I went to recently, you’re doing an early symphony and one of the last piano concertos). You can then draw distinctions between Mozart and Haydn (that same concert matched early and late Mozart works with Haydn’s “London” Symphony).

Which is all fine for people who want to live their artistic lives safely inside the classical music bubble. But anybody else might want to ask—even if the concert, on its own terms, is perfectly enjoyable—”What’s with all the 18th-century music? What are you saying when you play it?”

If 18th century music routinely starts showing up alongside new pieces, and in a setting that’s easily and unmistakably contemporary, these questions might be answered. The music itself (even in the way it’s played) might take a shape that answers them. Rather than falling into the familiar bubble—we know how the music goes; we know what we believe to be proper style for playing it; while we play it, we don’t have to think about anything more than this—musicians might find themselves coloring older pieces for their new context, finding the voice that explains to everybody why they still need to be heard. (Or don’t need to be—a possible conclusion that we shouldn’t exclude in advance.)

Something like this happened in Pittsburgh, I think, when I encouraged the audience to applaud during Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony, following clues in a letter Mozart wrote about the premiere, in which he described how the audience in Paris clapped the moment they heard anything they liked. The Pittsburgh audience did exactly that, and lustily; the orchestra, I felt, responded, by shaping each phrase to make it less routine, less expected, and more vividly embodying whatever character Mozart gave it. There’s no telling how far this reshaping of classical masterworks might go—or how a new audience might respond, after (in our dreams, but just maybe in reality as well) new music reshapes the classical mainstream.

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