Finding a place for classical music in a new social and technological era.
Before I begin, I want to point out that I am not an authority on this subject. I have never run an arts organization or worked as an orchestra administrator. All I am is a student and a young person that feels like classical music is his vocation. If I didn’t think that the music was worthwhile and that there is unexplored territory within it, I wouldn’t be studying it. On the other hand, I’m still trying to figure out what I think. These are my thoughts now.
One thing that I hear a lot when I talk about the future audience of classical music (classical in the vernacular sense) is the idea that the classical music audience will always refresh itself because as people mature, they look for music with more “substance.” I don’t know if that has been ever true (I suspect that there is some truth in that, as the median age of classical audiences has been old for longer than it should be if it were a single population), but I do know that if people are looking for serious art music that builds on tradition and rewards experience, there are plenty of other avenues available to them apart from classical.
This has to do with an idea that I’ve been puzzling over for a while: the idea that music falls in a spectrum between functional and art music. There is clearly some music that is purely functional: think dance music. This is completely independent of musical idiom or style; a Donna Summer extended mix might be in the disco style with disco form conventions, but musical decisions are made to make people’s bodies move. A great dance mix is one that facilitates a good time. On the other hand, there is a lot of music that is purely non-functional (“art” for lack of a better term). It’s not trying to make its audience move, or happy, or even entertained. Perhaps it’s an intellectual experience. Perhaps it’s exploring a spiritual theme. The best part about music is that there is everything in between those two extremes (in fact, probably all music is).
There’s a couple of strategies that we can extrapolate from looking at music this way. The first is: any argument about the relative merits of art and functional music is a waste of time. If I’m looking for people to have a good time at my party, I’m not going to put on Mahler. Conversely, if I feel like exploring new musical ideas, or hear a new musical perspective, I’m going to listen to an artist or composer that operates more on the art music side of the spectrum. This is what I mean on a practical level: laptop created music, death metal and hip-hop are not going to kill music, just as swing and rock and roll did not kill music. I am not trying to strawman here; I don’t know any prominent cultural critic or music critic that will claim that, but I have heard that kind of thing from devotees of classical music, the exact people who might reinforce negative stereotypes about the closed nature of classical music audiences. If you badmouth a whole style of music, you reinforce an antagonistic relationship between the audiences, and makes them feel like they are not welcome to listen an explore your music. That is not the way to grow your audience.
The second thing that we should realize about this spectrum between functional and art musics is that you can find it in many types of musical idioms. Jazz may have started as a street music, a functional music, but spend five minutes with a devoted fan and you’ll encounter music as experimental as any modernist composition. I think the indie explosion of the 2000’s is a sign of rock’s transition into an idiom with a substantial experimental branch. There’s a discussion going on right now at PostBourgie about the parallels between Jazz’s trajectory and hip-hop. As time goes on a musical idiom amasses a substantial body of work, and a new generation explores it and reinterprets it, changes it, and often takes it into a more arty direction.
I think that anyone who doubts me should look at some of the different forms within classical music itself: mazurkas, sarabandes, minuets, waltzes were all dances that actual people actually danced. Over time, these forms became more stylized, and the masterpieces that bear those names might be far removed from the music that people danced to.
The point that I’m trying to make here is that if people want experimental, or spiritual, or “substantial” music, they have options other than classical music. If classical music administrators and marketers assume that mature or curious listeners will inevitably make their way to classical music, they are sorely mistaken.
I’ve been talking about what orchestras and classical audiences shouldn’t do, now let me talk about what they should do. One of the ideas that I most agree with Greg Sandow about is that orchestras need to be more deliberate about their programming. If classical music is going to align itself towards a musically and intellectually curious audience, then they need to make sure that every concert tells a story or explores an idea. Much like a good playlist, an imaginative program can amplify the pieces within it. If you can sell your concerts as an evening long musical and intellectual journey, you can tap into a whole new audience.
In my next post, I’m going to discuss why orchestras need to start expanding their arts programs now to have a prayer at being viable in 15 years.