Changing US Demographics and Classical Music

Re-posting Ramon Ricker’s blog about Changing US Demographics and Classical Music in full, just because it can never be said enough!

Posted on November 9, 2009 at 5:00 am by Ramon Ricker
in General
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Here’s a personal observation and some thoughts.

When my wife and I visited the Netherlands a couple of years ago we were fortunate, at Judy’s persistence, to get tickets to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. We started a couple of months early trying to book tickets online, but they were “sold out.” Knowing that tickets often get returned on the day of the performance, we went to the concert hall that afternoon and talked to the ticket people. They put our names on a list (we were first on it), and they told us to come back a half an hour before the start of the concert. Long story short, Judy charmed our way into the Queen’s seats. The Queen did not attend the concert that evening and the seats were made available at the last minute. I’m not kidding. We got them—the best seats in the house. (I don’t know why I’m setting the stage like this.) Anyway—It was their new conductor’s debut, (Mariss Jansons), and he did Mahler 6—the one with the hammer blows. The percussionist with the hammer must have made it himself. It was gigantic and beautifully made, all of wood. He picked it up like he had a Strad in his hands.

As we waited for the concert to start, I looked around the hall and noticed that the patrons didn’t look like any of the people we were seeing on the street. The concertgoers were stereotypical “Dutch people,” in my mind—good sized with mostly fair complexions. But the people on the Amsterdam streets were much more diverse. There were many more dark-skinned people—I suppose from Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. I thought to myself, “The people in the streets can’t be listening to European classical music. I’m not hearing it anyplace out here. The demographic of Amsterdam must be changing. But if it continues to change who will be coming to these concerts in 50 years?”

Now, scroll over to US orchestras? In my mind it’s the same as the Amsterdam example. As I look out at the audience at a Rochester Philharmonic concert, the attendees don’t look the same as the general population of Rochester. I ask myself, “Why were US orchestras formed in the first place?” My guess is that the population was predominately of European descent at that time, and they probably wanted to experience or recreate the culture of their homeland. It felt natural to them.

Thinking about the well-documented changing demographic of the US towards greater numbers of citizens with other than European (read: white) ancestry, I can’t believe that this population, in 50 years or probably less, will want to sit in a concert hall and listen to Mahler. It’s not in their DNA or culture. And that’s not a put down. They also don’t get exposure to this music in schools. If I keep going along this line of thinking, I don’t see a bright future for “classical” music in general or US orchestras in particular. Sure this music will be with us, but will professional musicians be able to make a living playing it? That’s already difficult to do today in all but the largest US cities.

In order to maintain their competitive advantage, companies must spend time and money trying to envision the future, asking themselves questions like: Who will be our customers? Where will they live? Will they need our product? In what form should it be? Etc., etc. As musicians it is probably a good idea for us to do the same. If I were a young musician just graduating from music school and bent on a performing career, I would be asking myself these questions too. I would also be flexible and ready to take advantage of opportunities that may arise.

When trying to envision the future, I am reminded of this quote that is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. It’s a good one. When asked how he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and consequentially scored more goals than others, he replied, “I don’t go where the puck is. I go to where the puck will be.” Orchestras and musicians—maybe we should try to be like Gretzky.

What do you think?

Too Many Notes, too few orchestras

While reading the comments to a post by Drew McManus that I mentioned in my previous post, I came across a reference to a post that drew had written about the issue of having too many groups offering the same thing in a metropolitan area.

While Drew disagrees than in general there may be too much of this redundancy (as he responded) he does think there are some areas, like the Northern Virginia/Washington DC area he talks about in the post I linked, that do have a problem.  Drew seems to think it’s a dangerous idea for mergers, but at the same time he understands that in the case above that might actually help.  Anne Midgette’s snapshot of the German orchestral crisis post-unification would suggest the same.

But back to Drew’s points:

Although I was glad to see that there weren’t any duplicates between the four ensembles, they do have remarkably similar programming (but I give Alexandria a few extra points for programming more new works than their sister ensembles).  If you’re familiar with that area, you’ll also know that all four ensembles perform within eight miles of each other and two of them even perform in the same venue.

Granted, Northern Virginia is a densely populated area but doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that four full orchestras performing similar works for essentially the same audience is simply too many notes?

I have a different idea–what would happen if, say, one or more of these orchestras actually turned into a non-Western Orchestra?  Or what if the re-structuring made it possible to actually provide full symphonic works that were so Eurocentric?

For example, what if that Northern Virginia/DC area had, say, a full Arabic Orchestra, a full Chinese Orchestra, a full Mugham Orchestra in addition to the fourth full Symphony Orchestra?

There certainly wouldn’t be any overlap of programming, nor any duplicate composers in just one art music tradition.

I know, it’s a pipe dream–with the exception of special events American Orchestras don’t often program outside their 100 + year old niche of music from a region on this planet [Europe] that has less than a tenth of the world’s population.  But I know I would be as excited, if not more excited to be able to hear a full orchestra perform the masterworks of Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, Fikret Amirov, or Lü Ji.

I guess I’ll have to wait until the ethnic population(s) of the US reaches the critical mass able and willing to support these non-Western Orchestras–or until this century’s version of the Ford Foundation Grants spearheads “a major boost to [non-Western] orchestras’ quality, length of season and sustainability by providing endowment capital for orchestras that were able to raise matching funds from their communities .”

I guess the question is, if Western Orchestras are having difficulties then how will the non-Western Orchestras fare?  That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out and it is exciting to imagine the future!  Right now, though–there aren’t too many notes or too few orchestras.  Just not enough of the right balance of notes and orchestras.

