Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Music of the Future

There's a lot to chew on in this first working chapter of Greg Sandow's book, and I'm looking forward to the rest. But at the same time, there's a lot that makes me uncomfortable, and some assumptions that would seem to shed more dark than light on the future of classical music.

Chief among these is a sense that Sandow is defining the issue too narrowly as a set of things that the current world of classical music has to confront about itself, and change. He comes very close to painting "classical music" as an entity with a sort of institutional culture and output that can be shaped and redirected to ensure its own survival. Yet this is a very poor way to start thinking about the classical music tradition per se. What he's really talking about is the future of critical elements of that tradition in the environment of a mass-media marketplace and shrinking non-market support. The intersection is key, but the categorical differences should be explicit--"classical music" can't be understood as a canny player for mass affection like television or popular film.

Now, perhaps Sandow would respond that that's the kind of thinking that will ensure the death of classical music. But the point is that there isn't really a choice. Being an artistic tradition with all that entails means there isn't much that can be done to ensure the tradition's survival outside its natural mechanisms, which are necessarily slow-working. This is too broad, but honestly, some of Sandow's suggestions sound like he expects "classical music" will somehow get together and "put on a show" to save itself by wowing all the casually interested listeners Sandow profiles.

And about those casually interested listeners. Instead of starting with the question, what can we do to ensure classical music survives? It seems wiser to me to start with a different question: what kind of future for the classical tradition do we want? And honestly, I don't think the listseners who could take it or leave it should be the centerpiece of our answer.

Which isn't to say they should be actively turned off, and I would certainly entertain the notion that this is a dangerous and present tendency. But the relationship between those who consume and those who produce classical music is predicated upon a deeper commitment. Sandow seems to want to get us to believe that the nature of that relationship is too elitist, or intimidating or stuffy. In the first place, I would ask how many music lovers you actually know who fit this be-monocled aesthete stereotype. Second, I would argue that keeping the tradition alive by cherry picking the mildly interested is a position for a marketing department, not those really engaged with the art.

And ultimately, I think that's the test Sandow has laid out for himself. If he wants to write a how to for classical music public relations, with discourse on better album covers and press releases, then that's a worthy endevour. But it is a fundamentally different project than asking the very real question of what the classical tradition should look like in 50 years and what debate should exist now to promote that future. And the former should not masquerade as a substitute for the latter.

More to come, I hope, including opera's peculiar place in all of this and the trouble with looking to classical music's past for clues about its future...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not a classical music lover. But I can imagine what they think about. The modern classical music is not classical music indeed! Despite the fact that producers try to create classical music that can be loved by veritable judges, everybody knows this music much differs from previous classical music. I guess it is a normal normal trend. All changes!