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States of music

Is it possible to talk about “red states” and “blue states” without appearing to exercise a value judgment? It strikes me that there are clear “red states” and “blue states” in the classical music world, but when I say that I don’t want to appear to prioritize one above the other.

The red states are those who love the classical tradition with a deep passion. They understand the need for contemporary music and revitalization, and subject themselves to it with a dutiful sense of obedience, and are happy when they hear something they like. But their real love lies with the mainstream canon: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and all the byways and tributaries of that stream. There are endless riches to be found there, and lots of music by all of those composers and their ilk that remains to be satisfactorily explored. What higher goal can one have than to devote the bulk of one’s listening time to the study of those great works?

The blue states love classical music no less. But they worry that it’s dying out because it is so entrenched in the past. Meanwhile, all kinds of new movements, ideas, and musics are springing up. The blue states want to encourage this new growth, and ideally to see it better incorporated into the mainstream classical tradition (read: orchestras, opera houses, major chamber presenters). They react with knee-jerk horror to programs that don’t include a contemporary work. They feel that advocacy means working to bring the field forward, and “educating” those who don’t like the contemporary to accept and embrace it. They also feel, quite honestly, that what’s being done in new music is more vital and alive than a constant diet of works one and two and three centuries old, wonderful as those pieces are.
(read more after the jump)

In this figurative sense, as well as literally, I’ve lived in both red states and blue. Obviously, neither side is entirely right, nor entirely wrong; and there are many degrees and shades of belief. But there’s no question, I think, that there is a sense of factionalism. The red states feel that their beloved tradition is embattled and needs defending. The blue states feel that the red are out of touch.

This is an imperfect analogy, of course. The red states in this simile represent something vital to the field. Without its tradition, we have no field. The main justification for having so many classical music ensembles, to many music lovers and certainly from the point of view of the lay public, is that they play the music of Mozart and Beethoven (insert your composer of choice here). The unfortunate thing is that there should appear to be a divide at all.

I think many people, reading this, will protest: “I love both old and new,” they’ll say. That may be. But this divide remains a central issue, not to say problem, for our field. How do we continue to keep alive a tradition that we’re growing farther and farther away from (purely chronologically speaking), so that many of our beloved scores have to be approached as canonical texts, and effort expended to divine the composer’s intention from the notes? And how do we graft onto that a present repertory that seems, on the surface, calculated to appeal to an entirely different audience?

These are not new questions. But the sense of factionalism -- particularly the idea that any call for change represents some kind of blue-state attack on the beloved tradition of the red states -- persists. And it's striking that the question of what it means to tend or further tradition (is "tradition" offering a faithful rendition of a Mozart sonata, or the tradition of composers writing and performing new works, of which Mozart himself was a part?) remains so puzzling, to the point of appearing insoluble.

By Anne Midgette  |  January 5, 2010; 6:18 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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The problem in classical music is the tradition (surprise, the 'tradition' includes the steady creation of new works) being tainted by such ideas as the one you propose here: that it can be defined in political terms. The other clear and present danger in classical music is the primary motivation stemming from the love of money and power. There are so many examples of this one could write a book (my life is taken up by making music, not writing about it) and I would suggest that if you are serious about the state of classical music, you should consider this perspective. Tip: writing about this you will stir major controversy and increase readership. :)

Posted by: ggibbs1 | January 5, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I always did enjoy the blues!

Posted by: ScottRose | January 5, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I was recently asked to participate in a telephone survey conducted by the WNO. One of the questions was: do you prefer traditional operas or contemporary American operas? My instinctive response was that I prefer first-rate operas, and that applies to all music. Placing music in a political context, as noted above, dismisses the notion of quality and reduces the question to a problem of how to ensure full employment for anyone wanting to call him or herself a musician. It also raises the question of what we accept as "classical" music -- I prefer the term "art music" to avoid tying it to a particular epoch. The enjoyment of art music, like gourmet food, is an acquired habit, not an entitlement. At the very least, the one requires an educated ear as much as the other requires an educated palate. In that sense, art music will always be part of an elite culture. It is one thing to endeavor to extend the opportunity to become a part of this culture to anyone willing and able to make the effort. It is quite another to dumb down music and propose some kind of affirmative action for anyone claiming to be a musician or, as is frequently proposed here, an American musician. While being a fellow American elicits my affection and encouragement, the final product has to meet a certain standard. Alas, the problem of most so-called contemporary art music is that it does not meet this standard. The problem is not that it is new; the problem is that it is not good enough. That standard has been evolving, but the presence of so many musical gods makes it somewhat more problematic "to divine the composer's effort" when our understanding of what is divine has been refined over 500 years. It takes more than prescribing knitting needles to play a drum, or amassing Garageband chords.

