A manifesto for the future of what, exactly?

Greg Sandow has posted to his blog a manifesto for the future of classical music, written by Ken Nielsen of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera. It makes interesting reading and, as Sandow explains, Nielsen is no slouch when it comes to thinking about such things. But from the perspective of a London-based new music listener – once again – the SWOT analysis that underpins the manifesto doesn’t ring true. I want to refer to several of the articles of this manifesto, so I hope it’s OK to quote it in full here.

1. The classical music industry is in decline, with an aging audience base and a
low rate of new audience entry.

2. Governments, compulsory music education or any other external action will not
solve the problem.

3. To reverse this, the industry should change to make its product more attractive
and accessible. Currently, there are elements that make concerts forbidding and
inaccessible to new entrants.

4. These changes need not be (and in my opinion should not be) to the music, with
one exception, mentioned next.

5. More new music should be introduced to concerts. Any art form that does not
renew itself will become moribund. Because elements of the current audience are
so conservative, a greater variety of concerts and formats, aimed at different
audiences, is probably necessary. Stick with the current stuff for the olds, offer
innovation to those excited by it.

6. Changes to the format and style of concerts should be tried – everything from
getting players out of penguin suits to the length of concerts. Concert models that
have worked elsewhere should be tried.

In this area, as in most areas of business, change comes about not from strategy
meetings but from innovation – new things being tried, some fai ling, some
succeeding. Such innovation, and the risks that come with it would probably be
itself attractive to a different audience. “Are you game to come and hear this just composed

7. I believe that greater engagement with and involvement of the audience is an
important part of the puzzle. A concert should be more like communication than a
one-sided speech. .

8. Such changes as I am suggesting must be tried at the level of the organisation –
the orchestra, opera company or whatever – others can watch and steal the ideas if
they work but an industry wide approach is doomed.

Hmm. The thing is, the new music sector of the classical music industry doesn’t have a problem with (1): the base is not aging and (proportionally speaking) new audience entry isn’t too bad. Most new music audiences I encounter are pretty young (although they’re not exclusively so), and I see different crowds at different sorts of events; I’m often pleasantly surprised by how few people I recognise at new music concerts given that I’ve been breathing the air of this supposedly enclosed and insular scene for well over a decade. There are problems with new music audiences – that base could be wider, for a start – but we’re talking about an abstract, avant garde artform here, so we mustn’t get too starry-eyed about potential audience numbers.

The proposed changes of format (6) and (7) already happen within the new music sector and, of course, playing almost exclusively new music, you’re working within an extreme implementation of (5).

Which brings me to my concern with this manifesto, which is the second half of (5): the industry is already operating according to “Stick with the current stuff for the olds, offer innovation to those excited by it.” New music and historical music are institutionally and functionally entirely different from the other. Very few performers, ensembles, record labels, concert series or festivals commit equally to new and historical music; most do one to the complete exclusion of the other: two different audiences already exist, and at least one of them is being served pretty well. Having two audiences for two different products isn’t a problem; I simply wonder how much is to be gained from historical music chasing a (young, adventurous) audience that already knows what it wants and can get it elsewhere. What the historical music industry really needs to do first of all is serve the interests of the historical music audience. Several of Nielsen’s proposals may prove valuable in this respect, but I’m sceptical that introducing new music to historical concerts (which has been going on to little return for decades) is the answer, unless, as in everything, it is done with the utmost seriousness and integrity.

New music audiences would hate the idea of Brahms or Haydn being gratuitously dropped in the middle of their programmes to serve an externally imposed ideal of what audiences should be listening to; I’ve yet to hear the convincing argument why this formula should be expected to work the other way around, but I’m open to persuasion.


35 thoughts on “A manifesto for the future of what, exactly?

  1. Pinchgut has been very successful in what they have been doing, and certainly provide a new forum for early music in Sydney. Their Dardanus is to die for, and I saw their Charpontier which was fab.

    You say that ‘New music audiences would hate the idea of Brahms or Haydn being gratuitously dropped in the middle of their programmes to serve an externally imposed ideal of what audiences should be listening to’ and I am not sure what you mean? Is there some internal ideal? Internal to what? Ought the ideal be emergent? from what? for whom? Isn’t programming all about imposing an idea?

