Let the Rhythm (and Melody) hit ‘em:
3 Communiqués from Classical Music’s Long March
An artist needs recognition, but recognition as part of one’s creating for oneself. It's a little bit of a contradiction. In other words, you create something that comes out of you, it's your personal thing, you don't think about what someone else will think about it. A true artist should never [do that]. But then, once it's done, the artist needs to know that it got to someone, that it touched someone, that it opened something for someone, that it did something to someone.
—Spoken by a twenty-nine-year-old Russian-Israeli pianist living in New York City.
[The Straddler sat down with a 35-year-old conductor who lives in New York City and asked him some questions about the health of classical music. He issued the following communiqué.]
Lots of people certainly think [classical music is a dying art]. I have mixed feelings about it. I think if it is a dying art, it’s a slowly dying art—fortunately for people like me [who] love it so much. I think it is getting harder and harder for classical music institutions, particularly orchestras, to survive, because they don’t rely on a visual element, which is what keeps opera companies in better financial shape. In opera there is more spectacle, which is what people are programmed now to seek out, probably due to the influence of television.I think television really drew people away from being aurally tuned in. I mean, before television, people spent hours around the radio—they were still sitting around a box, but they were just listening. There was no visual element to distract from [what was being heard]. Pure listening is really a vehicle for exploring the inner world of your imagination and emotions when you’re not being spoon-fed visual imagery to go along with the sound. I think we gradually got more and more bombarded by visual stimuli that took us out of the realm of hearing.
Think about where we used to be culturally after the Second World War. You know, it used to be that there was an NBC Symphony Orchestra, there was classical music programming that was part of mainstream popular television in its early years—it was integrated that way. Certainly classical music was all over the radio. There were many classical music stations, there were live broadcasts of concerts by major orchestras with lots of people tuned in around the country. Leonard Bernstein started those young people’s concerts [on television], but I don’t know if that was a reaction to the beginning of an erosion of that kind of integration of classical music in the mainstream society or not.
We’ve [also] lost, I think, almost completely, formal music education in public schools, which I think is the biggest tragedy to befall this country as far as music and art goes—because I think the same thing’s probably happened with visual arts, although I just don’t know enough about that. I know from my own experience in public school in upstate New York that the musical education I got was terrible, totally uninspired. Teachers would basically just give us a study hall most of the time. And I’ve heard it’s only gotten worse, and in some places just doesn’t exist. If there’s no exposure at all from an early age, given that it is such a marginal part of popular culture, without that exposure these kids, who could grow up to be potential audience members, have no real point of reference and it may as well be Chinese Opera to them.
There was [also] the timing of the evolution of the twelve-tone system and atonal music, which was by far the dominant trend in contemporary classical music of the time, we're talking mid-twentieth century. There’s always a lag in the acceptance of new works, but the dissonances of atonal music alienated the broader audience to a greater degree than in the past. Contemporary classical music became, or had to become, very academic based; I mean, that’s where it really survived. It went into hibernation in a way, or at least into retreat in institutions, where composers weren't as concerned with the general public's reaction to their work. That has changed today, at least for many contemporary American composers, who have by and large moved back toward more tonal styles.
It’s a different scenario [in Europe], at least in my experience, and I’ve been over there a fair amount over the past ten years or so. Most of my exposure is in France and a little bit in Germany. Classical music seems to be in a lot better shape there, and I think there are several reasons for that. One of them is that its roots are there—it was transplanted here. At the time it was transplanted here it was much more mainstream; popular music and classical music were much closer together—not entirely unified, but the distance was very small. In Europe the musical tradition is longstanding, and really part of who they are. You know, for them, Beethoven walked the streets. It’s that kind of situation. There’s a stronger tie to begin with, and then the trend is also set from the top down—which is completely not the case here. The government there recognizes that art and culture is a public right, something that the average Joe is entitled to, and therefore deserves a significant amount of government support.
I don’t know much about the way music is taught in European public schools, but I assume that it’s vastly better than it is here. From what I see when I go to concerts there, I get a sense that European concert-goers are much better educated audiences. I was just recently in Berlin and heard the Berlin Philharmonic for the first time in their own hall, and the way people listened there actually astounded me. I have never been in a hall here or anywhere else where there was that level of attention—there was a real reverence for the art form there. I didn't hear the program pages or shopping bags ruffling, or the interminable fiddling with plastic candy wrappers—I'm used to hearing here all of that here; and surprisingly, no cell phones went off either, but that might have been a fluke.
