Recently in Music Category


The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the back page of its Pursuits section in today's weekend edition. The subject is a recent report by the Magic of Music Initiative, a project started about ten years ago to study concert attendance at symphony orchestras and to attempt to find a way of reversing the fall in the fortunes of American concert halls. The study has uncovered a lot of useful background information on the listening habits and preferences of Americans, and simultaneously has reached a lot of dispiriting conclusions about pragmatic solutions to the problem of flagging concert attendance.

So what doesn't work in terms of driving up concert attendance? In short, everything. The study determined that none of the current outreach and advertising methods employed by symphony orchestras has a positive effect on attendance.

Free concerts are one of the most frequently used methods, and while they may be well-attended they don't result in greater paid concert attendance. The majority of attendees at free concerts are subscribers who already pay to attend concerts regularly. Those who go to free concerts and don't regularly pay to go to the symphony are almost never converted to paying customers by free concerts; they merely become regular attendees of free concerts.

Educational outreach is similarly ineffective. Symphony orchestras have tried to offer free or cheap lectures to the public on classical music, in the hopes that it would make the symphony less intimidating and spark an interest in concert attendance. Here, the imbalance between regular attendees and neophytes is even more stark than in free concert attendance: nearly everyone who attends these lectures is already a paying symphony attendee, taking the opportunity to broaden their understanding of the music.

Youth outreach generally doesn't work, either. Young Persons Concerts, orchestra performances at elementary and middles schools, and general exposure to live classical music seems to have no effect on concert attendance later in the lives of children thus exposed. The one slightly positive thing that the study uncovered is that playing an instrument does seem to have an impact on symphony attendance. 74% of regular concert attendees played an instrument or sang in a chorus as a child. Unfortunately, the correlation doesn't work in reverse; if you're a concert attendee, you probably played an instrument, but playing an instrument doesn't mean you'll become a concert attendee. So expanded hands-on music education offers a means of growing the pool of potential people to lure to concerts, but offers no lessons on how to actually get butts into seats.

So what works? Nothing. At least, nothing tried so far. The study did, however, produce interesting background research on American musical tastes and has given some idea of what aspects of the concert experience are problematic and what aspects aren't. The most hopeful finding: The music itself isn't the problem. 60% of Americans expressed an interest in classical music and in learning more about it, and a third of Americans make listening to classical music a part of their daily lives. But while that 60% purchases classical music recordings (owning an average of 16 CDs each), only 5% of the 60% actually attend concerts.

So the interest is there, but orchestras have thus far failed at turning that interest into attendance. The report posits several possible avenues of exploration in the future. The first is greater community outreach. Right now, the principle audience for orchestras is white, old, and wealthy. Symphonies need to do a better job of becoming a part of their community, rather than an island of high culture removed from its surroundings.

As an aside, this strikes me as a very confused and hand-wavey solution to the problem. Supposedly education doesn't work, free concerts don't work, and there's no need to change the music on offer because people are already interested enough in it. I'm not sure exactly how symphonies are supposed to integrate with their communities without offering free concerts, free education, or a selection of music designed to appeal to the local community.

The study also suggests that the venue is the problem. People enjoy classical music on the radio, and classical music CDs, but that doesn't translate to actually jackassing to a concert hall and paying for a ticket to listen to live music for several hours. Perhaps the solution is to perform shorter works or to charge less for tickets.

There's also another element that isn't really addressed by the study, but that I think might underlie a lot of the problems. Classical music is, you'll be shocked to learn, fairly conservative. It's been a long time since a new piece of music has entered the canon. That's not to say that new works aren't being composed, just that they seldom get much play by orchestras.

One of the techniques that various symphonies have tried to increase attendance by younger audiences is to increase the proportion of new pieces performed. The Magic of Music study determined that this doesn't work. It alienates older audiences who want the so-called Three Bs (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms), and younger people aren't particularly drawn to the new pieces (Because they haven't heard of them, because nobody performs them). So playing new music just hurts symphonies and, according to the study, orchestras ought to stick to the classics.

