New classical audiences need new music

A reader's perceptive comment explained that to reach a new audience classical music must help listeners across the classical/non-classical divide. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is the immensely popular staple fare of classical's elusive new young audience, and EDM lacks any narrative progression. Classical music can also be non-linear: one example is John Luther Adams' Become Desert, a seamless 40 minute sonic mirage which abandons the horizontal narrative structures of works such as Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony with its 'Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside'. 

Become Desert sits comfortably in the concert hall, yet it would not be out of place in a sunset session at Ibiza's Café Del Mar or a full moon trance party on Koh Pha Ngan. As John Luther Adams described in a New York Times essayBecome Desert literally entrances its audience - "You find yourself listening in ways you never have before. The scale of your perception has changed. Small, subtle sounds have become singular events. The space around you seems larger than you had realized".

Other composers of what can loosely be termed non-linear music include Valentin Silvestrov, Arvo Pärt, Toru Takemitsu, Henryk Górecki, Thomas Adès, John Tavener, and György Ligeti. Non-narrative music also extends forward to the more radical output of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and their peers, and back to the not-so-new Baroque era and beyond - remember early music champion David Munrow's immense popularity with young audiences. Yet, despite classical's hunger for a new audience, concert programming remains lamentably unadventurous. The result is the futile strategy of throwing more and more Mahler and Shostakovich flavoured with a little virtue signalling at the new target audience in the hope that some of it will stick.

We have forgotten how popular Pierre Boulez's 1970's New York Rug Concerts and London Roundhouse concerts were. A New York Times review reported how at a Rug Concert "the orchestra and its music director... were awarded a standing ovation by the predominantly young audience" who had listened to an intelligently curated linear/non-linear programme of Weber, Brahms, Ives and Stravinsky.  We have also forgotten how a young non-classical Western audience was bowled over by the Ravi Shankar's distinctly non-narrative Indian classical ragas in the 1960s.

Brian Eno has worked with non-classical stars including David Bowie, Robert Fripp, Talking Heads, and John Cale, so he knows a thing or two about non-classical audiences. Best known as a pioneer of the ambient music which was an early influence on electronic dance music, he also curated the ground-breaking Obscure Records label which between 1975 and 1978 released ten albums by composers including John Cage, John Adams, Gavin Bryars, and Michael Nyman. In a 1974 Creem magazine interview Brian Eno gave this perceptive explanation of the importance of non-linear music to new audiences.

 'We are no longer concerned with making horizontal music, by which I mean music that starts at point A, develops through point B and ends at point C in a kind of logical or semi-logical progression. What's more interesting is constructing music that is a solid block of interactions. This then leaves your brain free to make some of those interactions more important than others and to find which particular ones it wants to speak two'.

Much of today's standard repertoire aimed at expanding the classical audience is prescriptive music that takes the listener on a predetermined journey - 'What the wildflowers tell me'(Mahler 3), 'A narrative representation of a hero's life and death' (Shostakovich 5), 'The Heavenly Life' (Mahler 4) etc. etc. Even when the music has stopped listeners' brains are not left free. Broadcast performances on BBC Radio 3 are top and tailed by presenters explaining in excruciating detail what the music is about and how the listener should respond. We even went through a period when the musicians felt obliged to introduce the music with a mini-lecture

Electronic dance music and related non-classical genres leave the listener's brain free to make its own interactions. Classical music want a new young audience. The starting point for bringing listeners across the classical/non-classical divide is giving the new audience music they can relate to. Once that relationship is established the new audience will move on to Mahler, Shostakovich and Beethoven. Giving the new audience music they can relate to doesn't mean dumbing down or exorcising the standard repertoire. It simply means being far more experimental and adventurous in classical programming. Because, despite the stereotyping of the classical marketeers, audiences - young and old - are not backward children. And new classical audiences don't just need new music: they also need new thinking.


Warren Cohen said…
would you object to me posting this on my facebook feed? I talk about this all the time.
Pliable said…
Warren, I will be honoured if you repost. If by our joint efforts even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then it has all been worthwhile -

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