I've [also] seen a larger percentage of younger people in European audiences. For instance, I read somewhere that at the Opera at the Bastille, all of these celebrities come for the season opening. It’s sort of like an Oscar event or something where there’s a lot of press attention. And of course, the productions are much less conservative there.
But I also want to say that in Europe, my impression is that things are going in the same direction, but I think because of the tradition, it’s moving more slowly. In France, for instance, I know that there is national [television] coverage of a singing competition. Here we have American Idol, there they’ll be broadcasting an operatic singing competition. But most of the stuff they have over there is modeled on American programming. It’s the same crap. What’s the game where they answer and make money every correct question they answer? [Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?] Those kinds of things—all of that vapid stuff is there too. The question is how long it takes for mainstream popular culture to erode the longer tradition. I think the same is also true for healthcare, and other things that have nothing to do with arts and culture. The trend in Europe is away from traditional socially based public programs, and towards American-style privatization and free-market capitalism.
[Here,] most people's exposure to classical music is likely to come from a car ad or a diamond engagement-ring ad on television, where companies use classical music for the prestige, elitist, social associations it has for people who don’t have a lot of exposure to it—I always protest when people call opera and classical music elitist because of high ticket prices and then they’ll spend more money on a Knicks ticket. But, using only the most superficial elements of classical music, its beautiful melodies, the advertising industry can appeal to people. In a first hearing of anything, people are drawn to the melodic line. Of course, there is much more going on than a melodic line—there's a whole universe, a vast landscape of expression so varied and complex that you can spend a lifetime completely dedicated to exploring it and never get to the end. But just the superficial layers—the blunt instruments, if you will—are enough, and based on that alone, Andre Rieu and the Three Tenors and performers like them are able to pack stadiums. And since many people aspire to be elitist themselves, those associations are not always negative—that's why Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, and other classical musicians are hired to do Rolex ads.
I'm torn when it comes to the argument about exposing new audiences to classical music. The purist in me wants them to hear it in its original form. There is a way of initiating somebody that way when you have unlimited time and resources, but the ideal way is not always practical. For most people, the only hope of opening their ears to classical music is likely to be through what I consider a tainted form. I had the misfortune of hearing at some point a recording of Il Divo or Amici Forever or one of those groups, and for me they are nothing but money machines based on the marketing of some fashion or image ideal, using incidental music—classical music distorted into schmaltzed-out junk, to put it kindly. It's basically a Rolex ad with a soundtrack. But even that stuff has a potential side benefit. Maybe if they hear Charlotte Church it will open their minds, maybe they’ll get curious and go out and see an opera and they’ll get hooked and we’ll have a bigger audience. There’s always a chance that exposure of any kind will stimulate some kind of interest that could lead to something else, and I would rather allow for this opportunity then not have one at all.
I have nothing against popular music. I grew up listening to David Bowie and Rolling Stones albums that my parents put on. But for me, on an absolute level, there is a major qualitative difference between the two. They have different levels of depth. Classical music demands your full attention. There’s just much more there. Compared to something like a Beatles song—which is getting up there in terms of complexity and depth in a popular-music song—the complexity of a Beethoven symphony is exponentially greater.
[Someone saying, “Well, you’re going to make me listen to some Schubert Lieder or something like that and I’m going to put that next to Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy or, I don’t know, Crimson and Clover, and I just happen to have a more emotional response to the pop song”] is totally justified. A lot of time has elapsed since Schubert wrote his Lieder. For the contemporary listener, even growing up in a family with a lot of [classical music] exposure, there are a lot of hurdles to get over. Stylistically, it’s a very foreign world to ours. Appreciating a Schubert Lied requires an understanding of text sung in a foreign language, a sensitivity to poetry in general, and a sensitivity to the musical style which only comes from repeated exposure. If you are uninitiated to all of that, then of course it’s much easier to find a greater appreciation for something that’s ultimately, in my mind, of lesser quality, because it is more familiar, it’s more accessible. That said, for me, you can't compare the two in terms of absolute artistic quality.