Posted by: gauthier310 | January 5, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

This division, as such, is NOT a bad thing. I've always believed that the tension of opposites keeps ideas progessing because it causes each side to periodically re-examine its position. We have opposable thumbs to grasp, manipulate and develop physical tools. We have opposable minds, ideas and groups so we can grasp and manupilate ideas, values, and laws for a developing society.
I say just relax and let nature take its course.

Posted by: cuttime | January 5, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Why oh why do we have to put up with this red state / blue state dichotomy. I live in California, where we have both in one! Anne has imported a political division scheme onto the classical world without offering any support whatever for its existence. Please don't be so lazy. Think of something original to say instead of applying a cliche to classical.

Posted by: boris8 | January 5, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Red versus blue is just another way of saying conservative versus progressive, or perhaps uptown v. downtown. Those drawn to the tried and true canon -- the "imaginary museum of musical works" in Lydia Goehr's formulation -- are probably more staid and older than those who hang out at Le Poisson Rouge hearing classical music being reinvented. But they have a point: music that's been around for centuries has survived generally because it's good. I've performed a lot of new music, but seldom feel that it merits repeat performances the way that a late Beethoven quartet does. It takes time to sort these things out.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | January 5, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I've performed a lot of new music, but seldom feel that it merits repeat performances the way that a late Beethoven quartet does. It takes time to sort these things out.
Posted by: Lutoslawski
You could have played a gem, but because of circumstances too numerous to mention the performance flopped. Nobody thought Beethoven's violin concerto merited repeated performances until a concert put on by Mendelssohn with Joachim. Every old work had a champion and any new work needs someone to champion it too.

Posted by: prokaryote | January 5, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

In classical music,old and new music are not at all mutually exclusive. We need them both, and cannot do without either.
Just as it would be fatal for our orchestras and opera companies to perform nothing but music from the past, it would be equally wrong to abandon the past and perform nothing but new music.
And you cannot understand the classical music of the present day if you are unfamiliar with the music of the past.
The composers and critics who are always complaining that in the past"all or most music was new" fail to realize that we have an enormous accumulation of repertoire today which did not exist in the past,and that there infinitely more orchestras and opera companies etc performing today,and a vastly greater number of performances than in the past.
And only time will tell which of the many,many new works which have been premiered in recent years will find a permanent niche in the repertoire.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | January 5, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

We need to get rid of the false and pernicious notion that old and new music are mutually exclusive in classical music.
In fact, we need them both and cannot do without either.
Just as it would be fatal to perform nothing but music from the past,it would be equally wrong to forget the precious heritage of great music from the past.
Those who complain that in the past"all or most music was new" fail to realize that we now have an infinitely greater accumulation of music than ever before and that there a vastly greater number of orchestras and opera companies etc than in the past.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | January 5, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Your red/blue state dichotomy is false, what the real dividing line is is tonality v. atonality/serialiam/post-tonality. The ghastly (to me) John Adams has no problem getting high-profile commissions and filling concert halls with his tonal music.

"The blue states want to encourage this new growth, and ideally to see it better incorporated into the mainstream classical tradition (read: orchestras, opera houses, major chamber presenters)"

Your view of "new music" is obviously very narrow, very American-centric, a sort Bang on the Can/Kronos/eight blackbird paradigm I suspect, the sort of stuff that people like you and your husband get excited about because it can be performed in bars and *snicker* bring in the young audience *snicker*

The "new music" I listen to --Birtwistle, Pintscher, Kyburz, Mantovani, Dillon, Norgaard, Eotvos, Lindberg, Saariaho and old school Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Berg and Schoenberg-- is all performed by "orchestras, opera houses, major chamber presenters".

"They react with knee-jerk horror to programs that don’t include a contemporary work"

Nonsense. What I and many others object to is the ghetto-ization of non-tonal music. It's so predictable: a short 5-10 minute piece that's programmed first and always surrounded by Top 40 programming. It's pathetic. It has the vibe of "Listen to this, it's good for you!" for the tonalists --which is condescending-- and it excludes a large number of fantastic pieces that don't fit the time/forces allowed -- which is unfair to the non-tonal pieces.

I wish orchestra's would just give up and segregate the non-tonal music in to a New Music Group thing, like the New York Philharmonic did this year. I certainly don't want to have to sit through *shudder* Haydn and *SHUDDER* Brahms to get to a new piece by Pintscher. Treat the New Music Group as you would, say, organ recitals or lieder, a niche group to be catered to on ITS terms, not the terms of a regular subscription concert. Don't program Mozart or Beethoven or any of that, program a mix of the old and new (Boulez and Kyburz, say, or Stockhausen, Pinstcher and Birtwistle) and don't listen to the people who think that music died with Brahms and Verdi, their opinion in this case is irrelevant.

