I Am Classical

Ok, enough of the anger and vinegar. How about a more productive response to all this "Classical Music is dead!" Let's show everyone all the wonderful things happening in groups and individually, large and small.

One of the issues that's happening is the label "classical music." What does it mean? In some conversations, people make it mean "orchestras classical series concert." At other times, it's the entire area of instrumental music.

"People" outside our "clique" don't seem to know what it is, or so claim certain pundits. So, let's be progressive and productive!

If you participate in something you consider "classical music," be it experimental, fusions with lots of different genres, romantic flavoured, anything at all, hop on twitter (or facebook, since they take # now), put a tag to something you're a part of, as a performer, composers, improviser, engineer, whatever.

Put up a link and use the hashtag #IAmClassical

Let's fight all these accusations and silliness by showing the breadth of what this idea encompasses! There are so many wonderful things happening, so many groups large and small doing GREAT! Let's show the world!



In honour of MLK Day

Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary, a great leader, and a hard fighter for one of the greatest causes--equality for all people. His dream is worth fighting for, a dream worth sharing with all people.

When I look at America today, I still see the dream being fought over. Large swaths of Americans still feel disenfranchised, are disenfranchised. I see voting laws repealed, gerrymandering of congressional lines, and attacks against every minority there is, from citing that masculinity is the same thing as thuggish, misogynistic behaviour, and that feminists are destroying America. Young black men still have to fear for their lives based on racial stereotyping. And even within groups that fight for freedom, there is often division caused along racial, social, and political differences.

Several months ago, Phillip Kennicott wrote a scathing article attacking various initiatives in orchestras, in particular outreach. One of his points was that even with outreach, he didn't see any more minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos, in the St. Louis Youth Symphony. He cites this as an example of how it's not working.

I pose a different viewpoint.

In America today, African Americans and Latinos on average make less money. They work lower income jobs, and, by percentage, far fewer make it to management positions than Caucasians or people of Asian descent. Unemployment is also higher in these groups. Education is also a premium, with fewer African Americans and Latinos getting bachelor's degrees, and even fewer getting advanced degrees. (All information from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor).

What does this translate to in terms of my own field?

There are those pushing music as a hobby pursuit. With less funding for schools, "hobbies" are being cut, namely music programs. Schools struggle to afford instruments for underprivileged students, so they call for local donations. Initiatives like "Play it Forward" exist to try and fill the gap, as do instrument lending programs in youth symphonies. But they're plagued by bad names (it took me a while to find "play it forward" via Google search. There are companies and other initiatives with that name), lack of funds, lack of direction, or they fail because they come too late (a donation of a quality instrument from a youth symphony is great, but first they have to get there). There was even a report in the UK that roughly 1/3 of families in the country don't have children playing instruments just because they can't afford them. I imagine numbers are similar in the US, though I couldn't find a report.

Education funding is cut, especially in urban areas. Opportunities don't exist for instruction in music making or in appreciation. As I've wandered through conservatories and schools, gone to festivals and conferences, and attended conferences, I see the same demographic in composers--Caucasian male. I see a bit more spread in performers, with more females and performers of Asian descent.

To me, the reason is simple. Outreach exists to fill those gaps, to bring music and opportunities to families that don't normally have them. When you're an African American family, and you make far less a week than a Caucasian family, are you going to spend your extra money on an expensive instrument, lessons, or outside activities? People bring up sports, but the sports most often dominated by lower income students are those where they aren't buying their own equipment, such as football (beyond the cleats, and maybe a football for home), basketball (a pair of shoes and a basketball, though in some schools even those are provided), and sometimes baseball (a mitt and cleats, both of which can be found used and cheap). I haven't seen a study, but I could see cost of equipment being a major factor for hockey (even used skates aren't cheap, let alone the two sticks you'll need, extra blades for the sticks, and all the padding...it adds up to a lot of money).

