Thursday, August 31, 2006

The sky really IS falling. So dance!

(Note: I've done a slight bit of copy editing to this post a day after originally posting it.)

As I sit down to write, there are 23 comments to my first after-the-fact post on the "Classical Music in Jeans" concert, which all appear to be from different people. That's about 14% of the audience of 166--a pretty high percentage, I think.

The overall consensus in the comments seems to be that the informality and participatory atmosphere worked, at least to a point, but that things got a bit out of hand at times. Some people liked the playing so much that they would have liked more silence. (That's nice to hear, of course!)

In speaking with people today, what I've noticed is that the more seriously committed, the more deeply in love with music the student I've talked to, the less they liked the audience-participation aspects of the evening. But with colleagues, at least the ones I've encountered, the more concerned they are with the incredibly shrinking audience for classical music, the more enthusiastic they are about the high attendance and the high energy at the concert. (I haven't spoken yet with the two colleagues who walked out during the concert, though.)

166 people in attendance--that's nearly three times the average School of Music faculty recital attendance of 56.

The comments, the vast majority from students, are very thoughtful, very honest, and much appreciated. They focus for the most part on the experience the writer had at the concert, and of course, that's what I asked for when I emailed the music faculty and students and invited them to comment. Those who didn't like the participatory aspects didn't like them because they love music and wanted to hear it more fully.

The thing that doesn't seem to have come up in many posts so far is the larger context. I don't think many of us, students or faculty, really get that there is a crisis in classical music. It's like global warming and the national debt--things are worse than the present effects seem to indicate. Classical music is a catastrophe not waiting to happen, but one already well under way. And it may be beginning to snowball.

I had dinner with an arts administrator and consultant last year, and we discussed her views on the crises not just in classical music but in dance and drama as well. Classical music, especially orchestras and opera companies, will be the first to go, she predicted. Ten years from now, she predicted, there will be many fewer full-time orchestras unless something drastic happens.

Greg Sandow is writing and writing and writing about this (here and here) and working with everyone he can to get people thinking about what to do about this. (I'm one of the musicians he's impacted.) A lot of us do a lot of hand wringing and/or go into denial (head-in-the-sand, one colleague said to me today).

The music faculty here at DePauw has at times even considered cutting way back on the number of faculty and guest recitals, thinking if we had fewer concerts more people would come to them. I've always opposed this. I don't just love to make music, I need to make music. And if only 50 or 20 or 10 people come to hear me, I don't really care.

But are people not coming to concerts because we have too many of them? I don't think so. I think people don't come because they aren't enthusiastic about classical music, and they think it's going to be boring.

Now the people who do go to concerts already love classical music. But everyone else pretty much thinks it's going to be a boring experience in which basic human responses, including the need to move, must be repressed. Oh, gee, I could watch TV, or play cards, or smoke a joint, or drink a case of beer, or play Ultimate Frisbee, or hang out with friends, or even study . . . or I could go and listen to (what I assume to be) boring music and have to stifle my humanity.

What would you choose?

Most of our music faculty go to few concerts here. (And this is not a situation to unique to our campus.) Even the musicians don't think it's worth the trip.

We had a guest speaker here some years ago who thinks a lot about audience building, including at universities. He told us that if we want lots of people at our concerts, we can't look to the music faculty and students. There is a music fatigue we experience, and no matter how much one loves music, you can only go to so many concerts a week. It's the liberal arts faculty and students, and people from the community, who need to be the audience. That's the audience we need to build.

So my experiment with this concert was not about a new way to experience music for people who already love classical music the way it is. It was about creating an experience for non-musicians in which they could experience classical music in an interactive way. One in which their aliveness would not be deadened, but enhanced. I always hope that an audience will leave a concert more alive than when they came. As this concert approached, I decided I wanted to remove all the fear, all the inhibition, and let whatever wanted to happen happen. How enlivening can we make it for the audience?

