Does Classical Music Need Hooks?

Does Classical Music Need Hooks?

I’m convinced every article I read these days originates from the satirical paper The Onion.  This week’s national headlines were abuzz with the Colorado Symphony’s plans for a “Classically Cannabis” concert series.  Says the symphony’s CEO, Jerome Kern, "We think it's a great opportunity for the symphony to satisfy two of its needs: to reach a younger, more diverse audience and raise money. We’re not passing judgment on whether smoking marijuana is a good or bad thing."
LA Times Article: Colorado Symphony mixes cannabis and classics in 'High Note Series'

You can’t make this stuff up.  Earlier this season I presented UpBeat Lives for a tremendously talented classical pianist who performed each successive concert in shorter skirts. Then there’s this recent YouTube sensation, billed as the first “classical music” Music Video ever, featuring a dance team of  five attractive South Korean woman twerking to Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  


You’ll note that the video has almost three and half million views, Lest you think it irreverent, the Belgian company that created the video even has thought through a deep artistic vision (justification) for their campaign to engage new audiences to classical music.  You can read it here:

Classical Comeback Philosophy

In trying to keep classical music vital, we are so desperate to cut above the noise, to stay culturally relevant.  Are we undermining the very thing we love about classical music—that it raises our consciousness above crass commercialism, or are we finding genuine paths to connect at the vibrational frequencies of mass audiences today?

What do you think? Does classical music need these hooks to stay relevant?


