Finding the Right Balance

For many music-minded folks in New York City, January is normally a crazy time of the year since this is the month when national organizations such as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and Chamber Music America always hold their national conferences here. After all these years, and especially after the arrival of the Polar Vortex, you’d think they’d opt for a month with better weather! While I opted to pass on APAP this year, I devoted the entirety of last weekend to CMA which this year offered an extraordinary range of half-four showcase performances by various ensembles—18 in all—as well as a commissioning concert featuring four works which were all created in 2012.

In addition to these conferences, another annual January event of more recent vintage now also looms large—PROTOTYPE, which is a two-week, multi-venue festival devoted to new opera. Now in its second season, PROTOTYPE presented performances of five new works—by Gregory Spears, Kamala Sankaram, Jonathan Berger, Du Yun, and Lina Lapelyté. I attended all of them and was extremely glad I did, except for not being able to rid myself of bittersweet feelings over the irony that thanks in large part to this festival, the 2013-14 concert season, which also witnessed the demise of New York City Opera, felt like NYC’s most vital one for new opera in years.

Before the holidays, I wrote about the gender inequities in classical music which continue to play out in new music and how some organizations are attempting to address this issue. Some folks got so heated up about the prospect of performing repertoire that completely reflected the totality of who creates music that the debate kept raging for a month. The bruhaha on the web this week has been revolving around an incendiary essay by a writer named Mark Vanhoenacker, posted January 21 on Slate, called “Requiem: Classical Music in America is Dead.”

To get a sense of what’s gotten folks—myself included—all riled up, here’s a choice excerpt:

Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither.

[C]onsider the relative standing of classical music. Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

It seems to me the problem with some folks’ “classical music paradigm” (as opposed to the music itself) is that it willfully assumes this music to have a role that is somehow separated from the rest of societal discourse. Of course, as Alex Temple so astutely and succinctly pointed out earlier this week: “Denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.”

What I witnessed this month, both at PROTOTYPE and in the showcases at the Chamber Music America conference, is that some folks understand what it means to pay attention to finding the right balance with respect to diversity—gender, ethnicity, age group, etc.—and in so doing have shown that “new (classical?) music” (why do we even have to label it?) is very much alive. Rather than that balance being in any way a hindrance to “quality,” by paying attention to this broader range, they are putting forward some of the most engaging stuff that is happening right now.

Jennifer Charles in Angels Bone

Jennifer Charles in a Trinity Church concert reading of Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone, an opera about human trafficking which seamlessly merges medieval polyphony, indie rock, and even a bit of Darmstadtian modernism. Photo by Noah Stern Weber, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

The most exciting music being created today is not the product of a single compositional aesthetic or the work of just one segment of the population. (Pick your prejudice and throw it away.) It cannot be contained geographically or be hermetically sealed up in impenetrable genre boxes. What writers like Vanhoenacker get so wrong when they look at statistics is how arbitrarily creative work is carved up to fit into niches that are no longer relevant. (It’s important to point out that in the percentages he shared as proof that classical music and jazz are at the bottom of “the business of American music,” no genre has a majority. That’s a far more significant piece of information which speaks to what music in the 21st century is all about thus far.)

During the question and answer period following a fascinating panel discussion at the CMA conference moderated by Joel Harrison, which also included Missy Mazzoli, Clarice Assad, and Billy Childs, Kevin James said something that I believe is emblematic for our time:

Composers now prefer to be beyond genre. There is no sound that I would not consider. Composers today want that flexibility.

Some of us are still recovering from a century of industry-imposed genres. But when we do, it will potentially be a paradise for a truly new music.

12 thoughts on “Finding the Right Balance

  1. Phil Fried

    Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

    And comparatively speaking what are the marketing budgets, not to mention the synergy, of the popular music industry spends VS the classical music or jazz world? The point is that in the now and the near future “art” music will be outspent by “commercial” music I suspect by at least 10 fold. Period. What does that mean for classical and jazz music? I think we must answer for ourselves. I know what I’m going to do –play some jazz and compose some more serial music.

