[Note: This post has been updated (2) as of 2:07 PM Eastern on 15 Apr. See below.]
Alex Ross of The Rest Is Noise declares "very smart" (smart being the au courant chic expression used by the New York intelligentsia to designate the sharp-and-with-it) this piece by former Hartford Courant classical music critic Steve Metcalf for the American Music Center's webzine, NewMusicBox.
I confess I fail to see anything particularly "smart" about Mr. Metcalf's piece as it does little but go over some rather old and barren ground concerning proposed explanations for, and solutions to, the current problem of the dwindling audience for classical music and the classical music concert. Mr. Metcalf makes three numbered points, none of which adds anything new to the conversation.
Metcalf Point #1:
We who are trying to fill concert halls have to stop saying — and thinking — that the main problem is the lack of music education in the schools.
But this is something of a straw man. No-one today singles out this problem — and problem it most certainly is — as "the main problem" in the dwindling audience for classical music and the classical music concert. Not even "reactionary, cultural conservative" (as I've been called) mandarins such as myself. While acknowledging the lack of music education of the young a palpably real problem, I at the same time explicitly rejected the idea that "the lack of music education in the schools" is the main problem, and put the onus elsewhere. In a July 2004 post on this blog, I wrote, in part:
The alpha and omega of [the problem of building audience for classical music and the classical music concert] is that a hardcore audience for classical music can, in huge part, be created only by targeting the very young. If you fail to get 'em very young, you mostly don't get 'em at all.
And that targeting must begin with the pre-kindergarten young, and continue at least through early adolescence. Schools, both public and private, cannot do the job, although they have their place in the campaign. Neither, strange to tell, can parents, although they, too, have their place. In today's world, the single most important overwhelmingly important entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially. If classical music is not sold there, it will remain largely unsold no matter what else is done. Classical music must be made a part of the very air children breathe, and only the commercial media can accomplish that.
Metcalf Point #2:
If we're going to understand how music is working these days, including live music, we need to start with the iPod. The iPod, I'm convinced, has more to teach us about contemporary music habits and desires than all our foundation-sponsored task forces and think-tank position papers combined.
Doh! Brilliant and original insight. But what it teaches us, of course, is that music illiteracy and crudity of musical sensibility and taste is rampant today; in this country most especially. Mr. Metcalf's spin on this, however, is somewhat different:
This [the iPod] is not just a Walkman that's smaller and holds more stuff. This is a different way of organizing, experiencing, gathering, discovering, and communing with music. It means people can — and do — carry music on their person virtually their entire waking lives. It doesn't take Marshall McLuhan to figure out that this will have an impact on the live concert experience.
I realize it's dangerous to theorize at this early point in the game, but it seems like we're entering an age in which the old ways of categorizing music, and assigning them to genres — as record labels and radio stations still tend to do — is of less and less interest to people. In fact, it's possible that such categories are becoming impediments to enjoyment.
And so the answer to this pernicious new cultural paradigm as it impacts classical music and the classical music concert is ... What, exactly?
On that, Mr. Metcalf is curiously silent.
Metcalf Point #3:
Classical music could use a few new superstars. Or one, even.
To say that there are no classical superstars is a bit of an overstatement, but not much of one. Maybe a slightly more accurate way to say this is that there aren't any superstars outside of the major cities anymore.
Quite true, the point being, again, What, exactly? Truth of the matter is, Mr. Metcalf's point is no point at all; in fact begs the question. Unless, that is, Mr. Metcalf believes that superstars are purely the creation of PR specialists, and that these specialists are simply not working hard or effectively enough.
Such an idea is, of course, perfectly absurd. Superstars are created by decree of a mass audience — precisely what classical music and the classical music concert is lacking. The lack of classical music superstars will be automatically self-correcting once an audience sufficiently large exists for classical music. While it's inarguably true that because of classical music's fundamentally elite nature its audience will, in the very best case, never remotely be a mass audience on the scale of the mass audience for less challenging music, it can certainly be large enough to create superstars visible outside its own relatively small world.
In short, Mr. Metcalf's Point #3 is a thoroughly pointless non-point.
So, in summation, what has Mr. Metcalf taught us by all this?
Not a single bloody thing that I can discern.
