‘Who’s Listening?’ — exclusivity is sucking the life from classical music

[Original post: 10 April 2016]

Milton Babbitt wrote a borderline scathing article over fifty years ago called “Who Cares if You Listen?” defensively addressing the public’s queasiness for contemporary art music in America. He compares the advancement of music to that of science and math, pointing out that “laymen” simply aren’t intelligent enough to understand this music, and that doesn’t matter.

Milton Babbitt’s grade-A RBF; see his article here

I love Babbitt. He did crazy stuff. Philomel is one of the most inventive, chilling (in all the right ways) pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I’m into it. But sorry, I’m not going to put it on a recital if I am looking to give a group of people from many backgrounds a good time. And as a performer, that’s what I’m ultimately striving to do in a performance. Maybe for some crazy, multimedia/theatrical show. But not in a formal concert setting.

So what do you expect, Milton, if you’re gonna sit people down in a little concert hall, where the temperature is, yes, you’re right, always either too low or too high (and our elder friends make it known), and throw a long string of beeps, boops, and bops at them with some crazy vocal lines? Do you expect them to react warmly?

No. The point of performing music, no matter how advanced or intelligent, is to move people. And people who know nothing about music can be moved by an orchestra concert–every musician has seen it several times.

Babbitt is no longer with us, so I’ll stop addressing him. But if classical music is really going to make it in this country (and in this century), we must ask ourselves as musicians–are we really making our audiences feel valued?

We don’t need to change the music we play (or even the location). The best attended concerts at the New World Symphony are the PULSE concerts, which the musicians call “club concerts,” where the hall turns into a night club (or as close as we can get) and we play for people while they drink and talk and enjoy the music. One of the pieces on the program last time was the first movement of Beethoven 5. The audience went totally nuts! We gave them a fresh, exciting, and meaningful experience by playing a piece of Western art music just by turning down the lights and letting people walk around while drinking their libation of choice. We also had some pretty cool lighting and video effects, but that’s just the icing.

Another series of well-attended concerts is called Encounters, concerts with short programs that are narrated by Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s daughter) and a few fellows throughout the orchestra. They have a theme and a narrative, and they’re designed to help people learn while experiencing beautiful music. Sound boring? Nope. The point of the concert is to give the audience an enriching experience. They’re being spoken to. They know we know they’re there.

Solving the crisis in classical music? It’s not fancy marketing campaigns or crazy experimental settings or watered down repertoire. Engage our audiences. Make them want to come back and bring all their friends.