“Bach at keyboard” (detail)

‘Classical music is tight, yo’

We need to change the way we think about ‘old’ music.

It’s unusual to see self-proclaimed hip-hop royalty giving props to the stuffy and outdated, particularly in a manner most often reserved for Maybachs, “Rollies,” and expensive champagne:

“Classical music is tight yo” —Kanye West (@KanyeWest), 29 Jul 2010

And while this particular tweet from Kanye is certainly dated, it’s perhaps one of the most insightful and inoffensive statements to ever make its way from his brain to his BlackBerry. Fired off with classic Kanye caprice, the notion of classical, or “old,” music as something worth investing in is both simple and elegant: stripped of its fuss, the world of old music reveals some of the most beautiful, remarkable human craftsmanship that exists today.

West’s idea implies that old music should be lauded and relished—that it has a secure place in our cultural narrative, that it’s not in danger. Because, in a word, it is very tight indeed.

For those of us who care, this is a nice idea; currently, however, a wispy, intangible vision is all this is, though through no fault of the changing music market. Social media, paired with YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify, offer unprecedented access to all types of music, and for little or no cost. As with so much else, the Internet has provided an overwhelming amount of musical (and, more broadly, artistic) options to those who are searching.

The problem has become increasingly obvious: the very people tasked with keeping old music healthy have, instead, allowed it to rot—slowly, and from the inside out. Rather than leveraging technology to make this music as accessible as it ever could be, the keepers of the classics have instead pompously turned the entire experience of “hearing a concert” into the shared secret of an elitist club (“Is this where I’m supposed to clap?”). They deny entry to even the most well-intentioned outsiders and have stunted the music’s impact with an insistence on formality and fussy ritual.

As a result, it’s a near daily occurrence that the New York Times’s arts section runs a story or blog post about an orchestra having to cancel yet more performances, or, in some cases, abandon a season entirely. The average age of audiences, which mostly reflects the sixty-plus demographic, continues to rise. Seats remain unfilled. Tickets lie unsold. Budgets are in crisis.

Disruptive resuscitation seems to be the only answer; one geared toward filling seats with younger listeners. For this, the art itself must be shaken up.

Its current guardians will find this unnerving, no doubt, concerned as they are with appearances over appeal. Nevertheless, they need to understand the predicament they have created, and that they are ill-equipped to fix it. Their past history in managing this music doesn’t inspire confidence when it comes to encouraging a younger, more socially relevant batch of listeners.

Of course, on balance, Bach will never compete with Bieber—but that’s not the point. The idea is to carve out a broader, more permanent place for old music in our cultural and artistic diet. And we all—even those of us who claim to hate this music—must remember that there’s a difference between the notes on the page and the social packaging they come in.

This distinction is an important one: we can change the latter. Old music needs a serious rebrand. Not one that calls for altering the music, or dumbing it down, but one that changes the way it’s presented to audiences, the way it’s talked about (at all would be nice), and the way it’s experienced.

What about venue? The question of seeing a concert in, say, a bar (rather than an opera house) has become irrelevant in our modern time: who cares, as long as the performance is good? (And there’s booze.)

And what about dressing down? How nice it would be to listen to a Beethoven symphony, cocktail in hand, performed live by musicians in dark jeans and untucked, white oxford button-downs? (Particularly if the audience could enjoy this same, more relaxed standard.) The players might even go so far as to look like they’re having a good time.

“Adapt or die” may be a tired trope, but I can think of no better application for it than this. I worry about the future of this music, because if no one buys tickets and no one performs it, it is as good as dead.

But can a tweet by Kanye West really spur a meaningful conversation about old music? Let’s hope so. Because our musical forbears would be appalled by what we have done with our inheritance.