Join 3,363 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Symphonic Youtube
April 7, 2011 3:00 AM   Subscribe

Is the Youtube Symphony Orchestra a viable model for traditional symphony orchestras in the West? It's only been around for a couple of years but seems to be causing enough of a stir to be taken pretty seriously.
posted by joboe (45 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
142 minutes of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:39 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


During the YTSO show, video profiles of several members were projected. These montages explored the lives, backgrounds, challenges, and joys of members. In other words, musicians weren't simply interchangeable cogs who happened to sit on a stage together. They were real human beings with unique personalities and amazing talents.

This is a very interesting approach. John is the brainy one, Paul is the happy cute one. George is the spiritual one. Ringo is the regular guy. Lance is the snowboarder. Bob likes to cook Creole food. Sally is an avid bicyclist. Sara can juggle six balls. Oscar descended from Italian gypsies. Cynthia once saw a UFO. George owes money on his credit cards. Felix can tie a knot in a cherry stem using only someone else's tongue.

The only way I can truly appreciate classical music is by relating to the performers, because you know, that's why the music was written in the first place, right?
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:49 AM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


The only way I can truly appreciate classical music is by relating to the performers, because you know, that's why the music was written in the first place, right?

Heh. It does seem that the classical music establishment and the media is increasingly trying to personalize symphonic music, trying to put faces on that individual-identity-less mass that is a symphony orchestra. I saw a PBS documentary recently (on DVD) which did exactly that, focussing on several members of the Philadelphia Symphony. Not so sure that's a bad thing, overall. People (maybe Americans especially?) sometimes need to associate some actual personalities with the music they're hearing, I guess. It's perhaps a kind of democratization of what is essentially a very top-down, authoritarian kind of structure.

And you're not off base, for sure, twoleftfeet, in the Beatles comparison. Pop music has focussed on performer's personalities for so long, that people perhaps are craving glimpses of that even from symphonies, where individual personalities are, essentially, not supposed to matter.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:10 AM on April 7, 2011


individual personalities are, essentially, not supposed to matter.

Right. You have four people playing the same thing because the music was written before audio amplification and they needed four people playing the same thing to get the sound to the back of the concert hall. And those people better damn be playing the same thing, because otherwise it's just going to make noise in the back. I agree that focusing on the individual performers may not be a bad thing for symphony music nowadays, given how difficult it is to pay for that many people to play the same thing, but it is different approach, and not really historically faithful.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:32 AM on April 7, 2011


Will people with better marketing and social media chops be more apt to advance, even if their playing isn't quite as strong? Perhaps. But isn't that exactly what orchestras need? More members actively advocating, cultivating a following, and motivating their own networks.

The whole orchestra-as-giant-American Idol competition concept gives me stomach cramps. I'm all for attracting a new audience, but can we please do it instead by cultivating brilliant young conductors like Gustavo Dudamel?
posted by pianoboy at 6:30 AM on April 7, 2011


It seems to be similar to how it works for freelance classical musicians in Europe already and also for those 'trialling' for permanent positions. Once you get to a certain level, it's assumed that you wouldn't be there if you weren't capable and then that's where the networking comes in. You kind of have to prove why they want you around in non-musical terms.
I think this is similar but gets the audience involved instead. It's different and it certainly raises the general profile of classical music today, but I can't decide if it's better or worse (for the musicians). I
posted by joboe at 6:41 AM on April 7, 2011


The reason more people don't patronize the local orchestra isn't because they aren't good enough. It is because they're not relevant enough.

If art has to fend for itself in the marketplace, this makes perfect sense. Science is moving in the same direction. People don't like evolution because it says they're monkeys. Can't we have some better theories which don't say sex is bad or threaten us with eternal torture? Maybe we should hold a contest.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:57 AM on April 7, 2011


It's different and it certainly raises the general profile of classical music today, but I can't decide if it's better or worse (for the musicians).

Worse for the musicians and the music, to my thinking. I want the players in an orchestra to be thinking about playing great music and responding artistically to their conductor, not worrying how many votes they're getting from audience members/internet viewers.

It stops being a concert and becomes a game show.
posted by pianoboy at 7:01 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Without an audience you can have all the bells and whistles that you want and people still won't listen to the music. In Europe nobody talks about the death of classical music because they have a healthy somewhat knowledgeable concert-going public.
posted by Omon Ra at 7:01 AM on April 7, 2011


"The reason more people don't patronize the local orchestra isn't because they aren't good enough. It is because they're not relevant enough."

No, it's because the tickets cost a metric asston because the city built an ill-considered convention center while allowing every other live theater of any size in the city to go to hell and has never been up to date on the payment of its bonds, so tickets to ANYTHING in that building are too damn expensive. Plus in the "live" theater the seats are uncomfortable and the seating arrangement is poorly-planned because it's a sports-and-rock-concert arena; the theater is an afterthought. The acoustics are poor, too. And the parking prices for night events at the convention center are just unconscionable for a city this small, and symphony concerts are ALWAYS on college basketball or minor-league hockey nights, so it can be hard to find parking anyway. And sometimes you can hear the roar of the sports crowd next door while listening to the quiet movements. It's awesome, let me tell you.

No digs on sports fans, it's a great venue for sports; it's just a clearly inappropriate venue for symphonic music, and that's not the sports fans' faults.

The local ballet has taken to performing at sufficiently large local churches as a way to get around many of these issues, though of course a church isn't particularly well-suited to ballet. But it's better than the alternative. They're only doing the Nutcracker in the "official" theater anymore, IIRC.

