February 17, 2013 at 1:17 AMAs a professional classical violinist who performs regularly for audiences in New England, I often wonder about the role of classical music in our society. Many people who do not understand our art view what we do as elitist or snobbish at best. Rather than expounding on this belief and placing blame, instead I wish to comment about how I see the future of our industry evolving.
Classical musicians today live in wonderful times for our art. Yes - That is what I said - WONDERFUL times. While it is true that the respect for our music has waned, I contend that never has the potential for success of the individual musician ever been so great.
You see, in the glory days of violin playing, which can roughly be categorized from around 1920-1980, there were many great performers who took advantage of the new technology of recording to spread the "gospel" of classical music. Never in the history of the world had musicians been able to reach so many people in the comfort of their own homes. The downside of this blessing was that these musicians were required to fit a certain mold. Getting a recording contract was tough and the market was saturated with many players trying to constantly impress the big labels. Only a few slots were available and the performer had to be "sellable", as far as the label was concerned. As recording technology blossomed, I believe that the individuality of the performer was stymied as a maniacal drive for perfection and virtuosity became the name of the game. In essence, the messages in the music and its importance were lost. This drive for perfection was also exacerbated by the recording engineer's ability to "cut and paste" music digitally.
It is my contention that we are on the threshold of yet another glorious period of classical music. The difference, this time, is that the purpose of performing is radically going to change. Whereas in the past musicians were required to fiercely compete and prove themselves worthy of a performing and recording career, it is now the performer's ability to relate to the audience on an individual level that is paramount. Yes, playing at a high level is very important, but it should not be the be all and end all. Rather, it is the message in the music that really resonates with us.
While it is true that Western Culture has unfortunately largely abandoned the torch of understanding the Classics (whether in literature or music), the challenge of our generation is to present a story that is compelling enough that the listener understands the message of the composer as interpreted by the performer. In other words, our audiences will not come to hear us in person or buy our recordings for culture's sake, but rather because they are inspired by our story. This story is unique to the performer, just as it is to the listener.
The beautiful thing about classical music is that unlike the popular culture of the masses (such as Brittany Spears, Beyonce, or Lady Gaga), our music comes from the inside-out. I can see it now - some of my readers are now thinking "WOAH...What kind of snotty statements is this guy making!" Folks, please allow me to elaborate and keep an open mind while I do so.
The most successful popular music in society today, in my humble opinion, has been designed to come "from the outside-in". In other words, the role and purpose of music for the masses is to make the individual feel "high" off of a loud, sexy, and sometimes angry performance. This is a generalization, I know, but there is a large element of truth in it as I see it.
Where classical music often differs is in the fact that the composer was not trying to get a certain reaction from the audience. Rather, the composer would see his or her world and reflect this in music. This reflection comes "from the inside-out". For instance, the late Beethoven string quartets demonstrate a rich and vivid emotional world that the composer imparted to us even at the end of his life and after he had lost his hearing. In effect, what classical composers are doing is they are asking the audience to join them in experiencing their internal journey. The most relevant and successful composers are those whose music seems to relate across generations.
At the end of the day however, it is up to the performer to interpret the music how he or she sees it based on the conventions of the generation. This is what we call "taste". It is a reflection on who we are as individuals. After all, our emotions, needs, and yearnings do not change on a fundamental level.
Just to play the devil's advocate, one could argue that the music of pop culture does resonate with us across the generations but I believe that this happens on a more base level. Yet, there comes a time when many people feel that this type of hypnotic culture isn't enough for them. They yearn to feel a deeper connection with the performer and composer.
Coming back full circle, with the rise of the internet, today's classical performers have so many tools at their disposal to share their interpretations of music. Youtube, Kickstarter, and Nimbit are just some examples. While it is true that the internet does not very easily allow the average musically uninformed person to find out about new talent, it is a great facilitator of selling one's art once that relationship between performer and audience has been established.
There is another mixed blessing relating to the times we live in. The average individual expects online music to be either free or at a very low cost. On the other hand, this "giving away" of music can result in an artist's reputation going viral. In the past, musicians were expected to appear in concert in venues around the world or at the very least, around the country. This was taxing on any individual and family life was compromised. On the other hand, this model resulted in music being seen as a necessary and important diversion from day to day life. A concert was (and largely still is) seen as a way for the individual to relax after a long day or a long week. But then, is that what we musicians want? Is our music really just a diversion? (This is an open ended question whose solution is not readily available today either). In today's society, however, we have even lost the ability to stop and smell the roses.
