January 7, 2005

Of variations, innovations, bestsellers, and vampires

The death of classical music is a topic whose timelessness is only matched by its ability to precipitate a lively conversation. In the modern critical context, the Malthusian eye appears to have shifted from generalized demise to ossification; the question is no longer whether classical music will die, but whether it will cease to be alive. Broadly speaking, there are two dimensions to the alleged decay—the aesthetic and the economic. Artistic stasis occurs when new music stops being relevant, and financial dissolution takes place when individuals express their opinion of its irrelevance by not acquiring it. Exploring the connection and causality between these two dynamics might shed some light upon one of the more enduring enigmas of our times: the perennial crisis of classical music despite its enormous, even explosive, creativity and widespread support.

In 1953, a slim volume with an intriguing title made its appearance and transformed what was previously only a series of conjectures about the end of classical music into a rigorous argument. The ideas it put forth would essentially change the face of music criticism. The book was Nicholas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, an anthology of insults and vituperations that were flung at contemporary music in every epoch from Beethoven to Gershwin. It was prefaced by a brilliant essay that laid out the author's thesis: Classical music has always been embroiled in crises, and it is precisely this state of impending death that assures us that the art is alive.

Slonimsky's basic premise is that innovation is intrinsically controversial—breaching conventions, forcing novel integrations and philosophical re-evaluations. Whenever an artist creates something that takes his art form into uncharted realms, he will antagonize, elevate, infuriate, and captivate his audience, each member of which presumably has his own idea of where the field ought to go next. Thus, every revolutionary work of art, every new movement, creates its own opposition.

Slonimsky called this resistance "the non-acceptance of the unfamiliar," and believed that, given time, people would begin to re-adjust their conceptions and see the genius through the haze of novelty. The piece slowly becomes accepted. Then, some newer creation comes along that makes this one seem lovely by comparison, causing it to be adored in the face of a more magnificent grievance. The process begins anew.

Slonimsky shows that works which generate the most controversy are the ones which later become paragons. In what was perhaps one of the most beautiful analytical paradoxes of music criticism, he asserted that given perceptual inertia, hatred was an indicator of the exquisite, and that all truly great music is consigned to the abyss before being immortalized. In other words, the firebird has to die in order to emerge a phoenix.

And if we accept the premise that the economics of music is very much linked to the general perception of its aesthetics, a clear causal interaction emerges: modern music "does not sell" because it is undergoing the non-acceptance of the unfamiliar. Classical music is therefore an art with its financial roots firmly in the past, and as long as there's creativity occurring in the present, it is in no danger of stagnation. Returns from the past are used to finance the future in terms of programming, funding, and making sure that composers don't stop writing new music, keeping the system in dynamic equilibrium.

However, I would hold that the relationship between old and new art is perhaps more subtle and not always as benign as Slonimsky would suggest. The apparent financial reality that "masterworks" tend to make more money than contemporary works is causing canonical programming to increasingly encroach upon the contemporary. Aesthetic vampirism results, in which older pieces drain the vitality—in terms of performance opportunities, interest, and funding—from more modern music. Slonimsky does not go too deeply into the exact mechanics of the aesthetic-economic link in his analysis, but he implicitly assumes that modern works will generate enough controversy and interest to get them multiple playings. A crucial component for acceptance is exposure; without it, a work is doomed to oblivion.

As I argued in one of my previous articles, the unspectacular nature of modern critical controversy is making interest in modern music grow ever more tenuous. Further, classical music does not exist in isolation—it competes for the time of its audience among a plethora of other options. Also, as economist William Baumol stated, the performing arts are vulnerable to ever-rising costs and stagnant productivity. For the past two decades, books, articles, and editorials have been lamenting the lack of basic music education among the people, which causes the market base to grow imperceptibly at best.

When faced with situations like these, music organizations tend to resort to defensive strategies, capitalizing upon the very well established brands, i.e. core orchestral and operatic repertoire from the 17th to the late 19th centuries. One might not make much money on a program of Bach, Beethoven, and Zemlinsky, but one labors under the illusion that one can't lose much on it either.

Two strategies have become apparent: repackaging and redistributing. Under repackaging falls tactics like the bid to make classical music warmer, friendlier, and more relaxing—informally arranged concert halls, informal dress, informal playing, informal locations, informal presentations—integrating yet another Beethoven sonata with audio-visual story-telling effects, concerts dubbed Christmas "specials," and CD recordings re-mixed in ingenious combinations with interesting covers. Redistribution involves bringing "classical music to those who hate classical music," and programs which aim to educate the uninitiated about Mozart. Either way, the core repertoire gets innumerable renditions, and modern music gets a cursory reference between the lines.

The easiest inference to draw from this analysis is that the market is incapable of sustaining classical music as a living art form. Slonimsky claimed that modern music was a long-term, high-risk investment, and reality seems to bear him out. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the field is incapable of self-sustenance. In fact, the forces of competition might be the one factor that saves it from utter oblivion. Economic theory indicates that every brand is susceptible to the law of diminishing returns. After a piece of music undergoes a certain number of recordings and performances, it becomes a warhorse, and therefore uninteresting. Every brand has a life-cycle. Variations can keep it alive a bit longer, but it soon becomes the aforementioned vampire, which lives off the funding and program space that should belong to contemporary art, since new music can yield a better return per concert in terms of ticket sales and public interest. No one's really afraid of Schoenberg except, seemingly, those who make the decision of whether or not to program him.

Basic corporate knowledge dictates that the field can only be revived if drastic innovations and inventions are made upon the very nature of the brands it deals with. Given today's aesthetic context, programming Krenek might actually lead to higher returns than Mozart's seventeenth piano concerto. In other words, I suggest that the focus be turned away from trying to exhume a living art through variations in form towards emphasizing its vitality through innovations in content. Bach and Beethoven can never die. But their work can be comprehended better in relation to our age if viewed in context with contemporary music. As CSO artistic director Daniel Barenboim once said: "Listening to Berio makes me understand Berlioz."

And a better understanding of both Berio and Berlioz is precisely what results in the purchase of a recording or a concert ticket. Treating classical music as a fragile, etheric construct that will be damaged if exposed to market forces, and subjecting it to delicate attempts at revival, will not solve the underlying aesthetic problem. Looking at the field as a market in which one makes investment decisions in the light of competition and economic gain, will.