Greg Sandow is Riffing

Many of you may follow the writings of Greg Sandow in his Arts Journal Blog.  If you do you will know that for the past couple of years Greg has been writing a book, and presenting it piece by piece in his blog.  This project went dormant for a period of time, but now he’s back, and as they say, bigger and better than ever.  He calls each entry a riff.  Below is Riff #2. It’s his thoughts on what he calls alternative classical music or alt-classical. He also asks an important question–where’s the money? As musicians we can always find a place to play. Our challenge is to find a place to play that will pay us to do it.

Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music

by Greg Sandow

[Again from Chapter I, Rebirth and Resistance, extending my previous riff about how the chapter — and the book — might start. This is how the chapter might continue.]

So we’ve had a dose of heady inspiration. Rebirth! What a terrific concept for classical music. Where do we go from here?

Well, it might be time to step back, and ask some questions.


If classical music really is changing, which it is — and if, through those changes, it might be reborn — why are the changes happening?

For two reasons, I think.

First, there’s the crisis in classical music, the fear that classical music is slipping away from the contemporary world, and that its audience is shrinking. That leads people, even at the biggest classical music institutions, to wonder how they might reach out, and speak to the outside world.

Second — and, I think, much more important — there’s the simple fact of change. Cultural change, going very deep, and gaining speed for the past two generations. Ever since the 1960s. Maybe since the ’50s!

So who does that cultural change affect? More or less all of us. Including those of us who work in classical music. We’ve all changed. We think differently, we have different ideas. And so we want to do classical music differently. Thus, we — individually, collectively, sometimes independent of each other, sometimes inspired by each other — start doing new things.

And that’s especially true of younger people in the business, music students, young musicians, younger people in classical music management. Younger people in classical music — as I’ve seen from teaching them, for a start — live in two worlds at once, the classical music world, and also in the wider cultural world they share with everyone else their age. They watch the same TV shows their friends do, go to the same movies, listen to the same bands.

But their friends, often enough, don’t pay attention to classical music at all. So younger people in classical music become a bridge to the rest of their world. They can leap the gap, if anyone can. They can find ways to present classical music, that will grab the attention of people their own age.

Which is a big reason why I’m hopeful for the future. But don’t think classical music won’t change, when younger people start giving classical concerts in their own way. Rebirth won’t be rebirth, if it’s only a new way of packaging something old.

More questions. How far have the changes gone? Not all that far, to tell the truth. So many exciting things have happened, as I’ve said (in my first riff). But you can still go to classical concerts — as we all know — and see more or less what we would have seen five, ten, or twenty years ago. Musicians in formal dress. An older audience. And, on the program, the same old lovely, familiar, comfortable classical masterworks. Nothing against them, but they just don’t reflect our own time.

And yes, I know some things have changed. Musicians might talk to the audience. Program books, at least at a few of the biggest orchestras, might be designed to look like slick, professional magazines.

But guess what — these changes, and others like them, aren’t enough to make a big difference. A conductor can say a few words to the audience, and then turn around — wearing formal dress — and conduct the same familiar masterworks to the same older audience.

Same with other changes — conductors not wearing formal dress, for instance. By themselves, these things don’t change the essential concert ambience. Maybe they’re first steps down the road of change, but they’re only first steps.

Even new works — classical pieces written this month, or this week — may not make much difference. The audience might hate them. And, more crucially, they may taste like they were written for the classical concert hall, without any savor, not even a trace, of the world outside.

Which brings me, to end this riff, to what I think are the two kinds of classical music change. First, changes made by mainstream classical institutions. And, second, changes made outside the classical music mainstream, which, taken together, create a new kind of alternative classical music world, which I’ve been labeling (on the model of indie rock), alt-classical, though maybe indie classical would be just as good, if not better.

The alt-classical changes go a lot further. Here we see classical music starting to be fully reborn. But of course there are more of the mainstream changes, since there are so many mainstream classical music institutions, and alt-classical is still something new.

There’s also money. You can make a living in the mainstream classical world. If you’re lucky, if you get an orchestra job, if you really hustle. It might not be easy, but many people (especially including musicians) do it.

But you can’t make a living in the alt-classical space. Maybe a few people can, but the financial models for doing it basically don’t exist. If you’re a string quartet, life might be hard, but at least, if you’re booked by a mainstream performing arts center, you get a fee.

Play in a club, and maybe it’s a thrilling gig, with a new young audience right in front of you, but where’s the money? Well, you’re not doing it for money, but without your mainstream bookings — and, most likely, your university residency — you won’t survive.

The mainstream is shrinking, though. So chances to make a living from it may well start to disappear. So here’s a challenge for the future. How can we develop financial models for the alt-classical space, so musicians (and everyone else who makes a living from classical music, managers, administrators, publicists, you name it) can survive in it? And even thrive.

About the author

Ramon Ricker

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