Tuesday, January 11, 2011

While classical music debates nothing changes

'This magic comes only with the sounding of the music, with the turning of the written note into sound - and it only comes (or comes most intensely) when the listener is one with the composer, either as a performer himself, or as a listener in active sympathy' - Benjamin Britten
Recent articles here about whether classical music responds to mass marketing and social media have generated considerable interest. So I thought it worthwhile to create a straw model which summarises the thrust of the articles and that is the purpose of this post. The straw model is remarkably simple and is built around the following four propositions.

1. Classical music engages new audiences most effectively by direct transmission to what Britten describes as as "a listener in active sympathy".

2. Despite this classical music today is characterised by hypermediation, meaning there are more and more intermediary layers appearing between performer and audience.

3. These intermediary layers present an obstacle to the essential transmission process. Therefore hypermediation is a barrier to engaging new audiences.

4. To eliminate this barrier classical music should move away from hypermediation towards direct transmission.

To illustrate this straw model I have constructed two schematics which can be enlarged by left clicking on them. The first schematic shows the increasingly prevalent hypermediation model. This is a pyramid with a few high profile performers at the peak and a range of intermediaries refracting the transmission to the largest possible audience. The problem though is that, as shown by the shading, the transmission is weakened as it passes through the layers of intermediaries.

My second schematic shows the transmission model. This flattens the pyramid and has many performers engaged in direct transmission to audiences with only a limited number of intermediaries involved. As the shading shows this results in a bettter quality of engagement with the audience.

At which point I will doubtless be accused of stating the obvious. Surely very few people will disagree with the proposition that more live music and music education will increase audience engagement? So why is classical music moving at at an ever-increasing rate away from transmission towards hypermediation?

In his 1961 farewell address President Eisenhower famously warned:
...we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
Classical music has allowed its own version of the military-industrial comples to gain influence. This commercial-intermediary complex inhibits transmission from performer to audience. And in my view, it is responsible in great part for the problems facing classical music today.

The commercial-intermediary complex is an interlinked hornet's nest of management agents, publishers, media companies, concert promoters, and PR and marketing consultancies. Their business model is the re-purposing of mass marketing techniques (PR spin, chart radio, TV talent shows, payola etc) for use with classical music. This despite there being very little tangible evidence that such re-purposing works, in fact there is more evidence suggesting it doesn't.

Rock music is for created for electronic media and translates with considerable compromise to live performance. Classical music is created for live performance and translates with considerable compromise to electronic media. Which does not stop the commercial-intermediary complex treating classical as though it was rock to further their own interests. Similarly text book examples of the transmission model such as El Sistema have been hijacked into the hypermediation model by the intermediaries.

Virtualisation and miniaturisation the currency of mass marketing. Classical music is averse to both virtualisation and miniaturisation because its raison d'être, live performance, cannot be virtualised or miniaturised. Which does not stop the commercial-intermediary complex offering virtualisation and miniaturisation as the solution to almost every problem facing classical music. Gone is pride in the creative process, for as Paul Griffiths said so eloquently in his introduction to the 2010 ECM catalogue:
We live in strange times. Such pride seems not to feature on MBA courses; it would get in the way.
This is a straw model not an academic paper. Inevitably it draws on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. But it also draws on quantitative data such as Google trends and RAJAR audience figures. Some will ask if the views a composer expressed in 1964, when the technological landscape could not have been more different, still apply. As I typed this post a comment arrived in response to another post that drew on a Britten quote, Is the loudspeaker the enemy of classical music? The comment came from California based Richard Friedman who is not only heavily involved in contemporary music but is also at the cutting edge of new technology. Did Richard dismiss Britten's views as anachronistic? No, here is his 21st century view take on classical music:
The solution is more exposure to live concerts. But the concert world has priced itself out of existence. When I lived in NYC (in a previous century) I went to 3+ concerts/week, and they were quite affordable. These days we don't go to concerts at all .. can't afford the $40 and up. And the way concerts are programmed these days, there's rarely more than one piece on the program worth the cost.

Very sad affair. There is nothing that can surpass hearing music live, without domestic distractions. Unfortunately it's becoming a very rare occasion.
I offer this straw model for further debate. Inevitably it simplifies and polarises. But it is my view that the healthy future of classical music depends on a move from disintermediation to transmission. That can only start with the realisation that the commercial-intermediary complex needs classical music more than classical music needs the commercial-intermediary complex. While the debate continues nothing changes. And while nothing changes the intermediaries remain in clover.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Diagrams are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Header quote is from Britten's 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). With thanks to music therapist Lyle Sanford whose linked post prompted me to continue down this path. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said...

From Twitter:

RT@overgrownpath On An Overgrown Path: While classical music debates nothing changes http://t.co/qCMo9m5>> brilliant and all true!


irishwaterwayshistory.com said...

