Friday, September 04, 2009

Getting People to Listen

I'm not talking about Health Care or getting a state budget passed in Pennsylvania. In this case, it's getting people to listen to “classical music.”

As I get ready to return to the class-room with the Mendelssohn Outreach Project or classes I'm offering at the Harrisburg Area Community College, I've been rereading a 1993 article by John Steinmetz that first appeared in the NARAS Journal that summer. It's been reprinted, re-posted and circulated by e-mail many times since then. I recently received it from a musician friend in New York City and I dutifully sent it on to other friends of mine – fellow composers and musicians, music teachers and music presenters as well as music-lovers.

It's called “Resuscitating Art Music” whether it's Bach, Coltrane, Shankar or Zwilich and part of the problem is defining “what is Art Music.”

Terminology has always been a sticking point. When I was teaching in college many (many) years ago, one of my roommates was working with a high school music teacher who told her class “classical music is the kind of music people don't like.”

Even “classical music” is hard to define: it is always opposed to “popular music” (Art Culture VS. Pop Culture). From the Pop perspective, then, “classical music” would be “Unpopular Music” so perhaps this teacher back in the '70s wasn't far from wrong.

It has been called “serious music” as if the latest rock stars aren't serious about what they're writing and performing...

When the Beatles were new and my parents' generation was horrified at their dress and hair-styles as much as their music, “classical music” was called “Long-Hair Music,” looking at pictures of composers like Beethoven and Franz Liszt, for instance. Of course, once Rock Music's hair-styles gotten even longer and wilder, the term disappeared.

The sound of “Art Music” makes it seem like it should be pronounced “Aaaht Music” and be accompanied with a condescending nod of the tiara (no offense to friends from Boston who actually talk that way, naturally). It became a class thing, nothing to do with classical or popular. Aaaht was the domain of the wealthy – Popular was (ewww) nasty and plebeian. Didn't these guys write for royalty, anyway?

But I like John Steinmetz's definition which he admits is, like most simple definitions, an oversimplification. Art Music is music that requires you to pay attention to it.

Popular Music doesn't require that. He mentions a student who said, in comparing a 14th Century piece with a favorite rock song, “I like rock music because you don't have to pay attention in order to get it.”

It's not the attention SPAN, one thing many, generally older people worry about in the younger generations – being able to concentrate on a sentence of more than 7 words – but the ability to concentrate at all, to focus on something that might be rewarding.

In this sense, Steinmetz says, he's defining not the music (or any other art form) but the listener (or any other form of “art consumer,” to borrow a particularly nasty term of marketing demographics).

But perhaps “consumer” isn't so bad after all: for many of us, Art is as important to our lives as food and water. The problem, then, is getting that concept across to people who aren't paying attention.

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So, he says, let's assume art music “requires conscious attention and some experience in order to be understood.” He says this can apply to many different kinds of music whether they're from different cultures or different levels of sophistication and style. Mainly, in his sense and mine, it's Western European Classical Music.

He uses the term “consume” in the sense that art music requires listeners who want to do more than that. Speaking in terms of demographics, much of it was intended for an audience of musicians, either professional or amateur. In the days of Mozart and Mendelssohn, most middle-class people knew how to play the piano or sing, maybe play the violin. Even some royalty were amateur musicians: King Frederick the Great was a good flutist and an adequate composer; his nephew, not a great king, played the cello though one assumes any comments about his playing may not have been thoroughly honest. The Austrian emperor, Joseph II, who once accused Mozart of writing “too many notes,” enjoyed playing the harpsichord.

More typical of the audience in those days was a family that lived in Vienna in the early 1800s. The father was a poor school teacher but he enjoyed playing the cello. Three of his sons played the violin. One of them showed an early talent for composing and since he could also play the viola, the family would entertain themselves sitting around after dinner by playing string quartets. Some of those pieces were composed by one of the sons, the one named Franz Schubert.

Not because there was nothing on TV, but because there was no TV or any other form of “passive entertainment provider.” It was very much a do-it-yourself age.

Today, kids gather in garages and form their own bands. It's rarely a generational after-dinner gathering, but much of the idea is the same: they play their favorite music themselves and they write their own. They have aspirations of becoming rock stars but usually end up becoming business executives or teachers.

The only problem with this approach is the implication Mozart only wrote for other musicians. This is a complaint leveled at 20th Century composers, too: only a musician could understand this stuff. It makes it too esoteric when that's not the intent.

A composer has to first reach the musicians because that's the only way a composer is going to reach an audience. A piece of music isn't going to reach a listener like a book is going to reach a reader: a novelist doesn't need someone to read his latest book to a new audience, though we've come to that, now, with audio books – listening to a book for people who are too busy to read. You plop it into the CD-player and listen while you're in the car or sit there while... what, reading the newspaper? Aside from people who are sight-challenged, I could understand using it on long-drives or for the daily stuck-in-traffic commutes, but sitting in your living room? Well, laziness aside, that's another issue...

Being a musician makes a person more open to discovery in a piece that requires attention. There's an old saying “the more you know about it, the more you'll appreciate something.” It doesn't mean you have to know every tiny detail about how it's constructed, how this chord moves to this chord, but understanding that helps you better appreciate the final result. When friends make fun of me because I don't understand the finer details of computer programming or how a six-cylinder combustion engine works, I usually respond “I can drive a car without needing to know how to rebuild the engine – but I know how to write a symphony.” Unfortunately, that logic doesn't hold much water with non-musicians.