While that might be true in the short run, I think it's part of what's slowly strangingly classical music. One hundred years ago new pieces were being composed, performed, and, if audiences liked them, they entered the canon. There was a strong willingness to experiment with new music. That has stopped. A new piece hasn't entered the canon in over half a century.

The problem is that new music isn't particularly profitable. Essentially nobody is walking around saying to themselves "I never go to concerts because they never play music by bold experimentalists like Kaaija Saariaho, or even stuff by Phillip Glass or John Adams." Playing new music annoys regular attendees and doesn't bring anyone new in.

But playing new music is vital for the continued existence of classical music. Classial music has been made into an antique, an oddity to be studied carefully and not to be tampered with. Nobody gets excited about new pieces being performed, and that means that classical music lacks a vibrancy that popular music possesses. It's hard to attract a new listener with the prospect of the orchestra's five millionth performance of the same Brahms concerto that they play ten times a year.

The problem is the overall aesthetic. The lack of new music means that classical music is pitched to people not as a vital art form, but as a history lesson. That puts it at an advertising disadvantage; where popular music functions on a simple "attend concerts because you enjoy them" pitch, classical music sets itself up as "attend concerts, not because they are enjoyable, but because they are good for you and you'll learn something from attending them." Playing new music isn't a short-term means of attracting a new audience; it's a long-term way of transforming classical music from a high-brow academic pursuit into a normal form of musical expression and enjoyment.

But of course, the problem is that playing new music is something of a luxury. As mentioned, new music pushes out present customers and doesn't attract new ones, at least in the short term. And right now, orchestras are barely surviving with the old patrons. They can't afford to take a loss for the greater good of classical music by playing a bunch of new music that may never catch on.

I'm interested to know what people think about attending symphonies, particularly people who don't right now. Why don't you? This is not intended to be accusative. If, for instance, you're just not interested there's not much to be done about that. But if you are interested in classical music, why hasn't that translated to attending concerts? Too expensive? Too intimidating? Too long? Not enough interested friends to go with? Or does it just never occur to you to look into it?

Lawyer or Hit-Man: You Make the Call

Another thought from Rigoletto: there's an interesting line mid-way through Act III that I found myself laughing out loud to, for reasons only tangentially related to the play.

Some brief background on the situation: Scarafucile is an assassin who has been hired by Rigoletto to kill the Duke. The Duke has been lured to Scarafucile's inn by Scarafucile's sister, Maddalena, who has used her feminine wiles to seduce him and put him to sleep. However, in the process she has fallen in love with him, and is now pleading for her brother to spare the Duke's life. Her brother is having nothing of it; killing the Duke means 20 Ducats. Maddalena then suggests that Scarafucile could leave the Duke alive, wait for Rigoletto to return, then kill him and take his money. Scarafucile is outraged:

"Kill the Hunchback? What the devil are you thinking?
Am I a thief? Am I a robber?
I have never betrayed one of my clients!"

These lines, I feel, can be seen as showing the lawyerly code of professional responsibility distilled to its essence: Lie, cheat, omit, even if it means inflicting great harm, even unto death, to others, but never, ever betray your client!

Not Such Good Things

I learned this afternoon that girl punk rock band Sleater-Kinney has broken up. Well, gone on "indefinite hiatus" with no plans for future tours and recordings, which, to my understanding, is a distinction without a difference. They're planning to finish out the remainder of their scheduled concerts this summer, so if you'd like to see them you'd best get on it. Their show in Manhattan on August 2nd is already sold out. It looks like their last performance ever will be August 3rd in Chicago at Lollapalooza.

I blame myself for this. I'm not allowed to like bands that are still together/relevant. If I start liking a band, they will either become irrelevant, break up, or possibly explode.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?


I just picked up a 2CD set of Johann Strauss waltzes from the library. The neat thing about Strauss's waltzes is that he gave them interesting titles, not unlike modern pop music, as opposed to things like "Concerto in D Minor for Clarinet and Oboe, Opus 376." I mean, there are good arguments for mechanically named pieces; the idea a lot of the time was that giving your music a bland numerical name would ensure that the music would speak for itself. When you call a piece "Romeo and Juliet Suite," people come in expecting the music to behave in a certain way and will box their interpretation of it within the context of the title. If you call the same piece "Symphony no. 7," the music can be whatever the listener wants it to be.