Getting back to this idea of classical music as a dying art form, I said before that I might call it dying, but slowly dying. I want to clarify what I mean by "dying." I mean dying as a presence in mainstream culture. Will every score of Beethoven sonatas be wiped off the face of the earth in 100 years? Will there be no performances of classical music in 200 years? Of course not. There will always be classical musicians playing and performing. The question is whether or not cities will be able to sustain orchestras and opera theaters, and what economic consequences that has for musicians like myself who make a living as classical musicians. By that definition of "dying," I’m sort of hedging my bet that I’ll die before classical music does. I’m not exaggerating—I’m hoping to eke out an existence and get in under the wire. That’s the sad reality. Of course, I hope that it can turn around somehow. I am probably a bit cynical and pessimistic in general, but I think that things in this country, and [also] in the world in general, seem to be on a slippery slope downwards—
environmentally, politically, in terms of respect for human and other forms of life, in almost every way I can think of. I don’t know why classical music would be an exception. Some people, the true idealists, think that classical music can save the world, and I hope they are right. I wish I could agree with them but I tend to be practically minded. So, I don’t ultimately have a lot of hope. Maybe there is some way to slow down the erosion process even more, or turn it around—I just don't know of one. Organizations that present classical music will have to adapt to contemporary society in order to survive as long as they can. The trick is not to degrade the art form in the process.
[The Straddler showed the above communiqué to a 35-year-old French cellist who lives in Boston, and asked him to use it as a point of departure for his own thoughts on the health of classical music. He spoke the following words.]
I think there is still hope. The problem is, does [classical] music have any meaning in and towards society?
For some abstract reason, which I can’t explain up front, it takes more time for music to move forward as well as to react to society. When you look at other art forms like painting or literature, it is always precursor-oriented. There is something prophetic about it. In music as well—but for the happy few. It takes much more time to get to the broader audience.
Repetition and conformism always exist, but human beings have no patience or taste for that at some point. They need a change. Music, finally, is based on something very simple; feelings, I will say. Moods, colors. So there is hope because there are so many billions of people on the planet, there are so many ways to express yourself. Why are we still playing [composers] who were born in the sixteenth century? Who died centuries ago?
In Europe [the early music revival] is huge now. It’s maybe [even] too much. Twenty-five years ago, people were making fun of these people like crazy. But now there is not only a group of fanatics, but there is a market for that—a huge market. So, is it right or wrong? Well, it’s happening. That’s the interesting thing.
[Now, phenomena like Andre Rieu and Il Divo] damage the music itself for sure. That’s for sure. There are no more—I am going to use a provocative expression—there are no more rock stars in classical music. Maybe Yo-Yo Ma in cello. Nigel Kennedy in violin. I’m saying huge personalities. [Violinist Itzhak] Perlman is unbelievable, but his career is behind him. [Pianist Evgeny] Kissin—but he’s a man, a former prodigy, in his ivory tower. Maybe [Pianist] Lang Lang is the new provocative object. People hate him and love him because he can be so substantial and so superficial. I think this is maybe why classical people start doing [provocative] things—because the general audience needs not only names but faces.
[In order to successfully market classical music on a mass level], maybe people need faces with names—I’m not completely against that. But how they market it—the fact that they market it is great—but the way it is done is awful. Playing in stadiums and playing weak arrangements of Vienna Waltz for Rieu or excerpts of famous operas for the Three Tenors.
But take Opera on the Common [in Boston], which doesn’t exist anymore, we don’t know why. But, well, even if it was half crappy, people were reading the story of Carmen, or there was a Le Nozze di Figaro—it was sung in English, which was a terrible idea, I think—but there is a tiny door open. Maybe they will go to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, or they will go to a ballet.
Look what they do in New York now at the Met. They are broadcasting operas outside in major squares in New York City. [And] in movie theatres. They are going to start doing the same in Europe.
I would never ask myself, [is classical music a dying art?] if I were living in France. Not because it’s going especially well. But maybe there is room for dying arts over there. I have the feeling that this question is directed towards efficiency. It has to produce something. And what if it is not producing anything, although it does exist within society? [What if it is just existing in an infirmary, but indefinitely?] You have six fingers, and you rarely use the sixth one, but it’s there. And that’s cool. Why not?
[In the end], music is not a language, it’s something that language cannot express. So that’s why classical music can’t disappear, but also can’t instantly reach and speak to everyone. Because we need those undefined parts of our existence. And I think it’s very important for our balance; our psychic equilibrium also.
This may be too personal, but when I was a teenager, for my own reasons I stopped playing classical music for three years. I played reggae, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll. And when I came back to it, to classical music, I felt that I would never leave it. I felt it was the most profound way to express yourself musically. I felt I would never leave it again. It was a very emotional experience for me.