Posted by: HenryHolland | January 5, 2010 10:18 PM | Report abuse

Locally, I suspect that we will soon be hearing a lot of Matthias Pintscher and Kaaja Saariaho under incoming National Symphony Orchestra conductor and Kennedy Center overall classical music director Christoph Eschenbach. I believe that he will insist on these two of his ongoing new orchestral music priorities, based upon his programming in Paris, Philadelphia, and Hamburg.

NSO Artistic Advisor Nigel Boon – if he continues to work out under Eschenbach, as I suspect he will– probably will try to fit in some more of his Brits Oliver Knussen and Julian Anderson (the second of whom Anne Midgette doesn’t understand).

There is also some possibility that Eschenbach and Nigel Boon will agree to a representative, although non-major, work by Henze -- such as Barcarola per grande orchetra (which I heard Henze conduct in Ojai.)

However, I don’t expect Eschenbach and Boon to correctly estimate their NSO audiences by programming such now internationally mainstream works as Henze’s Symphony #9, Birtwistle’s “Earth Dances,” and Tippet’s “The Mask of Time.”

It will continue to be Washington’s loss if Eschenbach cannot program the high caliber of international orchestral scores that Antal Dorati and Rostropovich programmed on a regular basis. (Even highly erratic Slatkin won points locally by programming scores by Rihm and Saariaho.)

How Eschenbach and Nigel Boon deal with post-Adams American classical composers is an open question. I imagine that they will have to find programming space for David Lang (“Eating Living Monkeys” premiered years back by the Cleveland Orchestra?) and the fine Virginia-born and Baltimore-trained radical conservative Michael Hersch ( like Matthias Pintscher), since the orchestra has found so much recent time for Jennifer Higdon.

Either NSO or Kennedy Center Terrace Theater audiences will also probably hear a work by Germany’s leading post-Henze composer, Wolgang Rihm. This may or may not please Washington Post Chief classical music critic Anne Midgette and her husband.

However, they will, I imagine, probably be attending, for the Washington Post, the world premiere of the newest Rihm “Dionysus” opera this summer, in Salzburg, if it does not conflict with Ms. Midgette’s Bayreuth plans.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 6, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Interesting metaphor you present here, Anne.

Allow me to toss in the idea, however, that there's a lot more going on in this dynamic than mere musical preferences, and that this has loads to do with culture and social status. In following your metaphorical lead, do forgive my being a bit of a blanket generalizer!

Your "red staters" of classical music probably consist of a high % of highly educated, culturally elite, inordinately wealthy patrons (and matrons) of the refined concert hall, but more often than not without musical training, and importantly, without a real stake in the future (i.e. continued relevancy) of the music. I bet we've all seen people who storm off with their minks in a huff any time new music is performed because "un-pretty sounds" don't adhere to their vision of what respectable music should look and sound like. The historical record shows that Beethoven himself had very little use for these people, regardless of how important their role as funders might be. Even if this operates on an subconscious level, audiences like this might see classical music as a appendage of culture, as an experiential designer handbag. Thus, "being challenged" - artistically, intellectually, spiritually - is patently NOT part of the appeal. Generalizations, sure - I'm well aware there are many people who just love the "3 B's" who don't fit my straw matroning here - but in my past life working in marketing at Lincoln Center I responded to lots of many letters from conservative audience members who needed to be coddled primarily due to their important roles as donors.

Meanwhile, your "blue staters" tend to be musically trained, more integrated within the musical community, and importantly, they understand that for any art to remain relevant, it MUST continue have something to say to the general culture at large.

[Incidentally, there's an interesting discussion going on re. this very same issue within the jazz community at my new blog:]

Blue staters are invested in the past, present, and future of the music. The academicization (and elitist posturing) of new music occurring post-1945 obviously dealt a devastating blow to capturing the imaginations of audiences, and it's become difficult to undo this damage. Part of the challenge is presentation and packaging, and I feel the future of classical music will reflect a more catholic approach to music-making, which at present moment the sterile concert hall experience is far too rigid to allow. However, venues like Le Poisson Rouge in NYC are presenting new classical music to young, hip audiences who are eager to feel included in the art of their time. And I imagine they won't shy away from programming groups who play Beethoven - but their concept more accurately reflects the true diversity of classical music, rather than the exclusive glorification of the Romantic Era which appeals to society types. If you don't know him, check out what pianist Uri Caine is doing with canonical classical works - his Mozart, Bach, and Mahler discs are revelatory both in their stylistic accuracy and musical exploration!

Incidentally, it's interesting that DC doesn't have anything (yet) like a LPR: perhaps because DC tends to be an inordinately old-guard, "red-state" city, from a cultural and institutional perspective?

Anyway, great blog and fodder for discussion. I think that new media and the blogosphere makes "we happy few" who are passionate about art music all the more connected and strong!

Posted by: coolmc | January 12, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

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