Today's classical music composers are in a difficult position. The major media would no more pay attention to an adept classical composer than they would to an adept pornographer. With some holdouts, the official intellectual world has decided that if most people no longer think classical music is more complex and deep than any other music, then it isn't. They raise the dread specter of "elitism", that politically-correct but intellectually dishonest category that condemns the smarty pants who thinks he or she may have more knowledge and understanding about art than the untutored folk themselves. This type of thinking arose after the sixties when the actual political rebels were in retreat. It grew up in academia, where a wrong-headed type of thinking took root which used a shallow populism as the basis for restricting ideas. Classical music was branded by some influential critics as representing the obsolete canon created by "dead white males". It was portrayed as sexist, since there were relatively few women composers and racist, since there were few Black composers. I was pretty amazed when I first heard of "political correctness" as a criteria for judging ideas. One thing many of us in the student movement of the sixties had rebelled against was the idea that you had to "tow the party line", be that the one the McCarthyists insisted on or the one Stalin wanted. In either case, not towing the line could result, in the U.S., in loss of job or in Russia, in loss of life. Now here it was, back again, in different form, making people afraid to say the wrong thing or, in the case of music, to defend classical music against charges of racism and sexism, charges that are ridiculous. It has made them afraid to argue what their knowledge, taste and sophistication tell them, which is that classical music is an important art form and potentially achieves more depth and complexity than popular forms, however wonderful those are.
for charges of "elitism" if it is elitist to create works over average people's heads then why is it alright to have schools to educate them? There is a remark attributed to the playwright Bert Brecht that I like very much. A state official castigated him for creating art that only appealed to a small circle of connoisseurs. This was undemocratic, the official stated. Brecht said something like: "Then let's work to expand the connoisseurs into a large circle of connoisseurs, because art requires knowledge." That said, it doesn't follow that any classical music piece is automatically superior to any popular music work. Popular music is market-driven and the best of it has been selected out, which doesn't happen so frequently with modern classical music due to the current lack of interest in it and lesser opportunities. Inept music doesn't improve with classical music techniques and will not achieve anything, much less musical depth. Its entertainment value will be close to nil. I think the intellectual level of the people who write for the arts has dropped substantially as a result of their using political criteria, although often quite progressive ones, in place of artistic criteria. It's ridiculous to have to argue that Beethoven's opus is not in the same universe with that of Fifty-Cent, yet that is an argument that one must have with most of them. No, friends, the classical music canon did not get replaced by Rock ?n Roll. Really. Take my word for it. Nor does it co-exist with it in the realm of musical complexity, nuance and depth. Thankfully, classical music still has a devoted following. Taruskin makes the valid point that, back in the day, it only looked like everyone liked it?most people could have cared less, it was custom dictating their feigned interest. Interestingly, a recent poll by the Norman Lear Institute shows the majority of people as liking classical music. This, despite the fact that patronage for classical music has declined significantly since the nineteenth century and continues to decline as does the concert-going audience whereas untold millions are spent on publicizing popular music, shoring up its performer/composers, making them household names, filling their arenas. Is there not a correlation there? And I fear that, if the Baby Boomers and the current generation are not won to more than an opinion of "liking" classical music, but to a more active involvement, then the decline will continue. Just like the number of people who could read and write declined during the dark ages.
What about us?
