The Wrong Way of Finding Listeners

The excellent Linda Shaver-Gleason, writing at VAN on why classical music isn’t cool.

All of these are efforts to convince young people that classical music is cool—because, after all, nothing is cooler than something you have to be told is cool.

This was shared widely last week on classical music Twitter, and Shaver-Gleason makes an excellent case. I’d argue that VAN’s headline is wrong. The music is cool, in the same way that design or typography or film is cool. Like all cool, it’s cool to those who like it.

But the nut of her argument—that pretending musicians from a couple of hundred years ago would be considered cool today is a dumb way of attracting new listeners—is absolutely solid.

How not to do it

Roger Scruton, in BBC Magazine, has written an article that is equal parts “Rah, rah, rah!” and “Wah, wah, wah!”

It’s pretty amazing—an extended whinge about how modern life is rubbish, and how everyone would be listening to classical music if music wasn’t everywhere.

It doesn’t deserve a serious response, so I haven’t given it one.

In almost every public place today the ears are assailed by the sound of pop music. In shopping malls, public houses, restaurants, hotels and elevators the ambient sound is not human conversation but the music disgorged into the air by speakers—usually invisible and inaccessible speakers that cannot be punished for their impertinence.

“Back in my day…” is not a promising way to start a column, so Scruton begins with the somewhat less conventional “Why can’t I punish impertinent electronics?”

Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction, and ensures that for many of us a visit to the pub or a meal in a restaurant have lost their residual meaning.

Remember when you had to be rich to eat in a restaurant that had musicians on staff? Even then, I’m pretty sure they weren’t all playing Haydn.

These are no longer social events, but experiments in endurance, as you shout at each other over the deadly noise.

Has he considered going to a different pub? Or maybe having some friends over for dinner? Then he could play what he likes—including nothing.

There are two reasons why this vacuous music has flown into every public space. One is the vast change in the human ear brought about by the mass production of sound.

sound of rapid typing as Scruton edits the Wikipedia page on the human ear to show the vast change brought about by the mass production of sound

For our ancestors music was something that you sat down to listen to, or which you made for yourself. It was a ceremonial event, in which you participated, either as a passive listener or as an active performer. Either way you were giving and receiving life, sharing in something of great social significance.

Or had dinner to, or danced to, or marched off to war with, or sang with friends, or ignored while walking up the street or talking in a restaurant. Seriously, it’s as if he thinks pop music was invented in the late twentieth century.

Incidentally, he may be the first lover of any form of music I’ve ever known to describe his listening as “passive”.

With the advent of the gramophone, the radio and now the iPod…

“Now” the iPod?

…music is no longer something that you must make for yourself…

More people are making and sharing music now than at any other time in history. It just happens to be music Scruton doesn’t like.

…nor is it something that you sit down to listen to.

Except when you do.

It follows you about wherever you go, and you switch it on as a background.

You do whatever you want with it. It’s your music.

You are rightly prevented from polluting the air of a restaurant with smoke; but nothing prevents the owner from inflicting this far worse pollution on his customers.

Pop music: literally worse than inhaling poison.

Of course, you can ask for the music to be turned off. But you will be met by blank and even hostile stares. What kind of a weirdo is this, who wants to impose his will on everyone? Who is he to dictate the noise levels? Such is the usual response.

“How dare this restaurant refuse to prioritise me above its other patrons?”

Has Scruton never left a restaurant or pub because it was too loud? I have. It was easy. I used a similar method to when I entered, only in the other direction.

Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say.

Well, we don’t all have a magazine to publish the nothing we have to say.

I suspect that the increasing inarticulateness of the young, their inability to complete their sentences, to find telling phrases or images, or to say anything at all without calling upon the word “like” to help them out…

Criticising young people for using a different filler word from yours is, well, silly.

The magical encounter with the Beethoven quartet, the Bach suite, the Brahms symphony, in which your whole being is gripped by melodic and harmonic ideas and taken on a journey through the imaginary space of music—that experience which lies at the heart of our civilisation and which is an incomparable source of joy and consolation to all those who know it—is no longer a universal resource.

It never has been. For starters, you used to have to buy concert tickets. It also helped, then as much as now, to know something about the musical and social context in which the music was written.