For that amount of money I might as well spend a little extra and go make a weekend of it in Chicago and see the CSO.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:08 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, the reports of the death of classical music in the US are a bit premature. While overall attendance may be down nationwide, quite a few orchestras (Cleveland, Philadelphia, and others that size) have been recording increased patronage over the past few years. Plus, major symphonic tours, like the Star Wars Live tour, end up having an impact on local symphony audiences by creating interest.

Things are blending and shifting in strange ways in the music concert-goer demographic right now, and I think we're in better shape now than we were in 10 years ago overall.
posted by hippybear at 7:11 AM on April 7, 2011


I'm photographer-in-residence for the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (pictures here); one of our violinists, Allene Chomyn, is on the YTSO, and our Music Director, Edwin Outwater, did some work with them in Sydney last month. I mention this to say that I'm pretty close to a symphony, although I'm not a musician. I'm a volunteer with them and it's a not insignificant part of my arts and culture building community work.

Orchestras are struggling because of financial constraints and lack of personal relevance to many younger potential audience members. The way to engage them is by doing things like the YTSO, as well as through innovative programming (e.g. the concert tonight where the KWS will be performing live under a massive projection of old Warner Bros cartoons, and the one next year where they'll be doing music from Final Fantasy) and reaching out to even younger kids through education and outreach.

It's risky being a big box art organization these days, perhaps even riskier than being an individual artist... but on the other hand, once you get people in the door and engage them personally, the "wow holy crap this is awesome" factor takes over. It's really amazing stuff what orchestras do... and that's about all I've got to say. Go look at some of my pictures, and then go to a concert. Because nothing, not even the best THX sound system, can match the sonic quality of 50-80 people performing real instruments a few dozen feet in front of your face.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:20 AM on April 7, 2011


I dunno. I get the whole classical music has to evolve bit, the fact that it has never been a static practice... but a part of me says "if you have to barter with people with Harry Potter/Star Wars/Cartoons/Interactivity/Symphonic Heavy Metal in classical concerts, then fuck it, it's better to let the thing die away". If you can't be moved by the simplicity of this then nothing is going to move you, and the music is going to end up being debased.
posted by Omon Ra at 8:30 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is the Youtube Symphony Orchestra a viable model for traditional symphony orchestras in the West?

No, a billion times no. This YouTube thing is a promotional tool for YouTube and it may be fun for the kids involved but really it's a shitty orchestra that plays pastiche concerts of light classical works and orchestral "pops." If people want to focus on individual musicians, they see chamber music concerts or recitals or listen to a soloist play a concerto. If they want to hear a group of musicians performing as one, they see an orchestra. If they want to see bullshit with special effects and technology, they see Youtube Symphony..
posted by ReeMonster at 8:31 AM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you can't be moved by the simplicity of this then nothing is going to move you, and the music is going to end up being debased.

Because if you don't love MY favorite band, then you're doing it wrong?

Good grief. The point is to get people into the seats and experiencing a symphony. There's room in the world for Boston Pops next to The Rite Of Spring next to Einstein On The Beach. The only thing being debased here is the ability for culture snobs to practice elitist attitudes about their niche art form which might be getting popular in ways they can't accept.
posted by hippybear at 8:47 AM on April 7, 2011


a part of me says "if you have to barter with people with Harry Potter/Star Wars/Cartoons/Interactivity/Symphonic Heavy Metal in classical concerts, then fuck it, it's better to let the thing die away".

To each his/her own, but personally I'd find it far more interesting to hear Carl Stalling's stuff life than to hear an old classical chestnut for the billionth time.
posted by IjonTichy at 8:48 AM on April 7, 2011


Because if you don't love MY favorite band, then you're doing it wrong?

No, because there is no rigor or a minimum of standards things tend to slide pretty quickly into the easier part of the spectrum. The things you already kinda know.

I dunno I see directors like René Jacobs or Marc Minkowski or even Riccardo Muti and they are pushing the boundaries of interpretation towards fascinating areas. And it's not old chesnuts. It's the odd corners of Rameau and Lully or Offenbach. To me that's pretty fascinating, they take me places where I haven't been before. And it takes a while and patience and you have to take the time for the music to develop in your head. But it's a thousand time more rewarding than listening to a symphonic rendition of The Legend of Zelda.
posted by Omon Ra at 9:00 AM on April 7, 2011


Oh, man, you know what? Bugs Bunny sells tickets like WOAH. Final Fantasy sells tickets like WOAH. People know and love that music. And selling tickets like WOAH allows orchestras to put on concerts like what we had last week: a world premier called "Whirling Dervish" from Brian Current (with live Whirling Dervish). Every working artist knows you have to pay the bills with mainstream stuff, and once you've paid the bills you can do risky shit like an entire concert with noise artist Dan Deacon featuring, among other things a screaming choir. That's how it works, man. And once you get their asses in seats for Bugs Bunny, some of them come back for the Pops, and some of them come back for the Warhorses, and some of them come back for New Music.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:10 AM on April 7, 2011


What I would question is that populism in art is superior to elitism in art. Fran Lebowitz said something about it in the Scorsese doco on her: too much democracy in art, not enough in the public sphere. Elitism has to do with craftsmanship, connoisseurship, integrity, vision. Qualities that are valued in art. Otherwise you are left with flabby ideas and kitsch.

