The following is a response to a presentation given in my music psychology class by my friend and colleague Bruce McFarland. Bruce’s presentation related to the decline in classical concert attendance.
I should begin by stating that I greatly enjoyed Bruce’s presentation on concert attendance in recent decades. It was interesting to consider some of the factors which may be leading to the decline in attendance. Many of these factors were ones I hadn’t considered, and each could warrant an entire paper’s worth of research. I write this response not to argue, but rather to express some thoughts and opinions we simply didn’t have time to get into during class.
At the very end of his presentation, Bruce said something in his conclusion that struck me as rather non-sequitur. I’m not sure he really meant to say this, and perhaps he didn’t realize exactly what he was implying, but to paraphrase it, he said something like this: "Concert attendance is down, so what can composers do to change this? Compose music with melody and a perceivable pulse. That’s what people want to hear. Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is one of the greatest pieces of all time, and it managed to be likable and do all sorts of new things with rhythm and timbre.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some personal issue with that notion, as Bruce’s entire presentation had nothing to do with modern composers or composition. Yet in a single sentence he wrapped up all of the problems currently inhibiting concert attendance and blamed them on composers. Not a single other solution was offered as to how to improve the decline in concert attendance, nor had modern composition ever been mentioned prior in his presentation as a contributor to concert attendance.
The “blame” (and I don’t like that term) can be spread just about anywhere if you try hard enough. I could blame concert attendance on modernity, the borderline ancient ritual that a classical concert is, global warming, ISIS, poor management of the ensemble, bloated salaries of conductors and musicians, poor marketing, the awesome lineup that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a fundamental shift in society as to what we view as entertainment, Netflix, Game of Thrones, and especially Obama.
Of all possible factors to blame for the decline of concert attendance, the one which I struggle the most with is modern composition. Bruce should agree, as his presentation all but proves this point. Firstly, he argued multiple times that people prefer to know the music they are paying to see. They attend concerts to see Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi. How can we be to blame if people are already biased against new music on the concert? If people only want to hear music they already know, then composers have lost the battle before we ever arrive on the field. Are we supposed to write music that sounds like Mahler or Beethoven?
Secondly, and on that same note, very little new music is performed in the first place. It’s not as though new music performances have been on the rise in recent decades. If that was the case then a correlation might be seen between concert attendance and the presence of new music, but no such correlation can be argued.
Lastly, Bruce only mentioned a single piece pf music in his entire presentation: Lincolnshire Posy. This was his example for ‘new music’ being accessible yet also innovative and forward looking. Was Lincolnshire Posy forward looking? Given it was composed decades after The Rite of Spring I would hardly say so. Not to mention Lincolnshire Posy is 80 years old. What does it possibly have to do with the current situation of modern composition in the concert hall? If Bruce’s aim was to say that new music can be both liked by audiences and forward looking, then he needs to reevaluate his stance based on the music of that last 80 years. In order to be new and forward looking you can’t ignore Ligeti, Carter, Stockhausen, Boulez, Crumb, etc.
This is no longer the 18th century. To paraphrase Schoenberg, "if it is for all it is not art, and if it is art it is not for all.” As painful as it is to say, perhaps the classical orchestra simply has no function anymore, at least not as a professional, full-time entity which charges admission. The orchestra used to exist as it was the only way to hear orchestral music. Modern recording technology has done away with that, and all of the great pieces from centuries prior have been recorded and recorded again (and again and again and again). So it would actually make sense for orchestras to perform almost exclusively new music as there exists no other way to hear it!
Just to clarify, I want the orchestra as an establishment of music to continue for the longevity of human history. Many know the Minnesota Orchestra is near and dear to my heart, and I wouldn’t trade my concert listening experiences with them for the world. However, it’s clear that something needs to change. Unlike Bruce, however, I don’t feel it is composers that need to do the changing.
The reason I’m saying all of this is because I think Bruce’s statement at the end of his presentation is a dangerous one. It’s a viewpoint that can cause a fear of new art. A desire to avoid new art. A desire to give anything less than your full attention to new music. Is all new music great? Not at all, in fact I get bored with the vast majority of it, but I’d caution telling composers to write the kind of music audience members want. To do so would prevent art from growing. Beethoven didn’t write the kind of music people wanted, but as soon as they heard it they couldn’t live without it.