Six years ago, I wrote a post called the perils of having too many bands… and at the time I thought I was coming to an upper limit, but little did I understand our capacity to reorganize time when pressed. The image above is a collage of many of the groups I’ve had the pleasure of performing with last year, and doesn’t come close to including a number of pick-up or sideman gigs I took. In the well over 200 events I performed at in 2016, I played with nearly 40 different configuration of musicians and performers in dozens of genres.
Several years ago I came across George Dennehy, the boy who played the cello with his feet because he was born without arms and hands. Every once in a while I’d take a look to see what other differently-abled* folks are doing with the cello (or other instruments) since I have a driving curiosity to learn about alternative string techniques.
Then she played Steve Reich for them.
The response was, in a word, astonishing. The students began tapping along and became actively engaged in their listening. They asked questions—questions!—about the music (which, in of itself is a pretty remarkable feat). Whereas Mozart was boring, Reich was exciting! It was new—something they did not expect, especially in the context of “classical music.” They wanted to hear more! Several times after my wife played them Electric Counterpoint, they asked for it again, even over popular music examples that she had played.
While Steve Reich might be a composer that we would expect younger students to engage with, what was more surprising was the response she received when she played them Pierre Boulez. Admittedly, the students reacted with confusion at first. However, as the music played they wanted to hear more. They wanted to know where this “crazy noise” was going. Once again, the music engaged her students on a level that neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky ever did. They became active listeners. The music was unique and didn’t sound like “stereotypical classical music.” Like Reich, her students asked to hear “that weird Boulez music” again—many times over, in fact.
The shrinking Cultural Omnivores issue is an interesting one since they functioned primarily as “swing voters” in the realm of audiences. This sub-population tend to go to both highbrow and lowbrow events, not favoring one over the other–hence the name, “Cultural Omnivores.” Apparently, one of the studies explaining decline has shown that there are fewer and fewer of them, and this population happened to be a significant proportion of Classical Music audiences by some counts.
Another interpretation of the decline of this segment of the total audience population is that there are now fewer “fox” audience members leaving a higher proportion of “hedgehog” audience members to determine the landscape of highbrow and lowbrow audiences. The main interpretation is that, with fewer swing voters, we have audiences moving to the extremes, much as what might be happening with other similar phenomena like the growing disparity between the rich and the poor (both with people, and with arts organizations) because we’re losing the “middle class.”
This is all a separate issue from the reason I’m posting this blog post (now that I once again have net access at home–I have tons of blogging to catch up on). Namely, there’s this interesting comment, from our friend, thad, whom I blogged about a bit ago due to a comment he made about the idea that we needed to bring in the club babes to orchestra concerts to draw in the youth. I’ll let his comment speak for itself:
Music, for the young, is tribal. They need to see people like themselves in the audience if they are to bond with the performance.
The young avoid classical concerts not because the music isn’t cool enough for them, but because the audience is full of deeply uncool old people. Change the latter – directly, by any means necessary – and you’ll awaken interest in the music.
Contrast this with some of the attitudes regarding the obsession with youth culture that I posted here.
While I’m not in the cohort which defines the majority of cultural omnivores, I’m probably as omnivorous (or more so) than most–not just in my tastes for shows and concerts, but also in my choice of groups I perform with–I love that diversity. I love it when I see old people, young people, children, people of all races and ethnic backgrounds coming to the shows I play, or when these are the people I play shows with. If everything turned into a generic hipster homogeneous universe for the Creative Class, then not only would classical music be dead, but pop, jazz, rock, klezmer, bollywood, noise, and the other thousands of musical genres out there.
It would be like a literal “melting pot”–a metaphor I particulaly dislike since as we know, once you melt all the colors together you get this bland purplish-brown hue that’s undifferentiated throughout. Basically you lose all the variety that makes everything exciting and any spice would become irrelevant to the feast since the overwhelming taste is a bland blended mush.
I really do plan on getting back to the Aging of Orchestra Audiences issue–really, I do! But I’d been having a stimulating and thought-provoking dialogue with some folks over at Eric Edberg’s blog in a post titled, Orchestra Audiences: Aging and Dying Out, or Just Shrinking?
Something I hadn’t thought about in some time, but especially as we’re getting an entrepreneurial push in music conservatories, was whether this is enough and whether its too late. I’m almost wondering if this is just the latest effort of one industry (the music education industry) feeling the pressure to make itself relevant to its “customers” (i.e. the students). Eric had said in response to my ideas about Diversifying Your Performance Skills Portfolio, that:
Some organically broaden their portfolios as they explore styles which don’t have the centuries of traditions that classical art forms do, because they are drawn to the music. I think we need to encourage students to do that; whether or not we need to actually teach them to do that, since many other genres are only semi-notated and have their own aural/oral traditions, is another matter.