I'm all agains snobbishness. Anyone should be able to enjoy classical music. The PROMS in england are a testament to that. But I don't thing the culture is served well when what counts is tilted so far down the popular end of the spectrum. Therein Michael Bay lies.
posted by Omon Ra at 9:21 AM on April 7, 2011


but it is different approach, and not really historically faithful.

There really is no "historically faithful" when it comes to American orchestras, or really orchestral practice in general once you look at the long-term development of the ensemble and practice of concert presentation. Like everything else, standards and expectations of what an orchestra concert is, how it looks, how the audience should behave, etc., have changed over the past 250 years--what we currently consider "historically faithful" in orchestral performance is a set of conventions that arose around the 1930s-40s, driven in the U.S. by technology (directional lighting and such) as well as autocratic emigre conductors seeking to create the culture of silent reverence they were accustomed to from European audiences of the time.

I'm a conductor, so think about these issues all the time and have done a lot of research lately on audience habits, expectations, and attendance trends...this statement is unfortunately very much not true:

Things are blending and shifting in strange ways in the music concert-goer demographic right now, and I think we're in better shape now than we were in 10 years ago overall.

Actually, non-profit arts organizations in the U.S., especially those that present live performances, have seen unprecedented declines in attendance and participation over the past decade, and the trend appears to be accelerating. (Summary of most recent NEA study and data here.) So organizations like symphony orchestras are desperate to figure out how to attract new listeners.

It's pretty urgent, actually, from the inside it is clear that many, many national, regional, and local arts non-profits (again, especially those specializing in the performing arts) are very desperately barely holding on. So I think that Tilson Thomas is fantastic for trying something like the YouTube Symphony. There are things about it that I love and things that bother me, but the live webcast of that concert drew over 30 million listeners, which makes it the largest audience for a live webcast concert thus far (tripling U2's audience of 10 million). So that's a big deal, I think.

Some things worked in that concert/event, some things didn't, but isn't that sort of the point of a creative art? That you are supposed to make it up as you go? Keep what works, discard what didn't, and move on to the next event. The objections I've read in this thread so far are sort of along the lines of "but that's not what this music is supposed to be" or "standards and can't let them slide" and etc. But those perspectives are, in my opinion, what's strangling the art form and preventing it from finding a genuine place within American culture and musical practice. I think it's long, long past time that orchestras started experimenting, having some fun, and engaging with the larger culture in which they exist in meaningful ways.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:39 AM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


What I would question is that populism in art is superior to elitism in art.

I would challenge the framing of that question because it presents a false dilemma. Americans no longer really conceive of creative work as "high" or "low" or popular or elitist (unless 'elitist' is used pejoratively). Lawrence Levine's pretty brilliant book Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America details how the public conception of high/low was created in the early 20th century, and how it has been subverted and dismantled through the end of the 20th century.

The current dominant perspective among Americans as studied and expressed by researchers in the field is 'cultural omnivorousness,' a desire to enjoy anything that is worth enjoying regardless of pedigree or provenance. That orchestras continue to think of themselves as "high" culture--and thus somehow apart from most of the rest of culture--is in my estimation a fundamental part of the problem, actually.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


LooseFilter. My kind of open unresolved question is this. As humans I think we have a tendency for the things that are easier rather than for the things that require an effort. It takes us a little bit more convincing to watch say a film with a complex narrative than a 30 min sitcom. We also rather like things we are already familiar with than things which, who knows, might be good or might be a waste of time. So what happens to art, which requires concentration, which requieres an allowance for the new, when your whole culture deems those things elitist.
posted by Omon Ra at 9:50 AM on April 7, 2011


Actually, non-profit arts organizations in the U.S., especially those that present live performances, have seen unprecedented declines in attendance and participation over the past decade, and the trend appears to be accelerating. (Summary of most recent NEA study and data here.) So organizations like symphony orchestras are desperate to figure out how to attract new listeners.

True. But how does this study take into account events such as the Star Wars tour, which was definitely a symphonic concert tour... Or the Met HD simulcasts, which have boosted opera audiences by orders of magnitude? Or blended acts which fuse classical instrumentation with modern music sensibilities?

My statement wasn't meant to say that regional orchestras are doing great right now (although the local symphony here in Spokane seems to be thriving). It was meant to say that the music scene is blending and shifting, and people are being exposed to music in ways which weren't really thought of 10 years ago. The idea that putting on church clothes and sitting in a silent audience watching people in black play music that has been played for 200 years is somehow the "right" way to experience an orchestra is outmoded. Those events will be with us always, but discounting all the other ways people are approaching the music is a disingenuous way to look at the overall picture.
posted by hippybear at 9:52 AM on April 7, 2011


What makes music written on behalf of some high-falutin' blueblood in 16th century Vienna inherently superior to music written for a 21st century Christopher Nolan picture... or Japanese RPG? This isn't a "are video games art?" or "is anime art?" internet nerd populist question. What makes the music of Hans Zimmer different in form or lesser in quality, compared to the "actual" classical music he derives his style from?
posted by Apocryphon at 10:00 AM on April 7, 2011


So what happens to art, which requires concentration, which requieres an allowance for the new, when your whole culture deems those things elitist.

That's a very, very good question, and one that keeps me up some nights. My own answers currently are to explore new modes of presentation that will interest and engage new listeners without dumbing down or compromising the quality of music I want to present. I've had some success with this in the past few years (including a very successful concert collaboration with Mason Bates, the composer featured on that YouTube Symphony concert), because I think that people are more willing to listen to challenging, substantial, even complex music that is generally credited...at least, in my own personal experience, I've turned on some audiences to some pretty esoteric stuff--I just had to get them in their comfort zone first.