Dorian Komanoff Bandy May 15, 2014 @05:21 am
It seems to me that we might fruitfully distinguish between two types of hooks represented above. First, we have the Colorado model -- a hook that is "external" to the music. From what I've read, it doesn't look like this hook is going to change anything about the actual musical programming, quality of the playing, or content of the musical experience; it seems simply to be their way of trying to sell tickets and fill seats. The second model, on the other hand, is very much an "internal" hook: these videos are limited in length (thus, any music they use will either have to be short, or edited), and the video is supposed to relate somehow to the emotional-musical content. I find myself feeling very supportive of the Colorado hook. Sure, it seems incongruous and maybe funny at first glance, but why shouldn't they try this as a way to sell tickets? We all agree that music is an incredibly powerful emotional art, and most of us probably agree that most orchestral music (indeed, with some exceptions, I admit) is pretty accessible to listeners with no background in it. If the Colorado hook can get a few new audience members to show up for a concert, and if the well-performed, still-taken-seriously music touches a few new people, then it will have accomplished a very worthy goal. We 21st-century musicians seem to feel that our art deserves to exist, and that audiences should just come to us, but this isn't a sustainable situation, is it? These days, with so much free music within reach (YouTube, Spotify, iTunes…), we simply have to be more creative in finding ways to get people into concerts. And, this particular concept seems a lot less intrusive than having multimedia presentations or videos playing during the performance (after all, if you don't want to smoke, you don't have to -- but it's pretty hard to tune out a laser light show during a concert! Speaking of videos, though: the second kind of hook really upsets me. Classical music will not benefit at all from being used as a soundtrack. In fact, I suspect that this is part of why concert audiences are shrinking. Hearing Vivaldi in elevators, or hearing Beethoven's 7th as a soundtrack to "The King's Speech" (!), has been responsible for numbing millions of ears. We've been taught by repeated example that classical music is not something to concentrate on, that it is background noise, that it either needs external support to be "interesting" or needs to be low-key enough to talk over. Do we really believe that Classical Comeback will help music's place in society by producing distracting videoclips under 5 minutes long? Dumbing down the actual presentation of the music will only reinforce views that real, non-dumbed-down music is long and boring. Something I've seen over and over as a performer, speaker, and teacher is that audiences will respect you as much as you respect them. If you challenge them gently, they will appreciate it and try to listen; if you preemptively decide that they'll be bored, then you do them a disservice. But, of course, one doesn't want to challenge viewers on YouTube, when they're just a click away from closing the window. If Classical Comeback would invest this much effort in getting people into concerts, where real live musicians can interact with the audience, it might actually do some good. (Also, tangential rant: Classical Comeback seems to be a living demonstration of the evils of recordings. Here is an organization founded on the belief that the music "exists" in some Platonic form, and that this music, dutifully recorded by some faceless performer, is the real subject over which a video should be built. In fact, this viewpoint is also not helping anyone sell concert tickets. Many writers, from Stravinsky and Copland to Boulez, have expressed a certain contempt for the performer, that unfortunate middle-man between composer and audience. But, in fact, the performer is who we watch, who we connect with, and who keeps the music alive. Paganini, Liszt, Mozart and Beethoven were performers first, and composers second. The performer doesn't exist to serve the music: music exists to give the performer something to perform. The Classical Comeback model does not honor this human fact.)
Jennifer Zobelein May 14, 2014 @10:30 am
I was shocked and disappointed when I read about the Classically Cannabis concert series! It is demeaning to great composers and musicians. How sad it would be if, by extension, our society began advertising tours of great art museums while the participants puffed away on marijuana joints - or, attendance at Shakespearean productions - or ballet performances - or anything else related to the soul-satisfying enjoyment of the arts. It is a very sad commentary on our changing times. Let's put a stop to it!
Philip Jones May 10, 2014 @10:29 am
Gregory Wright May 10, 2014 @06:00 am
Classical music -- or, as I prefer to call it (reflecting my own admittedly very focused musical preferences), nineteenth-century European symphonic art music -- IS culturally relevant, and even geo-politically relevant. But these connections need to be made. Take Tchaikovsky, for example. Just a few months ago, the collective cultural homophobia of Russia was highlighted in connection with the Sochi Winter Olympics. But nowhere did I read or hear any attempt at an explanation or understanding of what must be either deep ignorance or severe cognitive dissonance among Russians regarding that countrys deserved love for their greatest of all composers, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, famously (at least in the West) a homosexual/gay man. The hook of an internationally-heard concert of gay music by Tchaikovsky -- musical splendor that many in that country already love -- at the Sochi Olympics might have afforded a useful cultural outing for Russia and the world. Indeed, Tchaikovskys music accompanied some of the ballet of the figure skating competition and was heard in the opening and closing ceremonies, but no comment along the lines I have brought up here was made -- a lost opportunity. In the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Tchaikovsky (and classical music) is relevant. The Russian composer Tchaikovskys second symphony is sub-titled The Little Russian -- meaning Ukraine. And the Russian Mussorgskys celebrated Pictures at an Exhibition includes a piece titled The Great Gate of Kiev. Hmm, maybe Ukraine -- or parts of it -- really is, culturally, a part of Russia, and perhaps a bloody standoff with the nuclear-armed-to-the-teeth Russia over the eastern fifth of Ukraine really is not worth risking the ignition of an atomic World War III (in the centenary year of the outbreak of World War I, no less!). And here is yet another worthwhile hook to highlight a whole concert series of classical music environmental fundraisers dedicated to preserving the season that climate change and global warming threaten to erase, winter. The wonderful winter-themed music of the European nineteenth century -- such works as Tchaikovskys Winter Dreams Symphony and Nutcracker Suite (Dance of the Snowflakes), Waldteufels Skaters Waltz, Rimsky-Korsakovs Snow Queen, and many others -- are the natural content of concerts presented to raise some serious money for efforts to fight carbon and greenhouse-gas pollution. Much more cultural relevant than the electrically-amplified quasi-noise that has been the mainstay of virtually all climate concerts that have come down the pike in recent years! One last thought about classical music concert hooks: Some of these ancillary attractions and miscellaneous glitter actually enhance and add value to the serious music they accompany. I am thinking especially of visual music -- the kind of synaesthetic light and color that visionary artists across the twentieth century, from Scriabin to Laserium, have created and continue to create to great acclaim and pleasure. Also the unique classical music visual accompaniments of one Stephen Malinowski, whose video visual music can be seen on Youtube, where he is known as smalin; a big-screen presentation of Malinowskis musical animations accompanying a live symphony concert would be a wonderful melded-sensory experience and would undoubtedly leave the audience wanting more.
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