Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Listening Habits Have Changed"

The BBC just did a little piece on the Cleveland Orchestra's new initiative to build audiences. Here is the link.
Audiences for classical music across the US have declined in recent years because people's listening habits have changed.
It is often easier and cheaper to experience great orchestras online and while older music lovers might shudder at the idea, research shows that most Americans under the age of 30 actually prefer it.
But Cleveland, Ohio, boasts one of the world's top orchestras and rather than accept the empty seats at Severance Hall, the musicians decided to seek out new audiences in an unlikely venue.
The BBC's Jane O'Brien went to a Cleveland neighbourhood and listened to Schubert and Beethoven in a very different environment.
It seems like a nice, happy story. Orchestra takes creative steps to reach out to people who are unused to classical music and gets new subscribers. At the end of the story there is the usual genuflection to the general economy and how the arts, specifically music, can stimulate it.

But all this makes me uneasy. I played my first 'gig' when I was sixteen in a tiny little dance hall. As I recall we made something like $6.75 at the door. I was lucky enough that my career eventually took me to some grand concert halls like the Orpheum in Vancouver, the Wienersaal at the "Mozarteum" in Salzburg and Wigmore Hall in London: some of the most beautiful and famous halls in the world. I really don't have much desire to go back and play in a bar again. The BBC piece presents it in the best possible way and perhaps it was an excellent experience. There is something very stimulating about knowing that the people listening are there just for the music and not because of the social cachet.

But I'm still uneasy because one of two things might be going on here. First, as the BBC avers, a drop in audience subscriptions might be improved by some creative seeking out of new audience members. In other words, it might be temporary. I doubt this is the case. I think the writing has been on the wall for a long time. Popular music in all its various forms has been the dominant force in music since at least the 60s and this is not going to turn around. People are unfamiliar with classical music because there is less and less opportunity to encounter it. For example, music education programs have been trimmed down more and more over the years. Here is a newspaper story from a couple of weeks ago about cuts to music programs in Toronto.

We still have a lot of cultural and physical infrastructure from the middle of the last century and before, but the trend is for this to erode, I believe. A world-class orchestra like the one in Cleveland having to do bar gigs to scare up a few more subscribers is not good news no matter how you spin it. It might seem like a 'cool' idea to get out of that stuffy concert hall, but bars are just not ideal places for classical music: the layout of the room is rarely conducive to good sight lines or good acoustics, people are going to be chatting instead of listening and unless you stop serving, there will be the clinking of glasses. A lot of this can be overcome, and the idea of going to the audience is still appealing, but concert halls are designed the way they are to make them ideal places to hear music. The reasons why audiences are shrinking, why people are avoiding concert halls are more fundamental than just "people's listening habits have changed."

That passive construction, all too similar to "mistakes were made", conceals, I think, what is actually going on. We are experiencing a profound cultural shift at the roots of our civilization. Would I be overstating the case to say that, if you are attuned to it, music is a barometer for civilization? Doesn't this music, in its exuberance and confidence, attest to the idealism and optimism of the Enlightenment?

The leaping, bounding effervescence of the theme when the allegro arrives captures the historical moment. Europe was on the verge of a magnificent century. After centuries of wars over religion, class and nationalism, the next century, from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was one of the greatest eras of peace in history. Under the auspices of the Pax Britannica, there was progress and prosperity for a century. The Banquet Years, an excellent book by Roger Shattuck captures some of the flavor of the end of this era.

Something went horribly wrong in the first half of the 20th century with two World Wars. The finest young men of Britain died in the trenches and this destroyed the Pax Brittanica. Another excellent book, Goodbye To All That  by Robert Graves does a very good job of capturing that moment in history.

While we now enjoy the kind of prosperity and technical advance that previous generations would have marveled at--just take Skype for example!--I am still concerned that some crucial part of the culture has been crushed, shot away, simply disintegrated under the pressures of the events of the 20th century.

If we look at the characteristic music of our time as a barometer of the culture, it is hard to be optimistic. Instead of the glorious exuberance of the late 18th century we have this:

According to Canadian Business this is currently the biggest-selling song on iTunes. Yes, there is a kind of exuberance there, but to my ears it is mechanical, physical, somatic--a kind of barbarism. The never-ending pounding of the beat makes it unlistenable for me.

I could probably work out a theory of musical culture based simply on rhythmic elements, but since this is a blog, not a dissertation, I won't bother. But just compare these two pieces of music and ask yourself what they reveal.

There are those who argue that we are experiencing something like a Bizarro version of the Enlightenment: a Dark Enlightenment. Maybe that is what the music is telling us.