True. But how does this study take into account events such as the Star Wars tour, which was definitely a symphonic concert tour... Or the Met HD simulcasts, which have boosted opera audiences by orders of magnitude? Or blended acts which fuse classical instrumentation with modern music sensibilities?

Well, I could best answer that by sending you my doctoral paper on these topics : ) But unfortunately, the NEA data takes into account such fusion presentations--while the Met HD simulcasts have been tremendously successful, live opera at the regional level in the U.S. is dying, so the real trends are belied by the Met's success (just this year in northern California, where I live, the opera companies in Sacramento and Fresno--with metropolitan areas of 1.5 million people and just under a million people respectively--had to cancel all of their productions. As far as I know, the Sac company is shut down and Fresno has just gone dark to preserve the organization.) As well, things like the Star Wars tour, or the Final Fantasy concerts, are sort of exceptions that prove the rule--it takes something connected to not-orchestral-music to have any real success with audiences these days. Those specialty concerts have not changed the larger downward trends in attendance and participation, I am sorry to say.

The idea that putting on church clothes and sitting in a silent audience watching people in black play music that has been played for 200 years is somehow the "right" way to experience an orchestra is outmoded.

I couldn't agree with you more, and wish that more of the people in my field thought this way.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:04 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


We also rather like things we are already familiar with than things which, who knows, might be good or might be a waste of time.

...Hunh. Sort of like how you're dismissing all music accompanying video games and cartoons and popular movies?
posted by IjonTichy at 10:06 AM on April 7, 2011


IjonTichy, I'm kinda saying that, right now, if you offer me to watch Jurassic Park: The Lost World, a crappy dinosaur movie which I've seen, I'd probably make a faster decision to watch it than say Des hommes et des dieux, which I haven't seen. I'm saying that more complex "art" sometimes requires a bit more effort or will. I also think it ends up generally being more rewarding in the end.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:16 AM on April 7, 2011


Again, what makes bombastic film music stylistically lesser than "real" classical music?

Also the film you linked to isn't the best one to pick I mean it's about Christian-Muslim religious tensions meaning it has real-world ripped from the headlines relevance that's just like the new Battlestar Galactica.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:23 AM on April 7, 2011


I'd say that anyone who would choose to watch Jurrasic Park 2: The Lost World a second time seriously needs to have their head examined.
posted by hippybear at 10:32 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Again, what makes bombastic film music stylistically lesser than "real" classical music?

Well, I wouldn't assert that, and I'm not sure anyone in thread has either. But subjectively speaking, nothing--your experience with any music is true for you and no one can argue that. Objectively, if you'd like to sit down with a score to a Brahms symphony and the score to Zimmer's music from Inception, I'd be happy to point out significant differences in craft and substance despite cosmetic similarities. And I'd bet that Zimmer would agree with me on most points I'd make.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:37 AM on April 7, 2011


Again, what makes bombastic film music stylistically lesser than "real" classical music?

Metafilter is not a great forum for getting into the type of in-depth analysis that would be necessary to give a satisfying answer to this question.
posted by John Cohen at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2011


Re art's relationship to the marketplace: markets are almost always about selling instant-gratification. I don't think that's a bad thing, and it's certainly the way I relate to markets. I buy things that I don't want to make (or learn to make) myself. I go to a restaurant at least partly because I don't want to cook.

It's very hard to sell something that's not a finished product. "Buy this bike! You'll have to spend nine hours putting it together." Some people will buy it if it's unique in a meaningful way, but more people will buy bikes from the guy who pre-assembles them. Stores like IKEA, that mostly sell products you have to assemble, don't lead with that idea: they don't say, "Come to IKEA where you can buy lots of unfinished things you'll have to put together on your own!"

"Highbrow" culture is like IKEA, unless you happen to have years of training. Most of us can effortlessly listen to a new pop song, because we grew up listening to thousands of similar songs on the radio. But it's work to listen to classical music, because we don't have the vocabulary. And in some cases, we don't know how to start acquiring the vocabulary. (Actually, by "we" I don't mean me. I love classical music, but that's because my dad played it all the time while I was growing up. When I sometimes get the snobbish urge to look down on people who aren't into Shostakovich or whatever, I remember that I'm not superior to them. I just got lucky. I got the vocabulary via the osmosis of living in the house I lived in and hearing classical music playing in the background all the time. I didn't work for it.)

How long does it take to acquire a new vocabulary? That depends on the specifics of the vocabulary and the person learning it, but it's never quick. You can't take someone who doesn't "get" classical music, send him to one Beethoven concert and -- whammo! -- turn him into a lifelong classical fan.

I am suspicious of all this talk about "exposing people to..." and "getting people into concert halls." It doesn't hurt anything, but I don't see what good it does. There's this belief -- or maybe hope -- that if you just put enough spoons full of sugar on the medicine, the patient will learn to like the medicine. He may in fact learn to like it, but it's going to be a slow process, and eventually he's going to have to do some work. What's much more likely is that he'll just like the sugar.

As I'm a director and not a musician, I see this most often with Shakespeare. Those of us who love his plays know the treasures that are in them. But to get to those treasures, you really have to DIG. You have to learn Elizabethan English, which is a foreign language. There aren't a lot of shortcuts. You have to study it.

There's a cultural ethos that Seeing Shakespeare Is Good -- not understanding it or loving it, just seeing it. So we do all sorts of tricks to lure people into the theatre: "Hamlet" with puppets; "Lear" cut to an hour-and-a-half; "Romeo and Juliet" starring your favorite movie stars...

