By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
L.A. WEEKLY: The economics that drive classical music and pop are radically different. By definition, pop appeals directly to the masses; composers compete in a less freewheeling marketplace of institutional money, wealthy patrons and government grants. Could this be why traditional “concert music” has suffered from attendance difficulties?
ROSS: Many classical institutions aren’t doing so badly right now. In August, the Metropolitan Opera sold 2 million dollars of tickets in one day. Go to the L.A. Philharmonic and you see full houses and more young people than you might expect. Yes, many organizations are playing to less robust and less diverse crowds. But some orchestras — for example, the Atlanta, San Francisco and Baltimore symphonies — are working hard to put on some really interesting programs.
Some changes are definitely needed. I’m in favor of getting rid of formal dress for classical musicians, which is idiotic, and of loosening some of the so-called “rules” of audience conduct, such as no applauding after movements of symphonies and concertos — a latter-day invention that goes against 18th- and 19th-century practice. The big challenge, though, is overcoming stereotypes of classical music as “elitist” and “effete” and getting the word out about how vital this music is, especially at the contemporary end. That was my aim in writing my book. And that’s where Wordless Music is proving so valuable.
GIVONY: There are many reasons for classical music’s attendance problem: exclusionary ticket prices; lack of adequate music education; comic efforts by classical institutions to market themselves in a digital era that mystifies them; bumbling attempts to lure in the allegedly inscrutable world of people in their 20s and 30s; and, not least, the repetitive programming that characterizes institutions like the N.Y. Philharmonic and Lincoln Center. If you miss next week’s program of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony, you’ll have a half-dozen chances to hear these works on the same stage, with the same caliber of musicians, a few months from now. This is not the case when Daft Punk plays a one-off concert with an insane light display and a ridiculous electronic pyramid, or the Boredoms do a show with 77 drummers, or LCD Soundsystem and the Arcade Fire play together. (As a counterexample, the same uniqueness holds for the smart programming found at Disney Hall in L.A.)
A little-known fact about the economics of classical music is that even if every orchestra in the country sold out every concert they put on in a season, they wouldn’t come close to paying their overhead. That’s why staff resources in the classical world go toward maintaining fund-raising departments. And that’s why filling seats with new listeners and young people is not a priority, but soundbite rhetoric and an insidious fund-raising strategy to keep alarm bells ringing and annual unrestricted grants renewed. Why spend time chasing ?after kids? You could devote just as much effort to putting on a fancy gala at Cipriani and bring in a few hundred thousand from investment bankers and society types.
This artificial life-support system keeps every part of the classical-music world afloat, from overpaid conductors and soloists, through the vast body of artistic administrators, talent agencies and stagehand unions. The reason the seats are empty or filled with the same people year after year is because the institutions that run classical music want it that way. After all, it really doesn’t matter financially if the hall is three-quarters or one-quarter full. Sadly, those empty seats could be full in an hour’s notice if they wanted them to be. If ticket revenue covers only a fraction of overall operating costs, why not offer every unsold ticket for $5 at the door?
ROSS: I agree with basically everything you say, Ronen. But why worry about whether the N.Y. Phil is playing Tchaikovsky? These institutions have been around forever, putting on largely the same act for largely the same people, and they show no signs of going away. Those Tchaikovsky concerts are selling out too.
We’re talking here about building a different kind of music culture, gallerylike rather than museumlike, driven by new ideas and fresh connections. Both of them can coexist. In a perfect world, they’d reinforce each other.
L.A. WEEKLY:We’ve mentioned a very robust list of performers from both the independent and composed music camps, all of whom share a great deal of common ground. Can each of you name a favorite artist or institution building bridges between the composed- and pop-music worlds — as Reich did in the ’60s and ’70s or, say, John Zorn did in the ’80s?
ROSS: He passed away in 1987, but I keep meeting avant-leaning rock fans who’ve gotten into Morton Feldman, a composer who avoided tonality and a steady beat, kept his music extremely quiet and extremely long, and dismissed rock as noise. Yet his music speaks to a broad range of people. Start with Rothko Chapel on New Albion. Its overwhelming otherness commands attention.
Right now, the figure who seems most radical in the way he’s deconstructing the composer’s historic aloofness from the popular world is Osvaldo Golijov, author of works like St. Mark Passion and Ainadamar. Incorporating stretches of expert improvisation into his pieces, co-creating them with his musicians and singers, weaving together sounds of multiple folk traditions into a strangely cohesive whole, Golijov has managed to produce works that are revolutionary and popular in equal measure. Especially check out Ayre. It was most definitely conceived as an album and beautifully produced as one by Gustavo Santaolalla.