Classical Music is Dead (or at least Terminal)

Posted on May 31, 2004 by psu

Events have conspired this week to bring up a topic that I find sort of near and dear to my heart and yet simultaneously deeply depressing. That topic is the state of “classical” music in our modern times. Growing up, my father listened to nothing but classical music in the same way he read no paper except the New York Times. Once you hear the best, he reasoned, nothing else is interesting.

Of course, I’ve recently seen crossover panflute music in his CD collection, so not everything is forever, but that’s another story.

I, of course, did not remain immune to the pop music of the day, but as I got into college and especially graduate school, my music taste tended to drift towards “serious” music, as opposed to “pop” music. So while I try to keep my feet in the pop arena as well, I buy mostly jazz and classical. I go to jazz and classical concerts. I subscribe to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. And so on.

First, let’s get some terms out of the way. When I say “classical” music, I mean specifically music that has evolved from the Western European art music tradition. But I also mean the more modern incarnations of such: orchestral film music, some show music, and so on. Generally anything that would be played at a subscription concert at the PSO falls in line here, except maybe for the drek that they hoist on the audience for the “Pops” series.

You don’t have to go much further than a PSO concert to get a picture of what the classical music scene is like these days. It’s old. I’m not sure I’ve met a regular concert goer (by regular, I mean at least 12 shows a year, which I used to do before I had a son) younger than me.

You also notice a few things:

  1. A lot of the young people are there as a one off, or to see someone famous from their ethnic group. They often have no idea what is going on.

  2. Everyone hates the “new” music. Even I, who have sat through 2 hours of Cecil Taylor going completely apeshit crazy free jazz while reciting poetry, think that most of the new music is completely pointless.

  3. The whole experience is incredibly ritualistic. We all sit quietly (well, except for the people on life support). We all clap at the right times, we all stand and clap at the end, even when the performance sucks (that’s depressing).

  4. Efforts to break up the ritual… the conductor giving little speeches, guest speakers, video of the players, subtitles, and so on, always end up being at best badly produced and at worst insulting. I remember one guest speaker getting up and reading from a paper he had given at some music conference for twenty minutes before the Orchestra came out and just destroyed us with a soul crushingly beautiful performance of the Mahler 9th. I wished they had had a gong to get rid of the guy 5 minutes in.

  5. Finally, the programming is depressingly conservative. This is not to say that I wish they’d play more pointless new music. I wish they’d play some of the new music that does exist that is not pointless. 20th century Russian music besides Shostakovich and Prokoviev, central European music, even some of the more interesting film music would be better than the constant stream of unlistenable drek combined with another ditty that Mozart ripped off before he was 12.

All of these things point to a few general syndromes in the classical music world.

  1. The audience is often passive, ignorant, closed-minded, and growing old.

  2. The people who program the shows think the audience is even older than it is, and are completely paralyzed by it.

  3. Classical music, as such, has become completely detached from the fabric of the musical culture of the time. People don’t know what to do with it, and no one seems to have any idea how to make it connect up again.

The third point is the one that has come to the fore this week.

The New York Times published two pieces that illustrate better than I possibly can the disconnect between the classical music world and the real world:

First we find out about how this “young” violinist has been putting up with nonsense about the cover photo from her first record for almost ten years.

Then there was this piece about how the New York Phil is trying to attract the geek gadget crowd by giving them Palm Pilots that display live video and program notes.

My feeling is this:

  1. Only in the pathetic museum world of classical music would anyone complain about an attractive woman being semi-naked on an album cover.

  2. If you have to explain the music to people in real time to keep them interested, you’ve already lost. The problem here is not that the show is no good, the problem is that the people never had an interest in the first place.

This brings us to the third piece of media on this subject, the current episode of STUDIO 360 , which is about the future of the Orchestra. Here, among other things, Daniel Barenboim and Greg Sandow argue over tiny little semantic quibbles, never realizing that they both agree on a central premise: classical music these days is culturally irrelevant.

Barenboim observed, correctly, that even the elite of our time, the most educated and succesful could get to be 30 or 40 and know nothing about classical music. He phrased this as “knowing nothing about music”, which isn’t quite right. But the point stands. This music is not the central pillar of the culture the way it used to be.

Sandow then “disagreed” with Barenboim while having made exactly the same point: he said that people in his audiences with degrees in English literature didn’t seem to understand that there could be this music with a complex narrative structure, like a novel or film… but that these same people could be serious consumers of jazz, pop, folk music, and so on.

I think that this is basically the same point, and the basic reason why classical music is dead. We live in a world where even if you have great interest in music overall, classical music can completely miss your radar screen.

I don’t think there are simple solutions to this. Certainly “education” and “outreach” are not enough, unless you can reach out and educate 2 generations of parents who have grown up on pop music and album oriented rock. I am pessimistic that this is the world we are stuck in and it’s not likely to get a lot better. I mean, I don’t even make it to the PSO shows anymore since I have a two year old. They are just too tiring. And I like the stuff.

I think for the music to survive and continue to be relevant, we need more parents like my dad, and you aren’t going to get that with some new outreach program and a few Palm Pilots.