Steinmetz goes on to say that the attitude toward art music in this country (the United States, for my foreign readers) is not the same as it is in Europe where the tradition – as most European traditions do – goes back much further.

This was never so clear to me as the time I walked into a church in England to sing part of a concert there on the first leg of a college concert choir tour, the summer of 1970. The part we were standing on was the original floor of the church which, in a couple of years, would be celebrating its 1,000th Anniversary. I kept thinking “in a few more years, Americans will be going crazy over a 200-year-old bell with a crack in it...” It kind of spoiled some of the impact of the impending 1976 Bicentennial, especially when people would fuss about how long ago that was.

It's not like I'd never thought about how old things were. I mean, I knew some of the buildings I'd seen pictures of were older than when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but actually standing on the floor of a church that had been in place almost a thousand years...? That was, as kids say today, “awesome!”

Another thing Steinmetz points out is the American penchant for “how much does that cost?” It's not just looking for a bargain but the financial Bottom Line has become a very real thing in the arts.

A concert is a success not because of how well it was played or how the audience liked it: it is important how much money it made in ticket sales.

When you look at the movie rankings from last weekend, you see they're ranked by how much they earned at the box-office. It has nothing to do with the quality of the movie or even whether all those people liked it after they'd bought their tickets. If your movie wasn't on the Top 5 or Top 10 list, it must not have been very good. If you like to follow the off-beat, independent films, you might not even know they exist until they appear at the little hole-in-the-wall Arts Cinema you'd be attending regularly to see any of the films you like.

If you're going to “get” anything out of the experience of art music, you're not going to get it by paying for it – for the ticket or the CD, yes, but not for the experience of listening to it. That takes a little something extra.

It costs attention.

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I went to a Gretna Music concert recently with some challenging new music on it – including the world premiere of a piece for violin and percussion by a Malaysian composer I'd never heard of before. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard anything by any Malaysian composer before. The Momenta Quartet played a program that paired Kee-yong Chong's “Suspended Love” (a world premiere) with a slightly older piece by Luciano Berio for viola and percussion which included a tape-recording of a Sicilian street-vendor (folk music, it was called, but not the kind of folk music you might expect: this was raw and primitive, about as far removed from the concert stage as you could get). On the 2nd half of the program was a string quartet by Robert Schumann.

The audience was beyond small. The Schumann didn't bring them in, the fact nobody really knows who Momenta is (are?) didn't help – and a world premiere plus a work with tape? As Yogi Bera would've put it, “they stayed away in droves.”

Curiously, most of the people there actually seemed to enjoy it. Nobody walked out. Everybody I could see looked pretty attentive, not bored or uncomfortable. Everyone was applauding, some vociferously.

Because there had been some noise issues – the extremely delicate ending had been drowned out by a passing plane – it was agreed they should do “Suspended Love” again, at the end of the concert. Anyone who wanted to stay, could.

True, over half the audience left while the stage was reset. But those that stayed certainly enjoyed hearing it again – or at least hearing all of it. There were new things to hear, things you heard differently - not to mention hearing it after having heard some, by comparison, pretty tame Schumann.

Among those standing at the end were a few of the young people in the audience and a number of “senior citizens” (one of them in her 90s), people you'd stereotypically assume were more conservative in their tastes.

So if everyone seemed to enjoy it once if not twice, why is the audience so small when you announce there's a new piece on the program or there's a composer most people associate with unpleasantness (poor Schoenberg)?

Lots of people came to hear the world premiere of a violin sonata by Philip Glass with Market Square Concerts earlier this year. A recently premiered percussion concerto by Jennifer Higdon was on a program with the Harrisburg Symphony in 2007 and the audience “went wild” - you'd think it had been some chestnut by Tchaikovsky, the way the audience applauded and cheered!

But drawing them into the concert hall to hear the music in the first place is the challenge. Too many people assume “I'm not going to like this music” because it's boring or it's new or, more typically, it's just unfamiliar.

A friend once asked me why the Harrisburg Symphony had programmed Dvořák's 7th Symphony. “Why aren't they doing the New World?” It was more popular and would sell more tickets. She didn't know the piece and automatically assumed it wasn't as good.

“Do you like Dvořák's New World?” I asked her.

“Yes!” she replied with that “of course” tone-of-voice, challenging my sanity.

“Then you should like the 7th: they're by the same composer. Try it.”

Later, this same person asked me why the orchestra had programmed excerpts from an opera by Mussorgsky that you don't often get a chance to hear.

“Is there any good music in Boris Godunov?”

After telling her it was one of my favorite operas, I suggested she come and hear it. She did. I passed her on the way backstage and she said “Wasn't that just wonderful!?!”

A couple of years ago, someone asked me – when we were trying to figure out what to include in a list of the “most famous” (not necessarily best) pieces of classical music, I had mentioned adding Beethoven's 7th Symphony to the 5th and 9th that were already there.

He said “I know Beethoven's 5th and I know Beethoven's 9th: why do I need to know Beethoven's 7th?”

And it was clear that “because it's a great piece” wasn't a good enough argument.

If you can't expose people who already like art music to other art music that's unfamiliar to them, how are you going to convince people who've never heard it before to take a chance on it, much less buy a ticket or a CD and enjoy it?

More to come...

- Dr. Dick

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