WPA Federal Music Project and FERA’s contribution to Orchestras

A New York City WPA Orchestra flyer
A New York City WPA Orchestra flyer

In Cornelius Canon’s dissertation, “The Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration: Music in a Democracy” (1963) we get the most comprehensive overview of the impact of the WPA Federal Music Project. As Kenneth Bindas states in his 1988 dissertation, All of this music belongs to the nation (which he published in book form in 1995):

Canon sought to explore the FMP and its contribution to the development of democratized music in America. Hist study focused more on the tangible musical gains the FMP made, relying on attendance and performance figures to prove that the FMP’s “influence was felt in every aspect of music in America. (Bindas 1988, pg. vi)

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Was there ever a “Before the crisis” in Classical Music


He’s at it again.

Yes, the classical music crisis, which some don’t believe in, and others think has been going on forever.

This is the third post in a series. In the first, I asked, innocently enough, how long the classical music crisis (which is so widely talked about) has been going on. Answers poured in, here and on Facebook and Twitter. The answers — as I said in the second post — suggested that we don’t know how to talk about our crisis, because we don’t have enough information. Compared, as I’ve said before, with data that’s widely available about other industries in crisis, like newspapers.

In future posts, I’ll show why non-crisis beliefs — that we don’t really have a crisis and that the crisis has always been with us —  don’t hold water. I’ve worked in classical music, as a student and professional, since the early 1960s, and I guarantee that there wasn’t widespread talk about a crisis, about classical music being endangered, until perhaps the 1990s. Though hints of it had surfaced earlier.

I’ll also offer data — from my own experience, and from what others report — that can teach us when and how our crisis showed itself.

Of course Sandow states that “These situations have been paraded by crisis skeptics, as if they showed that the crisis is perpetual, but when that happens, they’re taken out of context.”

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Questions about the state of Classical Music

Black & White
Black & White

I had started another blog post but decided to wait on writing that one as I realized that it would be one that may take a few hours to write and not being as young as I used to be I should probably sleep on it some before digging in to it.

As it stands, I had a nice meal after getting home after a gig with a Rock Band that I play [cello] with and though I often state “beer is good food” it still pales before the “real” thing.

Before I left for the show, I checked the stats to my blog (as I’m often wont to do) and noticed a fair number of visitors to it and as I viewed the link that the hits came from I realized that Alex Ross (music critic of The New Yorker and blogger about Classical Music at The Rest is Noise) had written a post and linked to a number of my posts about the Orchestra Crisis and Age of Orchestra Audiences.  The post is titled, “The orchestra crisis at 110,” which references the first NYT article that I have in my Annotated Bibliographic Timeline of “Orchestra Crisis from 1903 (hence the 110 years of an orchestra crisis).

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve only included pieces that reference an Orchestra Crisis in general.  Pieces that reference an Opera Crisis date back a bit further and there are several pieces that talk about the deficits or financial difficulties of specific orchestras as opposed to the whole field.  I haven’t really found (nor looked for) Ballet Crises pieces.

In one of my previous posts I linked to a recent piece by Greg Sandow which specifically states: “No one, to my knowledge, has gone searching through old newspaper articles, trying to find the first reference to a crisis.” though I’d started my bibliography some six months or more ago.  To which blogger, 113yearslater, asks “Even if he doesn’t know that someone has, then I really have to ask, if he thinks that, then why the hell isn’t he doing it?!”

This makes Ross’ comment, “There are real problems in the classical world, but the lack of a sense of history and perspective can be exasperating” and conclusion that “all stories about this non-topic — including those protesting that classical music isn’t dead after all, as well as those protesting that the entire discussion is a waste of time  — are a waste of time.”  all the more relevant.  While on the other hand, Sandow would say this simply means that since we don’t know then we can’t say there isn’t a crisis.  If we lack a sense of history and perspective, then we can’t really say that there is a crisis either, right?  This just takes us back to the problem of how terrible we are at dealing with simple binaries and predictive reasoning.

I could spend this whole blog just saying things about human reasoning, but I don’t–hence why I maintain another blog (one of many) dealing specifically with comparative neurophysiology (for a while I thought I would quit music altogether and go into this fascinating field) so I can post about things that may only have a tangential relationship to music.

But I really should just outline the fallacies which arise due to erroneous reasoning about binaries such as the bifurcation fallacy of “Orchestras are Healthy” vs “Orchestras are in Trouble” which actually only refer to two of the four logical states that Orchestras (or the Orchestra field) can be in, the other two being “Orchestras are not Healthy” and “Orchestras are not in Trouble” (or the more cumbersome locutions, “It is not the case that Orchestras are Healthy” and “it is not the case that Orchestras are in Trouble”).

The fallacy comes when you collapse the four distinctive logical possibilities into two binary oppositions by equivocating “Orchestras are Healthy” with “Orchestras are not in Trouble” and “Orchestras are in Trouble” with “Orchestras are not Healthy.”  When you make those equivocations you leave out the other two possibilities and lose the ability to see how grey and nuanced the situation is rather than simply being a Black/White issue (other names for the “Bifurcation Fallacy” are the “Black/White Fallacy, “Either/Or Fallacy,” or the “False Dichotomy”).  Orchestras could just as easily not be in Trouble AND not be Healthy; also Orchestras could both be in Trouble AND be Healthy.

Ironically, this lack of a sense of history leads the Chicken Little Think Tank or the Pollyanas to reinforce their own beliefs about health of Classical Music (that’s sometimes referred to as the Confirmation Bias) so are unlikely to be able to see the latter two possibilities mentioned in the previous paragraph.  But seriously, after a 110 years of crisis, maybe it’s time for all of us to get a better sense of history and perspective so we can stop making an arse of ourselves and realize that things just aren’t so Black and White.  As Ross quotes Charles Rosen’s immortal aphorism, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”

Narcissism on the Rise in American Pop Music?

"Narcissus," by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (ca 1597-1599)
“Narcissus,” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (ca 1597-1599)

On my facebook feed, Eric Edberg had posted a link about the internet “narcissism epidemic.”  It linked to a piece talking about a NYT piece about the rise of “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music” (here’s an NPR talk with the researcher).  This seems to follow a trend towards narcissism and hostility in [American] society in general.

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Are music schools serving the needs of its students?

Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth - mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music.  More info here: http://malaysiafinance.blogspot.com/2011/07/how-cool-is-this.html
Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth – mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music. http://malaysiafinance.blogspot.com/2011/07/how-cool-is-this.html


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.

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