“Eurocentrism? We Aren’t The World” by Jon Pareles

Can’t believe this was written over twenty years ago:
http://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/23/arts/pop-view-eurocentrism-we-aren-t-the-world.html

excerpt:

What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Music, popular and classical, is a potent cultural symbol, one that arouses visceral reactions as well as rational ones. It speaks to its listeners’ sense of place and history, and to deep-seated beliefs about the organization of communities and the perception of time. And many people like to think that the music they love is timeless, eternal, universally recognized as a pinnacle of human achievement – not a historically conditioned, minority preference in a big world.

Part of the Eurocentrism battle has to do with whether the gamelan should be discussed alongside the orchestra, the talking drum alongside the tympani (and, perhaps, the telephone). Opponents of such a broadened curriculum raise the specter of students learning about the sitar instead of the violin, which no one is actually proposing. Still, defenders of the Western classical tradition, already feeling beleaguered by changing public tastes, now face credentialed colleagues who can point out that notated concert music is a relatively recent, relatively local phenomenon compared to age-old oral (and often improvisational) traditions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

For some people, Eurocentrism equals elitism, the determination to protect what’s best. In music, it’s not elitism – it’s just plain ignorance.

I thought the following was as woefully parochial as as the “standard, Eurocentric classical-music education” that the author bemoans as “woefully limited” because of its focus on “reading music rather than improvisation, re-creation rather than creation” and dependance “on the score rather than [the] ears“:

The Eurocentrists ask, Where are the masterpieces outside the Western European tradition? And where are the composers whose music has survived the centuries? Those are trick questions, based on assumptions that are themselves Eurocentric. The Western European tradition treats music as something that resides in a tangible (and salable) artifact like a score or recording. But in other places and times, sometimes including our own, music has been more properly considered as sounds in the air, made to be heard once by an immediate audience – which might even participate, or dance.

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“The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi”

Peter Lavezzoli's book "The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi"

Found this excellent quote from Peter Lavezzoli’s book, The dawn of Indian music in the West: Bhairavi

Well, Western music has been Eurocentric for hundreds of years.  When I was a student at Julliard, if you wanted to hear a record of Indian or African music, you looked in the library under Ethnomusicology.  It was not considered classical music in any real sense.  At this point, that’s completely changed.  It appears to us that all music is ethnic music.  Everything.  Popular music is ethnic music.  It’s ethnic to it’s community.  All music is indigenous to somebody.  John Cage pointed this out in his book A Year From Monday.  In the beginning of the book he says, “Here’s to the day when America becomes a part of the world.  No more, no less.”

I think it really happened after the second World War, which was when people–especially Americans–became aware that there was another world outside of their own borders.  Soldiers had been to Japan, Europe, and elsewhere.  People went to Europe to study, Americans were living in Paris and London.  That was happening all over the world, and right after World War II, and into the 1950s, the borders of the civilized world began to change very dramatically.  At a certain point we began to talk about what Marshall McLuhan called the “global village.”  This all eventually became part of the hippie generation and so on.  And it became clear that there were great traditions of concert music that existed outside of the West.  An astonishing idea.  [Laughs]  They would be in Africa, Asia, Australian, or wherever else.  But we really couldn’t call it concert music because there were no concert halls.  You didn’t find concert halls in India when I went there in the late ’60s, they didn’t have them.  People played in homes.  The concert halls were eventually built when some of the technology of Western music found its way into non-Western traditions.

Basically world music is now a fact.  The fact is that an educated musician today would be foolish not to acquaint himself or herself with the traditions from all over the world.  They can hide from it if they want to, but the reality is that it’s not just that we know it, but the audience knows it.  It’s become a kind of parochialism to be confined to a Eurocentric tradition.  So what we say is going to happen has already happened.  Ravi [Shankar] was a very important part of that.  He worked tirelessly at that, and was criticized in the beginning, when he was writing sitar concertos, playing with Menuhin, and so on.

 

The video to the Menuhin/Shankar collaboration is in the previous post.

Music of the Whole World: The ABCs of Intercultural Music

Member of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra during a performance

So tonight, the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra is having their “Music of the Whole World: The ABCs of Intercultural Music” event that I mentioned in a previous post.

The performances details:

Thursday March 3, 2011 at 7 pm
Vancouver Public Library Central Branch
350 Georgia St.
Alice MacKay Hall (Lower Level)
FREE Admission

But what really sold me to this group–other than the fact they are doing what I would love to be doing with an ensemble, is this:

For the third presentation in the 2010-2011 edition of our educational series Music of the Whole World, the VICO is proud to feature the future of intercultural music, in the making: student composers from Seycove Secondary School in North Vancouver will present new pieces they have written for tar, oud and santur, performed by VICO musicians. This event is part of VICO in the Schools, an innovative workshop program through which VICO musicians and instructors introduce students to a selection of non-Western instruments and impart techniques for composing intercultural music.

This is something I can stand behind and fully support.  The type of outreach, especially for such an “unorthodox” ensemble that I would think should be part and parcel of any performing groups’ activities.  If anyone reading is on the left coast and near the border of Canada  I would highly recommend this concert just out of principle!

Eric Edberg has an insightful blog post about Education and Outreach and I think this description of Adrian Ellis’ (Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center) talk at an event he attended last month says it all:

He elaborated on a variety of topics, outreach being perhaps the most critical.  With much of country “two to three generations beyond routine arts education,” the task falls to arts organizations.  Jazz at Lincoln Center, he said, is “basically an education machine with programming.”

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