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Why we shouldn't do a damn thing about the decline of classical music
Today the Twittersphere has been tossing around a blog entry by The New Yorker's Alex Ross. Ross posts a graph (above) from the League of Orchestras, a superhero-sounding organization tasked with the superheroic charge of keeping orchestral music alive in the 21st century. As a recovering sociologist, I appreciate that the chart clarifies two countervailing trends in classical-music participation: (a) people's interest in classical music tends to spike in middle age, and (b) over the past century, each succeeding generation has been less interested in classical music than the previous one was. This has meant that over the past couple of decades, the Baby Boomers' escalating interest in classical music (the life-course effect) has compensated for their kids' declining interest (the cohort effect).
Ross then, being a classical-music critic, engages the question of what is to be "done" about this potentially alarming development—that as the Baby Boomers move from middle age into old age and then into the Great Beyond, classical ensembles will be facing an audience of Gen-Xers who are looking likely to carry their supposedly defining generational characteristic of indifference (to classical music, among other things) right into middle age, and a Gen-Y audience whose almost complete lack of interest in classical music makes Courtney Love look like Jacqueline du Pré.
So, what is to be done? Ross calls for education and recalls the glory years when classical musicians like Leonard Bernstein had a much larger media footprint. For my part, though, I don't think we need to do a damn thing. Classical music will take care of itself.
I'm fortunate to work in a job that allows me to watch and participate in a wide range of art forms: books, pop music, classical music, jazz, theater, movies, visual arts, performance art, architecture, style, and more. There are a lot of things for an arts-oriented individual to do with his or her time, and among those things, classical music is objectively the most esoteric and unapproachable. I enjoyed a magnificent performance of The Rite of Spring a couple of weeks ago, but I was unsurprised that the audience surrounding me was—compared to the audiences to be found at most other local events that evening—rather old, pretty nerdy, and frankly more than a little snooty.
I write with candor, but also with affection, because I do enjoy classical music, and I'm definitely nerdy, I'm probably snooty, and if I'm not "rather old" now, I will be soon enough (I was born in 1975). My point is that classical music, as currently defined, will always be resistant to popularization. Yes, there are things classical ensembles could do to more readily connect with a younger, less snooty audience—performing at the Southern is a good start—but if you want significant numbers of people to forgo Mark Mallman for Gustav Mahler, no amount of venue-switching, Twittering, or media-whoring is going to make it happen. As for education, Ross is appropriately skeptical about the prospect of significant resources being poured into classical-music training in public schools. Would you vote for it? I wouldn't.
I'm not worried about the decline of classical music, because the classical repertoire stretching from Hildegard of Bingen to today's composition students is one of the towering achievements of human civilization, and great art takes care of itself. I predict that eventually the classical establishment as we know it will collapse, and that will be okay.
Look at what's happened in the visual arts. Great artists in the classic tradition are doing more than fine, with crowds lining up down the block to get into special exhibits at the MIA. Correspondingly, traditional performances of classical music will always have their place, and will always find an audience. That audience may not be 20-something, and it may not exist in every city in the country, but it will be there.
Meanwhile, contemporary visual art has moved into multidisciplinarity. From the Walker Art Center to the Art of This Gallery to the Northrup King Building, the most interesting visual art today is displayed alongside—and often developed in concert with—theatrical performances, written texts, and new music. The Walker's director Olga Viso understands this and embraces it. Where is the Walker's equivalent institution in the music world? To the extent it exists, it's the Walker itself.
In time, the footprint of classical music—in the Twin Cities and around the world—will shrink. It's inevitable, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Classical music as we know it is by its nature an art form that resists being tampered with, and as history marches on, classical music is only going to get more and more distant from the mainstream of musical life, and from the mainstream of artistic life generally. The great works in the repertoire will be preserved as museum pieces, which—like museum pieces in the visual arts and in literature—will be appreciated by the relatively few people who connect with them. Thus, "classical music" will become even less mainstream, and approached by even fewer people, than it is now. The sky is going to fall, and no number of Chicken Littles, no matter how loudly they shout, will be able to prevent it.
Meanwhile, though, the tradition of new and ambitious music will live on in forms that may or may not be recognizable as having anything to do with "classical music." This is already happening: Ross's own book The Rest is Noise is one of many roadmaps that connect the dots from Bach to Beethoven to Schoenberg to Cage to Glass to Gaga. If you love music, you love classical music—even if you don't love "classical music." In coming years we may see many fewer performances of music in that tradition encapsulated in quotation marks, but that's okay—the music itself escaped the quotation marks long ago.