Drew McManus gave links the other day http://www.adaptistration.com/2011/01/10/why-smart-managers-are-looking-at-the-slow-food-movement/ to some blogs that suggest that music might learn from the slow food movement. I'm not sure he would altogether approve himself (artistic "excellence" might be incompatible with the encouragement of the local) but it's an interesting idea.

bjg (member of Slow Food)

Pliable said...

Slow food > Slow music


lotsson said...

The distance between audience and music was even shorter in the 19th century. In those days, a large segment of the audience had actually played the piece being performed themselves. Concert-goers were also often amateur musicians. They played symphonies, concerts and operas in their homes in versions for piano or small ensembles. It might not have sounded too good, but they got insights into music that you don't get by listening only to recordings.

Matthew said...

Despite this classical music today is characterised by hypermediation

Amen. Preach it, brother.

Re: music education—one thing I've noticed, at least here in the US, is that "music education" is often meant to mean "music appreciation" rather than actually getting the kids' hands on the instruments. Not an insignificant difference—I might characterize playing an instrument as an even more direct arrow than hearing a live performance. Certainly the experience of it makes the listener less reliant or enamored of mediation.

Pliable said...

'- one thing I've noticed, at least here in the US, is that "music education" is often meant to mean "music appreciation" rather than actually getting the kids' hands on the instruments...'

Matthew, that is an important point you highlight. As youngsters become more distanced from live music the need arises to expose them to the sound of a live instrument rather than an MP3 player. I wrote about this a while back in a post titled 'The lost art of listening' - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2009/11/lost-art-of-listening.html

But I totally agree with you. Passive music appreciation must not be confused with active music education.

JoshMc said...

I think the one huge hole in this argument is when you say that rock music is made for recorded media and loses something in live performances. Neither end of that statement fits my experience. I've had nearly life altering experiences at rock concerts and you'd be hard pressed to find any rock fan that doesn't say this or that band is way better live.

As soon as this part of the theory falls apart, everything else falls apart. If rock music is generally better live and still works well in recorded media then classical music has no excuse in that department. Honestly, I don't find classical music to be lacking on the recorded end anyway but I'll accept that assumption for the sake of the discussion.

Drew said...

Fascinating topic, I especially like the notion of a commercial-intermediary complex and based on your description of that group, it sounds a great deal like what I've defined as the cultural-industrial complex. Although I don't believe it was ever the intention, the byproduct from increased professionalization of arts management has been an increase in what you've defined as a hypermediation model. Assuming you're on the mark, the trick is transitioning away from that model without losing any of the benefits from improved professionalization or falling victim to efforts from those within the groups you've identified who benefit most from the current system.

@bjg, I'm not certain what you think I wouldn't see value in encouragement of local (by which I assume you mean community/amateur but correct me if I'm wrong) music making. Moreover, why would that be mutually exclusive from the pursuit of artistic excellence?

Pliable said...

Josh Mc, I'm happy to amicably disagree on that one....

'Oddly, however, rock 'n’ roll doesn't yield many great live albums. You’d think for a music known for its visceral impact that it would benefit from the live treatment. Yet, most of rock’s finest moments have come from studio albums where each note has been carefully redone'. - http://new.music.yahoo.com/blogs/listoftheday/83319/the-top-25-all-time-best-rock-live-albums/

And the number one album in Rolling Stone's 2003 '500 Greatest Albums of All Time' was never performed live - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_500_Greatest_Albums_of_All_Time

But the merits of live versus recorded music is a side issue. The main point of my post is that classical music has too many self-interested intermediaries, and I stand by that view.

irishwaterwayshistory.com said...

@Drew: I may have misread you, and if so I apologise, but your focus, in some of the discussion on your own blog, did seem to be on the professional and on excellence. My "local", incidentally, is not just community or amateur: taking a leaf (as it were) from the Slow Food, it might be local, small-scale, semi-professional. Even if not amateur, it might be amateurish.

I'd like to advance the notion that, in trying to increase the audience, the quality of performance is largely irrelevant. To uneducated newcomers (like me) what is of most interest is the music, which we may be hearing for the first time and perhaps (for those living well away from cities, like me) for the only time. It is possible that the interests of the professional performers are not identical with those of the potential audience. Players like those lotsson describes might, for me, be just as good as a visiting professional orchestra; better, even, if they increased the amount and range of music available locally.

Let me drop in another notion, to accompany the Slow Food one. It is that the seisiún, the session, of Irish traditional music might be a useful model (perhaps it is used elsewhere). A session is usually held in a pub, perhaps weekly. There will be a regular core of musicians; there may be some irregulars and some newcomers who (provided they know what they're doing and don't play the bodhrán) will be welcome to join in. There is no programme and no charge; the audience are welcome to talk if they wish, and drink, but the musicians too will largely please themselves. There is no intermediary. Perhaps such sessions might be useful?