  2. To me Eisler’s ‘people who only understand music don’t understand that either’ works just as well with either ‘old’ or ‘new’ in front of ‘music’.

    I’m not sure which view feels more alien to me: the view that music stopped in 1913 or the view that it started then!

    “New music and historical music are institutionally and functionally entirely different from the other.” – if you mean the new and old music industries, maybe. If you mean the actual music, then no, no, 70:67 times no!

  3. “What the historical music industry really needs to do first of all is serve the interests of the historical music audience.”

    The “historical music industry” – a left-handed compliment if ever there was one!

  4. London may well have a ‘new music sector’ but I’m not sure that Sydney can be said to have one. From time to time a ‘new music concert’ is performed, and we recently had a feast by way of the ISCM World New Music Days (thanks to the spectacular efforts of Matthew Hindson and the team assembled for the 9 day extravaganza), but the use of the word ‘sector’ infers some kind of day-in-day-out availability that simply doesn’t exist here.

    Ken’s analysis of the situation for Sydney, and by extension for Australia, is spot on. It’s disingenuous to discount his analysis because London/the UK has a critical mass of audience sufficient to create/support a ‘sector’.

    Further, with a limited number of opportunities to present, ‘new music’ performances in Australia have not been marked by the kind of innovation that may have been the hall-mark of new music ensembles in your neck of the woods. And I don’t mean to say that there has been an absence of innovation – simply that if any ensemble only gets to perform 8 times a year and if maybe only half of these performances are ‘innovative’ in terms of presentation, then the opportunity for an audience to experience these innovative performances is strictly limited. Bearing in mind that an ensemble’s 8 performances might be spread across an area far larger than that of Europe.

    Finally, I’m entirely sure that the ‘manifesto’ had no intention in point 5 of suggesting that new music get dropped into concerts of ‘old’ music. Point 5 merely notes that by providing different music experiences for different audiences music performance organisations will have a more vibrant future.

    1. I accept I’m being somewhat unfair in judging Nielsen’s proposals against a London backdrop. What I mean to critique here is Greg Sandow’s original implication that this is a manifesto with a global, industry-wide relevance: I don’t think it is, and I agree absolutely that local (and geographical!) considerations have to come into play.

  5. @ WCSS: Pinchgut do sound great; if I ever have a chance to see them I will.

    I think what I really resist is the idea of programming something ‘because it is good for you’. Which (@elissa and WCSS) I don’t think is necessarily what Nielsen is getting at here, but which is one consequence of bad implementations of some of his proposals: the whole ‘overture, concerto, new piece, symphony’ format that afflicts so many orchestral concerts. Nielsen may not have meant this, but it’s quite easy for lazy programmers or funding institutions to read it this way: I think it needs refinement, and an acknowledgement that this isn’t an easy fix, but one that requires a lot of careful musical consideration.

    Which is what I’m getting at with the ‘seriousness and integrity comment’ – programming and performance need to be designed to emphasise the sort of continuities that Carl suggests, rather than just block one against the other.

  6. I’m not sure I can completely agree with this: “Very few performers, ensembles, record labels, concert series or festivals commit equally to new and historical music; most do one to the complete exclusion of the other: two different audiences already exist, and at least one of them is being served pretty well.” At least in the singing world, the great majority of early music singers I know also have great interest in new music and multiple examples exist (Dawn Upshaw, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, etc). Emmanuel Music, here in Boston, just finished an entire season dedicated to the music of Haydn and Schoenberg, drawing parallels between their innovations and approaches. I think emphasizing the “niche” factor is a dangerous approach as it runs the risk of aiding and abetting obsolescence at worst, or limiting opportunities for exposure at best. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Phil had the Green Umbrella series, but also didn’t hesitate to incorporate new music into the regular season–a move which was generally well-received. I do agree that most organizations to not have an equal commitment to historical and new music, nor should they have to, but I wouldn’t be so quick to parse the audience like that, some (most?) of whom have suffered from lack of exposure to one or the other. Perhaps we are dealing with a self-fulfilling prophecy?

