May 03, 2010

Classical music evolution and revolution: our Culturelab talk

Arts researcher Alan Brown invited a small posse of international arts consultants to Chicago for a three-day meeting about how we can help the field. Friday featured a whirlwind seminar on “emerging practices,” with ten presentations and lots of Q&A with the funders, arts leaders, academics, and students around the table. Here’s what Cheryl and I tossed into the ring.

I’m eager to tell you more about Culturelab and our newfound colleagues in this experiment, which will be based at the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. But for now, I’ll recap my presentation with Cheryl at the Friday session.

Maybe because we’d just hosted a conversation with Greg Sandow here the previous week, we chose to talk about how classical music is changing and how the "institutional" side of the classical business can learn from what’s going on on the “grassroots” side. As many of you know, my thinking on this subject is deeply influenced by Greg’s, and some of his suggestions were instrumental (pardon the pun) as we put this together last week.

Mostly, we showed pictures, starting with these two. Neither depicts your grandmother’s classical concert, but they depart from the old norms in two very different directions, one staying “uptown,” one heading “downtown.”

That’s Sigourney Weaver in the foreground, helping narrate a concert of flight-themed works by the Little Orchestra Society at Lincoln Center last week, with projections on a screen behind the musicians.

And that's Hilary Hahn playing with singer-songwriter Josh Ritter at a CD-release party at a club on the Lower East Side two years ago. (The CD in question, by the way, was Sibelius and Schoenberg, not crossover.)

Then, building this diagram from left to right, I showed examples of five different ways in which the presentation of classical music is shifting: ...

1. Explanatory formats
The Chicago Symphony’s Beyond the Score concerts may be the most fully-developed example of how orchestras are helping their audiences “get” the music and connect to the composers, periods, ideas, etc. The Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics series works in a similar vein, but is meant to be lighter, with bantering hosts and a healthy irreverence about the “greatness” of classical music.

Both are essentially cognitive experiences. They work on the premise that if you understand the music better, you’ll enjoy it more. Which is reasonable, to a point, but it presumes you already basically enjoy the stuff you’re learning about. (More about that assumption in a future post.)

2. Electronic distribution

Going to the Met used to look like the left image.

Now it can also look like the right, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s HD Live transmissions, now showing in hundreds of theaters in the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Other classical music organizations are doing similar things, with web streaming, DVD sales, and subscriptions for downloads.

3. Cross-genre collaboration

This one is happening both at orchestras and at the grassroots level. We’ve all heard classical takes on Radiohead songs, and the relationship between indie rock and young chamber ensembles has become very fertile (especially in New York). The boundaries are collapsing, and we’re left using hyphenated phrases and neologisms that play catch-up with the music we’re hearing. (One of my favorite category-busters is Punch Brothers, with its virtuosic bluegrass-classical-chamber-rock. ‘Newgrass’ to its friends.)

4. Alternative venues/vibe

I’ve blogged about this trend here, and many of you have added to my mental map of what’s happening. In this presentation we showed this atmospheric picture of a Classical Revolution gig in San Francisco...

...and I quoted from a public radio story about the Chicago version of Classical Revolution:

Here, anyone can bring music and join in to play. The performers have to sight read, then play it cold, and it’s often music they’ve never seen before. There’s a lot of stopping and starting, and even some laughter.

This is a far piece from the authoritative theatricality of Beyond the Score.

5. Technology and participation

Cellist Peter Gregson (second from right, below) held a cello “tweet-up” at Union Square in San Francisco — flash mob meets chamber music. Gregson also plays concerts while the audience’s tweets are projected onto the wall behind him. (No surprise that he was asked to give a private concert at Twitter headquarters a few weeks ago.)


There are also compositions in which audience members participate by using their cell phones. There’s the iPhone Orchestra. And much else.

To us, these kinds of innovation run along a spectrum from evolutionary to revolutionary. On the left side (institutional change), audience behavior is constrained and passive. On the right side (grassroots change), it’s more self-expressive, spontaneous, and active.

But the biggest difference is that the institutional efforts have largely drawn people who are already attending classical concerts. They deepen engagement and satisfaction significantly, and they do make people feel closer to the music — that we know from research we’ve conducted for Beyond the Score and Inside the Classics. But the same research tells us that few of these concertgoers can be classified as new audiences, and in terms of age and demographics they look pretty much like traditional patrons.

By contrast, those grassroots innovations seem to really broaden the audience, especially to young, social music-lovers. I say “seem” because nobody’s really studying the alt-classical audience in the same way. So the question is how classical music institutions, housed in those grand edifices and premised on a century or more of polish, formality, and tradition, can tap into the energy of the upstarts.

Isn’t that how innovation often flows in creative industries, from the creative, experimental “indies” to more established organizations? A few risks pay off, and these get co-opted and commercialized for larger audiences by the mainstream organizations.

At the Culturelab gathering, Cheryl went one step further, posing a very different question. How can we, as arts consultants and funders, support the upstarts themselves, for the good of the whole ecology? After all, what we care about is the classical music field, not the bow-ties and coughing-between-movements field. To us, the grassroots direction looks like the brighter future. What about you?


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