Pliable said...

Seisiún = pop-up concerts - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2011/01/is-loudspeaker-enemy-of-classical-music.html

We are in the decade of the feral choir - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2010/01/decade-of-feral-choir.html

Pliable said...

Lyle Sanford commented via Facebook:

Thanks for the link, and thanks for sticking with this issue and working to better define it. The disintermediation vs. transmission framework is a very helpful way to think about what's going on and what's not going on.


Drew said...

@bjg That makes sense, thanks for the added detail. I think one of the items here that tends to cause confusion is the very blurry (and contentious) line between how people perceive and define professional and amateur. In the comment thread from Adaptistration I believe you're referencing, that was more of a discussion centered around arts organizations rather than individuals.

However, to your point about recognizing quality, I don't like to sell anyone short. I've conducted a few personal experiments over the years with taking newbies to community orchestras and 52 week, professional orchestras and they always know the difference. Granted, those are extremes but I can't imagine any business or art form that has a chance at long term survival without focusing on quality.

But more to the Slow Food point as it relates to the blog topic here, one item that classical music can benefit from is the notion that removing artificial barriers is certainly something that benefits long term interests. In short, why create additional filters in the hypermediation model?

Pliable said...

Simulcasts are on my hypermediation model as an intermediary driven obstacle to engagement. This new post elsewhere is relevant -

Jeff said...

There's an important element missing from the top of your schematic: the composer. The performer is another intermediary that can cause troubles. The future may bring direct musics from composer to listener.

Kevin said...

@ Matthew:

From Carl Dahlhaus, "Schoenberg and the New Music," "On the decline of the concept of the musical work":

"In music the concept of a work arose at a relatively late stage in history, and, inconctrast to the concept of the work in the visual arts, has always been a precarious one. For music is directly and primarily experienced as a process or a performance, and not as a form which confronts the listener. It forces itself upon one instead of being observed from a distance. It is therefore hardly a coincidence that it was only in the sixteenth century that the concept of a work was taken over from the poetics and theory of art by the aesthetics of music--and even then only hesitatingly and sporadically--and that it did not establish itself in the general consciousness of the educated before the eighteenth century. Popular music in fact was never even thought of in terms of works. Where artificial music was concerned, the concept of a musical process being a clear, as it were, architectonic form [...]--a concept, in other words, which forms one of the preconditions for understanding a musical shape as a work--always remained a postulate that was only partially and insufficiently realised.

"So while the concept of a musical work was self-evident in the nineteenth century according to the letter of the aesthetic law, it was of restricted validity and always in peril from the context of actual musical behaviour. Anyone who nowadays opposes the domination of the concept of the work [...] is not so much turing against a firmly established tradition as helping to destroy a precarious idea, the truth of which was, admittedly, not called into question in the nineteenth century but whose claims were nonetheless not fulfilled. The polemics against the concept of the musical work are directed against a dominant and yet powerless idea."

Not too different, right?

mrG said...

As lotsson said,

"Concert-goers were also often amateur musicians. They played symphonies, concerts and operas in their homes in versions for piano or small ensembles. It might not have sounded too good, but they got insights into music that you don't get by listening only to recordings."

Here in Southern Ontario, as elsewhere, everyone in Kindergarten sings and spontaneously plays on any object with a musical tone to it, but has that natural propensity completely extinguished sometime before Grade 2 where not even the National Anthem is sung. Then, 5 years later in Grade 7, we hand them a clarinet and ask them to play.

Surprise, surprise: they cannot.

Ask them to sing their part to learn the line, they blush and shuffle and will do any goofy stunt they can imagine to escape the taboo behaviour of making natural music.

How dare we then wonder where the natural wonderment of music has gone? Who are we that we can then wonder why the sounds these kids then go on to make on their own is an anti-music bashing noise of pure contrary reactance protest? Who is responsible for this, and what on earth were they thinking of when they mounted this campaign against music?

Things are (were?) different in Europe. Things are (now?) different in South America, in China, even in Africa. It is only here where you can get a Scarlet Letter for singing out of turn, without the proper paperwork, the accepted accreditation and triplicate certificates of authorization.

Grade 7 is far too late to begin; there isn't enough time before puberty sets in, and certainly to expect mature adult ticket-buyers to simply magically spontaneously and effortlessly absorb, digest and comprehend 500 years of accumulated musical research is a ludicrous proposition, no matter how many concerts you give them, it's astronomically too little, too late.

But give them Lady Gaga, and now you're speaking a language their goo-goo da-da infantile understanding can grasp. Again, no surprise, and no one's fault but our own.

So ... to this end, we all, as musicians, for our own survival, earnestly apply our efforts to the education, encouragement and nurturing of musical expression in our young, from as early as possible and up all the way through even those annoying years ;) so that they know, first hand they know by doing why anyone would want a Tristan Chord.