Is classical music dying? This has been an increasingly burning question within our struggling world of art music creation, presentation and criticism over the last decade or so. Much writing has been done on the subject out of which continues to emerge various life-saving suggestions and directives for artists, administrators and marketers. I’m slightly wary of contributing more ideas to this admittedly important debate, for several reasons: I’m a happily iconoclastic and yes, slightly skeptical artist who doesn’t easily embrace one-size-fits-all solutions, regardless of their aptness; my work has always seemed to situate itself enough out of the mainstream not to warrant grandiose ambitions of universal adulation and big economic reward; and I also question the main assumption upon which these discussions seem to be based. The first two reasons are obviously the result of my own choices, but I feel the last calls for a little blogification.
As I have come to see it a basic assumption of this musical round table is that viability equals market share. To justify our existence in the arts industry, compensation for our creations or performances must remain consistent or rise; the size of our audiences must always increase; our value to potential advertisers and marketers must always grow. This decidedly Western ethos is so deeply ingrained that it seems impossible or unrealistic to imagine our goals being otherwise. So why are we so surprised that as economies across the globe have shrunk dramatically and probably permanently, so has the demand for “non-essential” art music? I’m afraid that many of the responses to this perceived crisis arise from this market-based mentality. Students feel obligated to earn DMA's, regardless of their dedication to scholarship, in order to improve the very long odds of landing a well-paying job in the world of academia. Young musicians of promise are pushed by teachers to prepare often inappropriate and usually sadly conventional repertoire at younger and younger ages, in order to “compete” in the increasingly dog-eat-dog world of concert performance, rather than explore their individual strengths and interests. Orchestras and other music presenting organizations have become tools of their marketing departments, who continually press for increased audience “accessibility” by corralling sophisticated performances into insultingly childish theme groups. Artists are enjoined to be uniformly glamorous as well as business savvy and self-serving at all times, even though the grueling, self-denying and life-consuming nature of their process will in truth probably preclude anything of the sort. Sadly, I am finding that young artists view this situation as normal. I’m afraid that as long as we persist in portraying classical music as just another product line under the umbrella of capitalist enterprise, and teaching it as such, its demise is inevitable and in some ways deserved.
So, Mr. Smarty-Pants, I hear you crying, what’s then to be done? Well, if the goal is simply economic viability, I really don’t know; large life-sustaining fees and fame haven’t been the norm in my career as a classical pianist, or in those of most of my peers. I have always found it necessary, and sometimes preferable, to engage in a wide variety of work-for-money activities to support my fine art habit. Sure, I grew up with all of this land-of-opportunity stuff and would at times like nothing more than to be paid $25,000 for a Brahms Horn Trio performance that, after all, took thousands of college-educated nerd hours to reach fruition, not to mention the cost of earplugs. I would like critics (who in this fantasy world are widely read and respected by all) to immediately applaud my miraculous achievement, so that their readers would quickly rush online to download badly-compressed versions of my CD’s (with free personalized travel mugs) while breathlessly awaiting each of my twitter emanations. I would love to see orchestras thriving instead of folding, schools expanding arts budgets instead of slashing “electives.” And despite my apparent cynicism, I totally applaud the brave and dedicated people out there trying to work within this highly compromised system to ensure the survival of our struggling arts institutions. Perhaps some of the clever and creative marketing angles being implemented today will help to stave off disaster. They are certainly not all without artistic merit. It’s just this: if you insist on reducing the experience of classical music down to a shiny bauble sold by a carny at an amusement park, the duped buyer will probably walk away feeling cheated in the end anyway, never to return.
Instead, perhaps we could be asking: What does classical music really do? Why do we create it, make it happen, or need it? In my very humble opinion, it is an intensely powerful personal expression brought into a necessarily complex existence by highly intuitive artists for others to experience in real time. The amount of understanding that can be shared in this process is entirely dependent on the listener’s ability to receive, her education if you will, and the performer’s ability to communicate. Its goal is, or should be, to enrich, enhance, alter; to transport the listener in some lasting and profound way to a place of new and deeper awareness. We humans still seem to crave this opportunity to go beyond; we continually seek it in classical music, visual art and literature regardless of reward or difficulty. But let’s face it, this promise of enrichment is not an easy sell compared to say, a Big Mac or a pop tune. On 60 Minutes last night, when asked about the secret to her overnight international success, the sensational singer Adele drew the distinction perfectly (if unknowingly) in her refreshingly self-effacing way. To paraphrase her: “Look, people just really like songs about love and betrayal, and that also happens to be what I like to sing.” But in our situation, no matter how you try to market the Symphonie Fantastique, it is never going to be simply about love frustrated, and was never intended to be. Some would have us believe that the end justifies the means; all we need to do is get people through the door and into a seat, by whatever means necessary, and they will inevitably become lifelong appreciators of classical music. But I believe we do a disservice to the music and its audience by oversimplifying, demystifying and dis-empowering the magic of complexity in order to lure in possibly unreceptive or unwilling listeners. We rob them of the opportunity of discovering, when they are ready and without bias, the difference between the wondrous ineffability of fine art and the everyday barrage of mass market culture.
I’m not sure if this magical substance is marketable in the ways we have traditionally embraced, or even if the need for it will survive in today's turbulent seas of commercialism and greed. However, I suspect that spurious claims of popularity and accessibility will do nothing to build lasting audiences for our work, and may even prevent a true seeker from finding his muse.