A conversation about classical music between Alex Ross, Ronen Givony, and Owen Pallett
In the 20th century, music was a genre-based battleground. Hippies hated the milquetoast pop of the 1950s. Punk rockers hated the hippies’ psychedelic indulgences. Hair metal triumphed over punk; grunge killed the hair farmers; teen-pop killed grunge. On one point, though, almost every pop musician could agree: Classical and composed music was a bloated, boring corpse. Similarly, when composers and conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland championed the Beatles, they garnered amazement from the classical-music establishment. And so it went…
Such intergenre combat seems, well, a bit old-fashioned now. You hear composed music’s influence in the complex electronic experiments of Radiohead, the symphonic arrangements of Arcade Fire and the dreamy soundscapes of Sigur Ros. Why is this happening and what might the classical-music establishment learn from pop? The AHB convened a trio of forward-thinking presenters, critics and musicians to help articulate an emerging sensibility.
To kick things off, we brought up a phrase New Yorker critic Alex Ross introduced in his blog: He stated that classical music should be renamed “Awesome Music.” Was this a rebranding effort on par with parental efforts at calling brussel sprouts “tasty”? Or is it simply a reflection of contemporary composition’s current vitality?
ALEX ROSS: “Awesome Music” was a throwaway line that subsequently struck a weird chord in a way that made me happy. Yes, it’s a self-consciously absurd attempt at rebranding — more “KFC” than “war on terror” — mocking marketers’ desperate attempts to make classical music seem “hip.” At the same time, it’s perfectly serious. The music is awesome. When it’s played, awe ensues. If you’re sitting in the seventh row while a great orchestra is tearing through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at full force, everything else kind of drops away.
Classical music obviously has a major image problem in modern American culture. Look at the way it’s presented in movies. Serial killers invariably prefer Mozart to the Rolling Stones. Classical musicians are emotionally repressed. Etcetera. It’s used as a signifier of everything American pop culture professes to liberate us from. But this establishment image of classical music is something of a fiction. Filthy-rich people sit in concert-hall boxes, but it’s no different when the Rolling Stones play Monster Park in San Francisco. It’s just that at Monster Park, the billionaires are wearing easy-fit jeans.
RONEN GIVONY: All forms of music have to re-evaluate themselves in light of the realities of the new musical marketplace. In the case of classical music, the “rebranding” defines the genre as one of many, instead of situating it in the position it enjoyed in the past, when the “importance” of classical music was undisputed, and Glenn Gould was a household name.
It’s undoubtedly an exciting moment to be a listener, performer or presenter of classical music. There have never been more composers, ensembles, forward-thinking venues and avenues of distribution for new music. And it’s a fairly obvious point, but with the advent of Rhapsody, iTunes, MySpace and file sharing, there has never been a time so much music has been readily available to so many people.
Think of the musical games someone like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven could have played if they had the history of 20th-century music at their disposal — not only Steve Reich, Philip Glass and György Ligeti, but Aphex Twin, John Coltrane, Public Enemy and Buena Vista Social Club. We’re at a rare moment when anyone has almost any piece of music from any country or moment in history just a few mouse clicks away. What’s frustrating about the authorities who lead the worlds of classical and pop is that they view this access as something to be feared, wished away or litigated out of existence, instead of harnessed to their own advantage.
OWEN PALLETT: I’m skeptical of any rebranding of genre. That’s a hindsight observation made by historians. I’m inclined to attribute recent sympathies between classical and pop to inventive promoting, like Toronto’s Music Gallery; or to technological developments — such as the widespread availability of digital recording software, making it easier for composers to work within the recorded medium; or to the increased access music makers and appreciators have to recorded digital media.
The distinction I’ve always made between classical and pop music of the 20th century has more to do with the format of its presentation. Classical has the opera, the symphony, the string quartet. Pop has the album, the single, the songbook and the press release. Classical is a tradition rooted in performance in a concert hall, whereas pop is responsible for the creation of a recording industry. As a musician who both plays in bands and writes scores, format is the only distinction I make between my “serious” music and my “pop” music.
AHB: The economics that drive classical music and pop are radically different. By definition, pop appeals directly to the masses; composers compete in a less freewheeling marketplace of institutional money, wealthy patrons and government grants. Could this be why traditional “concert music” has suffered from attendance difficulties?
ROSS: Many classical institutions aren’t doing so badly right now. In August, the Metropolitan Opera sold 2 million dollars of tickets in one day. Go to the L.A. Philharmonic and you see full houses and more young people than you might expect. Yes, many organizations are playing to less robust and less diverse crowds. But some orchestras — for example, the Atlanta, San Francisco and Baltimore symphonies — are working hard to put on some really interesting programs.
Some changes are definitely needed. I’m in favor of getting rid of formal dress for classical musicians, which is idiotic, and of loosening some of the so-called “rules” of audience conduct, such as no applauding after movements of symphonies and concertos — a latter-day invention that goes against 18th- and 19th-century practice. The big challenge, though, is overcoming stereotypes of classical music as “elitist” and “effete” and getting the word out about how vital this music is, especially at the contemporary end. That was my aim in writing my book. And that’s where Wordless Music is proving so valuable.
