Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

Crazy Modern Music
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 5 2007 2:39 PM

Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

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Ben:

You write: "I used to think it's because jazz has become too thoughtful for its own good, but I am coming to think that it doesn't have to do with jazz at all. People just don't go out to hear music anymore, the way they used to even 15 years ago." Classical and jazz find themselves in similar predicaments, don't they? Both yearn for that lost golden age when they held a central place in the culture: Bernstein appeared on TV and the cover of Time; college-age kids were essentially required to buy each new record by Dizzy and Bird. Now, both classical and jazz are slotted as "niche" markets. As a result, there's constant fret over the future: Is jazz dead? Is classical music dying? Has classical music/jazz become nothing more than a museum of the past, a nostalgia trip? The blogger Boring Like a Drill, commenting on a New Republic article by the musicologist Richard Taruskin, writes about "the ongoing Sick Man Dialogue classical music has been having with itself for years ('How do I look? Do I look alright? I think I'm feeling a bit better today…')." I'm sure that's familiar to you.

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It doesn't really have anything to do with jazz, and it doesn't have anything to do with classical music, either. All the performing arts face the same challenge. Any art form that requires people to go out in the evenings, take a seat, and watch people doing something arty onstage is certain to have worries about declining audiences, aging audiences, fund raising, etc. Whenever I go see a show on Broadway—only once or twice a year, since going out and sitting down always feels like work rather than fun—I realize I'm looking at the same audience, the same generation. In fact, next to some Broadway matinee crowds, Carnegie Hall concertgoers look like kids at Hannah Montana. Live pop doesn't seem to carry the same burden, although if the Rolling Stones keep on keeping on, their demographic will out-gray all others. The difference is that mainstream pop acts pack arenas with committed fans. They may see no other live music that year: Springsteen is their thing. It's not about attracting a consistent public to the Continental Airlines Arena every weekend. Whereas jazz and classical require fans to go out night after night, checking out "whatever's new," as you say. The audience needs to love the experience of being in the club or in the hall, no matter who's playing. And the younger generations no longer seem to have that urge, at least not as much.

I wonder, though, how deep this crisis goes. The Music—jazz or classical—may have fallen from a great height. Then again, aren't audiences for the Music collectively bigger than they were 50 years ago—especially when you factor in Europe and East Asia? Across the oceans, the concertgoing habit seems more ingrained. I'm told that teenagers and twentysomethings show up in large numbers for orchestra concerts in Japan, where classical music holds a healthy 15 percent market share. I sometimes see hip young Japanese tourists at the Philharmonic, looking a bit confused, as if thinking to themselves, "Why are we the only young people here?" The crisis seems to be particularly, peculiarly American—though it may spread.

Let's get to the hot topic: Crazy Modern Music. Your story of seeing Miles Davis turn his back on the crowd reminds me of a primal scene in classical modernism. Arnold Schoenberg, after the premiere of his huge orchestral song cycle Gurre-Lieder, came up onstage to thank the musicians, but he reportedly kept his back turned to the crowd, refusing to acknowledge the applause. Schoenberg's first atonal works, in which he abandoned familiar harmony and presented a radical new dissonant language, had set off riots in Vienna, leaving the composer in a state of burning resentment. The irony is that Gurre-Lieder itself aroused wild enthusiasm in the audience. Here was the beginning of a standoff between artist and public that has lasted almost 100 years.

There's a certain kind of music lover who, when asked why the art form has lost appeal, will say, "X went too far!" Plug in Schoenberg's name, or Coltrane's, or Boulez's, or Cecil Taylor's. In your book, you present the debate between "conservatives" and "avant-gardists" as a "weird, decadent phase, when the notions of 'straight-ahead' and 'free' playing stood in pure opposition to each other, and each one was grossly distorted for the purposes of argument." I cover similar squabbles in The Rest Is Noise, trying to move past ideological dispute to a pragmatic account of a profoundly pluralistic century. The avant-garde tends to get blamed for problems that go much deeper—the cultural shifts we've mentioned above. Indeed, for many potential listeners, the avant-garde is an active draw. The Los Angeles Philharmonic drew huge young crowds when it presented a Minimalist Jukebox festival a couple years back, even as traditional subscribers stayed away in protest. These days, institutions must invent programming that will please multiple overlapping audiences; there is no one audience anymore, if there ever was.

Perhaps my main mission as a critic is to urge readers to bend an ear to the new, since it holds the key to the survival and the renewal of the art. And living composers such as John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov are no longer in the business of pissing off the audience (not that that's what Schoenberg ever wanted). Attendance spikes when Golijov's music is played. This is a new phenomenon, at least in my experience; it holds hope for the future. If people start to think of classical music as an art where the new comfortably mixes with the old, it can shake off the crusty, formal image under which it has labored for so long (an image largely of its own invention, alas). Are there similarly hopeful signs in jazz? Are you "feeling a bit better today"?

Alex

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, has just been published.

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