“Silence!” — Laura Lentz on Alex Ross
December 7, 2011
“Silence!” — Laura Lentz on Alex Ross
December 7, 2011
There are a lot of rules and regulations surrounding classical music, and a lot of these are very recent inventions. People don’t realize that. –Alex Ross
Alex Ross’s opening essay in Listen to This subtitled Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop, has got me thinking a lot about the culture surrounding classical music. Mr. Ross describes the present culture as “mediocre elitism” which seems to have begun within the past century with atonal music which defined classical music as more of a theoretical exercise. At the same time, there grew a wonderful mish-mash of new genres which would appear over the years. Blues, jazz, rock, and pop, all became more a part of popular culture and promised more possibility to engage and relate to the music. Over time, classical music became something we needed a degree to decipher. It became inaccessible. Classical music wasn’t of the people any longer, and it started to have new rules and regulations.
Conductor and composer Rob Kapilow, creator of What Makes it Great? a touring series that combines lecture, concert and Q&A, looks to make classical music more engaging to the general public. His project, he says, is to make the music accessible, to get people to ‘get it.’ He adds that, “There is a lot of stuff around the music that is not about the music. People will say, ‘It’s so puckered up!’ The clapping thing is a big deal.”
Imagine this scene from the 19th century, from Listen to This:
Concerts were eclectic hootenannies in which opera arias collided with chunks of sonatas and concertos. Barrel-organ grinders carried the best-known classical melodies out into the streets, where they were blended with folk tunes. Audiences regularly made their feelings known by applauding or calling out when the music was playing.
Quite different than what we experience today. Mr. Kapilow adds that Beethoven would have been horrified if the end of a movement didn’t get applause. Critic Greg Sandow says that our present style of performance, with silence and formal dress, puts a frame around the music that says, “Something very important is happening here,” and you, the audience, aren’t a part of it. We’ve ignored the real meaning that classical works from the past had when they were new, in particular for pieces written at a time when composers expected performers to improvise, and the audience was expected to react by clapping or cheering as they felt.
Classical music unfortunately has created the image of an art that is stuffy, lacking in passion and remote from contemporary society. In Rebirth, the Future of Classical Music, Mr. Sandow suggests that classical music must become a contemporary art and part of contemporary life in order to breathe life into classical music once again. I enjoy his observation that all contemporary music, outside of classical music, has a beat—and perhaps this may be why it doesn’t sound like contemporary life. The question is, how do we make classical music become a part of contemporary life? Mr. Ross’s crossing the border into pop music gives us some new possibilities to consider.
How can we work to make classical music more a part of contemporary society and change the culture surrounding it?
We need look no further than to some of the trail-blazing classical performances taking place in our communities. In particular, we should look to the smaller ensembles that are playing new, contemporary classical music, or are presenting the “classics” combining music, drama, art, dance and other art forms. Some that come to mind are ICE, Bang on a Can, Fifth House Ensemble, and Alarm Will Sound. And then there’s Classical Revolution, live chamber music for the people in over 20 cities across the United States and Europe, hosting performances in coffeehouses, cafes and other nontraditional venues. Then there are groups blending genres, crossing the border from classical into pop and beyond.
There’s the Wordless Music series that puts classical pieces on concert programs with leading New York indie rock bands and has many sold-out concerts. The Pittsburgh-based Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra of which I’ve been fortunate to be a member fuses classical and pop music effortlessly, with orchestral arrangements of popular music, jazz improvisation, and other genres blended in to each concert. The San Francisco Classical Voice recently featured several small freelance orchestras who are performing in nontraditional venues — rock clubs, churches, college auditoriums — rather than concert halls, and frequently playing nonstandard repertoire, ranging from contemporary postclassical music to pop covers. Groups like Boston Modern Orchestra Project, A Far Cry, and The Knights are some to watch.
Using technology can be another way classical music can fit more into contemporary society, and one very innovative idea in recent days is that tweeters are now welcome at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s concerts. TweetSeats are an area in the theater for those who wish to communicate about the concert in real time. Another possible way to capitalize on technology could be for music groups to offer video casts, as a way to reach more audiences and create a new revenue stream at the same time.
The role of social media as a tool for classical musicians and organizations can’t be underestimated. The San Francisco Classical Voice ran a recent post titled “Simply Connect: The Rise of Social Media in the Arts“, which discusses the benefits of social media as a means to boost, expand and communicate with audiences. Social media provides a kind of backstage access, revealing more than what goes on behind the scenes. It lets people feel more engaged, and not only in the end result, says Janet Cowperthwaite, managing director for the Kronos Quartet, but in the concert, the recording, and the process in getting there.
Thinking outside the box, beyond the typical concert setting, reaching audiences in new ways like this is brilliant. It looks at contemporary society and puts pieces of the puzzle together. The more we can connect with contemporary society, the more we can change the culture surrounding classical music.