  7. The idea of a ‘future’ for ‘classical’ music seems inherently problematic anyhow – why, for the ‘future’ is it important to maintain a music whose definition refers to its being rooted in the past? Why treat the ‘classical’ as a separate category from the rest of musical production that goes on nowadays?

  8. I agree w/Ian. Moreover, the issue in any city is attendance, regardless of which ‘genre’ or sector is represented. Times have changed, traditional listening scenarios aren’t as attractive to a contemporary audience, regardless of genre.

    A truly new and radical approach to that problem is to realize that, since audiences aren’t coming to music events (in high numbers), more numbers can be served by revisiting the traditional concert model. In other words, it’s not the music itself that’s at issue, but the means by which its accessed.

  9. 1) A true statement (as well as obvious).

    2) Could not agree more. Thanks to the industrial revolution, the arts are no longer considered a “practical means for support” since the results are not as tangible as that of a steal worker taking home a check every two weeks. Because of this, even if the Government stood up and considered the arts more, it would never be enough.

    3) The elements that make the music “forbidding” – and dare I say exclusionary – are because of number 4.

    4) Since the heydays of Schönberg, shunning of the overtone series, and essay titles like “Who cares if you listen?” the general public has been at a loss for what music is. After being told they’ve been “looking at it all wrong,” the average concert-goer got fed-up (as history has shown us). It never ceases to amaze me when people forget to consider a basic element with audiences in regards to listening to music: either they will like it, or they won’t; it really is that simple. A musician in an academic setting tends to forget that due to their own daily environment. Composers and (some) musicians can understand a piece, even respect and appreciate it, all without liking it for the sake of pleasure. Mainly because, quite frankly, they know more about it. And they should because that’s their job. If I took my car into a mechanic and they started rattling on about struts and manifolds I’d be bored to tears. This is because they know more about this than I do, and I expect them to. But I’m not concerned with what they babble on about. I’m concerned with driving that car, and I don’t need to know about spark plug calibration to do so. Just like an average audience member shouldn’t have to be lectured into liking a piece of music. They should be able to say whether they like it or not without knowing a thing about it. (That’s what they mean when the pretentious call music “universal.”) True, orchestral music is more complex than most forms, but in the end it’s about aesthetics. Most orchestras have websites with recorded samples of new works on it they plan to play. So if no one is taking the time to go, even after hearing a sample of it, wouldn’t that just mean the audience doesn’t like it?

    5) Funny thing about “old” vs. “new” music: there’s no (guaranteed) money in the new. I’m not certain of the practices with orchestras in Australia, but in the U.S. the one with the most money gets to say what’s on the program. Since government grants don’t pay the orchestra bills, they need benefactors as much (if not more than) as they need to fill the seats. The executive fat-cats and trust-fund babies have a lot of cash to give, and if they like your orchestra they might throw a little your way each season. Of course, no self-respecting individual wants to give money without getting something for it. Question one: Did you know that for X-number of dollars, you can have a seat on the “advisory board” of a major orchestra, where you can actually have a say in what is to be played for the following season? Question two: How many benefactors do you think are going to choose Beethoven’s 9th over Erkki-Sven Tüür’s 4th?

    6) Often times I’m personally offended when orchestras go the “casual Friday” route. It’s such a condescending gesture. It reminds me of that massive marketing push by orchestras when the movie “Amadeus” came out. Yes, yes…music is fun. We get it. Just shut up and play.

    7) Ugh. One of my biggest pet peeves. It should be one-sided because I’ve already done my part as an audience member: I paid them. That’s how it works; I pay them to play music I (may) find interesting, and they play it. Anything more is compensation for their short-comings as performers. The “communication” comes from the music – it’s a statement by the composer.

    8) No one is saying the industry (I think you mean art) is not immune to changes to better their business – which is what it is, a business. However, if it’s about getting people to attend, start with the music. If it’s what people want to hear, they will show up.

  10. Max, orchestras in Australia receive a very large proportion of their operating expenses from the government, while private patronage accounts for a truly miniscule percentage of funding.