Still, it's nice to come upon songs with interesting names. As it happens, Strauss's waltz titles are all in German, which gives me a chance to exercise my neglected High School German knowledge. I was surprised at how many I was able to translate reading the track list. Here's what I came up with, without consulting Babelfish or a German-English dictionary or anything:

Disc 1

1. An der Schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube)
2. Frühlingsstimmen (Joyful-something)
3. Sphären-Klänge (No idea)
4. Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Stories of the Vienna Forest)
5. Du und Du (You and You)
6. Wein, Weib und Gesang (Wine, Women, and Song)
7. Tausend und eine Nacht (Thousand and One Nights)
8. Wo die Zitronen blühn (Where the Lemon Flower Blooms)
9. Liebeslieder (Love Song)

Disc 2

1. Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood (?))
2. Wiener Bonbons (Viennese Chocolates)
3. Künstlerleben (The Merchant's Life)
4. Morgenblätter (Morning Leaves)
5. Dorfschwalben aus Österreich (Something of Austria)
6. Rosen aus dem Süden (Roses of the South)
7. Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor Walz)
8. Accellerationen (Acceleration)

Oh! Now I Get It!!!

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There's a neat work, Apophenia, that means seeing connections where you didn't before. That is, you may have known Fact A and Fact B separately, but you have an apophenic moment when you suddenly realize that A causes B, or some such.

I had such a moment tonight, regarding Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata. Alexander Nevsky has long been a favorite piece of music, but I never put together the context in which it was produced until tonight. So anyhow, the facts that got connected:

Sergei Prokofiev was a composer who lived from 1891 to 1953. Born in Russia, he emigrated to the United States in 1918, but moved back and forth between Russia and the US throughout the 20s and early 30s before eventually deciding to remain in Russia in 1936.

Alexander Nevsky was a legendary Russian hero of the middle ages. The story goes that in 1240 or so he rallied the Russian people to expel the occupying Teutonic Knights, who were there to spread Catholicism to Russia. He might have been made a Czar as a result. It's also possible that the Romanovs subsequently insinuated him into their lineage in order to give their rulership more credibility. In either case, Prokofiev's piece was a musical retelling of his life.

Soviet art and music was always heavily state-controlled, but particularly during the reign of Josef Stalin. Stalin felt art should have a purpose; art for art's sake is a luxury of the bourgeoisie, true proletarian art must be useful and functional. Therefore: A piece of music should have a message that advances socialist ideals. It should be easily understandable by the common man, and require no special training or sophistication to appreciate.

But what are socialist ideals? An interesting question, and the answer that you gave could determine whether you lived or died if you lived in Russia in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The correct answer, of course, is that socialist ideals were what Stalin said socialists ideals were at that moment. Throughout the 20s, socialist ideals were mostly internationalist and cosmopolitan. The world revolution was coming soon, and Russia happened to be at the vanguard. Soon there would be no need for states, so petty nationalism was gauche, a sign of bourgeois sympathies. Russian artists should focus on creating a new, universal proletarian style.

But the world revolution didn't come, and the new party line became Socialism in One Country. Russia would build its own socialist paradise and soon the rest of the world would fall in line. Suddenly it became very important to show how great Russia was. The Socialist Universalists were exposed for the utopian naifs that they were, and many found themselves in labor camps in Siberia. The true Socialist Art was art that exemplified the glories of the Russian people. The old Russian folk heroes who had been discarded with the revolution were rehabilitated, their histories re-written to reflect the true proletarian spirit with which they obviously acted before their stories were hijacked by the old aristocracy. Art that glorified the Russian People was the true Socialist Art, at least in the late-30s and early-40s.

And, of course, the big story in Russia in the early 40s was the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II).

