You guys, it’s time to save classical music…again!

With my Facebook News Feed exploding with updates and opinions about the Atlanta Symphony lockout (link to the musicians’ webpage, not the douchey talking points of the ASO!), and various articles about classical music’s struggle to fit into modern consumer culture making the rounds (even if they’re almost four years old!), I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Wagnerian-length swan song of classical music.

For the uninitiated, classical music faces a bit of a PR problem when it comes to attracting audiences, at least in the US.  Depending on who you ask, classical music is:

  • stuffy
  • elitist
  • anti-capitalist
  • old
  • boring
  • weird
  • expensive
  • not what I grew up listening to
  • (insert your gripe here)

Classical music suffers from something of a museum culture, where people-who-don’t-go-to-classical-music-concerts feel that there is a dress code (oh, how I wish there was a dress code! I love a good dress code.), a weird set of behaviors to follow (they’re not wrong on that point, what with the adulated silence, the standing, the sitting, the only-coughing-in-the-moments-where-the-conductor-has-the-baton-up-but-nobody-is-playing), a lack of opportunity to proposition other audience members for sex (compared to popular music concerts…I see you, single-parent-bringing-your-tween-to-One-Direction-concerts-to-pick-up-other-single-parents!)…

DILF

But seriously, classical music has this problem, and has had it for as long as any of us can remember.  And now with the Internet, we can be reminded of it in regular biannual cycles, because the death of classical music brings foot traffic!  And as a contemporary classical composer, this death of my art form is obviously a great concern to me.  And there is no shortage of solutions offered by the well-intentioned.  The problem with most of these solutions is that they lack a lot of the nuance that the situation actually requires.

Unlike this Situation, which has all the nuance it requires…

I’ll address the two that drive me the craziest:

1. Classical Music Needs To Drop Its Silly Dress Code and Ritualistic Behaviors

This issue stems from the main issue of “classical music is elitist/anachronistic.”  For a long time, it was considered proper to come to classical music concerts in black tie (aka tuxedos for men, evening gowns for women). What most people don’t get is that, for a long time, it was considered proper to be in black tie after 6:00pm, even if you didn’t leave your goddamn house!  We get a regular dose of this from Downton Abbey, that show that doesn’t seem to be doing too badly despite being most obviously about a group of elitists.  Why is it that the people watching that show (which is famous for its costumes and set pieces), would, when presented with the opportunity to go out and do the exact thing they’re watching, say, “Nah, fuck it. I’m no elitist!”

For anyone that hasn’t been to a concert in 100 years, the dress code for classical music’s audiences has updated significantly, to the point where fancier-dressing types like myself feel overdressed for this supposedly elitist event I’m going to.

Ugh…the nerve of some people, just bringing their Subway into concerts!

I don’t think that the dress code has as much to do with peoples’ alienation from classical music as people ascribe to it.  Remember the time when Justin Timberlake rocked the shit out of Tom Ford’s tux to sell millions of albums?

God, what a fucking elitist, am I right?

The rituals of the concert, on the other hand, I kinda get. It’s awkward to stay perfectly still and silent for two hours, and getting glared at by the elderly for clearing your throat or coughing at the wrong time is a little bit much for entry-level concertgoers.  So I’ll give you that, fixers-of-classical-music.

Some of the most elitist assholes I’ve ever met only wear t-shirts.  Have you been to an indie rock show? A comics convention? Anywhere on NYU’s campus?  Tuxedos aren’t the uniforms of elitists anymore.  Elitists look like everyone else nowadays (except maybe for the comic convention elitists…I bet they’re in cosplay!).  There are people willing to look down on you for your taste in anything these days, so why is classical music being targeted for this?!

 

2. Classical Music Can’t Compete On The Free Market

This “reason” for classical music’s unpopularity is, bar none, the worst. The absolute worst. For those who don’t understand this, there is a vocal segment of the classical-music-hating population that believes that all music should behave by the rules of capitalism, that demand for the music will ensure its survival, and that lack of demand demonstrates that, like my 1999 dotcom, www.treadmillforyourlove.com, it should go under in favor of more popular choices.  As all producers of music that isn’t popular will tell you, this attitude basically ensures a race to the lowest common denominator.  Capitalism is what makes shitty pop music shitty pop music: the reason is that companies identify qualities that sell records, and imitate them ad nauseum because it’ll move units.

This reason is like an octopus, with tentacles suckered onto all the other reasons people don’t like classical music.  Because it eschews popularity through avoiding capitalist behavior of appealing to the lowest common denominator, classical music is “elitist.” Because it doesn’t obey free market rules and depends on public funding to get by, it’s “socialist.” And on, and on, and on…

The people who want to “fix” classical music have come up with a solution: composers and performers need to be more entrepreneurial.  This word has been the new music buzzword of the past ten years.  There hasn’t been one performer who hasn’t had this told to them by some well-meaning mentor.  I find two major problems with this, both stemming from the fact that the solution is, once again, way too reductive.

