Greg Sandow and the relevance of classical music

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Chris, eighth blackbird’s administrative director.  I’ve been with the group full-time for about 18 months now and am just finally learning up from down in their topsy-turvy world.  I know most of you come here to surreptitiously delight in the intimate details of the musicians’ glamorous life on the road and their titillating interactions with new music luminaries, or at least to pick up Australian slang, but I believe there are also enough of you interested in learning more about how to translate the wild genius of something like eighth blackbird into a viable organization to justify my occasional leasing of space here to explore more mundane issues.  Be warned though, rather than trained discipline of a classical musician used to sharing space and time with others, I have the manic verbosity of an extrovert forced to work from home alone.

I recently had the privilege of attending a talk by Greg Sandow. Chances are that if you’re here, you’re already familiar with Mr. Sandow, but if you’re not, get ‘ye to Arts Journal and sample a bit of his iconoclastic musings.

Greg was in town to give a talk, sponsored by the Cultural Policy Center, on The Rebirth of Classical Music to students at the University of Chicago .  The good folks at Slover-Linett correctly assumed there would be enough arts administrators, like myself, to justify an informal talk and conversation early the same day. Among the attendees were Seth Bousted from Accessible Contemporary Music, Karen Fishman from Music of the Baroque, Kevin Giglinto from the CSO, Steve Robinson from WFMT, Joan Harris and several other important players in Chicago’s classical music scene.

Greg riffed on the state of our field like a jazz musician.  He began with the familiar theme, ‘oh why oh why has classical music become so irrelevant’, and improvised in several directions.  Naturally, some of his off-the-cuff explorations led to spontaneous insights and provocative questions, while others failed to coalesce into any cohesive narrative.  Some of what may have been new or threatening to the established institutions represented was already well-treaded territory for eighth blackbird or ACM.  In the end, it was the best kind of talk, the kind that lead to passionate discussions between participants who lingered in the room afterwards for far longer than the event itself lasted.

Greg’s first and primary point was that we need to recognize and address the lack of relevance in classical music.  He mentioned that today at dinner parties, the intellectuals and artists all discuss various theatrical productions, dance companies, art exhibits, etc., but they do not discuss classical music.  Further, he dismissed the ‘charming myth’ that classical music really matters.  If it did, he argued, more people would be engaged.  His prime example was a hypothetical educated, cultured young person who can ‘chew on Derrida’, but doesn’t attend the orchestra. However, that person listens to indie-rock in the same way audiences used to listen to classical music: closely and repeatedly.

It so happens, I am that hypothetical person (though I’ll take my aesthetics straight from the tap, i.e. Heidegger, rather than Frenchified).  I am not a trained musician or composer, but I LOVE music, of all types, spend a lot of money and time on it, and engage with it on a very intimate level. (Why yes, I am single. How did you guess?) I do not, however, frequent classical music performances, nor do I buy many classical recordings, at least not compared to other genres.

There is an important distinction to make here though.  I’m referring here to classical classical music.  I do listen to new/contemporary/indie/alt/watchamacalit classical music.  I didn’t come to work for eighth blackbird just for bling; I really love what they do.  It engages me fully.  Through their recordings and performances, I’ll listen to Missy Mazzoli and David Lang right alongside Arcade Fire and The National.  Steve Reich’s Double Sextet has as high a play count in my iTunes as any Radiohead track.

To my mind, then, Greg’s points have two different contexts.  Can traditional classical music be reborn and find relevance?  And can the modern heirs of that tradition find a wider audience?  As to the former, I honestly don’t care so much.  As long I can still get recordings of Palestrina-through-Mahler and occasionally indulge in the aural magnificence of a symphony orchestra performance, I’m not concerned about relevance.  There is a timelessness to the high arts that doesn’t require rebirth.  Is anyone worried about the relevance of 15th Century Italian art?

I am, however, deeply concerned about the latter.  That is, why do the same people who jump at the chance to see a new play at Steppenwolf, who don’t hesitate to attend an exhibition by an unknown artist at the MCA, who expect there to be a new work on each Hubbard Street Dance Company program, why do these same people not also fill up the Harris Theater for eighth blackbird, Fulcrum Point or MusicNow (at least not without free beer and pizza)?

There is a sense, I believe, that while enjoying new theater only requires you to be human and open, appreciating new music requires training, initiation into the secret meaning of all those farts and squeaks. This to me is the great challenge of new music: how to disabuse wider audiences of the notion that they need to come to a concert with anything other than open ears in order to have an engaging aesthetic experience.  I know, as a fact, that those who attend an eighth blackbird concert on a whim or at the behest of a friend, leave converted.  What I don’t know yet is how to get new audiences to attend in the first place.  I have some ideas, but I’d love even more to hear yours.

As those of you who follow us on Twitter know, Greg called eighth blackbird “the biggest missed opportunity” in the field.  He specifically meant that the ensemble should have a bigger audience.  He said we shouldn’t depend on the gatekeepers, the people who present and represent us, to find our audience.  Rather we should find them ourselves.  I trust Greg will tell us more about what he means, and perhaps even offer suggestions.  I ask the same of all of you.  I’m a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all ships.  If we can tap a wider audience for new music, all performers and composers would benefit.

Thanks for listening.

P.S.  My favorite moment of the event was when Joan Harris, one Chicago’s most important music patrons, calling Seth Bousted “a 19th century elitist”.  Yes, seriously.  Both Joan and Seth have earned my respect and affection over the years, and their exchange was the result of a simple misunderstanding.  Seth expressed trepidations about achieving too high a level of success, one that could potentially alienate him from his audience.  Joan, who doesn’t know Seth, responded as if he meant that his music was intended for a small, discerning audience, a not uncommon attitude amongst more academically minded composers and musicians.  Seth was actually just discussing issues of scale.  Obviously the man who founded Accessible Contemporary Music isn’t arguing that contemporary music shouldn’t be . . . accessible.  Unless he’s aiming for the ultimate irony.  In which case, kudos!  Of course, Seth’s fears are also unfounded, and as Greg himself said to Seth: “I don’t believe you.”  I’ve been to eighth blackbird concerts with over 700 attendees; they were still able to meet and greet all who remained afterwards.  And not only are the opportunities for directly engaging audiences outside of the performance multiplying daily, it’s becoming de rigueur to do so.

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