The belief that there is a difference between good and bad, meaningful and meaningless, profound and vapid, exciting and banal—this belief was once fundamental to musical education. But it offends against political correctness. Today there is only my taste and yours. The suggestion that my taste is better than yours is elitist, an offence against equality.

No, the elitist part is when you’re a dick about it. Oh, look, Exhibit A:

The first step is to introduce the precious commodity of silence, so that your students are listening with open ears to the cosmos, and are beginning to forget their addictive pleasures. Then you play to them the things that you love. They will be bewildered at first. After all, how can this old geezer sit still for 50 minutes listening to something that hasn’t got a beat or a tune? Then you discuss the things that they love. Had they noticed, for example, that Lady Gaga in Poker Face stays for most of the tune on one note? Is that real melody? After a while they will see that they have in fact been making judgments all along—it is just that they were making the wrong ones.

Scruton’s three-hour lesson plan:

  • Hour one: silence
  • Hour two: some bewildering fifty-minute work
  • Hour three: Detailed analysis of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face
  • Not timetabled: deal with a lawsuit from the John Cage estate

I’m sure that Scruton was more than happy telling his students everything that was wrong with Lady Gaga’s Poker Face or whatever, and I’m sure they were even happier to get out of his class, and go home, and listen to it. (Poker Face? Really? After that and the reference to the iPod, I felt obliged to double-check the year on the byline. 15th November 2015. Also, in an article ostensibly about the superiority of classical music, Poker Face is the only named work. Wow.)

You have to wonder how many of his students were even willing to tell him honestly what they really liked, if all he was going to do was stand at the head of a classroom and bloviate about what was wrong with it. Did he even ask? Or did he just pick something out of the charts, and assume that that’s what they were into?

Picking apart a nonsense article like this is easy (and fun)—but it’s also important. This kind of rhetoric is short on substance, but prevalent and toxic. When people complain of elitism in music, it’s because of this: the notion that their taste will be declared insufficient or invalid by some jerk if they even bother to turn up. And who can blame them? Contrary to Scruton’s assertions, people form a real emotional bond with the music they listen to—yes, Roger, even pop—and being told that something you love is wrong or bad simply because it doesn’t conform to what someone else expects is not an experience anyone wants.

But people who listen to what Scruton calls pop (and he’s using it as an absurdly large umbrella term to cover, as far as I can tell, everything that can’t be categorised as classical, jazz, or traditional) have a far more powerful weapon than his magazine column. They can ignore him. That’s been happening for a hundred years, and people like Scruton just don’t seem to understand why. His take on people’s favourite music has no more effect on them than an old man yelling at a cloud.

For me, as a lover of classical music (and jazz, and some of what Scruton would call pop), there’s nothing that makes me want to stop listening more than the self-righteous, condescending, narrow-minded, empty—frankly, theological—rhetoric of its cheerleaders.

Fortunately, the allure of the music I love has always been stronger than the repulsive force of those who’d have a world with nothing else. But what about people who weren’t as lucky as I have been, to have had great teachers and musical experiences growing up? If every teacher was a teacher like Scruton, wasting time that could be spent talking about Barbara Strozzi to pontificate about Lady Gaga, classical music would already be dead.

One last bit, as an addendum:

When Metallica appeared at the 2014 Glastonbury festival there was a wake-up moment of this kind—the recognition that these guys, unlike so many who had performed there, actually had something to say. Yes, there are distinctions of quality, even in the realm of pop.

You can almost feel Scruton pausing for the collective gasp at this banal statement.

I’d tentatively suggest that some “pop” musicians—Radiohead, Kate Bush, The Beatles—have far more to offer in terms of musical substance and imagination than some canonical composers—Johann Strauss, Vivaldi, Kabalevsky—but then I suppose that wouldn’t be fair. It’s far harder for Scruton to make his argument if he can’t just compare Lady Gaga to Brahms.

Kirk McElhearn: Manage classical music in iTunes 12

Writing on Macworld:

iTunes has always been designed for “songs,” and, for the most part, classical music isn’t a song-based genre. Because of this, organizing classical music in iTunes can be a bit complicated. But with a few workarounds, it’s possible to maintain a large classical music library in iTunes. Here’s how.