This "works" in the sense that it DOES get people to come to the theatre. And it also works in the sense that these people have fulfilled their "cultural requirement" without too much pain. They can tell everyone they saw "Hamlet" and feel proud. But are they any closer to liking Shakespeare and understanding his plays than they were when they went in? Can they appreciate those aspects of his writing that are unique: his complex use of blank verse, his metaphorical frameworks, his precise use of rhetorical devices...? In my experience, the answer is no.

None of this is terrible. If people have an okay time at the theatre and feel smart for going, that's fine. But let's not confuse that with really understanding something -- or appreciating something - that they didn't understand or appreciate before. THAT takes time and effort.

Here's an acid test: when we genuinely LIKE something, we choose to do it on our own (and not because we think it's good for us, but because we want to). How many people who go see Al Pacino in "Merchant of Venice" go immediately to Amazon.com and order a copy of the play to read in their leisure time?

I am not even convinced that luring someone into the theatre -- or the concert hall -- is step one of a process that MAY lead them to eventual connoisseurship. That sure is what producers and directors and conductors like to tell themselves. "Hey, it exposed them to blah blah blah..." So what? Or, more generously, okay ... now what? Now it's up to them? Up to them to do what? Based on their "exposure" to Shakespeare or Mozart, you're thinking they're going to sign up for a night course, read a bunch of plays or buy a bunch of recordings and spend hours listening to them? How often does that happen.

What does "exposure to..." actually achieve? I have no appreciation for Hip Hop. In fact, I don't like it. Let's say you wanted to change that about me, so you got a bunch of my friends to take me to an eminem concert. And let's say I DID have fun. I had fun because I was hanging out with my friends. I had fun because I got to see all sorts of interesting people that I wouldn't normall see. And let's say -- surprise, surprise -- eminem did all sorts of acrobatics and had stunning pyrotechnic effects in his concert. I might well be awed by them. But where in all this awe and fun and spectacle is Hip Hop? Am I going to leave this concern any the wiser about it? Am I going to buy a bunch of Hip Hop albums? No, but I'll have been "exposed to..." and we can all pat ourselves on the back for (a) broadening my horizons and (b) helping out an art form.

What would it take for me to REALLY get into Hip Hop -- for me to choose to listen to it when I'm totally alone and no one is watching? Surely, I would have to do some work and learn a vocabulary that's alien to me. Maybe some of you love the music without any sense that you ever had to do this. If so, my guess is that you got lucky. You learned by osmosis by happening to grow up in the house or neighborhood you grew up in -- or by having the social group you had.

If we want to create a culture that values difficult art, it won't work to lure people into the theatre or the museum or the concert hall with cheap tricks -- or even with expensive tricks. Nor will it work to rely on the marketplace, because the market isn't about making consumers work.

The way in is through education. And, at least in America, our education system could not be shittier when it comes to helping people learn to reap pleasure through work. It's worse than useless: it's counterproductive. Lots of people come out of our schools HATING Shakespeare -- thing of him as an assignment or a duty. To me, that's a crime. I would much rather people not know about Shakespeare at all then know about him and think of him with dread, irritation or boredom.

It's not easy. It is not easy to say to someone: you see this thing? This is a thing you're probably not going to like at first. In fact, you're not going to like it until you do some hard (sometimes painful) work. But if you do the work, there's a HUGE payoff at the end! Your life will be infinitely richer!
posted by grumblebee at 11:12 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey LooseFilter, you probably already have this idea, but around here, concerts of sacred music performed in big cathedraly churches are really popular -- Mozart's Requiem, Bach's Masses, Palestrina's Marcellus Mass, etc. It includes a large portion of the classical repertoire, audiences who go to that sort of concert are often eager for a little lecture on the meaning and background of the music and interested in its cultural significance, and you can often do a concert featuring a sacred piece for half the program and then non-sacred pieces for the other half (perhaps from the same time period, or the same composer, and let people compare). And some of those buildings have spectacular acoustics.

Lots of churches will host them without cost for using the facility, and will either split ticket prices in some fashion, or will make their money off refreshments or programs or something.

Sometimes the professional group will hire student opera singers (for the Messiah, for example), or work with a community or church choir ... both things that tend to drive up attendance.

But it's cool to see the music performed in a setting it was intended for, and to learn about the intersection of music and religion ... with an audience who's obviously interested in both. As an amateur classical musician and someone with two degrees in theology, I've been bugging various Catholic churches for YEARS to actually HAVE A MASS set to a famous classical Mass setting. I've even known a couple priests who could more than carry the vocal burden necessary. :) That'd be standing-room-only, I bet!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:12 AM on April 7, 2011


@grumblebee: "Those of us who love his plays know the treasures that are in them. But to get to those treasures, you really have to DIG. You have to learn Elizabethan English, which is a foreign language. There aren't a lot of shortcuts. You have to study it. There's a cultural ethos that Seeing Shakespeare Is Good -- not understanding it or loving it, just seeing it."