In my own field, I see the inequality, from the treatment of musicians, to their inclusion in the entire process. If the opportunities aren't there at a young age, how can they be expected to "appear" at an older age? If they're never exposed to different types of music at a young age, how can they expect to appreciate them later? Buried in the middle of this NY Times op-ed is a tidbit stating that 14 is a "magical year for cultural tastes." I've only scratched the surface of this book (found online), but it starts out working through a sociological basis of building cultural taste, and the effects during youth (I apologize to the authors if this is not for public consumption. I will take it down immediately if that is so--it just popped up on the first page of my search for "youth and the development of musical taste" and I started reading. It's a doctoral dissertation, I believe, but those are published for real sometimes).

There's much and more than can be said on these topics. Most notably, I mention no specifics on how to fix any of these issues. They are, to me at least, symptoms of a larger problem. But we can start by starting initiatives to make sure music is taught in school, and not just as a performance medium, but as a part of arts and cultural appreciation. More ways need to be found to provide services to young students that want to learn the arts, from programs like Play it Forward, to expanding the opportunities and affordability of private lessons. There's much and more to be done, and is being done by many groups.

This is just a small part of MLK's dream, I know. It's more a symptom showing how inequality still affects our "post-everything" world. If opportunities were equal, wages the similar, social mobility the same, I do believe we'd see a completely different outlook for music. In my five years of teaching, I've had the chance to work with students in Brooklyn, college and high school aged, as well as community college students in Kansas City, state university students in KC, and students of all ages in rural Indiana. I've tried, at each stop and each level, to show every student a somewhat wider view of music, give opportunities to grow and expand, doing whatever I could to offer help and guidance regardless of any background, be it social, gender, sexual, racial, economic, or other disabilities. But there's so much more than can and should be done.

The fight for MLK's dream is not over. This is not a post-anything world, as there may never truly be a post-world. And so I ask each reader of this blog to think about your place in this society, and how you can make a difference. I'd like to think that my words, my music, and my actions together can help in some small way, at least on a personal level. It's not much, but it's within each of our powers to do that little thing.


Who is my audience?

Yet again, this topic rears it's ugly little head. Dan Visconti over at NewMusicBox posted an op-ed advising composers to always keep the audience in mind. He's far from the first voice is this back and forth fight. The topic was discussed heavily in the comments of a blog posted by Jeffrey Nytch hosted by Greg Sandow. And I've covered all this before, ad nauseum, after Phillip Kennicott's attack on new music was posted in the New Republic. Basically, go through my blog and you'll see this topic rehashed repeatedly.

So, why do I keep going over it? Why do any composers keep going on and on about it?

It's a bit of a complex issue. First off, there are those that say the audience defines what is in vogue, important, and is the main financial backing for music. This is an idea taken from various businesses--that the end user defines the product. Products must be created so that the end users want to pay for them. And, to do this, you must know your audience and create a product catered to them. This means that cheap hotels, like Super 8, will offer free wifi and some sort of "continental breakfast," clean linens, and beds all at a discount price. The wifi and breakfast are perks, the linens and beds are the basics. Without providing incentives, people would just as willing stay at other cheap hotels with those incentives, whether or not they actually use them.

As classical musicians begin to take stances taken from the pop music world, the idea that writing music for a specific audience, based on their tastes and predilections starts to make sense. The musician is creating a "product." This "product" has to be bought by a large sum of individuals to be able to make a living from said product. Thusly, the music must be tailored to the chosen audience so that the musicians can sell tickets, CDs, downloads, or get streams on YouTube or other streaming formats. But even this doesn't hold true, as many pop artists write music they love and enjoy (would Miley Cyrus use the same beats behind "Wrecking Ball" if she hated them? Perhaps, if her producers forced her to...but I have a feeling it wouldn't have been as big of a hit.)

This business acumen, however, is false. First off, many cultural enterprises are non-profit. I've harped on this repeatedly, as have others, and it continues to befuddle me as to why organizations, especially large ones, allow themselves to be run like a for-profit business. They misplace their understand on what the product is and what it provides.

Basically put, a cultural non-profit's product is culture. Culture itself cannot be priced in the same way as a manufactured product. The mission of a non-profit is why the organization exists, not to make money. That means it is up to those that run it to provide a cultural service to people, often times a service that society deems as important, but one that cannot be self-sufficient. Classical and folk music are included in this.

