You’re Asking the Wrong Question

It’s a well-recognized cause of children-who-are-wrong.jpghand-wringing in the classical music world that concert/art/classical music, new or old, is struggling to stay “relevant.” Our music is losing a PR war, the voices will cry. Where once classical music institutions were beloved national treasures, today they’re cultural non-factors.

“Relevance” is a term often sung in harmony with the timeless “classical music is dying” refrain; not a great starting point, as every “death of classical” article is bound to be a masterclass in logical fallacies and mistaking correlation for causation. What it represents, though, is legitimate: anxiety on the part of classical music’s devotees and practitioners that regardless of the art form’s quantitative place in modern culture, its qualitative place – the actual good it does for the hearts and souls of non-musicians – is being threatened or marginalized. It represents fear that no one cares about or understands the artistic offerings we make so vulnerably, and in the face of pop music or market saturation or smartphone culture the level of appreciation is only destined to wane further. Artists generally want to improve the world through their craft, and even if that’s not the case, they still want to share their projects with people who will find them resonant. As an old teacher once said, we all just want to be heard. So, the discussion of relevance is an understandable one.

I generally try to stay out of the classical community’s endless roundtable about relevance because the roundtable is, frankly, a mess. The discussion is invariably dominated by well-meaning but thoroughly wrongheaded hot takes about how the problem is our attitude. There are variations on the theme, of course: the layman isn’t initiated enough to understand our highbrow music. There’s not enough pop music-y music or programming that the uninitiated can latch onto. We’re elitist in how we present concerts, or how we program them, or how we dress at them. There’s not enough music education to create educated listeners. All of them boil down to the same core critique of our public perception. Whatever the suit, it’s all really imparting the (extremely problematic) belief that classical music is just misunderstood, and if only they knew us, they’d love us.

Despite my usual silence on this issue, I was inspired to action by this screed from NewMusicBox’s Mari Valverde, in which Mari tackles the challenge of “[maximizing] connection” with her listeners. It’s a little difficult to navigate her scattered and tangential essay; but in a way, that very feature makes it a great case study for dissecting classical music’s relevance obsession. Over the course of the essay, Mari touches on the entire suite of specious arguments usually deployed as reasons the “lay” listeners she meets might not appreciate classical music enough.

The listeners aren’t initiated enough.

Do they feel the tension created by suspension or sense the folding of time created by contrapuntal rhythms or melodic heterophony? I fear not. They may not have learned how to listen to this genre of music.

There’s not enough pop music-y stuff in the pieces. 

Maybe it’s my failure as a composer to be plain enough. It’s conjecture, but they probably listen to music organized by regular beats and loops and jams. Or perhaps, they would appreciate it more deeply if my music were delivered in timbres to which they were accustomed, i.e., electronics.

We foster our own elitism in performance and concert ritual.

“It is a little disheartening that everybody, including “classical” musicians, has the need to grasp for terms like “classical,” “concert,” or worse, “art” music. Is there not a tacit air of aristocracy or bourgeoisie to the concert-going community?”

Music education isn’t widespread enough. 

Very plainly put, this is yet another push for music education as core curriculum because the study of music is fundamentally the study of listening. And we are all missing out when children are neither readily exposed to nor invited to participate in musicmaking.

There’s not enough pop music-y stuff in the program.

The addition of a non-“classical” arrangement was deeply moving. Having witnessed others in tears, I know the singers connected with the listeners. Perhaps the solution we seek is such programming, which offers a fusion of genres to inhabit the same time and space.

We have in Mari’s essay a perfect illustration of the problems with the whole classical-music-relevance discussion. Mari (and, by extension, all of us) talks out every conceivable side of her mouth about a one-dimensional concern dressed up as programming or education or popular misconception. She talks infuriatingly down to popular styles of music (“beats and loops and jams” is particularly offensive to this jazz musician) and their aficionados while simultaneously seeing them as a ticket back to the promised land, and does so without a trace of irony. And even though we claim to stand for the culture at large, and even though we are supposedly trying to relate to non-musicians, she (like all of us) assumes that everyone who’s not initiated into the music world is just like her but hasn’t seen the light. We are trying to reach large, diverse audiences without questioning whether our own experiences may not be universal.

