Colin Eatock on classical music today.

I look at my ArtsJournal RSS feed this morning, and there’s a link to a story labeled “What’s wrong with Classical Music?” I usually don’t click on these stories (after all, AJ links to about four a week), but today I did, and I’m glad, because it linked to a really thoughtful post by Colin Eatock on 3quarksdaily discussing the position of classical music within modern culture. Everyone should read it, but I’m going to to through some of his points:

The use of classical music in public places is increasingly common: in shopping malls, parking lots, and other places where crowds and loitering can be problems… The idea may be a Canadian innovation: in 1985, a 7-Eleven store in Vancouver pioneered the technique, which was soon adopted elsewhere. Today, about 150 7-Elevens throughout North America play classical music outside their stores… The hard, cold truth is that classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel unwelcome.

This is one of the phenomena that really makes me sad and angry. There’s nothing more angering, nothing more demoralizing, than being confronted with the fact that the thing you love, the thing that you’ve invested a lot of time in, is so unpleasant that it’s seen as a deterrent. I consider it profoundly disrespectful to the artists involved. Even the most snobby and assholish classical music person (and there are fewer of those than the stereotype might suggest) loves to share their favorite music. Using music to make others unwelcome is perverse.
One of the few points that I disagree completely with (my emphasis):

So why do so many young people dislike classical music? (I include among the “young” people in their 40s, 50s and even older who have retained the musical tastes and attitudes they formed in their teens.)

Considering how evenhanded the rest of the article is, this is an incredibly bizarre categorization. Most of the classical music people I know or have read (professors, older people, academics, bloggers) listened to classical music as teenagers and, though their tastes may have changed, they speak with affection about the pieces that they fell in love with as teenagers. I think this is another version of that old chestnut, “It’s not a problem that classical audiences are getting older, after all, appreciation of classical music comes with maturity.” I think it’s pretty dangerous, if you’re trying to grow your audience, to label anyone that does not listen to your music “immature.” Furthermore, I don’t know anybody–musically educated or not, musically curious or not–that listens to the same music in the same way as they did as teenagers.
Eatock then lists common stereotypes and perceptions that are isolating classical music. The things he mentions are commonly invoked when talking about the future of classical music. This hit home:

But regardless of whether the objections are true or untrue, fair or unfair, they add up to a broad-based dismissal of classical music… [W]hat distresses me most about them is the fact that they’re not just held by those content to live in a cultural world bounded by pop music, television and major-league sports, but also by many inquisitive and sophisticated people who take an active interest in literature, film, theatre and other arts. These are exactly the kind of people who, a few generations ago, would have felt that classical music was “their” music. Yet today, even among the artistically inclined intelligentsia, classical music is often regarded as a foreign thing.

And this:

People who have heard nothing but popular music all their lives (again, a considerable chunk of the population) will, of necessity, develop certain assumptions about what music is “supposed to” sound like. Someone who only knows a repertoire of three-minute Top 40 songs in verse-chorus form may find a lengthy, textless orchestral work daunting and interminable. Someone weaned on percussive rock or rap music at high volumes may hear a string quartet as feeble and wimpy. And someone who admires the “natural” voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits may experience Plácido Domingo as artificial and overwrought.

I think this is the key problem that the tradition faces. Classical music is music that you have to go to. It won’t go to you. “California Gurls” is carefully crafted to embed itself in your head whether you’re actively listening to it or not. “The Unanswered Question” is not built like that. You have to convince people that there’s something there to be discovered, that there is going to be a payoff to having the patience to listen to a piece of music, to learn about it, to try and understand that. If people are convinced that it’s a dead, boring tradition, there’s no reason to take the time to understand it.
And it really does take time. I think a lot of commentators forget the total amount of time that they’ve spent listening to music. Of course somebody that’s new to the music is going to hear something different! This is why crowd pleasing/pops style concert’s don’t necessarily build audiences. If you convince people that they’re going to appreciate the music on the level of entertainment, if you try and branch out, they are going to think that they’ve been tricked, or even feel self-conscious because they’re suddenly reminded that there’s a lot of classical music that they don’t understand. And they withdraw.
This is not just a problem for classical music. Jazz has this problem. Folk musics have this problem. Any musical tradition that has values that differ from the mainstream pop soundsphere is going to have problems sustaining itself because it works against the musical grammar and logic that people hear all the time.
My solution to this problem is very traditional. While I think that more savvy publicity, technological innovations, and a more globalized classical music world are good things and will help, I’m a believer in the fundamentals.
Music education. I’m not talking about classical music appreciation classes, or some agenda to get kids to listen to classical music in school. I want it to become the norm for every kid to learn to play an instrument, even if it’s just for a little while (after all, there’s nothing that’s for everybody). The classical repertoire becomes less intimidating once you have a toehold into the world. I may never become accomplished enough at the piano to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, but when I fell in love with it at 11, it was partly because I associated the big, percussive chords with the stuff that I liked to play at my level. Plus, I’m a radical musical democrat, and I hate the idea that our society has created such a vast gulf between music maker and music listener (this is a whole other blog post).
Better concert programming. Most discussion of concert programming revolves around a dearth of contemporary music. Again, while I think that issue is important, I think it misses the point. Every single concert needs to be seen as an opportunity to teach your audience. Imagine if–instead of clutching to the deeply stupid, lunch-tray inspired overture/concerto/symphony format–concerts traced a single idea through their pieces in order to educate their audience. There are some orchestras that do this already, and I think it should be a priority.

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