Sunday, June 13, 2010

Participation I: Listening vs. Doing

Ian Moss has a great post over at Createquity about participation in arts in the realm of orchestral music:
A survey included in the Knight Foundation’s Search for Shining Eyes report found that of 74% of adults who said they were interested in classical music had played an instrument or sung in chorus at some point in their lives. I think that the real gospel of classical music ain’t about hearing it – it’s about doing it. I think what’s happening is that our dominant “engagement strategy” for classical music – offering sustained, substantive, professionally-oriented classical music training, including in such contexts as youth and student orchestras – has not been very successful at producing listeners/fans of classical music in my generation, but has been extraordinarily successful in producing practitioners of classical music.
This point has a flip-side, also documented in the report: audience education (in terms of developing listening audience) winds up benefiting the already-educated audience-member, rather than bringing in new audiences.

So the problem facing orchestras appears to be a cruel catch-22: programs aimed at developing listeners wind up focusing money on an already-existing audience, and programs aimed at developing musicians winds up making a larger orchestra, not a larger audience.

I can't say that this is just a classical music problem, but it seems to me that the problem is more acute in classical music. I bookmarked the following from Ian five days ago, wanting to respond to it:
In some ways, I’m the very picture of orchestras’ audience problem. I’m still in my twenties (for another week, anyway); I have a Master’s degree; my bachelor’s was in music (intensive track) and I have an extensive background as a composer. If there’s low-hanging fruit in audience development, I’m it. And yet I’ve only been to three orchestra concerts in the last three years—and I didn’t pay my own money for any of them. It’s very hard for me to imagine any normal concert program (i.e., one without a world premiere) that would induce me to pay as much as $40 for a ticket—and even that number would have been a lot lower a few years ago.
I personally don't see as much theater as I wish I were seeing -- usually this has more to do with time than with money. But I do sympathize with the feeling that even I would not pay $40 dollars for most of the theater out there. Yet I have spent, once or twice, a little bit more on tickets for shows I felt were really deserving.

For instance, not only did I spend $35 for The Lily's Revenge, I spent another $35 to see it again. I can't imagine another play I'd shell out that much for but, well, I wouldn't have imagined shelling out $70 dollars for The Lily's Revenge in the first place.

When I go out to the theater, I'm not going out to see the virtuosity of the theater-people, I'm going to be surprised by some act, some new expression -- something I didn't think to do, something I've never heard before. I'm trying to keep in touch with a conversation between my colleagues, in some way that I can't be sitting at home or working on my own work.

After all, what the first part I quoted from Ian said, really, is that there's a three-way competition taking place for the attention of the classically-interested audience:
  1. Listening to classical music at home,
  2. Listening to an orchestra performance,
  3. Participating in an orchestra.
Right now, #2 is being torn apart by #1, and #3. I'm looking right now at the New York Philharmonic's page, and they're advertising concerts of Lindberg, Sibelius, Brahms, and Beethoven. All of which the casual audience member can get at home. And of course, the unique joy of participating in the orchestra can only be got in the orchestra. So there's only a thin slice of audience who will go for #2.

And I feel the same way about the "classic" plays. I saw Waiting for Godot once, and even when Nathan Lane came by to perform in it, I felt little compulsion even to try and get a student rush ticket, because I was fairly sure that even at its best it would only about equal to the production which I saw (the Gate Theatre, which is about as definitive as it gets).

What I do go and see are the things which are new, the things that excite me because they haven't been seen before: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or Whatever, Heaven Allows, or The Lily's Revenge. Companies like TEAM or Elevator Repair Service could part me from that much. Granted, if you made them much more expensive I might not spring out to see them, but for those plays I might have paid up to $40 if my wallet was feeling safe that week.

Now, my lack of involvement in the classical music scene makes it difficult for me to tell whether it's just my perception that 90% of orchestras calendars are either pops evenings or classics from two hundred plus years ago. I know that there are composers out there writing new music for classical orchestra, but at least from my perch what little word of mouth reaches me (or the very occasional philharmonic TV spot), it seems like it's dominated by the great works of the great composers, filled in with some less-notable music from less-notable composers from several hundred years ago.

What excites me about today's theater scene in my 'hood is that it's a playground for new expressions, and the occasional wild new interpretation of an old classic. If there's an orchestra out there that fits that bill, I'd love to go out and take a listen. But I feel as though the spirit in the classical music world is that of historical re-enactors, trying to perfectly recreate actions from a long time ago.