Firstly, classical musicians may not want to be entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurialism is really really really hard.  There’s a reason that the vast majority of workers in the country aren’t entrepreneurs.  If you told me that I had a choice between looking for a secure job where I’d get to do what I love 75% of the time versus a precarious string of individual gigs doing what I love 100% of the time, I could see myself choosing either for equally valid reasons.

Secondly, for many millennials, “entrepreneur” is synonymous with “money-grubbing douchebag.” Observe:

So, your businessman relative telling you to “be entrepreneurial” basically comes of as, “be the kind of asshole that’s pricing artists out of living in San Francisco.” No wonder we aren’t out there rushing to be entrepreneurs.

 

I’m not looking to provide any solutions to classical music’s problems.  I’m also not looking to cynically mock anyone’s attempts to solve them, either.  What I want is a more considered, nuanced discussion of how to fix this problem.  It’s not going to be fixed by one thing, and it’s not going to be fixed in a year.  Can we please stop treating it like a news cycle story and get down to fixing it?!

 

  1 comment for “You guys, it’s time to save classical music…again!

  1. 10/10/2014 at 1:59 am

    Hi Jason:

    I grew up with classical piano music in the background, so to speak, as my dad played a range of pieces from Bach through Milhaud and Shostakovich. I didn’t think about deep meanings, complexity, social significance, coolness or lack of same. All I knew is that I liked it. Nobody said I should like it, that it was any better or worse than other music. In fact, nobody in the household made a big deal out of it it any way, shape or form. It was just there, and I liked it just because it sounded good. I also heard big band music, jazz, Broadway musicals, rock (Beatles through Pearl Jam and beyond). I liked much of what I heard from the various forms, and there was some I disliked from the same set of forms. I think I came to like music so broadly in large part because very few value judgements were placed on what I heard. Music in its many forms was an accompaniment to my everyday experiences.

    I have heard many people talk about how classical music all sounds the same to them. How they don’t feel moved by it, or feel like moving in response to it. Most of these same people have never gone to a live classical performance, and I doubt they would like it if they did, assuming they went into it with strong preconceptions about the music. Likewise, people who have attended many rock concerts will feel encumbered by the “rules of proper decorum” often associated with classical performances. They are used to cheering when they want, singing along if they want, and so forth. A lot of the live rock concert artists go out of their way to involve the audience.

    For many, a concert is not just about the music. It is also a social event. It is a chance to let their hair down, forget about daily nonsense, and participate in an experience with many others.

    The question is, how can we capture some of the good things that rock concerts provide in a manner that can work with classical music. Clearly a rock concert is delivered at such a high decibel level that audience members can get about as loud as they want without any chance of drowning out the music. Classical music tends to have far too much dynamic variability for that same possibility to exist. It is also not a simple thing to be able to sing along to a Chopin sonata. I think largely due to the dynamic differences between the typical popular music concert and the acoustical classical concerts, the classical concert is always going to require less raucous audience participation.

    So how can we go about getting potential audience members to want to come to a concert where they are not going to be as loud and participatory as they are used to? Perhaps it is a matter of exposing them to classical music in an informal manner. Maybe if they hear it as I did, they will come to appreciate it as music in general, not something that is above, greater than, more cultivated than, any other form of music.

    It is to that end that I have been making what I call Art Videos. They combine animated art (actually, oil paintings my wife does, animated in 3D in various ways using Blender) set to classical piano music. I make the music via midi sequences (I spend a lot of time making them as non-mechanical as possible), processed into wav files with PainoTeq. The idea, of course, is to use the music as background. I do provide the composer and name of the piece, but I don’t try to make a big deal out of it. You could check out some of these at https://www.youtube.com/user/JDPorterArt/videos if you are interested. The hope is that people will come to like the music because of how it sounds, and then perhaps then seek out more of it. In other words, I am trying to sneak it in past their “classical music is stuffy” guard!

    Apparently I don’t know how to market given the few views I have gotten (I loved your comments on entrepreneurs). That’s not surprising given my scientific background. I have received few comments, and one of them I think reflected self-interest. The comment had to do with how it would have been nicer to have a “nice” recording instead of my “mechanical” version. I think Glenn Gould would have gotten a kick out of that comment. Of course there is also the matter of copyrights. I wonder how much better things would be in general if people could come to like music on its own terms, not because they were told to, because they were told one form is superior to another, or one version is better than another. If I had not indicated that the music was sequenced, would the commenter have noticed? Gould did an informal study where he played a snippet of music that had undergone many splices. Few people noticed! If you like it, fine. If you don’t, fine. Do not endeavor to change someone’s opinion based on yours. Let the music so the talking. If it speaks to you, wonderful. If not, so be it!

    Cheers!

    David A. Porter

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