Now we come to the idea of who is the audience and how best to serve them. How does one service the audience of a symphony? Does one produce concerts of the same music, over and over again? Do we rely on "old-favourites" in the hopes of attracting more people? Do we branch out and try new works and new ideas?

Musical directors curate these experiences. They're job isn't just to play the pieces they love, but pieces they find to be important for an audience. This means that, sometimes you see sharp inclines in performances. For instance, Benjamin Britten and Stravinsky have gotten huge boosts the last two years due to anniversaries. Why? Because musical directors felt their work is important for an audience to know.

But who is this nebulous audience? That's quite the trick, isn't it? You see, the audience for a symphony in Indianapolis will be different than the audience for a chamber group in Duluth. The audience for the Society of Electronic Music in the United States Conference concerts is going to be different than the audience for a joint Fylkingen and EMS presentation in Stockholm. The audience for The Project H, a great jazz/funk group based mainly out of KC, is going to be different than if the Curiosity Cabinet, a chamber group in NYC, plays my piece All Things Are Not Equal, even though that piece is, at its heart, a funk/jazz chart that's been slightly gussied up.

There will be overlap, of course. Studies show that the audiences will often be made up of older individuals. Education is also high in the groups. Of course, as people look to these studies, they see a problem--too much of one demographic, not enough of another. We need to branch out while holding the base. That means programming works the base knows and finding ways to draw younger audiences. This includes more pops selections, cheaper ticket prices, venue changes, talks, and more. Of course, this talk of bringing new audiences ignores the fact that the people with the most buying power are not the young. There's also ageism in America--it's all about the shiny new product, being hip to the young generation, and using the idea that kids will get their parents to buy their goods for them. The arts, however, are not that sort of business (though some chiefs of organizations make them seem so).

But look at those stats again and see something else: there's a sharp drop in the 35-54 audience from 2008-2012...almost like there was a financial crisis and many people in that age group lost their jobs, struggled to survive, and generally spent less. And like there was some sort of austerity push in America, with politicians screaming at us to "pull-up our bootstraps" and be wary of the future. A drop in spending. And then see how as numbers trickle in from last year how symphonies and operas are recovering, even as the economy recovers. No...there's no correlation here. It's time to find a new audience! That's what I hear being screamed...

And, yet, still, the question remains unanswered--who is this audience for whom I am supposed to be creating art?

That statement rubs me the wrong way, even now. I see it and think that what I'm doing is some product meant to be traded. That I am out to produce something to get 100,000,000 hits on YouTube. The rebellious person in me gets up in arms.

Then I take a deep breath, center myself, and say again "who is my audience?"

I write contemporary classical music. This was a choice I made. I also dabble in jazz, more on the experimental side, sometimes bridging the gap. I've written two chamber operas, both were well liked by the audiences at the time. Audiences that were a fair mix of individuals, from theater professionals (some of which I invited), to learned musicians, to artists aligned with the arts group helping to put on the production, to friends who smile and support me (which I am beyond grateful for). What the theater professionals got out of the productions was different than the professional musicians, which was most definitely different than the art crowd.

So, who do I write for? Do I write for my peers, academics with doctorates in music? Those camps are split heavily--do I write in a modernist style then? Or a post-minimalist style with obvious influences of pop and jazz? Do I focus on academic electroacoustic music? Or soundscapes?

A myriad of styles, each with their own audiences which mix and separate on a whim.

Do I write IDM tracks? What about standard fare "producer" tracks to be background for a wrapper? I could write pop music as well, following a nice song form and get an attractive young lady to sing. Or maybe I'll drift into experimental death metal, and team up with an older generation of metal artists that enjoy classical music, Anders Bjorler told me in our interview.

I look at this problem and throw up my hands. Who do I try to please? What will this piece be?

My answer is simple: this piece will be written for two people, and only two people. I will do my best to strike the balance between them, but, inevitably, one side wins out.

Performers and myself.

And I usually win.

Some will see this as selfish. That I'm putting myself on a pedestal and saying "Look ye world, and love my work, for I am a genius!" Oh, far from it. I don't like most of my work. They're decent pieces, but there are few that I honestly pull up and listen to. But I strive to write music I like, that I would want to listen to repeatedly. I often don't succeed, but sometimes I do.

