There are no 'old' and 'new' classical music audiences

There is much talk of classical music's 'new audience'. The belief is that suddenly a large cohort with similar tastes and demographics - hopefully young and cool - will miraculously appear and be drawn into classical music, to replace the 'old audience' - senior in years and most definitely uncool. But this view of the classical audience as two monolithic groups is simply an aberration of misguided marketing folk. There are no 'old' and 'new' audiences. There is one constantly changing audience. Day by day listeners come to classical music, for varying reasons and from different age groups, and listeners also depart the art form, either due to mortality or changed tastes. The classical audience is like water in a leaky bucket. Water drips in from a tap, and drips out through a hole. Each drip happens at a different time, and no two drips are the same. Therefore the water in the bucket is changing all the time. (In social science this is known as an open system.)

Once we understand that the classical audience does not comprise monolithic groups but is fissile and constantly changing, new perspectives open. Every day the membership of the global Western classical audience changes. Newcomers vary in age, income and outlook. But, irrespective of these differences, they share a single and vitally important characteristic - they are all conditioned by the digital zeitgeist. This zeitgeist is rewiring every single one of us: our visual acuity is increasing, speed of gratification is a priority, and attention spans are shortening dramatically. The average time spent by a web page visitor is 2 minutes 17 seconds and 55% of visitors spend less than 15 seconds on a page, while visit durations for the ubiquitous social media are even shorter.

But other than cosmetic tinkering such as informal concert dress, the concert hall has singularly failed to come to terms with this fundamental rewiring of audiences. Instead classical programming continue to be built around the traditional format of amuse-bouche - concerto - interval - symphony, but with added virtue signalling. It is one of many classical music paradoxes that the digital zeitgeist is zealously embraced in the recorded domain - streaming etc - but is viewed as heretical in the concert hall. However two innovative new recording projects acknowledge how the monkey minds of the digital generation leap from experience to experience at an ever increasing rate

Pianist Jeremy Denk's 'c.1300 - c.2000' originated from a 2016 Lincoln Center commission for the venue's innovative White Light Festival, with a brief to "come up with an unusual piano recital, something like a happening or an installation". In its double CD incarnation the project ranges across twenty-five different pieces from seven centuries in 100 minutes. In a startling example of the classical establishment's failure to grasp the digital zeitgeist, a damning Gramophone review of 'c.1300 - c.2000' criticised the inclusion of just a single movement of a Beethoven Sonata. The review then went on to lament the absence of virtue signalling - "And that’s even before we get into the objections of having the history of classical music told via a few works by a few great white men".

Another lower profile but no less notable example of programming for the monkey mind is 'White Light - the space between'. This is a Signum Classics release with the iconoclastic O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra from Sweden directed by violinist Hugo Ticciati with soloists Matthew Barley (cello), Soumik Datta (sarod), and Sukhvinder Singh (tabla). In 117 minutes this puzzlingly overlooked project traverses Arvo Pärt, Pēteris Vasks, John Tavener with sarod improvisations, saccharine free Lennon and McCartney arrangements, and a raga by sarod master Amjad Ali Khan. 'White Lights' caters with consumate flair and integrity for the musical monkey mind, but avoids sampling and even includes a complete performance of Pēteris Vasks' 32 minute violin concerto 'Distant Light'. (OK, the two Tavener tracks are excerpted from 'The Veil of the Temple', but the complete work does last for seven hours.)

Hugo Ticciati's 'White Light - the space between' is lovingly presented in CD format, with erudite sleeve essays and the Antony Gormley cover art seen above. The album takes its title, as does the Lincoln Center's Festival that commissioned 'c.1300 - c.2000', from Arvo Pärt. He explained how: "I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener". That defining prism is being redefined by the digital zeitgeist. 'White Light - the space between' and 'c.1300 - c.2000' may not be game changers. But they at least recognise the urgent need to redefine the classical audience.

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Unknown said…
Just a small and to most readers probably insignificant addition to your interesting overview: in addition to the concert hall's rigidity in programming, it has also moved incredibly slowly in timing of concerts - in the UK at least 7.30 remains a norm. Ok, so there are some late-night, Sunday morning, and early evening performances, but more imaginative timings, perhaps combined with inter-linked programmes, could prove attractive. After all, since the advent of recorded music we have been able to choose when to listen to music, and not everyone finds the 'main event of the evening' attractive - or even easily digestible - see the 'problem' of providing a suitably complementary 'first half to Betthoven's 9th, for example.

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