Crisis of “Populism” in Classical/Pop: Non-Public Performances and Audiences

While weddings in the US may be at historical lows after the recession, we’re still looking at over 2 million marriages per year on average. The String Quartet format for classical musicians remains one of the primary ensemble types that are regularly hired to play weddings (either services, reception music, and occasionally party music) so the industry for music publishing of wedding music for these kinds of ensembles remains relatively lucrative–especially pop music arrangements. What’s not published will often get arranged by the musicians–the first time I played an arrangement of the Game of Thrones theme was a string quartet arrangement which the group leader had put together himself.

A Greek Wedding
A Greek Wedding

Most of the established special events groups will have their own thick bound volumes (usually in a three ring binder) with dividers for various sections of musical styles from Jazz, to Baroque, to Pop, to Folk, to Classical, as well as the standard Wedding tunes (e.g. Trumpet Voluntary, Pachelbel’s Canon, Ave Maria, Jesu, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March) all of which are Classical rep tunes that have become canonical [Western] wedding tunes.

Since one of the contentions seems to be that Classical Musicians are out of touch with the pop world, it’s interesting that wedding musicians regularly perform pop, jazz, folk tunes as well as Classical repertoire which many in the US would recognize (if not actually use in their services). In a sense then, there are a sub-group of classical musicians that are more populist than the purportedly more populist pop musics–most bands in any genre won’t often go outside that genre. There’s an exception, a class of special events bands–cover bands which do play a variety of music. More often than not, these aren’t groups we associate with pop superstars because these bands are usually playing weddings, engagement parties, private parties, and corporate parties.  In fact, as I’ve said so much in the past, these musicians are the ones making a regular income form their trade.

Again, by focusing solely on the SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) the classical music crisis folks are out of touch with the breadth and variety of what classical musicians actually do–in other words, by focusing solely on big name institutions which perform a specific function (providing live concert experiences) they draw attention away from all the classical musicians that perform other functions with the performance of their musics in more private or semi-private performance roles.  All that matters to them is “concert music” and therefore the organizations that give concerts–e.g. Orchestras or Pop Music stars–which is also biased towards the big name organizations rather than the much more vast number of “non-named” groups or artists.

What they are also out of touch with is the breadth of music that is actually out there. I often use my group il Troubadore as a contrasting ensemble to many of the issues I bring up, and before I moved back to the Louisville area and slowly worked my way into the wedding market here I had already been playing weddings, special events, private parties, and other “non-public” events with the group. Being a classical group turned variety act/bellydance band/Klingon Opera Ensemble, we regularly get asked to play Lebanese engagement parties, Indian Baraats, Bar-Mitzvahs, Klingon Weddings, and many other ethnic events. While there seems to be a small trend for some classically trained special events ensembles towards the playing repertoire for these types of events (see my comments about Dil Se Strings–a string Quartet in the UK which focuses on serving the South Asian community via their repertoire of Bollywood tune arrangements), there’s already a well established roster of musicians that play for these ethnic events, usually peopled by members of those ethnic communities.

What’s changed is the live public concert environment with the growing ethnic orchestras AND ethnic bands (as you can see in my post about the American Voices Festival). The populist pundits rarely bother to include non-American popular music genres into their vision of a new populist Classical Music, which begs the question, again, of how narrowly this view of populism is applied when talking about Classical Music reform. The basic idea is that by creating a more populist Classical Music environment in the US by including Film Scores, Broadway tunes, Video Game Music, and Euro-American pop music then Classical Music will be much more popular.  The question is, popular to whom, and what power structures would we simply be reinforcing by including what are primarily White/Male/European Popular Entertainment forms into a primarily White/Male/European Art Music tradition. It’s a question that can be asked all the way back to those advocating for more music and arts education in schools as well. This doesn’t even touch on how the rising ethnic demographic may make traditional Popular Entertainment irrelevant in the near future anyway so infusing Classical Music with that would only be delaying the feared outcome the crisis pundits see for Classical Music.

Musicians for an Indian Baraat processional
Musicians for an Indian Baraat processional

Whatever problems there are in Classical Music, they are shared to a significant extent by American Pop Music. Trying to bring the former into the fold of the latter is a delaying tactic at best, and at worst it willfully ignores the fact that there are already tons of people doing things that are truly more populist than Crisis pundits can imagine given their parochial Euro-American musical biases.

And by ignoring the many functions of music in societies in favor of focusing purely on public concert events (which are driven far more by economics and commercial concerns than the private events) we’re only talking about a small fraction of the music that’s actually being made out in the world. This is ironic for those who call for classical music to join the wider world as this simply replays the di(tri)chotomy of Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest].



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