We modern classical music composers suffer greatly from the public disregard of our work since we are forced to compete for the attention of an ever smaller pool of people, grants and awards. We are constantly tempted to come up with the gimmick that will bring us an audience, although, often, that gimmick seems to be making it sound like pop music. Should be content that most people experience classical music only in the background of a movie or commercial? A question we must ask ourselves is why is classical music not only ignored by society, but also treated as a pariah? No hated, sniveling classical-music-loving aristocrats are persecuting the masses today. Why is classical music made a joke of in every television sitcom, and why is the Hollywood serial killer always playing it (usually opera) as he prepares to carve up his victims? Why is it likely that a classical music lover or musician will be called a nerd or worse? Why is the word "geek"?which originally described a sideshow freak?being applied liberally to people of intelligence and knowledge. The reason may be found in what our society has become. It is a society that hogs most of the world's resources so that a middle class economic elite (the real elite here) can spend its life in unparalleled luxury, in the pursuit of ever multiplying fashionable goods and services while the rest struggle to survive, starve, or die of treatable diseases. In this atmosphere, heated by global warming and greed, those who think too hard or know too much are denigrated by the mass of this self-satisfied idiocracy (I'm indebted to Mike Judge for the term) and their ideological servants, the trendy intellectuals whose primary aim is not truth and beauty, but personal success in an ever more unreasonable world. In a recent article in The New York Times, critic Bernard Holland takes composers to task for often writing music that the classical music audience does not like. Some composers have taken him to task for this, explaining that a composer must be true to her or his vision. While that is absolutely true, we composers must take a look at our vision and decide whether we want to write for a small coterie or for the classical music audience as a whole. There is nothing wrong with either approach: after all, cinema multiplexes cropped up for exactly that reason. However, in regards to classical music, it seems sad to if we cannot reach the classical music audience, which is already a small minority, with music that they can relate to without watering down our vision. I am not proposing "selling out" and, I believe, neither was Bernard Holland. I champion the idea of writing music?squarely in the classical tradition of complexity, nuance, and long form?that can stir and influence the existing classical music audience without demanding that it "re-educate" itself. I don't believe we can skip over this step and involve a new audience that is not attracted to classical music with our music. Musical modernism can be achieved without alienating the audience, and that is where I am aiming my composing skills; not because I have to, but because I want to. That is my vision. Here are some more steps we could take to make things better:
1. Like the critic Greg Sandow, I believe that education should be an important part of any concert. We can no longer take it for granted that the audience will understand classical music much less modern music. We must find creative, non- pedantic ways of accomplishing this.
2. We should pool our resources and set in motion an ad campaign that aims to educate people about classical music in creative ways and using well-known people to get across the message. Although it may be true that at some point in time (a time far, far away) you had to be wealthy or an aristocrat to hear this music, that is no longer the case and this pleasure, like chocolate and pineapples, is available to all.
3. We need classical music awards ("The Classies") that are presented publicly and in grand style like the Emmys or Oscars. (They could even be televised on public television.) Being the most unimportant part of the Grammys sends a message that we need to counter. One of the perplexing contradictions today is that there are famous living classical performers, but no famous composers. This is because these days "famous" means "commercial"?a false dichotomy when it comes to art. Just because it's good for capitalism doesn't mean we have to accept that idea. Fighting against that idea is, itself, a step towards reclaiming our society from its downward trajectory.
4. We need to significantly increase the patronage for classical music. Popular music doesn't require patronage, because it is commercial. It may be that a revivified classical scene will generate some commercial success stories, but, as has always been the case, classical music requires a commitment from society just like schools, fire departments, libraries, and health care.
5. The writing class and the media should be courted and lobbied to stop throwing mud at classical music either by ignoring it or attacking it as the plaything of the outdated elite. We need to vigorously answer assaults on common sense that assert classical music is dead, over, or just a niche like ukulele music. It's bizarre to me that many of these attacks come from people who love classical music. Their intellectual collaboration in its demise makes me wonder whether they think classical music is only for them, not the masses, making them the very model of the elitist they so preach against.
6. We need, first of all to win back the classical music audience and then go on from there to convince the rest of the world that our kind of music, in addition to a powerful catalog, has the ability to significantly enhance their lives as it does ours.
7. Clearly the Internet is giving us a chance to bring our music to newbies, communicate and debate more among ourselves and will be key to a revival of classical music. The American Music Center and others have made effective use of the Internet and we composers will keep on thinking of new ways to use it to bring our works to a growing audience. As Alex Ross pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, the World Wide Web has allowed us to escape from the cone of silence imposed by the mainstream media on our music.
Ultimately, in a country whose chief executive is a nitwit and which, rattled by a terrorist attack on our soil, has engaged for the first time in torture, and where war is again something the ruling elite feel they can carry out, the fate of classical music may well be wrapped up in the political struggles of our time, and, if so, no measures we take, simply as composers, will set things right. But we need to try, don't we? It may be that a revivified classical music can be part of the new movement times.of change that is just beginning again in a world that has seen velvet revolutions against dictators, growth of anti-war sentiment, increased concern about the environment, and international solidarity for human rights. Some have noticed that there appears to be a deep conflict between the interests of people of reason and those who would overthrow reason in favor of greed, war and ignorance.
Certainly classical music has always incorporated the idea of the value of the individual and the force of reason and, as such, remains strongly pertinent to survival in these troubled times.