Sure, there were times in which the audience participation reminded me of all the carrying on many new college students do: no rules, so let's run wild, let's do it because we can. OK. But really, so what? As the concert went on, there was less and less of that, and I think if we have more events like this a new culture will develop.

This concert was not for the classical music lovers. The concert was for the people who don't go to classical concerts and came because this one was different. Who came because someone invited them.

So I asked my seminar class this morning what the friends they brought thought. "My friend said, 'Oh my god, it was absolutely orgasmic,'" one told us. One guy brought four biology majors who had a great time.

A colleague in the philosophy department who brought his 5-year old son wrote me,

I had a couple of main reactions.

One was that allowing the audience to express itself more ended up giving us more to be entertained by and applaud--namely, each other, what with the dancing and all. Some undergrads have a really delightful innocence and sense of play.

The other was that the informality drastically reduced the interpersonal distance between performer and audience. In the usual stuffy setup, tuxedoed performer(s) silently glide onstage and do their thing while the audience watches. They are separated by physical distance, the difference in height of the stage, the darkness in the house which makes the audience l sort of voyeurs, and the (now) traditional silence. In that setting, I feel less or no personal connection or empathy with the performers, and find that what I mainly expect from them is precision and am disappointed by any lack of it. The whole thing is brittle.

Last night's informal setup allowed more empathy, making the music more of a shared experience rather than something transmitted from stage to audience. That was pleasant in itself and it heightened my enjoyment of some of the music, especially (dunno why) the sad parts. Sometimes the audience got so noisy it interfered, but I didn't mind much.

Main thing I want to say is this: I really hope last night's format doesn't turn out to be just an isolated incident.
Quite eloquent. Has he not put his finger on why many people don't go to classical concerts?

It's quite similar to this quote from Christopher Small's book Musicking (which I admit I haven't read yet, but is on my list), which I've copied from a post on Alex Ross's blog:
The silence that will greet tonight's performance while it is in progress suggests a different attitude [from the audience behavior of past eras]. Those who wish perfect communion with the composer through the performance can have it, uninterrupted by any noise that may signal the presence of other spectators. On the other hand, while our attention is without doubt active, it is detached; we no longer feel ourselves to be part of the performance but listen to it as it were from the outside. Any noise we might make would not be an element of the performance, as were the sighs and murmurs of the Parisian audience, but an interruption or distraction. I have even known the minute clinks and jingles of a female listener's Charm bracelet to put its wearer's neighbor in a rage. Who we are, then, is spectators rather than participants, and our silence during the performance is a sign of this condition, that we have nothing to contribute but our attention to the spectacle that has been arranged for us. We might go further and say that we are spectators at a spectacle that is not ours, that our relationship with those who are responsible for the production of the spectacle--the composer, the orchestra, the conductor, and those who make the arrangements for tonight's concert—is that of consumers to producers, and our only power is that of consumers in general, to buy or not to buy.
WAKE UP! PEOPLE AREN'T GOING TO CLASSICAL CONCERTS! When was the last well attended solo piano or voice or cello or string quartet recital, for which people actually bought tickets, where you live? My gosh, I can't think of a solo cello recital in Indianapolis that wasn't at a college for over ten years, and that one was Yo-Yo Ma.

I could rant on and on and on, and will some more in a later post. Watching the video of last night's concert, what is absolutely clear to me is that the audience felt part of the performance. And they responded with great enthusiasm.

There's still much to digest. Lots of ideas are being generated in my mind for how to build on this experience. Obviously it's not for everyone, especially those who like things as they are. But there are fewer and fewer of us in that category. Those of us concerned with the future of classical music can't afford the luxury of the status quo.


That's the question last night's concert was an experiment in answering. It's not better posters and fewer concerts that will bring in larger audiences. It's different sorts of concerts (and they don't have to all be what we did last night, either).

When it comes to the future of classical music, the sky really is falling. The audience is shrinking. Young people aren't coming in to replace the older members as they pass on. It's as simple as that.

And if it takes letting them dance to get new audiences in, let's let them dance. I can't think of anything better to do in a crisis.

No comments: