BLOG – On Classical Music’s Relationship With Its Audience

Recently, a friend shared with me an article in which James Rhodes wrote that classical music needs an enema, not an awards ceremony. He bemoaned musicians’ awkward behavior at the Gramophone Awards, and in so doing shared his opinions on the state of classical music. He claims:

The people behind [the classical music industry] are for the most part stuck in the 1930s and constitutionally incapable of connecting in any way with those born after 1960. The industry has been divided into sharks on the one hand (anything for a buck, even if it involves bastardizing the music to an unrecognizable degree) and the “purebloods” on the other – the Aryan race of the music world where this music is reserved for those who are intelligent and rarefied enough to understand it.

This seems to me to be so unbelievably ignorant of the true project of classical music as to be laughable.

Furthermore, these are the stock claims cited against classical music by those who recognize its social status but not its artistic condition. Such claims are almost always (as they are here) unsupported anti-propaganda. We as the general public misunderstand the problem in reverse. No one who makes these claims would agree that society remains unchanged from the time of Beethoven, or from the 1930s as Rhodes suggests. Why, then, should music go unchanged? The simple answer is that music has changed. Aesthetics evolve with cultures, as we have seen in the multiplicity of musics grown out of the 20th century. But, a changing musical aesthetic is necessarily concomitant with a changing cultural orientation towards music. This is what average classical music slam artists either hides or does not recognize. They only discuss the end result.

Audiences are “disinterested” (Which they are not, but we’ll go there for the moment). Name another relic of the 19th century that people are supposed to engage with as is. Seriously, think of one. Visual art, perhaps, but we can make a long list of film adaptations of literature and theater. The arts are not timeless-placeless despite the tenets of their mythology. To suggest that it is the fault of music (or painting, or theater, or whatever) that culture has changed around it misunderstands music’s bounden duty: to be a looking glass simultaneously exposing what has passed, what is now, and what is yet to come. When, in the 21st century, we hear a piece by Bach, the glass is still oriented toward the 18th century. We can hear the remnants of Vivaldi and Buxtehude, and we can still find it relevant. The fact that its yet-to-come reaches through time to today and beyond is as amazing as it is mysterious.

But, the demand we typically place on classical music is that the looking glass be here and now regardless of when music was composed. I would argue that many concertgoers do not hear Mozart as a piece of history, even a truthful, artistic-aesthetic, present, and meaningful one. Paradoxically, many audience members tend to view music whose looking glass is focused on today as being out of touch.

For me, this is what needs a remedy, not that there might be some self-importance in an awards ceremony. We collectively demand of classical music that it play the same cultural role it played one hundred fifty years ago. This is illogical. Even non-musical institutions that have lasted that long have changed because of pressures placed upon them by society. I think we should encourage everyone…EVERYONE…to ask themselves what they really require of classical music. Make real demands, attend concerts, and understand that with those demands comes a dialogue that could benefit everyone.

This should help classical music – and by that I mean the composers and performers who make it as well as the resulting aesthetics – develop a new counterpoint. Currently I think it is most common to say that classical music is struggling for audiences and funding, it’s struggling for identity (as evidenced by multitude of crossover artists new music composers so intent on marrying classical and pop), it’s struggling for relevance. So, what? Classical music will always struggle for these things.

These struggles are at the heart of an art form that must simultaneously historicize, contemporize, and reach into the future. I hope that some day society will see these struggles for the blessing they are. I hope that some day classical music and (especially) its critics will honestly approach culture with these issues rather than clambering for easy acceptance. Music’s truth, beauty, and transcendence, its very art, can be found in the fact that it is what we make it. We mold its meaning as much as its meaning shapes us. Right now that balance allows for James Rhodes to slam what, despite appearances, is simply a celebration of great music-making in the guise of an awards ceremony. But the celebration is in the music-making, whether it is Varese or Xenakis, whether it is on CD, live at a concert, or deconstructed in the practice room. We should tout that for a change.

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