    Also, some audiences WANT greater participation – they don’t want to be required to sit still for the evening, making no noise apart from applause (but not between movements or when you are wowed by some piece of brilliance, just at designated moments). By restricting presentation styles to suit the more passive members of society, performing ensembles dud themselves out of a wider engagement.

    1. That’s great to hear your government backs the arts so much! However, my only point was that it isn’t quite that way here in the U.S.. I apologize for not making the distinction.

      As far as the participation, those types of concerts are usually different from standard concerts, and are often advertised as such. Most of the concerts I go to are filled with people who are there for the music only.

      I find it interesting that you noted people should not applaud in-between movements. By doing so you’ve admitted that there are in fact “rules” you would want the audience to adhere to. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it proves division among the audience itself. As soon as we can create an audience that all want the same thing, we can have our “ideal” concerts. Although I doubt such an audience exists. The best way to handle this issue is to market accordingly.

      1. Hello – ‘rules that I would want the audience to adhere to’???? I don’t care at all if the audience applauds between movements, or in the midst of a movement for that matter. Your conclusions in regard to my views are ones of projection rather than of logic. And the idea that I want audiences to refrain from applause between movements is hilarious!!!

  11. The new music scene is as alive in Sydney as much as Los angeles.
    On one level there is a proposal here to for it to reinvent itself and then on the other hand when it does, it no longer fits some peoples idea of what new music is and who is doing it.
    I like Carl’s comment about 1913. There are others that put it at 1945.
    But besides a time scale we have geographical scales. Where something comes from seems just as troublesome. and what class it comes from and whether it is strictly notated and if it is performed in 12ET or conventional instruments or not. It is a segregated specialty that refuses to
    encompass what people do in favor what they think it is supposed to be. New classical music has less and less daily to do with real new music.

  12. Does anyone else share my sense of déjà vu? The only comforting thought is that questions about the future of classical music are still being asked. The discomforting thought is that the same old responses keep cropping up and they are characterised by a complete avoidance of the issue. But I’m a simple person and I like my arguments to be simple.
    By and large I agree with Max. The issues in their simplest form are for me:
    1. Composers and musicians need to eat, clothe themselves and have warm (or cool in Australia!) shelter. These all cost money. If composers and musicians do not provide what the paying public likes to hear, the public will stay away and they will have to rely on charity. It’s called Market Forces 101.
    2. If the public enjoyed contemporary music they would flock to the concerts in droves. For close on 100 years we (the public) have been provided with “challenging” contemporary classical music and it still hasn’t become popular. Maybe I’m being over-simplistic, but that tells me something. Contemporary classical music is performed regularly in concert halls (I suspect) in most cities throughout the western world. It certainly is in Auckland. It is not as though it is unavailable. Market Forces 101 again.
    3. Why then are there no composers creating music that will please the general public? I applaud those who try new ideas but surely there are some out there who would just like to create nice simple melodies for skilled musicians to play on beautifully crafted instruments? I hesitate to use the word “elitism”, and condescending references to “conservative olds” are not helpful either.
    4. I think that some of the traditions that accompany classical music could well be tweaked to make them more relevant today, and the Proms is a good example of what can be done. Still popular after over 100 years! However many of the traditions have a basis in maximising the enjoyment for the greatest number of people. Such as not applauding between movements; this can completely ruin a piece of music.
    Remember the KISS principle, and look (and listen) around you. The answers are all there.

    1. Andrew, excellent point about déjà vu! This topic does seem to rear its head too many times.

      I think one of the problems is that people tend to romanticize this topic too much, thus loosing site of the initial problem. It’s understandable, I suppose. Some people just don’t want to tarnish the artistic quality with that ever-so dirty word “business.” Yet, it’s a necessary evil.

      And again, I agree the notion that people will show up if they like the music is really the bottom line. Viva la Occam’s razor!

  13. What good are Orchestras in Australia if they play no Australian music. All this funding is not supporting Australian arts only European. I might also point out a lack of American if one insist on taking the cultures of others. But how out of touch are we.
    How many composers do you know write for orchestra or will ever write for orchestra. Meanwhile it seems many Australian artists are off to Berlin where they have an audience. Yet few of these are included in any discussion of new music. Just orchestras which never do it.