All of this information had been floating around in my head until tonight, when suddenly it all came together and caused a revelation: Prokofiev wrote Alexander Nevsky when he was in Russia. He would have written it under the supervision of Stalin and his art commissars. And: Alexander Nevsky's legend is all about a great folk hero inspiring the Russian people to rise up and expell an invading German force. So I looked it up and confirmed: Alexander Nevsky was written in 1939, when tensions with Germany were at their peak before the German invasion of Russia. And it was written to serve a useful purpose, per Stalin's guidelines. It's not just a piece of music that happens to evoke an interesting story from history; it has a second layer as a piece of propaganda art, an inspirational work designed to say "We beat the Germans before, now let's rise up and beat them again."

It's interesting; before I'd always listened to Nevsky in a historical vacuum. I'd heard it as a piece of music that tells a folk story, but the music was divorced from the context of its production. Now I won't be able to listen to Nevsky without thinking about Leningrad and Stalingrad and the Great Patriotic War. The interesting question is whether knowing more about the piece will cause me to appreciate it more, or whether knowing that it was designed to serve a simple utilitarian purpose will make me think less of it.

And, for the heck of it, here's the fourth movement of Alexander Nevsky, Arise, Ye Russian People. It's a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado. It's available on a nicely priced album from Deutsche Grammophon that includes the Lieutenant Kije Suite and the Scythian Suite, also by Prokofiev.

Music Appreciation


Tangentially inspired by a conversation with a friend, I've decided to somewhat expand my knowledge or classical/orchestral music. I mean, I've heard a lot of it, I enjoy it, I own quite a few CDs, but I feel like I don't really have very much range or depth of knowledge. So I've bought a couple of books, Classical Music 101 and Opera 101, both by Fred Plotkin, former performance manager for the Metropolitan Opera.

They both come highly recommended and focus on giving a broad introduction to listening and enjoying the music. The classical music one features a huge list of performances to get and listen to in order to follow along with the book, which is sort of good and bad. On the one hand, following along and buying the music will give me a nice set of good recordings of a wide variety of works. On the other hand, even buying hunting around and buying these CDs used/on the internet it'll probably cost over $1000 to get everything he recommends. The trick is that he wants you to buy specific recordings so that he can make reference to interpretations and arrangements exhibited. So it's not enough to buy Beethoven's 7th Symphony, you have to buy the recording of Beethoven's 7th Symphony made by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and available only from EMI Classics in a deluxe boxed set of all of Beethoven's symphonies. Which is nice, insofar as it meanst you wind up with all of Beethoven's symphonies, but less nice insofar as it's a lot more expensive than the $6 Naxos recording of Beethoven's 7th.

The Opera version is somewhat cheaper, insofar as he covers fewer works, though of course operas tend to be more expensive to purchase than other classical CDs, given that they tend to come with more CDs plus a libretto.

But of course, if anyone were interested in exploring the classics along with me and sharing music purchases, it could be a lot cheaper. Is anyone interested?

Breach of Decorum


I don't want to seem like I'm obsessed with my roommate's sex life, but...

First, let me say I'm completely fine with my roommate having sex, especially since he has it in his own room. I don't even mind that it's loud, or happens late at night; the walls are nicely insulative, and I'm usually up anyway. I'm just mortified about my own activities when the sex is happening. If I were having sex, I'd want to be as little a nuisance to my roommate as possible. Therefore I'd rather he be walking around going about business as usual rather than, say, putting on headphones or locking himself in his room or whatnot. So I tend to act as though nothing's happening. But then I worry that my activities might be loud and annoying when my usual business at that moment is, say, washing the dishes or taking out the garbage or tromping around on the creaky floorboards in hiking boots. Is this taking casualness too far?

Which leads me to my final question, which is pressing since the roommate is mid-coitus: Would practicing the banjo while he's performing in his carnal carnival be stepping over the line that separates "casual indifference" from "passive aggression?"

Matter and Anti-Matter


What would be the opposite of mood music? Like, what sort of music would take someone who is in the mood for sex and makes them not in the mood for sex any longer? For purposes of this question, it has to be mainstream music; no children's songs or any such.

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