Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Filtering by Tag: audience development

NPR Music's Guilty Pleasures

For the past few weeks NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog has been running a series on “Guilty Pleasures,” interviewing regular contributors about music they are “embarrassed to love.”

The stated premise is commendable:

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who know my passion for music have asked, "So, what are you listening to these days?"

It's tempting to respond with something like, "Oh, I'm back in one of my big Mahler phases again." It sounds impressive and it's easier than admitting to what I might be really listening to — which could indeed be Mahler, but could just as likely be some schlocky pop band.

There's pressure on classical people to: a) never admit liking pop music and b) always maintain distinguished taste in classical music itself. Conversely, lovers of pop, rock and other genres might feel bashful about a secret love of Beethoven. So here's where I'm throwing all of these hang-ups out the window — and I invite you to do the same.

Yet, in actuality, the premise of this series seems to be that there are the Great Composers, the ones we all know: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mozart, etc. And there are the lesser composers, the ones who have been brushed aside by music history (or music history classes) or who have – heaven forbid – become popular with a large audience, mainly for their inclusion on concert programs as crowd-pleasing encores, on a “pops” concert, or a “greatest hits” compilation CD.

At least, that’s how it appears to me. In many ways, this is understandable. Many academically trained musicians learn this in music schools and conservatories. As Bruno Nettl writes (in Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music),

In the conversational rhetoric of the Music Building, “great” refers mainly to the largest works. It is no coincidence that in one of the few books about the concept of musical masterworks the first two works mentioned are Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.


The great composer-deities are obviously present. Their inscribed names adorn the building inside and out, six master (four of them German) instructing students assembled for weekly convocations in the auditorium that all important issues of music reside within a 150-year span and nothing else is needed – this is the great music. (He is directly referencing Smith Music Hall at the University of Illinois, but this can be seen in institutions across the country.)

Having this background, it’s understandable that someone might think of Strauss, Rachmaninov, or Tchaikovsky as a guilty pleasure. They’re popular composers, and have traditionally been frowned upon by classical music institutions.

We all have guilty pleasures. It is beyond my scope here to examine why we have guilty pleasures, or what makes us consider them “guilty.” But I strongly recommend reading Carl Wilson’s fantastic book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste and watching his interview on The Colbert Report:



He doesn't come away with a newfound love for Celine Dion, and neither did I after reading the book (and listening to her), but he has great insight into the notions behind our musical tastes and pleasures.

It can be a blow to our egos and senses of musical taste if we are to hear that a respected individual finds music that we enjoy is treated with the impression that it's not supposed to be worthy of enjoyment. Personally, I went through that journey with the music of Gershwin (among others), that wasn’t uprooted until I took a semester-long seminar on him (corresponding blog post here), and I regret the missed time spent listening to, performing, and appreciating Gershwin's music.

I think many people in the classical music world agree that we want that music to be spread to as many people as possible. But can we do that do that by making people feel guilty about enjoying Copland, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Vivaldi, or Strauss? Are people really embarassed by listening to those composers?

The artists who regularly post on NPR's blog, and the blog itself, overall do a great job of expanding audience's education. I’m grateful that NPR started a classical music blog (much as I am for their jazz and indie pop blogs). But they missed the mark with the guilty pleasure series. The "behind-the-scenes" view we get from conductors, composers and performers is great; the out-dated mode of thinking behind this needs to be reexamined.

Watson & The Arts

There have been a few big new items on people's minds, blogs, and Twitter feeds in the last week or so. Aside from protests in the Middle East (and my home state of Wisconsin), two that I was drawn to were the discussion about a column on HuffPost by the president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the debut of Watson, IBM's new computer, on Jeopardy!

via www.venturebeat.comIf you didn't watch the shows or read news clips, Watson won over the course of two episodes, against the two highest-scorers in Jeopardy!'s history. In some ways, and in some people's opinions, this is scary. If a computer can do this, how far away are we from artificial intelligence, from HAL? We're probably not as far away as some people may think.

But let's be honest: computers already rule our lives. Aside from the increasingly-rare species of Luddite, most people will check their email, Twitter feed, or Facebook at least once a day. Smart phones are becoming the norm instead of the exception they were only a few short years ago. Cars are now being produced that not only can locate you and assist you if you're in an accident, but can read your Facebook news feed aloud to you as your driving.

And then there's Michael Kaiser's article. The title says a lot, but unfortunately the column is light on substance: "What Is Wrong With the Arts?" I don't think anything Mr Kaiser wrote after that would have satisfied even a simple majority of the people. The answers to "what is wrong with the arts?" are diverse and often well thought-out, but it seems that there are many answers to the problem as there are people asking the question.

I've gotten involved in arts arguments. I've contributed my two cents about what needs to be done to "save" classical music, or the arts in general. I'm getting a little tired of it. Sometimes the pessimist in me feels that this is at least partially a manufactured crisis. But that's a topic for a different post.

What I want to propose here is a simple idea about how we can continue to develop the arts, how we can persuade Obama to avoid cutting funding for the NEA (and Republicans cutting funding for NPR and PBS), about how we can continue drawing audiences into our events, concert halls and museums: by reminding people that art is a human function. A concert is a chance to turn off your electronic devices and become absorbed in something created by humans, for humans, and performed by and for humans. A walk through an art museum offers us an escape from the world of email notifications and the din of the television set.

