Thursday, November 10, 2011

Future of Classical Music

I was just over at Greg Sandow's blog where he has been talking up a storm about the future of classical music. Why not go over and have a look? I've left a few comments because I think he and I have some interesting philosophical differences. In fact, I spent so much time over there this morning, catching up, that I don't have a new post for my own blog yet!

In case it is not up yet, here is the comment I just left on Greg's last post, "Classical music diversity -- Or the lack of it."
I just want to make two very brief comments. First, I think there is a blind spot in your analysis. Both you and I have worked on the West Coast, you as a pop music critic and myself teaching in a conservatory. Where I was, a huge percentage of the music students were Asian-mostly Chinese. At least half of the piano students and a large percentage of the violin students were Asian. This was in Victoria, British Columbia. No black students, but then there were almost no black residents at that time. Well, there were a couple: the conductor of the symphony was black! So I just don’t really get the racial angle. You write “I’m not saying that people in classical music are consciously racist.” But unconsciously? The other thing is that a young and talented black musician would likely make far more money if he or she DIDN’T go into classical music, right?
I think where we philosophically differ, Greg, is in our sense of what classical music is. My working definition is that classical music can be seen in two ways. One is the music of the Classical period, 1750 – 1827, but the more important sense of the word is that music that has survived the test of time. If you go to a classical music concert you might find music from the Renaissance to the present. Or you might hear a program devoted to a particular era. What you would, or should, expect is that the artists have chosen music of high quality, music that stands out for its aesthetic and expressive power. I have given concerts for voice and guitar where we started with music by Guillaume DuFay, continued with John Dowland, performed some songs by contemporary Cuban composer Leo Brouwer and ended with Blackbird by Paul McCartney. And I consider all of that ‘classical’. But the process of finding the music of the best quality means weeding out the music of lesser quality. It is in that area that I think we may have some differences, but I’m not sure what they would be. I do know that from my point of view the idea that classical music is “drastically out of touch with its time” is to mis-categorize classical music. Music that has achieved ‘classical’ status is supposed to be out of touch with its time!


Jon Silpayamanant said...

It's interesting how many of the comments mention the "Asian problem"--mine as well, and Dave Meckler's comment that there are so few Asian pop stars as well despite being over-represented in classical music.

Anonymous said...

It is true that blacks don't listen to classical music but then no one listens to classical music. It represents about 2% of sales in the US and of that probably only 1% counts as genuine classical music (not Yo-Yo Ma Meets Bill Monroe). In other words, classical music occupies a tiny niche in the overall cultural landscape, which is statistically negligible (though highly visible in the cultured class). Given that, it's not surprising that it is therefore heavily influenced by one-off factors: Asian families see classical music as a social advancement device for their kids, since it rewards hard work over cultural privileges and thus levels the playing field in the educated class.

Blacks on the other hand are by and large denied access to quality education in the US, but classical music on a participatory level requires a strong educational environment (and lessons are expensive). In fact, check out high school jazz bands! They tend to have virtually no black participation. Also, African-Americans are culturally segregated. If that's because of racism, classical music can't be blamed for it: Blacks don't listen to "white" music. Period. Whether classical or pop, they just don't. They have their own music. There's a long history behind this and one can't just blame the classical music world. So I think it's a question of history and economics.

But more important, the reason is that no one listens to classical music in the US. When Hilary Hahn was topping the charts, she was lucky to sell 20,000 copies a year. Meanwhile Lady Gaga was selling 10 million copies...

Jon Silpayamanant said...

the reason is that no one listens to classical music in the US.

Well, not quite. Fewer people go to concerts, sure, but there is far more participation in classical music when digital media is taken into account. The NEA, using the census data, shows that Classical music leads in online participation by 18% (with Latin music a close second at (15%). More and more people are listening, just not necessarily going to concerts (or buying CDs).

Everything else is pretty much spot on regarding Blacks in the US and their access to Classical music culture!

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear the picture is not as dismal as I painted it. I wonder also if people listen to classical music without necessarily buying a lot of it. I listen to stuff I bought years ago because it is (in my view) unsurpassed and how many different versions of Beethoven's piano sonatas does a person need anyway?

Jon Silpayamanant said...

And for a view regarding the inability of Asians and Asian-Americans making it into the pop field, there's this New York Times piece:

And my recent blog post:

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Looks like we posted at the same time--yeah, I think that is part of the problem--too much product without enough differentiation. How many Orchestras do we really need that keep playing the old warhorses?

How are we going to cultivate the next generation of composers if the traditional groups rarely, if ever, feature their works the way they did a century or two ago?

There are problems--but I can't seem to shake the idea that ever since the orthodox ensembles failed the new creators of the art (i.e. the composers) there's been a downward trend for the audiences of these ensembles!

With the rising non-White population in the US, maybe it shouldn't be entirely surprising!!