Saturday, September 4, 2010

eccomi! sono una brava studentessa, ma sempre occupata.

Che triste!

How time flies when you're in graduate school.

That which I spoke of earlier is well underway. Eccolo, a rough draft of our new mission statement:

The concepts of access, education and communication comprise the foundation upon which Chamber Music Midwest is built. The festival seeks to present high quality concerts at venues decidedly divorced from contemporary concert culture: correctional facilities, mental health clinics, elder care centers, churches. There are no stages and a dialogue between performers and audiences is not only encouraged, but is considered a facet of a successful concert. We seek to dismantle the physical and metaphorical barriers that prevent universal access to music and ideas. We seek to educate through means both conventional (program notes) and dynamic (a blog, Facebook, unorthodox programming). We seek to communicate with our audiences as equals, not--as the musical institution has advocated--within the mentality of binaries: artist versus dilettante, intellectual elite versus uneducated pleasure-seeker.

Recently, my research has taken a decidedly Marxist direction: I've got critical theory coming out of my ears. The basic question of course is how do we go about freeing the intellectually oppressed. For me the answer was access and thus, CMM's new mission statement was born. I'd love to hear what anyone out there has to say about this draft. As you can see, I want more than anything to address the problem of class as it relates to the experience of classical music...

Update: "uneducated pleasure-seeker" seems harsh, right? I want to make obvious the subtle power plays of the institution. I certainly don't feel this way, but I want to make it clear that this sort of attitude is prevalent (maybe "rampant" is an even better word) in the musical, intellectual and certainly academic communities. I'm talking about not only performers, but also arts administration. What is worse is that often, arts organizations trick themselves into believing that they participate in outreach, that they are making themselves accessible to the "masses" when in fact, they only perpetuate the us and them mentality. Free concerts are often held outside the concert hall, thus codifying the aforesaid ideas of class separatism. Furthermore, the repertoire chosen for these concerts often represents only the canonical standards (ie, that which is known to sell tickets): by limiting the public's exposure to new works, the musical establishment only promotes its intellectual supremacy.

When I began writing this update, I did not expect that by the end of the first paragraph I would be so securely perched upon my soap-box. Obviously, this is merely an introduction, but you get the point. I'll conclude by saying that CMM is different from the situation above because we do not (and I hope never will) perform in a traditional concert hall. Additionally, I try always to include a work on each program that would be challenging to the musician and the non-musician alike. The result has been illuminating, in fact. Often, it is the untrained ear that enjoys Berg more than Mozart.

Rant. over.


  1. I think this is a noble goal - to make music more accessible to people who would otherwise not be exposed to it. "The problem of class" is a tricky one though, especially with trying to bring Western art music, which is embedded into a class-based understanding of music. An appreciation of classical music reflects a kind of "cultural capital" (you should definitely read some Pierre Bourdieu for some fun social theory on this), which is all about exclusion, hierarchy, and status. Very little classical music, I would say, reflects the interests of "lower classes" - artist intent aside - for the simple fact that most people don't understand it. So much of it is so esoteric that only rich art snobs in New York would want to listen to it. That's fine. I'm all for pushing the envelope of art and creating new things. But the fact remains that someone who doesn't have extensive background in this kind of music won't appreciate listening to it.

    It is partially a problem of "language". Many people only like music that has (English) words in it. Even if they don't care about the lyrics, at least the music is in a language they can understand. Even if the artist's intention is something very relevant to a listener, if she or he hasn't learned the "language" of classical music, you might as well be speaking to them in Persian.

    I think this is a great concept, and you should run with it. But breaking down the class barriers of classical music is easier said than done. Bourdieu said, "There is no activity more classifying, more distinctive, that is, more closely linked to social class and educational capital, than concert-going or the playing of a 'noble' instrument ... to understand why the concert was predisposed to become one of the great bourgeois celebrations". Basically, you've got a big wall to smash down. I think you have to start by having a comprehensive understanding of how your audience is coming to the concert, and what they are expecting. By understanding classical music through your intended audience, and not how you see it, you will start to see how work from that to make them interested. I think that was the problem with jumping into trying to create a "violin tree" for those little kids. They didn't know any of those people, and they don't care. Those violinists are interesting to someone who has an profound knowledge of classical music and the violin, but not a little kid who's just learning where to put their fingers on the instrument.

    I think something like a concert series with a captive audience could be helpful. If you do a month of regular concerts at, say, a correctional facility, then you can take them on a journey of classical music and gradually broaden their understanding. Don't jump right into Elliot Carter; start them with something easy, make them understand it, then work to something more difficult. Starting with something they don't care about or don't understand will shut them off immediately to what you're trying to do. You basically have to incrementally build up their cultural capital so that they can start to appreciate it in the way you want them to - and at the same time, be prepared that they might still not like it.

    In bocca al lupo.


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  3. Hey Jake,

    Thank you so much for your comments. I think you're correct in that I definitely get wrapped up in the idealism of what I'm trying to do. Thank you also for the suggestion of Bourdieu.

    You also articulated well what we've been trying to do for our growing audience over the last three years "You basically have to incrementally..." And I agree, that with new audiences we'll have to do the same thing. Likely programing some easy-listening Schoenberg/Ligeti/Berio/etc alongside some canonical work. I also have seen how helpful the pre-concert talk can be. I am thinking specifically about performances of whack-a-doodle Berg pieces and Morton Feldman: audience members who did not have the cultural capital to fully appreciate the structures/mimetic gestures/whatever still were able to appreciate the work on some level (or at least that is what they told me...maybe they were just being polite).

    I should also clarify that I truly believe that one can appreciate Western art music without training or education--the best of it incites a visceral reaction within the listener (that is to say, that someone besides the "rich art snob" could appreciate it). And honestly, as an art form, music is really about the body (I'm thinking specifically about obvious connections to dance, and more recent comparisons of tonality to sexual desire [I'm referencing Susan McClary here]); in this sense there is, at some level, an appeal divorced from class/status/whatever. Indeed, it may be incredibly naive of me, but I absolutely believe that because of this connection the only thing necessary for appreciation is access (however I agree that "access" is easier said than done).

    Also as a further clarification, what angered me most about my students was not necessarily their apathy for the golden-age of violin playing, but rather their expectation that I was there to entertain rather than educate. Reflecting upon it now (at this very second) there is a good chance that my reaction was also a response to the way string instruments are taught in the public schools. But THAT is another rant.