GIVONY: There are many reasons for classical music’s attendance problem: exclusionary ticket prices; lack of adequate music education; comic efforts by classical institutions to market themselves in a digital era that mystifies them; bumbling attempts to lure in the allegedly inscrutable world of people in their 20s and 30s; and, not least, the repetitive programming that characterizes institutions like the N.Y. Philharmonic and Lincoln Center. If you miss next week’s program of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony, you’ll have a half-dozen chances to hear these works on the same stage, with the same caliber of musicians, a few months from now. This is not the case when Daft Punk plays a one-off concert with an insane light display and a ridiculous electronic pyramid, or the Boredoms do a show with 77 drummers, or LCD Soundsystem and the Arcade Fire play together. (As a counterexample, the same uniqueness holds for the smart programming found at Disney Hall in L.A.)
A little-known fact about the economics of classical music is that even if every orchestra in the country sold out every concert they put on in a season, they wouldn’t come close to paying their overhead. That’s why staff resources in the classical world go toward maintaining fund-raising departments. And that’s why filling seats with new listeners and young people is not a priority, but soundbite rhetoric and an insidious fund-raising strategy to keep alarm bells ringing and annual unrestricted grants renewed. Why spend time chasing ?after kids? You could devote just as much effort to putting on a fancy gala at Cipriani and bring in a few hundred thousand from investment bankers and society types.
This artificial life-support system keeps every part of the classical-music world afloat, from overpaid conductors and soloists, through the vast body of artistic administrators, talent agencies and stagehand unions. The reason the seats are empty or filled with the same people year after year is because the institutions that run classical music want it that way. After all, it really doesn’t matter financially if the hall is three-quarters or one-quarter full. Sadly, those empty seats could be full in an hour’s notice if they wanted them to be. If ticket revenue covers only a fraction of overall operating costs, why not offer every unsold ticket for $5 at the door?
ROSS: I agree with basically everything you say, Ronen. But why worry about whether the N.Y. Phil is playing Tchaikovsky? These institutions have been around forever, putting on largely the same act for largely the same people, and they show no signs of going away. Those Tchaikovsky concerts are selling out too.
We’re talking here about building a different kind of music culture, gallerylike rather than museumlike, driven by new ideas and fresh connections. Both of them can coexist. In a perfect world, they’d reinforce each other.
AHB: We’ve mentioned a very robust list of performers from both the independent and composed music camps, all of whom share a great deal of common ground. Can each of you name a favorite artist or institution building bridges between the composed- and pop-music worlds — as Reich did in the ’60s and ’70s or, say, John Zorn did in the ‘80s?
ROSS: He passed away in 1987, but I keep meeting avant-leaning rock fans who’ve gotten into Morton Feldman, a composer who avoided tonality and a steady beat, kept his music extremely quiet and extremely long, and dismissed rock as noise. Yet his music speaks to a broad range of people. Start with Rothko Chapel on New Albion. Its overwhelming otherness commands attention.
Right now, the figure who seems most radical in the way he’s deconstructing the composer’s historic aloofness from the popular world is Osvaldo Golijov, author of works like St. Mark Passion and Ainadamar. Incorporating stretches of expert improvisation into his pieces, co-creating them with his musicians and singers, weaving together sounds of multiple folk traditions into a strangely cohesive whole, Golijov has managed to produce works that are revolutionary and popular in equal measure. Especially check out Ayre. It was most definitely conceived as an album and beautifully produced as one by Gustavo Santaolalla.
GIVONY: I will use as my “institution” the phalanx of independent labels specializing in nebulous genres such as post-rock, electronica or intelligent dance music. I would include Kranky, Temporary Residence, Warp, DFA, Constellation, Domino, Carpark, Leaf, Cantaloupe, Tomlab, Kompakt, Fat Cat, Alien8, Morr Music, Ghostly, et al. Labels do the perennially thankless and financially perilous job of developing new talent, who go on to make remarkable records that everyone steals, nobody bothers to pays for, and the majors later lure away with promises of improved distribution and marketing. These are the people building bridges between popular and classical music.
PALLETT: I’m going to come clean. When I think of new classical music, I feel like I need a cup of coffee and an Advil. I write it, listen to it and enjoy it, but honestly, I don’t think that any classical-music form — except the opera — has relevance to a large audience anymore. It’s retrogressive, but also totally intoxicating. Really, who needs an audience when we have our private little concerts to bask in our own technical virtuosity? Show off some idiomatic oboe writing? Why not?
But seriously, I love new classical music, but the world prefers Amy Winehouse, and so do I. New classical composers are fighting an uphill battle for any sort of relevance: trying to make any headway against the huge volume of amazing pop music out there, and also, trying to reinvent forms and ensemble choices that have existed for centuries.
This whole exchange we’ve had seems to have been geared toward “opening pop ears up to new classical music,” but this is a very old-guard conceit. I think that the quicker young classical musicians stop writing chamber music and symphonies, and instead start making albums, the better. Sorry we’re butting heads! I hate being so cantankerous to strangers, but that’s all for now.
Originally published at www.brassland.org on October 17, 2007.