I saw some Shakespeare at the reconstructed Globe in London as a groundling, and let me tell you, it transforms Shakespeare from "something I love to read and is okay in the theater" to "FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC, HOW SOON CAN I GO AGAIN?" When you're up that close, and it's kinda rowdy, and people are shouting back at the stage (there are totally plants among the groundlings to encourage period-appropriate rowdiness) -- it's a whole different experience, even if it's a play you're not very familiar with and don't know the nuances of. Seeing a play I already knew I loved while sitting in the fancy seats was a total snore compared to seeing one I was pretty unfamiliar with as a groundling. In fact, I was totally jealous of the groundlings because they were obviously having such a better time than me and everyone else just sitting and politely watching. Even my totally-non-Shakespeared companion thought it was GREAT, although she missed some of the language.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:18 AM on April 7, 2011


I think it's worth pointing out that the YouTube Symphony concert didn't only repackage old music, it explored genuinely new ground in several ways, most prominently through the commission and performance of Mothership, by Mason Bates, a piece that explores the intersection and combination of genuinely different musical styles, and incorporates several instruments quite foreign to a typical orchestral setting. There was more substance to that concert than is being credited so far in the thread.

But it's cool to see the music performed in a setting it was intended for, and to learn about the intersection of music and religion ... with an audience who's obviously interested in both.

Those kinds of intersections of interest are an excellent avenue for creative exploration, I would love to attend a mass using a Mass setting I've only ever known as a concert work (and I am far from Catholic).
posted by LooseFilter at 11:20 AM on April 7, 2011


I'd say that the attitude that classical music is so alien to the casual music listener that it cannot be approached without a lot of education kind of defines what I meant when I said upthread that there's elitism attached to the art form.

"Oh, you can't possibly understand this. You don't have the proper background. You lack the vocabulary. There are things happening here which are too subtle for you to comprehend without years invested in learning."

It's just music. Either it makes you go ping, or it doesn't. There's nothing magical about classical music. Most of it is based on the same I-IV-V plus a few transitional chords structure as all the rest of the music we listen to. People can listen to the Well Tempered Clavier without knowing what a fugue is and still enjoy it. People can listen to twelve-tone music and enjoy it without knowing the underlying theory.

As far as doubting whether exposure will help people appreciate something? That's equally ridiculous. Of course exposure will help someone appreciate something. If someone goes to a non-traditional classical concert, whatever form that may take, and they don't die during the show, and they even maybe like it a bit, they're a teeny tiny tad more likely to be willing to go again in the future. Or maybe they'll find a recording of the piece they liked and add that to their iPod.

The supposedly-required education which is being touted has to start someplace. The only way to have something not be foreign is to experience it.

The test isn't whether someone who saw Al Pachino in Merchant Of Venice will buy a copy of the play to read. It's a fucking play! The test is whether they'll be more willing to see more Shakespeare the next time it's offered. Just like the test of whether someone who saw a symphony playing Mendelssohn isn't whether they go out and purchase the score. The test is whether they will be less likely to tune out the next time something similar comes their way.

As long as there's an attitude that the general masses simply cannot appreciate things like classical music or Shakespeare, then I hope the art forms do die out.

(Well, not really. But I hope that attitude dies out.)
posted by hippybear at 11:38 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Auditioning for the Youtube Orchestra got my mother interested in playing again.
posted by limnrix at 11:58 AM on April 7, 2011


I saw some Shakespeare at the reconstructed Globe in London as a groundling, and let me tell you, it transforms Shakespeare from "something I love to read and is okay in the theater" to "FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC, HOW SOON CAN I GO AGAIN?"

I am a little leery of commenting, because I don't want to make it sound like I think your experience was worthless. So please take this in the spirit of me riffing on your comment -- not of me specifically debating or contradicting your experience, which was clearly awesome.

If you had fun, you had fun, and that's fantastic. Fun is a good thing.

But did the specific fun you had -- or the fun had by someone in your shoes who wasn't a Shakespeare fan already -- have anything specifically to do with Shakespeare? In other words, if they'd been putting on a modern play or an Ancient Roman comedy or a musical, and if they'd done it in the same way (groundlings yelling, etc.), would it have been just as much fun? Was the fun more about arbitrary staging (that could worked well for other sorts of events) or specifically stemming from aspects of Shakespeare's play?

I know that it the Globe productions recreate the way Elizabethans saw plays, and there's a genuine (and very worthwhile) pleasure to getting the feeling you've traveled in a time machine. But that's NOT the same thing as enjoying a specific Shakespeare play for intrinsic qualities in that play.

I would argue that if what you mostly liked was the spectacle, you haven't penetrated to what's unique about Shakespeare. And the same is true if you chiefly liked the plot and/or the characters.

I want to be really careful here: I LOVE Shakespeare's plots and -- even more -- I love his characters. Falstaff and Malvolio and Lady Macbeth and Juliet are all incredible creations. I am not belittling anyone who likes them or who thinks they're important aspects of the plays. They ARE important aspects of the plays.

But they aren't what makes Shakespeare unique. Arthur Miller plays have great characters. So to Tennessee Williams plays. So do episodes of "The Wire." Etc.

There's a reason why many scholars view Shakespeare as unique and it's not because of his plot, characters or historical relevance -- as cool as all that stuff is. It's his language! It's the amazing things he did with iambic pentameter and the many variations of it he employed and, sometimes, invented. It's his images. It's his rhetoric... It IS his plots and his characters, but, more specifically, it's the way he served those conventual aspects of drama with his unique wordsmanship.

If someone enjoys Shakespeare without enjoying that aspect of it, that's still great, because enjoying it is great, but it's not really grappling with the heart of Shakespeare. It's a little like going to a baseball game and mostly enjoying the hotdog. In a way, I feel like a snob for saying, "But you didn't really enjoy the GAME!" In a way, I feel like saying, "Who cares? You had fun." And that's true. But it's also true that you DID enjoy the hotdog more than the game, and if there are unique pleasures to the actual game of baseball, whatever the are, you haven't experienced them.

