Ideas for Your Ideas: Responding to “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained”

by Ryan Olivier

As a composer, I am constantly thinking about the presentation of my music. I never take for granted the way in which an audience approaches or encounters my music , nor do I depend on others to discover and present my music to an interested audience. I do not think I am alone in my approach; more than likely it is a reflection of our time, one in which a composer often has to fight to have her music experienced in the way she had always hoped.
I do not find this current trend problematic, but rather an opportunity (albeit a time-consuming and challenging one) to come up with new and creative ways to infuse the lives of a curious and intelligent culture of young adults with art music. Our culture has changed since the early twentieth-century; perhaps the presentation of new music is in need of a change as well.     I am in no way a spokesperson for my generation, but I can speak to my experiences growing up in my own culture. Our generation is incredibly well rounded. Our parents and teachers taught us that we can be anything and told us to take nothing for granted. We grew up in an era in which undisputed genius such as the Beatles were no longer, record stores and record companies who once dictated the important music of our time disappeared, iPods and mp3s allowed for the exchange of entire music libraries, and the internet opened doors to music from around the world and through the ages with sites such as Spotify and Pandora. We were told in our postmodern time that our opinion was important and that our tastes could be refined and informed but ultimately would be our own.
This atmosphere fostered the fantastic creativity seen in the blurring of genres and disciplines and in the rethinking of our musical experience. In a world where album sales could no longer sustain a musician, performance and presentation became the new essential commodity. Some fruits of this creative incubator are seen in groups like yMusic, Alarm Will Sound, and So Percussion. These groups blur the lines of Indie rock band and classical chamber ensemble and have had massive success. They owe a lot to ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet, Bang On a Can, and Steve Reich and Musicians, but I believe their mission as demonstrated through their marketing and branding heralds something different. These are not musicians that are classically trained but who find inspiration in pop music. They believe that new classical music and Indie music produce the same thing: CREATIVITY! Most importantly, they do not see the need for creativity to stop when the computer prints out the final sheet or the performers have finished interpreting the last note.
As my composition teacher Dr. Jimbo Walsh told me when I was a young student in New Orleans, “you must have ideas for your ideas.” At the time he was referring to developing motives, but the same can be said for the presentation of one’s music. Three important articles have come out recently that discuss the historical lack of ideas in the presentation of concert music and point to other means through which we may experience art music: “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” by Richard Dare, “Why So Serious” by Alex Ross, and “The Emergence of Indie Classical” by Jayson Greene. These articles take different routes to address the same issue, that the traditional concert hall experience is not the only environment for art music.
For many young adults, the traditional concert hall is a stifling and uncomfortable place, a point well made in “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” and one I can attest to after teaching music appreciation. Twenty-year-olds are used to encountering new music and new art when they go out, just not in a traditional concert hall. Alex Ross cites many leading musicologists and social historians in his article “Why So Serious,” pointing out that while many composers assume that music has always been presented in the traditional concert hall, this is a 19th century invention and was not necessarily how Haydn or Mozart were presented.
Just as the listening culture of the 19th century changed and evolved in the 20th century, so too can the listening culture of the 21st century. I believe it already has. Check out your local arts listings and I would hazard a bet that there is some inventive presentation of new music at an art gallery, college coffee house, or progressive bar. The popularity of clubs such as Le Poisson Rouge in New York or the Blue Nile and The Big Top in New Orleans are a testament that drinking and having a good time mix well with appreciating new art. Some of my colleagues make the valid argument that their music cannot fully be appreciated unless there is silence and total absorption. While I understand their point, I don’t think this leaves any room to explore new avenues. At the very least, a preview concert in a receptive atmosphere like a bar or gallery could entice an interested listener to come to a more formal concert to hear the piece a second time in a quieter setting.
Melos Music will try to do just that this year in Philadelphia. In addition to various outreach projects, Melos intends to present a preview concert in Olde City during First Friday. Pieces will be performed on the quarter hour to allow those interested in viewing the art a chance to come and go in between pieces. Hopefully we will be able to convince those who like what they hear at the gallery to try out the concert hall knowing that they will be familiar with at least one new work. As the most avid presenter of my own music, I am constantly trying to come up with new and inventive ways to present my music to an intelligent and interested public.
There is no inherent awfulness to classical music. It is my hope that our response as composers, performers, musicians, and advocates for the music we love to the valid arguments raised by author such as Richard Dare will be one of reinvention and not hostility, disillusionment, or abandonment. Melos will do its small part this year in Philadelphia, and we hope you will join us in this grand experiment.

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3 Responses to Ideas for Your Ideas: Responding to “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained”

  1. I think it is basically a problem with the volume. While the music performed in bars, pubs, or any other “informal” venue is amplified, classical music is not. You would not hear it clearly if someone is talking next to you.
    Pop music, rock music and even jazz is performed real loud, keeping the attention of the audience regardless of the noise around it. Besides, many of those concerts are supported it by light effects and big screens, enhancing the performance in many ways. In other words, whoever wants to listen and watch the concert will be able to.
    Suggestions? Let’s do the same!

    • ryanolivier says:

      Manena, I agree. We could use a little amplification every now and then, but I am sure a strong brass quintet would also do the trick. Programing is incredibly important. Choosing the right music for the right audience and atmosphere is just as important outside the concert hall as it is inside the concert hall. Bars are probably not the place for a delicate, spectral piece for violin, but amplified violin could be really something. I think Laurie Anderson already made a case for this in the 80s!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful blog response to Richard Dare’s “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained”. I like your idea of an informal “teaser” performance followed by a more traditional, complete performance. The ability to market and self-promote are essential skills for all but the very few soloists and other elite professionals who have enormous audiences and professional management. Your idea demonstrates the type of creative approaches to performances that we need to consider. Not everything will be a success, but some will appeal to audiences that may not consider going to a formal concert hall so we need to at least be willing to try.

    I’ve presented several showcases, yet another approach, intended to highlight musicians and ensembles who have not developed their own audiences. Presenting three groups in one concert increases the potential size of the audience and give audience members the chance to hear musicians that they may not know. The showcases have received very positive responses from both the musicians and the members of the audience, so I plan to continue presenting them in the Philadelphia area.

    I, too, had a discussion prompted by Dare’s article on my site, and welcome other ideas and responses, here:

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