I’ve long since developed a system for tagging my classical music,[1] but McElhearn’s got some good pointers if your collection is as muddled as it will inevitably be if you don’t apply your own tags.

One other suggestion I’d add: iOS devices don’t like long track names, and some classical music tracks can have very long titles, depending on how you’re sorting them. I have some useful space savers:

  • ♯ and ♭ signs rather than writing out “Sharp” and “Flat”
  • Upper-case letters for Major-key pieces, and lower-case for minor
  • Omit words like “Sonata” if they’re obvious from the album title or somewhere else
  • Sensible punctuation: A colon looks better and is much more efficient than the weird space-hyphen-space that everyone seems to use

So the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata is:

  • No. 14 in c♯, ‘Moonlight’: Adagio sostenuto

rather than the more cumbersome

  • Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, ‘Moonlight’ – Adagio sostenuto

That’s worked reasonably well for me, but it hasn’t been without problems.

  1. Unlike McElhearn, I could never go LastName, FirstName for composers as I find it looks horrible, so I go the long way round. That’s Composer name: Johann Sebastian Bach; sort as: Bach, Johann Sebastian.  ↩

Yo-Yo Ma on playing Bach’s cello suites

From the Guardian:

“Bach decides he’s going to enrich the sound of the instrument by tuning it down, taking the A string down to a G,” explains cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “He’s saying, ‘If I do that, I can get more overtone, I can make the chords richer, make it more polyphonic.’ He’s trying to make a single-line instrument give the illusion of several voices.”

Does that make it more difficult to play? He sighs. “Gosh, yes. It makes it more impossible.”

Elitist Talk

Last Saturday, the soprano Tamara Stein tweeted:

Shocked how #elitist @RoyalOperaHouse is. £2 for #worldclass #ballet, less than a pint of beer! #sarcasm

I quoted her tweet, asking whether it’s really price that people find elitist. I meant the question rhetorically—I thought that if people objected to just the price of concert tickets, they’d call it expensive, not elitist—so I was surprised when Stein replied. She wrote:

[Y]es they do. It’s assumed tickets cost hundreds of pounds.

Trading bare assertions about people’s motivations seemed a pointless exercise, so I contacted a few of my friends: people who listen to classical music without being part of that world, to see if price is what puts them off attending more (or any) classical concerts. I also got in touch with a few performer friends to get their opinions on the matter.

People are notoriously bad at diagnosing their own problems with something—just ask any psychiatrist. If you ask people why they don’t go to the opera, people may assert the high cost of tickets, but if they make that assertion without even investigating the price, they weren’t that interested in the first place. Price is just an excuse.

So Stein’s point about price is a misapprehension. £2 tickets are nothing new; they’re as old as the concert hall. If people don’t know about cheap seats, it’s because they’re not interested. Why aren’t they interested? Is it lack of curiosity? Lack of imagination? Deep-seated insecurities? Laziness? All of these causes were suggested to me, but they’re just as superficial as price. If people aren’t curious, why aren’t they curious? If they’re insecure, what makes them feel that way? These suggestions are just ways of blaming the audience for not showing up. They refuse to acknowledge the responsibility of classical audiences to welcome newcomers.

The perceived coldness of classical audiences towards newcomers was a refrain from virtually everyone I asked about the topic. I asked a trained, non-practising mezzo soprano I know what she thought about elitism in classical music. She felt the audience were at least partly to blame. “Your presence is tolerated rather than welcomed,” she told me. “I’ve felt at times like I’m being looked at like, ‘What are you doing here?’” My brother Shane, who writes the blog Moon Under Water, points to system justification: people defend the way that things are (or seem to be), and their own place in it, often to their own disadvantage.

We ask the people who don’t go to concerts, “Why don’t you go to more concerts?” They reply, “They’re elitist.” We ask people who do go to concerts, “Why do people think classical music is elitist?” They reply, “They’re lazy and insecure.”

Neither of those answers is satisfactory.