This is all just my opinion, of course. It's also my experience. I didn't used to "get" Shakespeare's language. I didn't understand the mechanics of blank verse. I didn't know a lot of the "foreign" words in Elizabethan English. I knew nothing about classical Rhetoric. And there was no way I was going to learn that stuff by going to see a bunch of his plays, no matter how much I enjoyed them. My only way in was through rigorous study.

No one told me that I needed to study (in order to get certain pleasures), because no one wants to admit that. They want to say there's an easy way to get into it. I guess it comes down to what "int it" means.

And I want to be clear that I'm not talking about work vs. fun. I AM saying that in order to have a specific type of fun, you have to work first. Am I AM saying that for certain artists and art forms, the MOST fun you can have only comes AFTER you do a lot of work. But the whole point, for me, is fun. It's not like a get excited by the plot and fall in love with the characters -- and then I do my duty and think about the verse mechanics and rhetorical devices. It WAS a slog at first, but now that I've done it, I continue to do it because it's so much fun!

It's SO much fun that I -- and others like me -- want to do what everyone wants to do when they have fun: I want to get everyone else to join the party! But if I'm honest, I have to admit to them that this is a party you can only join after you first do a bunch of homework.

Again, I hope no one feels I'm belittling their way of enjoying something. I wouldn't blame you for feeling that way after what I wrote, but it's not what I mean. What I'm saying is that there are some VERY REAL pleasures you can get from Shakespeare AND a lot of other writers -- and there are OTHER pleasures you can ONLY get from Shakespeare. And in my experience, those pleasures are the most pleasurable, but the are only possible to have after you've done a lot of work.

There was a time in my life when if you'd looked into my soul, you would have seen that the main reasons I went to see Shakespeare -- or even read his plays -- were a combination of things-I-could-get-just-as-well-from-other-writers and the fact that getting those things from Shakespeare made me feel smart, because "smart people like Shakespeare."

"I could get these pleasures from either Shakespeare or an episode of 'The Sopranos,' but people will think I'm smarter -- and I'll think I'm smarter -- if I get them from Shakespeare. Truthfully, I could get them easier from 'The Sopranos,' but if I did it that way, I wouldn't get the 'you're so smart' payoff."

If there had been no cultural nagging about how one "should" be into Shakespeare, I probably would have chosen to get those pleasures from more modern and accessible writers. I was grateful to Shakespeare for his plots and characters, because they helped me endure his obscurity. It was only after I did the work to make the obscurity not obscure that I REALLY, TOTALLY enjoyed the plays -- and then I found that my previous enjoyment paled in comparison.
posted by grumblebee at 12:02 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's just music. Either it makes you go ping, or it doesn't.

I SO want to agree with that, but I just can't. I think it seems that way, to those us already into something, because we don't have to work to enjoy it. We just watch or listen to it and it affects us viscerally.

But there are many, many things (foods, types of literature, types of music) that I had no appreciation of at all -- but which I slowly grew to love via exposure and study. I know, at least for me, that it's NOT the case that "I just wasn't built to like Hip Hop, because it doesn't ping with me."

My experience tells me that if I spent enough time with it and really studied it, I would gradually grow to appreciate it and then love it. Maybe it would happen not to be the case with Hip Hop and me, but it HAS been the case with many, many other things.
posted by grumblebee at 12:07 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


@grumblebee: "But did the specific fun you had -- or the fun had by someone in your shoes who wasn't a Shakespeare fan already -- have anything specifically to do with Shakespeare? "

It made the play deeply immersive in a way that just sitting in the theater never has, brought it to life in a stronger way. I was hanging on every word and gasping along with the twists and turns (even though I knew, in general outline, what they were going to be). Would watching Arthur Miller while standing four feet from the stage be the same? I don't know, but I don't think so. And it got my non-Shakespeare-reading friend interested in reading Shakespeare for the beauty of the language and the fascination of the plot.

"But that's NOT the same thing as enjoying a specific Shakespeare play for intrinsic qualities in that play."

I'm sort-of not seeing how seeing (hearing!) a Shakespeare play recreated in a setting close to its original and enjoying the crap out of it, the way Shakespeare's actual theatergoers did, is failing to enjoy it for the intrinsic qualities in that play.

I mean, it reads like you're basically saying, as you said above, you can't put enough sugar in the medicine to turn people into fans ... and that the only "real" way to enjoy Shakespeare is as medicine. You're saying making fascinating, worthwhile theater for the general theatergoing public is useless because they won't ever want to "dig into" Shakespeare the way you do, so what's the point?

"Based on their "exposure" to Shakespeare or Mozart, you're thinking they're going to sign up for a night course, read a bunch of plays or buy a bunch of recordings and spend hours listening to them? How often does that happen. "

Well, it happened to my friend. And you're saying that people can only enjoy "difficult" art if they get educated in it, and then throw up your hands at educating them. Well, yes, if you reject people's "untutored" enjoyment of the arts as worthless, but reject the idea of educating them, then you are, indeed, between a rock and a hard place.

This is kind-of why I hate going to art galleries, incidentally; I really love looking at art, but I am not well-educated in the visual arts. And there's always some gallery douchebag who's delighted to inform me that what I like isn't what I like, and that my appreciation is shallow and worthless because I don't know about X, Y, and Z, and would I just get my philistine's eyeballs out of his airspace already? Yeah, that's EXACTLY how to expand and educate your audience.