Here are some things that aren’t generally mentioned in this conversation about relevance: a beginner-level orchestral instrument can cost anywhere from $100 to $500, while the cost of a professional-level one might reach into five figures. American music education programs (which Mari rightly advocates for) immediately constrain students with a notation system and teach them that music is recreative and prescriptive. To learn to compose, improvise, or otherwise learn music as a tool for creative self-expression, students need to seek out a private tutor, which can cost anywhere from $1200 to $2500 a year.

There’s more. An informal survey of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (who, it should be noted, are one of the most forward-thinking and community-oriented arts organizations in the country) shows that the overwhelming majority of the orchestra has bachelor’s degrees in music, with a substantial percentage holding master’s degrees as well. A four-year degree from the University of Michigan costs about $60,000 (that’s in-state tuition; the four-year cost for an out-of-state visitor is about $160,000). A two-year master’s from that institution will cost about $20,000 more. That’s all at a public university, before room and board. And at a conservatory? Hoo boy.

Finally, here’s a map of the country’s orchestras, as collected by the LAO. Compare that to this map of United States median income from WNYC. Notice the correlation between the availability of live orchestral music and median income.

9093bb48585a1e601feaec47efcd3a58.jpgThe point is, we spend so much time talking about how to make classical music more relevant – how to help the wayward see themselves in the music. But classical music has little claim to relevance to a wide swath of American society. How could it be relevant in its current state? Participation in classical music is itself an indicator of privilege. If you’re sitting in the orchestra, you had the resources to purchase an instrument and begin playing; the tutelage to realize your personal voice as a performer; the ability to attend college; and the freedom to study music at the highest levels, regardless of its lack of income guarantee. At recently as 1998, only 25 percent of students have had access to a music education of any quality. In short, if you’re sitting in the orchestra, you’re a product of a circumstance that’s not universal – or even common – in modern America.

Meanwhile, those on the other side of the stage, the listening side, are generally certain to hear from composers of a very narrow demographic. Affluent. Educated. Predominantly male. Predominantly white. Most of whom found themselves in circumstances similar to the orchestra.

Maybe you fit into one of those cross-sections, or all of them. But many don’t. And if those who don’t fail to see themselves in the creation or performance of classical music – if they fail to be moved by music which doesn’t bear resemblance or commonality to their community, their culture, their lives – it’s not because they haven’t “learned to listen.”

How do we change things? Instead of relevance, let’s talk about accessibility. Let’s ensure early and frequent access to quality music education at a young age: not with the aim of teaching “listening,” but with the aim of helping students make connections between music and community, and between music and identity. To that end, let’s stop music education from being a one-track Western ensemble playground; let’s invite improvisation, composition, and open creation to the party. Let’s encourage open-ended musical creation and experimentation from the moment instruments are chosen. Let’s help students to see themselves in their instruments before the Classical Canon blinders are strapped on.

Let’s advocate for concert hall experiences with diverse composer rosters. Let’s kill “masterworks” concerts that relegate new music to the role of sorbet and replace them with living-music concerts that make more room for minority, LGBTQ, and geographically-diverse composers.

Let’s preemptively dismiss any notion that classical music is inherently more sophisticated than more popular genres. It’s not.

Let’s encourage cross-genre collaboration and co-creation, but dispense with the naive idea that an arrangement of a pop tune on a classical concert will somehow bridge the cultural divide. Let’s make connections with pop, rock, electronica, and jazz that are meaningful and substantial, recognizing the artistry of individuals in each.

And above all: let’s stop conflating a sterile, pedantic knowledge of music with a profound connection. Let’s cease to demand musical literacy from our listeners as a shibboleth of true emotional resonance. Let’s learn to distinguish literacy from relevance – true relevance. Not being able to hear a “harmonic parenthesis” doesn’t mean an individual can’t fully appreciate the emotional content of music. In fact, that same ignorance may enable them to better appreciate the emotional content, because they’re not listening for technique – they’re listening for stories. They’re listening for themselves. Let’s rethink relevance as an inclusion of these untapped communities in the experience of creating and witnessing classical music; without them, classical music will never be relevant, no matter how many beats and loops and jams we start writing in our scores.

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