Ever since the Music Council of Australia-hosted Classical Music Futures Summit held in July (and in all honesty probably since I was in high school in the early 1980s) I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘saving’ classical music from its uncertain futures, rescuing this immense tradition from unthinkable oblivion and unthinking ennui.
And in all of my nearly 30 years of thinking about it, this notion of salvation has bothered me immensely. It’s the anti-evangelist in me, without doubt, but it seems to me that salvation is always transitory, conditional and even illusory. And the idea that salvation can be imposed upon a thing really only makes sense if the thing is a building about to be demolished, or a person on death row.
But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment and accept that salvation can be offered, proffered and successfully accepted when we apply it to the entire field of classical music. What is it exactly that we are seeking to save?
On the one hand one can read treatises on what makes classical music different (and better) to other musical forms. Classical music is, according to these treatises, something characterised by a particular approach to musical discourse, a set of formal means of executing a musical argument. Music as essay, and possibly poem, but certainly not as novel or sitcom. The sonata (first movement) form is the pinnacle of music’s discursive achievements, according to this line of thinking, with the fugue receiving honourable mention and the rondo a certificate of participation.
Other conversations about saving classical music seem to define it as orchestral music, symphonic music, chamber music. In other words classical music becomes defined by its troups and ensembles: orchestras (symphonic, chamber and philharmonic) are in, as are string quartets, wind quintets and other established orchestral instrument sub-groupings. Grudgingly, ensembles including modern extensions of orchestral instruments are also part of this mix (vibraphone, bass clarinet, amplified orchestral instruments, etc.).
Classical music is is also often defined by reference to an attitude towards listening: audiences silent, eyes frequently shut, no moving during the performance (let alone moving about), usually (or optimally, depending on your age) engaging with a fresh interpretation of a well-known work.
So we have a definition emerging from these quite dominant public discourses about classical music that involves a restricted sense of presentation: the shape of the musical content, the instruments that can play that content, and how an audience should approach the content, all three aspects of music-making that are heavily loaded with expectation and judgement.
On the other hand, contemporary composers who see themselves participating in the classical music trajectory may have no interest in crafting their musical expression into the 18th century exposition-development-recapitulation form. These same composers may have a musical vision that includes instruments outside the western orchestral tradition. And these composers may be writing music that asks different things of audiences than motionless and mute reception.
If we define classical music by means of form, instrumentation and reception praxis then we exclude these contemporary musical assertions and experiments from classical music’s realm. But if we don’t define classical music thus how do we define it?
[Needless to say, saving something you can't identify is unlikely to prove successful.]
So wedded are we to these three means of knowing when music is ‘classical’ that we refuse classical music its primary means of ‘saving’ itself: renewal.
So orchestras perform popular repertoire (accompanying Elton John, presenting concerts of Disney themes) and don’t see that as being part of their core business, even though it is certainly part of their core business plan. And small ensembles rely on (and spend the bulk of their marketing energy) persuading funding bodies, not audiences, to support their work. Large ensembles market themselves with images of blissed-out ticket-holders, and audiences endure rather than exult in performances of contemporary work (not being part of the ‘listen-to-this-fresh-interpretation-of-a-familiar-work’ discourse).
The classical music field is feeding the discourses that are choking it.
Meantime the notion of connection (that life-blood of artistic enterprise), the art event with current events, the audience with each other, the performer with the music, the composer with the audience, the musical moment with the moments that follow/precede the performance, and so on, and on, and on, comes a distant second to the notion of sponsorship, that lifeblood of enterprises engaged in selling a brand.
Don’t get me wrong: artistic enterprise should creatively engage with the cultural and commercial conditions in which it finds itself, but the pursuit of connection should always be part of creating the brand which can then be leveraged into sponsorship. Too often the pursuit of sponsorship curtails and constrains the connections the artistic enterprise can engage in. [Big assertions, too big for further exploration in this entry.]
So, how do we, how should we, define classical music in contemporary culture?
Option One: accept that ‘classical music’ is a museum art-form: ensembles recreate masterpieces from the past in a similar fashion to the presentation of bodies of centuries-old work by art museums. People come to marvel at the achievements of our forebears, at expressions no longer current but still resonant, at cultural icons that have paved the way for contemporary musical expression. A by-product of this marvel with include appreciation of the craft of performers dedicated to performing these works of history. This option is probably the closest to the status quo.
Option Two: accept that ‘classical music’ is an attitude: serious work (even when witty) presented to an audience wanting to engage with seriousness on serious matters (even if they laugh from time to time). This option is quite like the status quo, but by defining via degrees of seriousness this option allows for non-traditional presentation formats (things can be quite serious when the audience is standing up, for instance), non-traditional instrumentations (a shakuhachi is no laughing matter), and compositions that present their musical arguments in non-traditional ways.
Option Three: accept that ‘classical music’ is a sound, much the way ‘lounge music’ is a sound, or ‘folk music’, or ‘heavy metal’. Without doubt (and without education) members of our society can recognise these sounds from one another. This is also very much like the status quo, although ensembles and composers that classify themselves as part of the classical music field might not always be participating in or producing a classical music ‘sound’, and this creates a difficult-to-resolve tension. On the plus side, audiences will be confident about their participation in the same way that they are when they buy tickets to an Eagles or Rolling Stones concert. This degree of confidence is also useful when listeners use musical sounds to construct their own identities (and, in less academic/sociological terms, their own iPod playlists).
Option Four: accept that ‘classical music’ is a practice, like yoga. Truly casual participation in classical music yields a pleasurable experience, but one that is inferior to a more sustained engagement, in much the same way that a casual participation in yoga gives feel-good results without long-lasting effects; it’s fairly self-evident that the more you put into yoga/classical music the more you will get out. This is also similar to the status quo, but those of us in the field of classical music might not like to admit it. Conceptualising an art form as praxis, even for the audience, makes our art seem hard and uninviting. Oh wait, that is the status quo.
Further on option four: budding rock musicians can pick up a guitar, learn 4 or 5 chords and start writing songs straight away, while budding classical musicians probably need more than a decade of tuition and practice before they will be part of the classical music creative conversation; there is literally a lot of practice involved in the praxis of classical music.
Are any of these options (and there may be more than the four I’ve put forward) worth saving? Or is what we want to save, when we talk about saving classical music, something else, something beyond these options and definitions?
And if it is, let’s talk about that, and get on with the business of building a future for the thing we really believe in.