And, look, I don't really want to become super-well-educated in the visual arts. I have 8 zillion other things on my "want to learn" list first. We're talking here about supporting classical music, Shakespearean theater, and other traditional art forms in a difficult marketplace; if your answer is, "Your mode of enjoyment is not good enough unless you spend years taking your medicine first," then, yes, you're going to lose your casual, general-public audience who's not interested in learning everything there is to know about Shakespeare, and no, that type of theater is not going to survive.

Incidentally, I was discouraged from attending ballet for years because people told me I "wouldn't understand it." Then I met a very famous ballet critic who scoffed and said of course I would understand it, and to go and enjoy it. And I did and I loved it, though I don't know a frappe from a frappuccino. And yet many of the arbiters of that world persist in telling me I really ought not bother because I don't get it.

Do you want an audience? Or do you want a college-level seminar? Because you seem to be advocating for the latter. I am advocating for the former.

(P.S. -- you have no idea how much quality time Shakespeare and I have spent together, but I note how quick you are to be sure that my mode of appreciating Shakespeare must be what is (to you) the lesser mode of surface appreciation.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:40 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, it happened to my friend. And you're saying that people can only enjoy "difficult" art if they get educated in it, and then throw up your hands at educating them. Well, yes, if you reject people's "untutored" enjoyment of the arts as worthless, but reject the idea of educating them, then you are, indeed, between a rock and a hard place.

It's awesome that it happened to your friend! Sounds like a fantastic production.

In my experience, as someone who lives and breathes theatre, what happened to you and your friend is rare.

I don't at all throw up my hands about education. I just don't think that, in general, going to see a Shakespeare play and being chiefly attracted by its "special effects" tends to educate. This clearly wasn't what happened in your case, and that's great.

(P.S. -- you have no idea how much quality time Shakespeare and I have spent together, but I note how quick you are to be sure that my mode of appreciating Shakespeare must be what is (to you) the lesser mode of surface appreciation.)

I apologize for offending you and sounding snobbish. You're right that I know nothing about your relationship with Shakespeare, and despite my clunky way for explaining things, I never thought I did. I never presumed anything about you specifically, which is why I began my post with "I don't want to make it sound like I think your experience was worthless. So please take this in the spirit of me riffing on your comment -- not of me specifically debating or contradicting your experience, which was clearly awesome."

Perhaps that sounded like empty, dishonest posing. It wasn't. I meant it 100%.

I also do believe that there are many, many people who, even after seeing a "fun" version of Shakespeare, are thankful that it was fun rather than boring, but who wouldn't choose to go again in the future, if there wasn't a culture nudge to do so. That's clearly not the case with you and your friend. But I think it's too bad that it IS the case with so many people. And I think it's the case do to a massive failure in education.
posted by grumblebee at 12:54 PM on April 7, 2011


Hurm. We start with hamburger which a lot of people like, some folks go on to a nice BBQ steak, and some folks later go on to a decent rare filet mignon, and then folks wind up at a blue rack maybe which you know is pretty WTF when they whack it down in front of you. So cinema music is hamburger, pops is steak, Shostakovich is filet, and choose your own analogy for a rack. Burger restaurants are everywhere, even in small towns, because most people like burgers. But folks rarely carry on about them, yeah? You want a decent blue rack you're going to need to find a specialty provider and pay a whack of money for it. It's the long tail, yeah?

You're just not going to sell blue rack to people who have only ever had hamburger, but if you can sell them on steak once in a while maybe they'll get to like it and work their way up. It's just like anything else. I still think Mondrian is a bunch of hooey, but I confess to being ever so slightly moved by a thirty by fifteen foot colour field canvas. And 99% of everyone else is looking at Thomas Kinkade and thinking it's supastar.

You have to teach most people how to appreciate more complex and subtle forms of art.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:47 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


(And don't you dare look down on them for not getting it, or not wanting to get it.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:48 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thing is seanmpuckett, then an argument will be made that all meats come from cows, and that if you enjoy hamburgers then eating hamburgers is just as good as enjoying blue rack. And if it's all the same, then why subsidize the expensive blue rack joints anyway.

Incidentally I come from a place, with a population of 3 m people, that used to have blue racks joints and chose to close the majority of them.

(And don't you dare look down on them for not getting it, or not wanting to get it.)

I completely agree with this sentiment. By itself, having a preference for something in no way is a measure of intelligence or worth. Although I do think there is value in people trying things outside their confort zone.
posted by Omon Ra at 2:33 PM on April 7, 2011


Thing is seanmpuckett, then an argument will be made that all meats come from cows, and that if you enjoy hamburgers then eating hamburgers is just as good as enjoying blue rack. And if it's all the same, then why subsidize the expensive blue rack joints anyway.

I don't think anyone in this thread has said that there is somehow any equivalency between the music equivalent of hamburger and blue rack. I also don't think anyone has said that classical music shouldn't be subsidized.

At best, I think people (myself included) have said that insisting that blue rack can only be appreciated by going to culinary school and studying ranching and butchering may not be true. I think people have also said that people who mostly seem only to like hamburger and a grocery store steak might appreciate blue rack if they have the chance to try it. Only that trying it shouldn't be limited to top-rated Michelin restaurants, and that serving it at a picnic once in a while might draw those who are taken by the taste into the restaurants a bit more often.
posted by hippybear at 10:23 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Star Wars: The Musical...  |  James Salter Month at The Pari... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments