Sticking it to the “Old” Man OR Classical Revolution: The Status of “Art” Music in Contemporary Culture

In 1897 a man by the name of Ransom E. Olds embraced the concept of the horseless carriage, and decided to invest a substantial amount of his funds into founding a company that he decided would proudly bear his name: Old Motor Works General Motors purchased the company in 1908 and after taking a branding cue from a popular tune of the era “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” the name was changed and Oldsmobile quickly became one of America’s best selling car companies. Every white and blue collar fellow had to have one, and it became a brand which not only identified with but defined American strength, class, and tradition. The brand was extremely strong throughout the century until the baby boomer generation became affluent enough to buy their own cars. Despite surging sales in the 1970s and 80s, Oldsmobile hit a substantial roadblock in the 90s.

In the face of declining sales GM attempted to rebrand Oldsmobile as a youthful and hip car company on the bleeding edge of contemporary culture, with the audacious and historically self-deprecating advertising slogan “this is not your father’s oldsmobile.” Ironically, market analysts have suggested that it was this very campaign that sealed the fate for one of America’s oldest automobile companies. By including the phrase in every magazine, television advertisement, billboard, and newspaper, Oldsmobile successfully codified, packaged, and disseminated this information to the public regarding what was already a growing problem for the this particular division of General Motors. “Yes, my father did/does drive an Oldsmobile, . . . and he was/is . . . old.”

As the generation of 1960s counter culture matured and became affluent enough to purchase their own automobiles in the 1990s, their overriding maxim of rebellion, resistance to authority, independence, and “sticking it to the man” which had guided their moral and political revolutions had now come to the fore and laid its fateful blow upon the automobile market. The up-and-coming generation no longer stood by “Leave-It-To- Beaver” ideals of the post-war American dream, with every young man following the in the footsteps and steely example of their “old man,” because after all “Father-Knows- Best.”

Indeed, they stuck it to the man, their “old” man, to be exact — their old man who identified with, owned, and firmly endorsed the “Oldsmobile” — a brand that, once it attempted to shed its public skin of tradition, culture, and class, discovered that in order to truly reinvent itself it would have to abandon not only the car buying ethic of the previous generation, but it would have to abandon its brand altogether, effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Suffering record losses in the late 90s as a result of poor sales, in the year 2000 GM judiciously hung its Oldsmobile division out to dry.

I wax historical about the market-directed timeline of an American automobile company not because I claim that it is somehow an ethnomusicological phenomenon in disguise, but rather because I claim that “classical” music, after weathering some similar historical stretches and shared cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, is now facing a very similar dilemma to what Oldsmobile experienced in the 1980’s. Classical music’s reputation among the general public is becoming increasingly stale, audiences are dwindling, and marketers of classical music organizations, with relatively few but notable exceptions, are either currently in the process of or are on the cusp of embracing a cluttered, counter-productive plethora of similar solecisms. Just as Oldsmobile’s post- 80’s agenda to shed their outdated image in favor of an ersatz appeal to the younger generation thoroughly backfired, bringing an end to the company, classical music may very well also shoot itself in its own proverbial foot.

For skeptics questioning the efficacy of an argument comparing a capitalistic company to an obtuse, abstract, and otherwise enormous genre of music I would like to make several poignant observations. Music is itself a commodity, and for much of the western classical tradition it has been composed, published, marketed, sold, and performed with the intention of paying somebody’s bills. The uber-romantic and fallacious notion of the isolated composer as a pure and unfettered artist is just that: an uber-romantic fallacious notion. Some music is more carefully sculpted as a product than others, but this is one of the qualities which a wide variety of musicologists have used to define “art” music. Even classical “art” music, however, despite a 20th century infatuation with the score as infallible “text” and artifact, must be performed. It must be performed somewhere (venue) by someone (performers), and is typically performed for somebody (audience). The social and cultural relationship between these three entities is what defines the monetary, and arguably, the artistic success of classical “art” music.

Throughout this article I will use the terms “classical music” and “art music” interchangeably. The use of these specific terms and the particular relationship they induce and ultimately establish between composers, performers, and the audience is, in and of itself, a subject which deserves considerably more attention.

Exploring the Name Game — Power, Class, and Monopolization

Before launching into a tirade of semantic deconstruction regarding the problematic use of the words “classical” and “art” and their attachment to a particular genre of music I think it appropriate to briefly explain why what we call things matters at all. Despite the armchair-philosopher’s claim that words are merely hollow labels for corporeal entities and categorical abstractions, words are actually quite capable of either endowing or stripping their owners with power. Although it may seem a bit trite to observe that the word “Oldsmobile” contains the word “old,” this is likely one of the factors that contributed to the brand’s demise as per the historical discussion above. After the birth of cool, how hip could it possibly be to contain an embedded denotation of “old” in your company’s name?

Considering this, the word “classical” is a veritable landmine of gigantic semantic proportions. Complications first arise from the inevitable confusion between classical music as a genre and classical music as category of aural art created during a particular period of time, namely between the years 1750 and 1825 in Europe. Associations, connotations, and the accompanying mop-up of explanations run wild in any discussion, formal or casual, between individuals from differing classes, let alone differing institutions. The word classical immediately conjures up images of Amadeus-like wigs and stern-looking portraits of Beethoven-esque composers, taking their art “oh-so- seriously.” The paradigmatic masterworks stand aside their masters, selectively canonized (with a notoriously Austro-Germanic bent, I might add) and deified into untouchable figures whose scores are as rigid as their hair styles. “Classical” regardless of its use and context always connotes a long-established tradition; a strict hierarchy of aesthetic pedestals possessing the exemplary standard of style and work.

To avoid further complications musicologists have largely abandoned the term “classical” when referring to the particular artistic period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and have started using words like the gallant style or empfindsamer stil. By doing so they are not only doing themselves a service by ridding their discipline of generalized terms in favor of more descriptive and specific vocabulary, but they are also attempting to distance themselves from classical music as an overarching genre.

While musicologists have, for the most part, successfully distanced themselves from this linguistic confusion, academics have perhaps dug themselves an even larger hole in an attempt to create a taller pedestal for their genre of choice by shifting from the common parlance and colloquial of “classical music” to the more general and seemingly less confusing term “art music.” By doing so they have sought to avoid the previously mentioned confusion between the genre and the period, and yet have simultaneously inherited an arguably much more complex, nuanced, and traveled semantic world by appropriating the word “art.”

I use the word appropriate because “art” is a word endowed with cultural power. Art receives funding; mere noodling does not. Art is worthy of our rapt attention; mere jamming is not. Art belongs in history books; fads do not. Art demands reverence; rock does not. The list continues of pseudo-legitimate assumptions about the differences between art and . . . everything else, and it is this enormous categorical gap created by appropriating two extraordinarily general terms and creating a massive monopolistic marriage of words that is at the same time so aggravating and so harmful to itself. “Art” “music,” rather clearly, without equivocation, implies that other music is not art, and by doing so conveniently strips all other musics of their aesthetic profundity. By using language, and by carefully and stealthily applying words to oneself it is possible to underhandedly, in a rather clandestine fashion, illegitimize and exclude other people, organizations, genres, styles, music, and art.

This self-legitimization most certainly doesn’t occur in a cultural vacuum. Thanks to classical music organizations (academic institutions, concert series, symphony orchestras. . . ) using terms like “classical music” or “art music” in their marketing, brochures, web sites, advertisements, and concert programs, they have successfully notified and offended the very demographic that they need to so desperately reach. In the aggravated words of a close friend of mine who cares deeply about the songs he writes with his progressive rock band: “Art music? What the hell is that supposed to mean? That my music isn’t art?” Combine this self-justifying behavior with the term “classical” effectively produces an double aesthetic onslaught: “Not only do they not think my music isn’t art, but they are running under the assumption that their music is somehow superior to the music I know and love.” Marketing 101: attract people to your products; don’t offend them in the process.

This is all to say nothing of the alienating and oft-used replacement term “serious music” which is so blatantly and conspicuously pretentious that audience members (especially young ones) flee at the mere suggestion of it. Serious connotes silence, grumbling, condemnation, furrowed brows, and an assumed and often false sense of profundity and superiority. Are we also to refer to the entirety of Shakespeare’s work as “serious” literature? What of his silliness, his playfulness, his wit, his humor, and his brilliant insults which so craftily combine words so as to make the audience’s guts immediately wrench into maddening laughter upon hearing them? Much of his work is anything but serious, in fact, much of it is quite ridiculous, and enormously entertaining, a word that makes strict classical music adherents cringe and recoil back into their structuralist shells largely dominated by now ancient Adorno-driven dogma. By adopting a word such as serious for an entire genre of music, some academics imply not only that their existing canon remains quite exclusive, but also that in order for newly written music to be included (and who doesn’t like to be included?) it must strictly follow a laundry list of certain emotional and presentational guidelines.

Presentation, Cultural Norms, and the Concert Hall — Beyond The Language

Now that the language of classical music has been explored we need to examine some of the remaining reasons that divide and maintain an unhealthy gap between classical music and all other musics. Beyond discourse, beyond formal or casual discussion, are two enormous roadblocks that stand in the way of classical music effectively reaching a larger audience: the concert hall and its surrounding phenomenon, and the music itself.

In the 20th century the concert hall has become a place of vain ritual and hallowed hollow silence. It is holy ground, where formal-wear is the norm and silence largely reigns until the end of a performance. Clapping between musical movements is shunned. Booing is out of the question. Considering all of this the audience is as much a part of the performance as the musicians on stage are, except the performance is one dictated by hand-me-down expectations of a late 19th century Austro-Germanic stage. We have Wagner to thank for teaching us to dim the lights and reverently sit with folded arms during classical music performances.

Ironically, the musical phenomenon that acts as the exception to sitting in silence is opera, the musical art that is widely considered to be the highest of the high-brow, and the most serious of all. Yet clapping after beautiful arias (the equivalent in the jazz idiom would be a solo) is expected. Serious music officiandos, however, in favor of silence between musical movements rather conveniently overlook this glaring exception to their rule.

In order to be thorough, it is worth noting that the vast majority of the music that we perform with such strict precision, during which we insist silence and utmost reverence, was originally performed under what we would certainly consider less-than-ideal conditions. Lights were on, drinks were poured, children ran about, babies screamed. A letter written by Mozart confirms his pleasure in eliciting applause from the audience, not only at the end of the work, not only at the end of a movement, but smack dab in the middle of the music:

I prayed God it might go well, dedicating all to His greater honor and glory, and ecce! — the symphony began! Raff stood near me, and in the midst of the first allegro came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away — there was a great outburst of applause. But, since I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation, I had brought it in again in the last — and then it came again, da capo!

The andante also found favor, but particularly the last allegro because, having noticed that all last allegri here opened, like the first, with all instruments together and usually in unison, I began with two violins only, piano for eight bars only, then forte, so that at the piano (as I had expected) the audience said “Sh!” and when they heard the forte began at once to clap their hands.

I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed — and went home…

It is terribly ironic that Mozart himself, the quintessential example of both classical music and the classical period, took great delight in eliciting such riotous applause and approval from the audience in the middle of a performance. Indeed, it is as if classical music culture, once established, has been overrun by a culture of musical Pharisees, obsessed with living and performing by the letter of the law — the spirit has been tragically lost.

The above example indicates that Mozart was passionate about his audience and his performance, both musical elements that have been forgotten in favor of a paradigm of music as “text.” By adhering to a strict modernist aesthetic focusing on form and score rather than sound and performance, the audience has been effectively alienated from their own art. That music is, by its nature, performed and heard seems to be a virtue that is entirely lost in this modernist obsession (either implicit or explicit) with musical structure. The performance is practically an afterthought, a mere formality inherited by the tradition. Architecture reigns supreme. Unfortunately this tends to not bode very well for the ears of modernist audiences, as evidenced by the type of concert programming encountered in classical music institutions throughout the western world. The Austro-German canon reigns supreme and tapers off beginning with works written in the early twentieth century. The romanticism of Mahler and Strauss extends beyond this programming threshold, but they are the few composers whose works are frequently heard and appreciated by modern audiences.

Even frequent concert-goers quickly tire listening to musical compositions that sound as if little or no attention was paid to how a work was going to sound. When music enters the realm of nearly pure “architecture” one cannot help but murmur that “if the composer was primarily interested in architecture then perhaps they should concern themselves with designing buildings instead of music.” Being subjected to the sounds of a foreign architecture is a phenomenon frequently experienced by intelligent listeners of all sorts. Often the internal “system” of a work may readily be ascertained by looking at the score but may be difficult or even impossible for the listener to hear. Alastair Williams points out that these types of “constructivist compositions are . . . afflicted by a . . . lacuna between their built-in systems and the sometimes arbitrary-sounding events perceived by the listener.”

Classical music in the 20th century was already high-brow enough, but after the likes of Boulez and Babbit, as the latter so famously wrote in his essay “Who Cares if you Listen?”, you can never be too high-brow. Babbit claimed elitism as the defining characteristic of the art of musical composition and serious performance, an attitude which, rather unfortunately, has infected much of the genre and its surrounding culture. When exclusivity is the norm how can you possibly expect to draw in large audiences, and, ultimately, pay the bills? You end up not with an audience, but with a cult, a cult of pretentiously high-minded (and frequently close-minded) individuals, whose air of superiority and aesthetic assumptions is not only an incarnate of artistic conspicuous consumption but quite off-putting to any quick-minded outsider.

Considering these circumstances, classical music organizations have been simply going out of business over the last twenty years. Here lies the value in comparing a bankrupt car company with an abstract genre of music: in the world of art music, just as in the rest of the economy, products of perceived equal value are exchanged. Considering that some may be wary of a claim positing that money is the basis of “art” music, I would like to offer a reminder that money is offered by audience members (and donors) with the expectation that something of value will be given in return. In the case of classical music, the money that audience members are willing to pay to experience a live performance or to obtain a recording is an indication of how much they value the experience, and ultimately the art itself. As audiences dwindle and ticket sales suffer we can also deduce that the perceived value of classical music among audience members is suffering. If this is at least partially caused by poor marketing or even concert content, it is seriously worth considering whether or not the art being presented is not valued because it is either irrelevant, or out of touch with contemporary culture. “Oldsmobile” anyone?

Out of The Concert Hall and Into Your Beer — What Some Organizations Are Doing About It

“The mission of Classical Revolution is to present concerts involving both traditional and modern approaches while engaging the community by offering chamber music performances in highly accessible venues, such as bars and cafes, and collaborating with local musicians and artists from various styles and backgrounds.

“Thus, we hope to weave this music into the landscape of San Francisco nightlife, presently populated by more popular forms of musical entertainment. By taking chamber music out of the recital hall and making it more accessible to an audience who does not otherwise hear such music in a live context, we hope to bring to a broader public consciousness the realization that this music is still relevant and needn’t be restricted to more austere venues.”

As an ensemble, Classical Revolution has created such a refreshing and contemporary attitude in regards to classical music that previous members have moved to remote cities to start their own “child” groups, such as Classical Revolution PDX, in Portland. Their mantra, stated and repeated on their well designed contemporary website is as follows:

We love classical music. We love playing classical music. We love listening to classical music. We are tired of the elitist and inaccessible nature of the classical world. We believe that there are many that would enjoy classical music if they could access it in a setting that is comfortable for them. We believe classical musicians should be allowed to perform in a setting that is more casual – where the audience is allowed to have a drink, eat a scone, laugh a little, and clap a lot. We believe everyone can enjoy the music that we love.

The mission is the same: to bring music out of the concert hall and to the people who would otherwise not know about it, or whom would perhaps even fear going to the theater. As a classical music enthusiast myself I have invited relatives to attend orchestral concerts with me and only to have them refuse because they were afraid of the scorn they might receive if they were to clap at the wrong time! If potential concertgoers are literally afraid to go to the concert hall, there is most certainly a cultural and artistic dilemma that needs to be addressed.

As Classical Revolution and its child organizations preach: “We love this music, and we think you would like it too if it was presented to you in a fashion that wasn’t elitist and inaccessible.” The success of these types of groups is a testament to the fact that they are at least partially addressing the profusion of public relations issues surrounding classical music, its marketing, and culture.

While it is not the scope of this article to offer specific solutions to the problems I have outlined here, I most certainly think that ideas will come to the fore if the cultural issues are recognized and elitist attitudes are changed. Considering the most recent data suggesting that classical music audiences are aging, and that an enormous percentage of concertgoers are simply audience members who began attending in the 1950s and have simply gotten older, these issues need to be addressed soon before the current season-ticket-holding generation passes on, leaving classical music organizations without an audience and without philanthropists to push their stiff barge along.

David Stabler writes that “Traditionally, classical music changes at the pace of continental drift. It still grapples with Victorian-age costumes, outdated technology and old-world rules. But groups such as Classical Revolution PDX . . . are taking cues from pop music, sharing personnel and collaborating on projects. Their goal: prodding classical music to be more hip and, dare they say, fun.” Fun in the way that Mozart was, and hip in the way that Oldsmobile wasn’t. That sounds appealing. Let’s stick it to the man—classical music’s “old” man, to be exact.

4 thoughts on “Sticking it to the “Old” Man OR Classical Revolution: The Status of “Art” Music in Contemporary Culture”

  1. Using your own criteria, who is your audience?

    ethnomusicological phenomenon?

    This may be the old professor in me, but I would like to see this article rewritten for Rolling Stone magazine rather than… (me)whoever.

    Which costs more to build; a concert hall or football stadium? Which is harder to maintain? Why?

    I’d like to see a comparison, a cost/usage study, between a concert hall and the stadium.

    Which supports more spinoff industries? (Concession stands, logo leasing, janitorial services, utilities, lawyers, doctors,?) Spinoff industries often define value to the community.

    Who uses the venue? A concert hall hosts “classical” concerts. The stadium hosts football… and other things. (ROCK MUSIC CONCERTS.)

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