It’s very funny with classical music. It’s part of humanity, but it’s also something which stands behind the screen. It can’t be materialized. There is no canvas, there is no paper. Of course we use all of those tools, but we create something that isn’t palpable. This is what makes it so special. I’m not saying that music is above all arts, but this is the tiny tiny piece of spirituality in our life, and I’m not sure it’s going to die. Because I’m not a believer, so I need that.
[Finally, The Straddler sent a written request to a 31-year-old, Boston-based composer asking that she write out her thoughts on the health of classical music; she issued the following bullet-pointed communiqué.]
Some mostly negative thoughts:
- There is no shortage of music. It may be that there is too much, but of the soundbyte variety. Take ringtones, which are like little sound tattoos. Every time your phone rings, people are treated to a mini-concert that is supposed to say, "this is me.”
- You will never hear modern classical music played in Walgreen's, but that's a good thing. Just because it's not popular enough to be played while you are shopping for soap does not mean there's no audience. The cellist Matt Haimovitz plays in bars. I think that's great, but I'm sure that he prefers it when, even in a bar, people listen to the music he's playing. Recall that bebop jazz musicians fought against having their music associated with atmosphere. They wanted the respect of having people sit down and listen.
- Since music is everywhere, it is not heard. There is a thirst to acquire music on your iPod like any other commodity. I wonder if anyone actually listens to all of the 3,000 or more songs they have downloaded. The Washington Post recently did a story on how, as an experiment, the acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell played for free in a N.Y. subway. Big surprise: no one stopped to listen. What a scandal! But no one stops to listen to buskers playing popular music either, even in the Paris Metro.
- Here's an old one: Contemporary classical music has been relegated to the universities, where stuffy musicians can sit and stew about how no one notices how important their work is. We can blame Arnold Schoenberg, whose Society for Private Musical Performances banned anyone who wasn’t in the elite crowd from attending concerts. Or we can blame music departments for having the same disease that afflicts the social sciences— that is, science envy. Although books like Musicophilia and Musimathics are fascinating, I challenge any of them to speak to the mystery and logic of music as articulately as ten bars of a Bach invention.
- Association of classical music with upper levels of society: Who advertises on classical music stations? Diamond retailers, luxury cars, and piano dealers. Access to music lessons is mostly the privilege of the rich. Instruments and lessons are expensive and time-consuming.
- Since I live in Boston, I should probably speak to the health of classical music here. There is a "new music" community, but it seems insular to me. The same people (mostly composers) attend every concert and vie with each other for who can write the most abstruse and colorfully titled piece. Again, blame Schoenberg.
- The U.S. has been looking to Europe to make up for its lack of tradition for a long time. It has been common practice to send young, talented composers abroad to write watered-down versions of whatever is popular on the Continent. Like creative artists anywhere, American composers need to remember that what they are trying to communicate begins on a personal, not a national, level. The aesthetic should follow.
Some mostly positive thoughts:
- On the supposed lack of audience: This is true for small groups, but at big venues there are plenty of people. Audiences want to see established personalities, just like in the pop world.
- Avant-garde music has always had a limited, if not resistant, audience. In his new book, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross tells the story of Hitler ordering people off the street to be dragged into a Wagner opera by force because of low attendance. On another note, when Stravinsky premiered the Rite of Spring, there were riots. The difference between one hundred years ago and now is that people cared enough about the supposed classical "tradition" to boo when they felt it was threatened.
- As a teacher, I find that many students who have no experience with classical music are interested, but feel intimidated by it. Like any language, it may sound like gibberish to some ears without access to a basic vocabulary. (But music is being cut in schools.)
- The Internet has actually made it easier for the average composer to be heard. Apparently MySpace was started for musicians?
- The line between classical music and pop is blurring more and more, which has created many interesting genres. Pop often relies on unique timbres, rather than complex harmonies, to create sound worlds. This "chic" trend reaches back to Debussy, who was heavily influenced by gamelan music he heard at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.
 Weingarten, Gene. "Pearls Before Breakfast." Washington Post 08 Apr. 2007. W10. 03 Apr. 2008 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/
 Sack, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Knopf. 2007.
 Loy, Gareth. Musimathics, Volume 1: The Mathematical Foundations of Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2006. (There is also a second volume, which appeared in 2007.)
 Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2007.