So is it to do with the “target audience”? There’s a perception, widely borne out in the answers I got, that classical music—particularly before the twentieth century—was created by and for the wealthy. The extent to which you find this a compelling argument depends very much on where you put the threshold for “wealthy”, though I think it’d be very hard to argue that any of it was written for the poor. But what does that matter? The same is true of the vast majority of entertainment made today. The target audience now, as then, is the middle class: people with enough disposable income to visit the cinema once or twice a week, or to sacrifice $10 a month to Netflix or Spotify. It’s true that wealthy people often paid for the music—for its creation and first performances—but I don’t see how that’s different from pop music today. The people funding entertainment today just make their money in a different way.

Could it be the difficulty of the music itself? It’s certainly true that classical music can be obscure and difficult. Bart Busschots, a Linux systems administrator and a fan of Beethoven and Bach, sees a lot of parallels to science:

I don’t think it is elitist, but it is often inaccessible…[T]here is a large specialist vocabulary that newbies can find intimidating. It’s a bit like science [in that way]: once you’re in the magisterium it all makes sense, but getting there is hard.

He’s not totally wrong, but he’s not totally right either. Classical music is such an incredibly broad field that it’s impossible to accurately characterise it with a single adjective. Knowing about things like rubato and tone quality and the difference between an adagio and a largo are enhancements to enjoying the music, not prerequisites. Preludes by Debussy and Chopin, sonatas by Scarlatti, arias by Mozart: these things can be enjoyed without any idea of the context.

But it can be hard. Well, so what? Working at NASA is hard. Teaching at Harvard is hard. Playing StarCraft professionally is hard. People who reach the top of these fields are unabashedly and correctly called elites, so why is elitism considered such a bad thing?

 Elitist vs Elite

I don’t think anybody would disagree that Beethoven (for example) was one of the musical elite. But at the centre of the argument is the difference between calling somebody elite and calling them an elitist. The late critic Michael Kennedy once said, with apparently no awareness of the cognitive dissonance:

I want things to be ‘elitist’. These days it seems that people don’t want to put any effort into understanding something. You go to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, and it’s obvious that some people don’t know a thing about the operas they have paid a lot of money to see.

That’s elitism. In two sentences, Kennedy excoriates people both for not understanding classical music, and for trying to learn. If you don’t know the music, where better to learn than at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne?1 You get the impression that Kennedy would have opposed the very idea of letting people attend world-class ballet for £2 without committing to extensive research beforehand. And as long as attitudes like this exist, we can’t really blame people for lack of interest, no matter the ticket price. Nobody wants to pay anything, even £2, for an unpleasant experience.

Here’s my theory: elitism isn’t liking something that’s harder or better or of higher quality than what other people like. Elitism is being a dick about it.

I know, of course, that the majority of concert attendees are not the kind of person who object to people who know less than them. It’s true, as Corrina Connor said on Twitter, that “there are lots of different ‘societies’ around classical music.” But for any large group of people, the voices that resonate outside the group tend to be the ones with the most extreme opinion. This happens in any discourse. Regardless of who else is in the audience, and the extent to which they’re a majority, the perception of classical music as a whole as elitist won’t change as long as statements like that go unchallenged.

There are always going to be people who just don’t like classical music; those who, in wanting to write off the whole field, will describe it as elitist. We can just ignore them. They’re not worth talking to. But the perception of classical music as elitist is broader than just those people, and it’s not wholly wrong. If we want to shake off the label of elitism, we need to make sure that we never dismiss or object to listeners who are trying to learn, or to listeners who grew up without much classical music and who may be unfamiliar with the associated ceremony. It may be that a second classical culture will emerge without the baggage of the existing one. Indeed, this is already happening: musicians like James Rhodes, who plays Rachmaninoff and talks like a rock musician; alternative performance spaces, where the music is moved away from the venues associated with the culture; podcasts like Meet The Composer, which are fascinating to experts and newcomers alike.

The good news, and the important news, is that we don’t need to change the music itself at all. Nor will the discussions need to be dumbed down, which I think is a real fear a lot of music experts have. All we need is to make sure nobody ever feels unwelcome at a concert, no matter how much or how little they know. And that will take a greater effort than selling cut-price tickets.

1 As for not putting any effort into understanding something, I wonder how well he understood how his computer worked.