It is my contention that in the future, the nature of the instant communication that the internet provides will allow performers to spread their message without the need to appear "in person" as much. This is possible because the consumer, who expects free media on the internet, will be able to "try out" some of our recordings without any risk before making the decision to buy. This new business model also fits nicely with the fact that most listeners today are more likely to listen to their music for shorter periods of time, often in the car on the way to work. This is a reality that we musicians must face.
The upside to this is that the repeated hearings of music that truly resonates with the individual can result in the artist achieving a live following, particularly on the local level. In fact, it is at the local level that audience building must start. Only after developing a local following can the internet truly help artists get the word out, as word-of-mouth takes its effect.
How does one get this following? My belief is that because we all have a unique story to tell, it is up to the artist to make himself or herself relevant to the particular audience. After all, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. If artists focus more on the message behind the music and cultivate a sense of real authenticity, I believe that they will be successful.
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
By the way, I checked out your You Tube channel, and truly enjoyed your Bach Chaconne! :)
That's a really interesting concept - music from the inside out. Do you think that music is becoming more from the inside out today than it was in years past? I'm still trying to wrap my brain around that question. The nature of the internet allows one to be significantly more anonymous than in person, however it requires a certain authenticity in order to develop interest. It's what makes commercials from the 50's and 60's seem so quaint and unbelievable. Back then, there was so little information that what you got you clung to much more tightly.
I think a lot of what kills classical music today is a lack of communication from the performers and an adherence to rigid forms from the past - elitism. As you say, the better a musician can connect with the audience, the more readily that the audience will listen to what they say. It's why I think that performers like Roby Lakatos, Gilles Apap, and Chuan Li may be closer to what the future holds for classical music. Make the experience real!
The Classical Revolution movement that started in San Francisco may be another continuation on the same theme.
Very articulate and well thought out blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Actually, I think it's the opposite that is happening. Technology has been used to promote music from the outside-in en masse. As you infer, there are so many distractions available to the average person and much of popular music that has been publicized in the mass media (especially to teens) is designed to hold our attention through a hypnotic effect that plays to the base instincts (sex appeal, an overwhelmingly loud beat, a fast pulse, and profanity).
Please don't think that I am against all non-classical music. There is lots of great stuff out there that really comes from the heart and causes the listener to stop and listen, rather than get all riled up for a meaningless high.
The music I am referring to (from the outside-in) is designed to put people in an emotional state. Of course, classical music can do the same thing if we let it!
Psychologically speaking one can ask "is this kind of escapism healthy?" This is a BIG question with answers that I can see pro and con depending on the situation and outcome involved (more on that in a future blog post perhaps? =).
I'm also absolutely not against other genres and love music with a story that tells me something about the singer, songwriter, or performer. This is what I mean by music from the inside-out and I feel that this kind of music is spritually infused. To me, this is music at its highest form.
Here's another topic that's related: Some believe that angry music, sexual music, or excitable music is necessary as a release for society and should not be shunned because it too reflects who we are as a society. I happen to agree actually, since freedom of speech is a necessity. Yet, I feel that this is a sad testament to our culture that we have to resort to degrading messages or the hypnotic influence of other "superstars" to make us feel good about ourselves, as is often the case for many of the listeners. Remember, music is only as popular as the listeners allow it to be!
Things are certainly changing, and if we don't have composers of the level of a Beethoven or Mozart, or violinists of the caliber of Heifetz or Kreisler, other things are better than they have ever been. Never have there been so many musicians playing at so high a level. Never has music, classical and non, been available and listened to by so many people. Never has it been possible for so many people to create/compose music, classical or otherwise, and have it heard by so many people.