  14. this is for all those who really think it is matter of marketing.
    which side of the bread here has the real butter

  15. Max, re point 4. Knowledge isn’t something intrinsic, if people don’t like something because they don’t understand it or don’t know enough about it, that can be remedied relatively easily. Many ensembles/composers/etc make an effort to foster understanding and are very happy to talk to people who are interested.
    The problem is that some people don’t want to know and don’t want to understand the new, they just want their own beliefs (social, not religious) affirmed and celebrated, they don’t want to be challenged.
    I’m not saying that all new music must challenge audiences, but it’s an important element of a contemporary art form.

    1. But isn’t that the real issue, that of the audience only wanting what they deem “listenable?” Who wants extra tasks like getting lessons on listening to a piece before it’s played? Will there be a quiz to follow? If I wasn’t in music, I know I wouldn’t.

      That’s not to say there aren’t people who want to learn more of it. I’m glad there are! However, there are far too many composers and performers out there who think *they* need to be the one to spread the wisdom of modern music; that it’s because it’s performed with orchestral instruments that we MUST listen. I say that’s how the whole elitist movement started. It barely worked in Schönberg’s favor, I doubt it will repeat itself quite the same way for someone else.

      I think the audience major is reluctant to take the words of those who say what is worth listening to. There’s too many different flavors of orchestral music now for them to handle. And how would one know if the person they’re listening to is “right?” Back in the 50’s and 60’s the neo-dadaist movement turned a lot of people sour. More sadly, music no longer became communal.

      You and I both know there’s nothing upper-crust about music notes. It’s just pitches. Much like poetry is just words. I think people should just remember that it’s all subjective. And the inclusive nature of music only applies to those who want to participate.

  16. Right on, Max. We must encourage diversity, innovation and experimentation. By the same token it is crucial for composers and musicians to be very clear: is the music we create for the general public, or a “boutique” audience, or purely for our own gratification? But for goodness sakes, stop blaming the general public for not liking your music!!

  17. For Tim: I also know a lot of composers, and musicians, and agree with you that they do not “blame the public for not liking their music”. However this mind-set is often implied, in conversations I have had and articles I have read, and if I could just quote an example from the comments in this blog:

    Knowledge isn’t something intrinsic, if people don’t like something because they don’t understand it or don’t know enough about it, that can be remedied relatively easily. Many ensembles/composers/etc make an effort to foster understanding and are very happy to talk to people who are interested.
    The problem is that some people don’t want to know and don’t want to understand the new, they just want their own beliefs (social, not religious) affirmed and celebrated, they don’t want to be challenged.

    I am totally passionate about classical music and its perpetuation for me and my descendants. However I continue to be deeply concerned about the lack of positive, forward development in classical music, particularly the widening rift between new music and audiences of my age. (Bear in mind we were also young once; I have the mathematics to prove it!) From our perspective – and I am generalising here – contemporary classical music has a very limited appeal to regular concert-goers and this shows no signs of changing. My contention is that if the makers of classical music do not address the real issues, then classical music will become less and less relevant in our society. I should also add that I am a budding composer!

  18. I don’t think the problem is that people do not like it.
    There is a problem of context as i have mentioned which i assume is being ignored.
    But to move on, people like it when they hear it often enough, the problem is is that audiences have few ways to find it useful to them in their lives.

  19. It’s worth remembering that “Who Cares If You Listen?” was not Babbitt’s title. It was assigned by the editor of the popular publication in which the essay was published (Stereo Review?). The thrust of Babbitt’s article was that composers write for themselves first and some of them will have a limited audience. This was and is acceptable to him and is understood by anyone who composes, writes novels or poetry, and so on.

  20. Andrew, there’s a wide, wide range of styles constituting “contemporary classical music,” from Carter, Fernyhough, and other modernists who write highly complex music, to minimalist and post-minimalist composers (Reich, Glass, Adams, and many others), to exceptionally lyrical composers such as Higdon and Harbison. I’m curious which of these you’re familiar with and which you like.