Frédéric Chiasson said...

What? Pax Brittanica!? What is this colonialist historical invention? Actually, 19th century, war stopped to be between nations to become war in the nations : civil war. France's revolts (1848), American Civil War (1861-1865), Canada's Patriots' War (1837-1838), Poland, and so on. Don't you know that Chopin's First Ballad is inspired by Adam Mickiewicz, strongly influenced by Polish insurrection?

You say that music of our time is «mechanical, physical, somatic». Well, that's because musicians have now the means to go to their end. Mozart wrote in a letter that he wanted at least 20 contrabasses in his ideal orchestra – the subwoofers of classical era! He might have LOVED our subwoofers.

You may have your conservative views, but please stop bending history to them!

Bryan Townsend said...

M. Chiasson, thanks for your contribution. I sometimes make provocative statements and I welcome comments that take me to task. Truth, after all, is something arrived at through group effort. Starting with your mention of the Chopin ballade, actually, I have written about both the First Ballade and the Fourth Ballade. It was the fourth that was said, by Robert Schumann, to be inspired by a poem by Adam Mickiewicz which I discussed in this post:

Next, yes Mozart did indeed want a lot more double basses in his orchestra, but this is, as you say, about having good support in the bottom of the range--it does not relate to the rhythmic problem that was my real point.

Finally, yes, I have gotten pushback before when commenting on the relative peacefulness of the 19th century. I can only conclude, since the Pax Brittanica was simply an historic fact, that there must be some ideological reason to claim it was not.

I am not claiming that the 19th century was free of conflict--there are no such centuries--just that it was relatively peaceful when compared to the adjacent eras of the Napoleonic Wars and the First and Second World Wars. What possible reason could there be for denying these obvious facts?

Christopher Culver said...

Hi there. A link brought me to this blog and I've spent quite some time now reading through past posts. It’s nice to see such detailed, informed commentary on classical music and I wish I had discovered this blog ages ago. Now I’d like to respond to this remark (and you are welcome to delete this opening paragraph from the comment now that you have read my appreciation):

“concert halls are designed the way they are to make them ideal places to hear music.”

Yes and no. I am fortunate to do my concertgoing in Helsinki, where we have a state-of-the-art concert hall (Musiikkitalo) that was just inaugurated a couple of years ago, and ticket prices are low because the Finnish state heavily subsidizes culture. However, I mainly find myself going to concerts for social reasons, not musical ones. I like to see old friends, but at the post-concert beer we usually talk about the recordings we have recently acquired.

You see, as younger people who discovered classical music through recordings, we've become used to hearing the music played "perfectly" because recording sessions can be done in several takes and then edited together to get the best results. Even a good orchestra performing in a good hall is going to slip up in some small way that is glaring to one who knows the piece well.

Furthermore, listening at home allows me to enjoy the music without the distraction of curmudgeons around me. I enjoy mainly music of the 20th century avant-garde or contemporary composers, and even if the concert hall supposedly has perfect acoustics, it is ruined by the conservative concertgoers on either side of me disparaging the music under their breath or loudly flipping through their programme bookets instead of listening in a focused way. My stereo at home might present the whole “concert hall sound” but it does allow me to listen to the music with undistracted wonder.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Christopher and welcome to the Music Salon. I hope you make many more comments. Like you, I also grew up listening to recordings because I didn't live where there was a proper concert hall and symphony orchestra. I heard much of the orchestral repertoire on disc long before I ever heard it "live". I really understand exactly where you are coming from. One huge benefit of listening, especially to contemporary music, on disc is that you can listen to it multiple times. I can recall an occasion listening to a performance of Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra played by the Montreal Symphony and, what with the rustling of programs and the lady next to me opening a candy wrapper agonizingly slowly, I wished I were home instead! So I take your point!

Yes, recordings are, or should be, perfect. But I heard a very fine French horn player describe digitally edited recordings as like Frankenstein's monster: stitched together from pieces and then brought to artificial life.

I think in the last paragraph you meant to say that your stereo at home might NOT present the whole "concert hall sound"?

To add to what you are saying, a while ago I bought a big box of the complete works of Mozart, which I am listening my way through, one disc a day. Before the days of digital recording this would have been very expensive. But now these cheap boxed sets make it possible to become familiar with a huge amount of music.

But I still think my statement was literally true: concert halls ARE designed the way they are to make them ideal places to hear music. If they are not, it is because there can be annoying audience members, inexpert musicians and the alternative of perfect (or supposedly so) recordings you can listen to at home.