Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Saving classical music

This is a copy of an essay from 2002 for Naxos which won the grand prize on the topic. It can be found here, but I'm publishing it to my blog to make it more readily available. 

In the US (at least) many churches are adopting a so-called "shopping mall" approach to their outreach. They use a variety of methods--support groups dealing with many topics, interest groups, traditional salvation appeals, child care, user-friendly services, to name a few--to get people in. Although sometimes criticized as marketing God like a box of soap, these means are successful for many congregations.

My take-off on this is that getting people to listen to classical music (and spend some money on it) requires a similar approach. It can't just focus on attending concerts. There are several areas that will appeal to people, depending on their background and interests. There are also various levels of knowledge/literacy. Therefore, I will address several areas, and I am sure there are several others. I will mix this with studies in American cultural history (my current graduate school work).

If classical music is to survive, it must become the cultural property of everyone, not just a few. There is a widespread stereotype (at least where I live) that a high level of affluence and liking "classical" music go hand in hand (and it's not seriously resisted by many of those involved, who variously enjoy status or the profits that come from selling expensive goods).

This attitude to classical music (along with other arts) is a comparatively recent development. In earlier America, concerts were widely attended by a cross-section of the populace. They were very different, though. They might intersperse marches, play shorter selections of long works, include a popular song, and so on. Now, I prefer to listen to a whole Mozart symphony, but if playing single movements gets people introduced to it and listening to the rest, I'm not going to complain.

But around the turn of the 20th century a group of self-styled guardians of culture made Beethoven and his kin into idols, whose holy works must be appreciated only in a suitable setting (and only by those properly prepared). We might add to this that the performances often became stolid, stodgy exercises, losing the vitality that some artists are beginning to reclaim (especially, it seems, on Naxos, if I may throw that in). And one of the lost pages of history, the Astor Place riot, showed that such things mattered to many people.

It may be that such things still matter to many people, but some have closed off their input. Do we know the real size or potential of the classical audience? The success of "Elvira Madigan", Amadeus, Pachelbel's Canon, Mozart in MASH, and so on point to a wider interest than is often supposed. I am often asked where to purchase the music from a particular movie. Ravinia packs them in for jazz as much as the Chicago Symphony. There's a very popular rack of Naxos recordings at the entrance to our local bookstore (too popular, I can never find what I'm looking for). Most recently, a proposal to move the tower and frequency of WRR, a classical station owned by the city of Dallas, brought wide-spread reaction that resulted in scrapping the proposal. Of particular interest, much of the opposition came from the south side of the city, which would have had reduced coverage. The south side is predominantly Black, and is not one of the areas that the Jaguar and Hummer dealers target when purchasing advertising time on WRR. The councilperson of one area affected stated that the city should not presume that classical music was not part of the life of his constituents. I suppose it's true that someone working at minimum wage and barely paying the rent isn't going to attend a concert, but that doesn't seem to stop them from listening to the radio.

So why doesn't this market seem to matter, or show itself?

An easy target is the cost of attending a classical concert. It's getting out of hand for even middle class people. There's no easy solution to this--orchestras are still filling the seats while losing money.

Developing a wider audience, both in numbers and depth of its members, is something I can say more about. It seems that our schools (at least from an American perspective) are doing little or nothing. When they teach music, it's what we call "preaching to the choir"--aimed at those who are already interested. Little is done to introduce students to a variety of music and thus create music lovers. There is little effort to introduce people to the joy of playing an instrument (and what effort does exist is directed to developing a few virtuosi or band players). The solution is multi-faceted. Parents must care enough to demand that schools teach music (and arts) and not just focus on reading (important as that is)--that schools be a place of learning and education, not just trade training. I could go on--administrators who know nothing but paperwork instead of real supervision and sharing, and so on.

I'm not sure how to get this going, either. Schools are broke and the people are submissive. Maybe we are entering a new Dark Age. That's pessimistic, but the more the MBA-mentality of "what's it worth" as the ultimate expression takes over, the more music will suffer. It has a value that isn't readily expressed in terms of The Almighty Dollar.

I think the music business needs a little openness to technology. I know several people who came to classical music through Walter/Wendy Carlos--but I see little acknowledgement of that work as a serious effort. And I don't want to see people playing instruments replaced by computers, but my MP3's--or even better, NoteWorthyComposer files (which let me see the score
while it plays)--are fun, a good way to get to know the music. Bach was always complaining about his forces, Beethoven about the instruments available--what would they do today?

To some extent, the brunt of this falls on the recording industry. It is the most visible, and recordings are the primary exposure for most people. But people are frustrated by recordings. Because popular music is merchandised, there is no service, and the selection of other genres at many stores is nearly non-existent. I am always amused while browsing the classical section of the local bookstore (which is halfway decent, although  disorganized) when some kid comes to ask if he can help with anything. He thinks Beethoven is a dog in a movie. So what happens when people do hear something they like? Radio stations sometimes have their playlists at a web site, which is a great idea. That leads to what is perhaps the one concrete suggestion I can make: Naxos should put its index of movie music on the web and label it clearly so search engines will find it. Then make sure people can actually buy the recording. Then think about a similar way of putting non-movie music, something that gets beyond facing an alphabet of unfamiliar names, with those marvelous downloadable samples. Possibilities are "if you like this... try that;" music you already know, music from commercials, and expanding the movie list to TV shows.


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