Monday, December 27, 2004

A Cautionary Tale

THERE ARE many possible strategies for literature to follow to survive in a changing world. It's not easy to pick the right strategy. One way is to look at failed strategies-- at roads NOT to take.

The strategy employed by classical music in this society is a perfect example of a failed strategy. It's wrapped itself in its elite status, and in so doing cut itself off from the mass public. Its attempts at outreach to the general public are token and laughably limited. The supposedly wise part of its snob appeal was in gaining a large stream of funding from rich people, government, and foundations. Despite this lavish flow of money, it's uncompetitive against forms of music which receive no such dollars.

Finally, it's put its entire effort at creating musicians, and an audience, in academia. Classical music has had a dominating position in universities the past couple hundred years. Every year thousands of competent classically-trained musicians are cranked-out by the academies. This represents a gigantic investment. Yet again, despite this tops-down approach, the position of classical music in the culture, in society, continues to dwindle.

Classical music sections at record stores shrink or vanish, as do sales. Classic rock, a tired genre, fills the radio airwaves, while classical music can hardly be heard anywhere on the dial, except part-time on NPR. In sum, the art has followed a LOSER strategy.

Yest this is exactly the strategy establishment lit is following. The recent black-tie National Book Awards resembled a classical music gala. Master of Fine Arts writers make up 90% or more of the lit world, while their art appeals to little more than 10% of the potential audience. Just as classical music's audience is reduced to a sliver of rich people, and to those many thousands of unemployed college-trained musicians (not enough to sustain the art), so is literary writing's audience reduced to small cohorts of MFA grads. (Who sustain the nearly-unreadable McSweeney's, for instance.) It's a plan guaranteed in the long-run to fail, which is why the ULA rejects it in total.

All those many writers who now scorn the ULA will soon enough be imitating us.


Anonymous said...

I recently wrote a short article about this idea, which I don't believe made the final cut at the newspaper I was writing for. The heading was, "Best Reason Lincoln Center Audiences Are Idiots" and the answer was: "THEY NEVER BOO".

Go to any classical concert, or listen to a live show on your local classical station, and at the end of the performance you will always hear the same thing: a thunderous, screaming, shrieking approval from the audience.

In my article I called classical music fans "a cult of clapping." They've paid good money for their seats, they are wearing nice clothes, and they want to impress the other audience members with their sophistication. So they scream and SCREAM at the end of every sym-phony (sic) or opera.

Where are the days when audiences used to chase composers out of the theatre after daring new works were performed (like Rites of Spring)? At least in Italy and Great Britain they still have their wits about them and will boo and hiss and heckle the performers. But in America they just GLOW and YELL and SCREEEAAAM!!! at every performance. Idiots.

Tim Hall

Jeff Potter said...

Preach it, Tim and King!

Something that bugs me about music around our area is that when people talk about kids learning how to play an instrument it's always in the sense of a dry hierarchy. When they think of learning the violin, it's in terms of Suzuki. Bloodless! Why not *fiddle*?

I know two kids who learned how to play at campground festivals, standing around campfires with groups of young and old, relatives, too. They start out listening, then they add little easy bits here and there, then add more and more until they start competing for their right to major airtime around the circle. Or not: there are lots of circles. You don't have to get fiesty about it. But in the folky world, cutting can be fun and if you win, the guy or gal you beat pats you on the back and says good job and steps back. The particular kids I'm thinking of are Jack Saunders' two sons who are now professional, influential, respected, stylish musicians making their livings with living music. No grants involved. No degrees. Anyway, that's how I want my kids to learn: from old farts around a campfire. Well, there are lessons involved, but I suspect they're not Suzuki.

I think there CAN be life in classical music...but it's not thanks to the system or racket around about it. Our kids already know a bunch of Carter Family songs by heart. If they learn to play them on an instrument, I think they'll be better set up to appreciate some classical, to feel the human in it.

As regards fan and audience behavior, the booing in bar music is healthy stuff. But really I like the way that bluegrass and jazz audiences interact throughout songs, not just after a performance. When a player does something really good, the crowd busts in right then and there. The music is easily constructed to take a break of a bar or two while people respond. Sure, there's polite reaction to most solo breaks, but a standout piece gets instant big response. There's a give'n'take throughout each piece. I've heard it can get annoying when it's overly democratic, with every break getting equal applause---a milquetoast crowd can start to feel obliged: but good music in this case attracts good crowds. The up close , immediate, unmediated nature of jazz, bluegrass and folk make the interaction a good thing.

We haven't even mentioned DANCING. There's nothing better than hearing civil music and when a waltz pops up being able to waltz, say, with your little girl like I did at a downtown folk fest last summer. (Some communities do sponsor folk fests, like they might symphonies, but folk is truly for the people.)

I like the thrifty admission fees and the small venues. A weekend folkfest---of 200 or 20,000---will still be for the people rather than for the money: a time when you know a campground is safe for everyone even with plenty of liveliness and few rules. I like sitting up close to hear my heroes and you can do that often with jazz, folk and 'grass. Like, you can chat between songs with Grammy winners in these fields. Non-mass-market, non-hierarchical music is where it's at.