I'm not perfect. If you ask my partner or my parents, they'll readily tell you that I'm attached to my iPhone. I'm typing this on my MacBook, hoping to send this out into the World Wide Web. I'm a frequent Tweeter. Even a lot of today's art is made using computers, but it's still directed by a human.

But as I'm writing this I'm listening to Maria Schneider's Concert in the Garden and I'm thinking back to seeing her conduct Bolería, Soléa Y Rumba at the UW-Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and how her passionate conducting and her beautiful music moved me to tears. Art has a human connection that, no matter how hard "he" would try, Watson cannot duplicate.

One of my favorite professors in undergrad defined art as

any human creation which contains an idea other than its utilitarian purpose.

I don't agree with this 100% anymore, but it's one of arts' greatest selling points. Art is human, and is unlike so many other human endeavors. We need to remind people of this fact, even more so in our increasingly electronic times.

We might not be able to stop the progression of technology, but we can balance it with art advocacy, education, and enjoyment.

Everything is a Remix

Everything is a Remix from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

via www.thepriatesdilemma.comKirby Ferguson is putting together a four-part series called "Everything Is a Remix." He has two episodes out so far. (The embed above is the first, dealing with music. The second, dealing with movies, is available here.)

Remixes are a part of our contemporary musical culture. Along with mash-ups, they're a great way for even the most amateur musician to have a creative outlet. All you really need is a way to edit the music. (You get bonus points if it's uploaded on YouTube and goes viral.)

The above video is very interesting and well-composed, and it touches on the notion that all music is based on something else. Impressions is based on So What. Coldplay is based on early Radiohead. Early Beethoven is based on Haydn. Everything comes from something else.

How can we use the idea of remixes to expand the classical music audience? How can we use them in music education? Is modern copyright law properly equipped to deal with the concept of the remix?

(Visit Everything Is a Remix, and follow him on Twitter.)

The Musical Work-Concept

For make no mistake: the subject of this book is not the origin of the work-concept. Its subject is the origin of the somber, socially regressive nonsense that people have been spouting about classical music for the last hundred years, a line of propaganda that has - obviously, to all but the spouters - been losing ever vaster tracts of ground since at least the 1970s.

-Richard Taruskin, in the foreward to Lydia Goehr's "The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works"

I just (finally!) started diving into this "essay in the philosophy of music," written in 1991, revised in 2007. It's not easy reading, but I'm enjoying it so far. If you're looking for a philosophy of music that expands beyond the notions of music as an object; for a book on contemporary musical thought; for a rationalization of your thoughts, or to be challenged on your ideas of music ... this is a good book to read.

Smith Music Hall, University of Illinois; By Dori via Wikimedia Commons

I'm hoping to share my journey through this book with you, and I gladly welcome your comments, feedback, and ideas. Share them below, or email me or tweet me!

Shakespeare's Relevance for Classical Music

Last week I stumbled upon a blog post titled "Shakespeare's Relevance*." The author, Amy Wratchford, gives ideas on how Shakespeare can be presented in today's society and still be relevant. The post has just as much relevance for the art music world as it does for the theatre.

(via first point is "about the need to adapt or translate Shakespeare’s work to make it accessible and relevant." She shares anecdotal stories about students - grade schoolers - enjoying Shakespeare in its original language - no translation needed.

Musicians can take this example when giving performances, and this point deserves more thought. But what I'd like to focus on now is Amy's second point: that the theatre-going experience has been made too sacred.

Stephen Hough just wrote about how Franz Liszt was a forbearer in bringing the lights down during recitals, leaving the audience (literally and sometimes metaphorically) in the dark - a tradition we've continued to this day. Alex Ross has written about the history of applause. (Mr Hough has a post about this, too.) Most of us have seen the scenes from Amadeus where the audience is more raucous than any of today's classical music audiences.

It's beyond my scope here to write about how classical music was transformed from an engaging experience to something that needs to be "absorbed" esoterically. It didn't happen overnight, and reverting back to old ways won't, either, but I believe it's possible and necessary. Perhaps it's as easy as changing the audience's experience, allowing them to "loosen up" and applaud between movements, or after a particularly challenging cadenza. Or leaving the house lights up so they can follow along with program notes or lyrics.

There is a lot of talk about the death of classical music, and just as many ways that it can be "improved" or "reinvented." One of my fears is that by trying to reach out to an audience that the music will be "dumbed-down." Amy writes:

This is what makes us unique in the spectrum of entertainment: our ability as creators of theatre to connect with our audience, live and in the flesh, with stories that challenge and comfort; that get under our skin and make us feel.

I say that this isn't the realm of Shakespeare alone, but of classical music and all arts. I believe we can reach out to students and audience members and challenge them, and not lessen the experience. Art is supposed to be challenging. Audiences need more connection to the music they're hearing, but engagement is more than showing a PowerPoint or video during a performance. It's more than writing accessible program notes or singing in English.

Day in and day out, we're inundated with sounds: at the mall, in the car, at home, even on the street corner. Music is more a part of our daily lives than at any other point in history. Yet we expect people to devote two hours of their day to pure listening, sitting quietly, and politely applauding at the end of a piece. This has its place, but it doesn't have to be the steadfast rule.

We don't need to lower our standards to get classical music to a wider audience, but we do need to work harder to fit it into our modern society. Let's start by treating the audience like the intelligent individuals they are, and give them the opportunity to show their delight (or displeasure) when the music moves them to.

*I can't remember who tweeted this article, so I can't give her credit, but I give her a hearty thank you!

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