And for performers. I don't mean that I let performers tell me exactly what to write, even in a commission. I mean I write music that as a performer, I wouldn't look at and throw out a window. And I change things when performers look at my music and throw it out a window. That hasn't happened too often, but sometimes it does.

There's a more serious rationale behind this, and it comes from a professional place. If I do not like what I am working on, the piece will fail. It will not live up to its fullest potential, I'll put less care into specifics, and what will come out will, at best, be 80% done. This is true for most people working in any situation. It's even more perilous in a creative endeavor. There's no hard and fast "this is wrong" when you're looking at a score (well, beyond collisions and illegibly small notes). There are few hard and fast "you can't use that sound there" moments when you're mixing a new electronic piece. You can listen to the mix and shrug, knowing that it's "good enough," that the performers and audience probably won't notice any of the lack of care.

But they do...they can see it in your eyes as you try to lie to them about how it's a perfect piece. The performers can see the slightly out of aligned dynamics and start to wonder if there are wrong notes. They'll play a passage and wince, wondering if that crunchy harmony is meant to be that way or it was a transposition error. And they'll ask. And they'll be able to tell quickly from your sheepish look whether or not you succeeded.

If you love what you are writing, then these mistakes will still happen. But your reactions will change. It will be "Oh, I didn't realize that!" and you're taking huge amounts of notes on your own score, cursing yourself under your breath. It'll be "Well, I'm a fucking idiot! What should I put?" and a laugh and a smile as everyone knows you really care about this work, that you've poured your heart and soul into it...and that we all goof every so often.

And the performers will take that into performance. If you write a piece that performers enjoy playing, they perform it well. They perform it better than the other pieces on their concerts, even other pieces they may like. They'll play it more than once. They'll show it to their friends.

If a musical director for a symphony likes your work, it's worth more in this world than any "audience." Because the audience will never hear it unless the musical director likes it. And he'll like it if you love it, spent the hard time creating a work that you truly believe in, and can show that off. S/he may beg off time, say they don't have the resources, that it can't be programmed this year, but you will have made the impression.

More "audiences" hear works and enjoy them because an ensemble or musical director enjoyed them than works that have been written "for the audience."

There will always been an audience. As a composer, there will always been someone that will listen to your music. As an ensemble, there will always be people who want to see you live or buy your recordings. Finding that audience can sometimes be a trial, but they are there.

And, even more than that, if you set out to write music for other people, throwing away your own preferences for some mysterious other, then your real audience, the people that listen to your music, will know. You can adopt styles, ideas, forms, and instruments all you want, but you can't create that which you do not like.

Now, here comes my defense before anyone comes and says "that's not what we mean when we say 'write for an audience.' We don't mean ignore your own principles and sell out. We're not saying pander to a group! We're saying take the audience into account!"

And I'm not saying taking the audience into account is pandering. The long discussion with Jeffrey Nytch resolved a fair bit of that--Nytch wrote a piece concerning a subject he loved. He used that to market it to a local audience based around a natural phenomena that is a major part of their landscape. But, Nytch wrote his own piece, in his style, with his ideas.

The rest was marketing--sitting down with a musical director who liked his work (a fan, an audience member, and the most important one...), fleshing out an idea that he was excited about (or else, could he have convinced the musical director?), and writing a piece he loved, marketed perfectly for the local audience.

But there's a danger there as well--that marketing will not resonate with a group in California. Or New York.

The music very well may though, because it was written from a genuine place. Other musical directors may also see the value of the work, outside of its marketing.

Or...if we take the attitude of "the audience being most important," a musical director will look at it and say "we don't live near mountains. My audience won't care about this..."

And then marketing has become the power behind music, not music itself.

So, the TL:DR version:

The mythical audience does not exist. There is no one monolithic perfect classical audience, just as this isn't one audience for all of popular music. Using that idea as a basis of programming is a disservice to the very people you wish to serve. Basing large scale classical music ventures on for-profit models will lead to disaster.

Write the music you want to write, hear, and play. Write music that other people want to play, and it will get played, and played well. And the audience, that specific audience for what you do, will emerge and support your work.