Update (1:01 AM Eastern on 14 Apr): A two-parter.
Part The First:
Alex Ross responds (scroll down to the first update).
Alex and I have been over this ground before, and so I won't try his or our readers' patience by going over the same ground again. I would, however, like to suggest to Alex that his, "The need now is to recapture the attention of young adults ... by stressing [classical music's] passion, its intelligence, [and] its relevance," while a good thing to do in any case, is by and large (I was sorely tempted to write totally, but resisted) a pie-in-the-sky enterprise in terms of building a new core audience for classical music. The statistical evidence Alex adduces as an argument against my, "If you fail to get 'em very young, you mostly don't get 'em at all," showing that most young adults exposed to classical music as kids "throw off their youthful interest and never go back," is, after all, something only to be expected as classical music is now as it has always been, and always will be, a thoroughly elite enterprise, and interest in it will be lifelong for only a tiny proportion of those exposed to it as kids, even if that exposure is of the right kind, which more often than not it's anything but. No meaningful progress will be made in this business of building a new core audience for classical music until those with the bully pulpits, those with the money, and those with the power, accept that ineluctable fact of life, and base their strategies on that rock-solid ground instead of on the quicksand of populist equalitarian thinking.
Lisa Hirsch of Iron Tongue of Midnight also has something to say. I refuse to respond to what she had to say until she first rereads my post, understands what I wrote, and responds to what I actually said instead of to what she imagines I said: e.g., her non sequitur, "ACD expresses puzzlement about the importance of the iPod....," and, "Ignore ACD's blathering about the coarsening of the culture. We'd have the music he hates, whether that's rock or rap, even if we were still on 78s."
The single most important factor in the decline of Classical Music is that it is seen by society as the music of the social upper class, but belief in the superiority of the social upper class has declined and been replaced by a belief in the superiority of the cultural middle class. Nowadays the middle class doesn't aspire to join the social upper class, they merely aspire to be rich. Popular music, the music of the social middle class, rose to prominance [sic] because it was built by and for the financial middle class at a time when they were beginning to lose their belief in the superiority of the social upper class, right before the arrival of the Baby Boomers, which was a giant, dissaffected [sic] bump in the population of the middle class.
Neither Classical Music education, nor the iPod, nor the manufacture of more stars is the silver bullet. Contra AC Douglas, it's not the case that Classical music has a "fundamentally elite nature;" in fact making that argument merely reinforces the popular attitude that classical music can safely be ignored.
The solution is to change the culture as a whole so that Classical music is no longer seen as the music of an elitist social upper class.
I'm fully cognizant that within the present worldwide populist-equalitarian Zeitgeist designating anything as elite or elitist is tantamount in opprobrium to designating someone a pedophile. That notwithstanding, there's no getting around the irrefutable conclusion that classical music is fundamentally elite in nature, elite referring, of course, both to the unexceeded challenging nature of classical music as compared with all other musics, and to the limited audience for such music in all eras. It does no good to go about attempting to disguise or in some way soften the impact of that irrefutable fact of life, or, worse, lie about it. As I wrote in my above linked July 2004 post, "An Audience For Classical Music":
[C]lassical music promoted as just another "stream" flowing into the "river" of music will ultimately be met, by those at which the promotion is aimed, with the same sort of disbelief and contempt afforded the person who attempts to present himself as what he manifestly is not, and by the attempt renders himself thoroughly ridiculous as he cannot help but do. Think of a redneck attempting to pass himself off as a genuine aristocrat, or, much worse, and much more to the point, vice versa.
I thoroughly disagree with Mr. Brown that the central problem today in gaining a core audience for classical music is that classical music is "seen as the music of an elitist social upper class." What classical music is today seen as is the music of a superior intellectual and cultural class (i.e., superior as in, not of The People [Added: 4/16]), and as such deemed elitist and therefore anathema. What must be changed is not "the culture as a whole so that [c]lassical music is no longer seen as the music of an elitist social upper class," as Mr. Brown would have it, but the imbecile populist-equalitarian contempt for all things intellectual and high-cultural (as opposed to pop-cultural). And that's something that can be accomplished only by educating the young (in the broadest sense of the term, not merely in the classroom, which is the least of it as important as it is), as I've already declared.