Friday, December 28, 2007

The Revolution Starts Here


There is a wonderful article in the web magazine New Music Box by Roger Rudenstein that attempts to pinpoint when the American public turned its back on classical music as something vital and important in American life. After all, there was a point in our history where Leonard Bernstein was able to have a television series on classical music and the National Broadcasting Corporation had its own orchestra. Something in the culture happened, as Rudenstein points out, that made everyone think that classical music was no longer a living art form, responding to the times we live in, but rather an old, worn mass of politically incorrect, elitist music from the past. Rudenstein, using himself as an example, earmarks the sixties as that moment in time. The decade of rebellion, of eschewing all the values and cultural artifacts of your parents, was the moment in time when classical music was shown the door, and people like Elvis and Bob Dylan were invited in. Music of the people was now rock and roll and folk music, with songs responding to what was happening at the time in a way that people could appreciate. And what was classical music doing at this time? Was it responding to what was happening? In a word, yes. Was the product of that response something that people could connect with? No. And there is where the relevancy of classical music started to dissipate. America could either listen to anti-Vietnam War songs that echoed strong feelings inside many Americans, or sit through a John Cage piece for prepared piano, seemingly completely disconnected from anything in the world around it.

Now that the tyranny of atonality has departed, classical music now has an opportunity to let America know that it is repentant and wants its renewed consideration. There is a great point made in the article that too many composers today try to reach that pop-addicted American public by writing music that sounds like pop:

"modern classical music composers suffer greatly from the public disregard of our work since we are forced to compete for the attention of an ever smaller pool of people, grants and awards. We are constantly tempted to come up with the gimmick that will bring us an audience, although, often, that gimmick seems to be making it sound like pop music."

Composers that fall into that category are many. Osvaldo Golijov fits that category, as does some works by Michael Daugherty and Aaron Jay Kernis. Whether such an approach will make such works "durable" remains to be seen. Either way, Rudentstein provides us with wise advice on how to get the public back. If you ask most people, they will say they "like" classical music ("It is so soothing. It helps me relax."). The question is how to move them from that basic inclination towards it to something more meaningful. Here is what Rudenstein suggests:

"1. ... education should be an important part of any concert. We can no longer take it for granted that the audience will understand classical music much less modern music. We must find creative, non- pedantic ways of accomplishing this.

2. We should pool our resources and set in motion an ad campaign that aims to educate people about classical music in creative ways and using well-known people to get across the message. Although it may be true that at some point in time (a time far, far away) you had to be wealthy or an aristocrat to hear this music, that is no longer the case and this pleasure, like chocolate and pineapples, is available to all.

3. We need classical music awards ("The Classies") that are presented publicly and in grand style like the Emmys or Oscars. (They could even be televised on public television.) Being the most unimportant part of the Grammys sends a message that we need to counter.

4. We need to significantly increase the patronage for classical music. Popular music doesn't require patronage, because it is commercial. It may be that a revivified classical scene will generate some commercial success stories, but, as has always been the case, classical music requires a commitment from society just like schools, fire departments, libraries, and health care.

5. The writing class and the media should be courted and lobbied to stop throwing mud at classical music either by ignoring it or attacking it as the plaything of the outdated elite. We need to vigorously answer assaults on common sense that assert classical music is dead, over, or just a niche like ukulele music.                                                    

6. We need, first of all to win back the classical music audience and then go on from there to convince the rest of the world that our kind of music, in addition to a powerful catalog, has the ability to significantly enhance their lives as it does ours.

7. Clearly the Internet is giving us a chance to bring our music to newbies, communicate and debate more among ourselves and will be key to a revival of classical music. As Alex Ross pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, the World Wide Web has allowed us to escape from the cone of silence imposed by the mainstream media on our music."

Right on brother! If classical music matters, then you have to start evangelizing. Stop commiserating about its demise and start inviting people to go to concerts with you. Prepare them, give them meaningful ways of accessing the music. Talk about it. Tell everyone why you love it as you go around the board room talking about your weekends. Come out of the closet and declare your love for classical music openly and proudly. You know you can, you know you want to!

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