  21. For Lisa and Kraig: I cannot pretend to be familiar with the composers you mention, except for Glass and Adams. There are several New Zealand composers who are played regularly, in particular John Psathas who has an international following, and the late David Farquhar whose Ring Round the Moon Suite gets regular airtime and is a favourite of mine. Yet I go to numerous concerts (average one a week) many of which include contemporary works. Why then are the composers you mention almost completely unknown to me? I suspect for the very reasons I have been stating: contemporary classical music has a “boutique” following (it certainly does in New Zealand) and the regular concert-goers who avoid concerts with primarily contemporary works, are not exposed to it.
    I suggest that Richard Strauss’s first Golden Rule of Conducting is equally applicable to composers:

    Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.

    This is the underlying basis for my plea to composers: it is not compulsory to compose in the modern idiom. God will not smite you from above if you don’t experiment and innovate. There is no shame in composing in the old classical style. In fact there is a huge, untapped market for well-written, melodic classical music, and this is ignored at our peril.

  22. Jennifer Higdon is one of the most-performed living composers in the United States. She’s in her early-mid-40s, and won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music, which is the Big Music Prize here. I assume she is less-performed or not performed at all in your part of the world and that’s why you haven’t heard of her. Ditto Harbison.

  23. Oh, and I completely disagree that Strauss’s conducting dictum applies to composers. They should please themselves first, because they cannot predict where their audience lies.

  24. I don’t think Harbison has much of an international profile at all; he’s hardly performed in the UK, I’m only aware of him through US bloggers and reviews in the NY Times. Higdon’s profile is a little bigger here (the Grammy helps) but again I can’t think of many performances. But Andrew might be interested that the NZ SO are performing her Percussion Concerto in Wellington and Auckland in September: http://www.jenniferhigdon.com/performancesresidencies.html (Currently her only scheduled non-US performances according to that list, in fact.)

  25. Lisa and Tim: I have now listened to some Jennifer Higdon and John Harbison. Jennifer has a delicate, sensitive touch (dare I say a woman’s touch – and I’m not being condescending!) and the tracks I heard were very easy to listen to. John’s works that I listened to were also pleasant to the ear. However in both cases I may not have selected the best examples of their work.
    FYI: the New Zealand Trio performed one of Jennifer Higdon’s works in a Rotorua concert earlier this year.
    And Tim: I have enjoyed following this blog. There have been some interesting discussion threads.

  26. Lisa wrote something on her blog that I think is really the nub of the whole gist here:

    The classical music audience is highly fragmented.

    I’m a perfect example: I’m only interested in 20th/21st century orchestral works (with soloists too), 20th/21st century operas and solo piano. I have zero interest in chamber music or choral works or Haydn or minimalism or… [could go on forever].

    I love New Music, but Tim promotes New Music and I have very little interest in any of the stuff he mentions because it’s mostly small ensemble stuff or the Downtown aesthetic or closer to electronica than anything. Give me Pintscher or Kyburz or Staud blazing away with large orchestral forces any day.

    I totally *DO* blame the audiences for not getting new music. You know why? Because they *still haven’t caught up to early 20th century modernism yet*. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people bitch after a concert about that “horrible atonal music” that was just played. Oh dear! Had they sat through Birtwistle or Stockhausen or Boulez? No, it was stuff such as

    Strauss: Don Juan
    Barber: First Symphony
    Debussy: La Mer
    Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
    Puccini: Turandot (!!!)
    Stravinsky: The Firebird

    If it’s not blatantly tuneful, lush and rhythmically steady, the majority of the audience doesn’t want to know. Let’s face it, most of the audience would be perfectly content if classical music had stopped being written ca. 1890.

    That’s fine, I don’t give a damn about the whole “museum art” argument or whether the average age of the audience is 87 or “being vital” or “being relevant to society today” and I definitely don’t care one iota what the larger culture thinks about orchestral music or opera.

    What I do care about is that administrators learn to cater to the audience that DOES like non-tonal music, just like they cater to lieder or organ recital enthusiasts. And for the love of God, quit dropping a Mozart piece in the middle of a Birtwistle/Berg/Stravinsky program.

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