    Reply
  2. Brighton

    “Of all the desirable elements of a rational existence, the sense of the beautiful, the clear vision of the beauty of things, is the sense most quickly withered by the daily round, making of it an attribute to be preserved by a minority in that society as an abandoned treasure.” Rodo, “Ariel”

    Reply
  3. Jon Appleton

    I could never figure out what new music was. During my 60 years as a composer the definition always changed (I’m 75). It seemed to me that honest and commited composers never cared (even if they lived in New York City and thought that was the musical universe).

    Reply
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  5. valerie kuehne

    This is a lovely article. I hope the following doesn’t come across as overtly critical.
    I began noticing this breakdown and synthesis of genre several years ago (as did the fluxus composers before any of us, and decades of self-defined free-improvisors since I-wish-I-only-knew-when). I shared in your excitement for a massive plan for the future of music, and I would like nothing more than to continue to hopefully agree with said plan, as I acknowledge this article as a testament of hope, not a dismantling/deconstruction of current post-industrial figure-models. However I have noticed a few things over the course of my musical investigations. While I do not speak the following on behalf of fatalism, I do hope an imploring tone is noted, as for all of our sakes we need play intentionally and tread stealthily.
    1. While a breakdown of genre definitely seems to coincide with a breakdown of industry models, it has also coincided with a breaking down of STANDARDS. This kind of melt-down and melding is happening everywhere, and between all genres. If we are to make sense of an essential indefinite form, and claim it’s development, we need to seek clarity on this before someone else, with less clarity generally, does so for us.
    2. A breaking down of industry necessitates the rebirth of: What? Who is this music being made for? What audience? Are we building a Community? A Cult? A flexible Collective? Or is genre-busting an essentially performative endeavor? Do we take it to the street? In any case, we should ask whether or not keeping in the Concert Hall/Church/Conservatory is fair play, if it does not represent what is necessary to dissemble for the life of what is now being created, as something NEW and FELT. After Industry, what?
    3. Do we want to be creating for more than ourselves? This is perhaps the most pressing as well as the most unanswerable question. It ties into both aforementioned points. If the answer is no, we need to create more than genre-less music fun, we need to rebuild listening itself (and this is huge). If the answer is yes, perhaps our focus should be on remaining autonomous, and seeking to understand what this autonomy means in the context of new music. Then we might sigh a breath of relief.
    I am excited to see that this musical striptease continues to be observed by audiences and aficionados alike. I’ve just found my own experience to be lacking without admitting of the big questions that come with actually building a movement. We as musicians, curators, writers, and critics are today responsible for more than just creating and reflecting. We are attempting the undone, and must admit equal time and energy towards engineering. Art for arts sake is as dead as Beethoven.
    Thank you for your words.

    Reply
    1. Jack Decker

      1. What do you mean by “standards”? Could you provide an example (and what it might look like for someone with less clarity to take the lead)?
      2. & 3. These are ultimately questions with individual answers. While two pianist-composers may be similar in that regard and may find that their ambitions overlap (e.g., both wanting to find audiences who are enthusiastic about new piano music), their ideal destinations may differ. One might seek out the largest audience possible, genre-busting at every turn and seducing the layman by sophisticating styles that he’s already familiar with; while the other might feel a strong aesthetic commitment to, say, post-Webernian serialism and simply want to address the niche audience for it. I know you and Frank and everyone else know all of this, but it bears repeating in these larger conversations of “where do we fit in?,” as if there is a monolithic “we” in this context. Maybe in a more commercial context it is not inappropriate to generalize (e.g., it’d be fair to say I think that every teen boy band wants to be as big and famous as possible), but the only thing that two pianist-composers need have in common is that they both compose and play the piano.

      Reply
  6. Valerio Velardo

    Classical music is the result of male western culture. As a consequence, even today is difficult to get rid of some prejudices and enlarge the classical musical boundaries. The music legacy we have has a double side. On the one hand, is an everlasting treasure that enriches our life. On the other hand, is an elitist product of a tiny subset of the population of the world. We need to open the barriers and let more “diverse” performers, composers and listeners be active part in the classical music processes. In this sense, we’ll not only guarantee a bigger opportunity for classical music to spread, but we’ll also provide a richer ground for classical msic to flourish again.

    Reply
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