The spirit of the age may be best expressed by William Morris (who died in 1896) who said, “...I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few... ”
You say: "Where classical music often differs is in the fact that the composer was not trying to get a certain reaction from the audience. Rather, the composer would see his or her world and reflect this in music. This reflection comes "from the inside-out". "
This was very much the case in the 19th and 20th century, and represents the philosopy of the romantic era in literature and painting as well as music. However, it certainly was not the case in the Baroque era in which the explicitly stated aim of composers and performers was to evoke clearly defined "affects" in the audience. I think even Mozart and Haydn would have found this inside-out philosophy rather strange. Beethoven evolved into this philosophy during the course of his lifetime, and it was then carried forward by composers including Berlioz, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, etc. etc.
On the other hand, I do believe that Mozart's music paints a detailed and vivid picture of the world he lived in, rather like a painting by Breugel.
So, at any rate, the internet is enabling many more people to be creators of music, rather than consumers of a commodity provided by superstar performers and their managers. For me, this is a great contribution to humanity even if it arguably makes it less likely for another Beethoven or Heifetz to come along.
No doubt you're familiar with Greg Sandow who writes extensively on the future of classical music. I was thinking that your essay would be most welcome on his blog.
Your point of view and perspective are very correct, they definitely are. But I will take a step further and say that this perspective and point of view, admired and represented by so many classical musicians, is also the reason why classical music is not so popular anymore, compared to all the other genres.
What is the goal, eventually? My goal, my dream scenario is to see as many people listen to beautiful classical music as possible. Because that means I can have more of it, and it allows more people to compose, play, and so on. So why don't we ask ourselves "What can we learn from the popular music world?", rather than bash on it as being of lesser quality.
As I said: It is being said over and over. Today's popular music obviously is worse music. But that doesn't mean anything, nor does it help us.
I actually do not believe in another golden period if classical music. Why would there be another one? In order for this to happen, it would want to have another one in the first place. And I don't really see the desire currently. The classical music INDUSTRY would need a reformation, and it doesn't look like it's gonna happen anytime soon. As I said, it really comes down to what the goal is. Is the goal to see classical music have more success and popularity? Then, the answers seem very clear.
A lot of what people say about the "demise" of classical music can be said about jazz. Nowadays people have so many things competing for their time and attention that they find it hard to carve out a chunk of time to go to a recital or catch a live jazz act. In my community live jazz now consists of one night a week at one particular bar-and-restaurant place (my group has the first Tuesday of every month), and there are maybe a dozen good (non-student) classical chamber recitals per year (solo recitals are very rare because they cannot sell enough tickets). Why go to a classical recital when you can get the same music on iTunes *while* you are cooking dinner or grading exams? For a lot of people the extra "sizzle" of hearing and seeing the musicians up-close isn't worth sacrificing an evening, especially when you've got a stack of exams to grade! The value of live music is possibly even greater with jazz because the notes are actually different every time. I think people have clogged their schedules with so much stuff to the point where efficiency and the need to multitask trumps everything, so they gravitate to more "accessible" forms of music that don't require much mental bandwidth because these can be enjoyed during the execution of other tasks and if you have to answer the phone or help your kid with an algebra problem during that, you know you haven't missed anything. You don't actually have to listen. Even pop music has changed in this regard. Who is the Jerry Garcia of our day?
"Many people who do not understand our art view what we do as elitist or snobbish at best."
"While it is true that the respect for our music has waned, …"
"… in the future, the nature of the instant communication that the Internet provides will allow performers to spread their message without the need to appear 'in person' as much."
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I don't know that respect for our music has actually waned; my impression is more that the share of public attention to it has shrunk in light of increasing musical choices and delivery methods.
I strongly agree regarding future Internet potential and the reduced need for in-person appearances. Classical music isn't dying; but traditional delivery methods -- especially concert halls and recital rooms -- have far less market share than they once did. To echo a previous reply: Why go to the concert hall when you can get the same music at home or in the car or on a walk via today's technology?
Live performance will always have its place -- although, at present, my schedule bars me from it. Still, I will always value my experiences of hearing and seeing live classical performers in person -- starting with the pro orchestra that played at my elementary school. This early experience nerved me to take up violin.
About people viewing "what we do as elitist or snobbish at best": There's a lot we can do to counteract this and break down the walls of stuffy snobbery. To me, it has to start with our attitudes. Even without the traditional stuffy formal outfits, which I eschewed at 19 or 20, as long as some classical musicians hold a superior, snobbish, elitist attitude -- and some of them regrettably do -- this will crop out and turn people off.
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