On the Transmigration of Classical Music (to New Audiences)

For my criticism class:

You cough. Suddenly all the blue-hairs flouting their eveningwear in the dimly lit hall fire indignant glares at you. The same thing happens when you clap after a rousing movement. On stage, tuxedoed musicians play interminable pieces written more than a century ago. This is the imagined nightmare that is a classical music concert for many people.

Unfortunately there is a lot of truth in that scenario. For the first-timer, classical concerts can be intimidating, stuffy, and byzantine. A lamentable fact, especially for the music lovers who have discovered the incomparable power of hearing an orchestra bring a masterwork to life. Thankfully, many musicians have harnessed their creative powers, striking innovative paths to rectify that situation and expand classical music beyond its insular, some would even say elitist, sphere.

Many artists have reinvigorated old forms, like the veteran Kronos Quartet, with their wide-ranging music, or Nico Muhly, with his opera for the 21st century, Two Boys. Others have created new forms, which some would hesitate to call classical music even though the forms certainly share many of its values and commune with its rich past.

What does “classical music” mean anyway, especially in the 21st century? The Punch Brothers use bluegrass instruments to improvise over intricate structures enriched with pop sensibilities. Chamber ensemble yMusic commission pieces by such indie rock darlings as St. Vincent and Sufjan Stevens.  And musicians such as the Dessner brothers of The National and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond join Muhly and Stevens in a community of collaborators who jump between the worlds of “classical” and “rock”. (Kronos just released an album of compositions by Bryce Dessner, giving him substantial credibility in the classical world).

This last group is a hopeful prospect for bringing new audiences to classical music, and shouldn’t be dismissed by more traditional purveyors of the art. It’s not as if they lack credentials: Bryce Dessner has a Masters of Music from Yale, Worden a BA in Vocal Performance from UNT, and Muhly has a Masters from Julliard. And one of David Lang’s most recent compositions, death speaks, was written for Worden, Muhly on piano, Bryce Dessner, and violinist Owen Pallett, another artist in their circle. They occupy a unique space, from which they can proselytize for classical music to their wide audiences who might otherwise never encounter it. They produce both commercial albums (Muhly even contributed string arrangements to Usher’s song “Climax” and Grizzly Bear’s album Veckatimest) and collaborations with orchestras and string quartets. One of David Lang’s most recent compositions, death speaks, was written for Worden, Muhly on piano, Bryce Dessner, and violinist Owen Pallett, another artist in their circle. Their fans can discover them through their more “popular” music, then explore the rest of their output, eventually coming to the more “classical” side. It’s hard to deny the power of classical music to move people; it’s getting people into the concert hall and beyond their preconceptions that’s difficult. Such trendy musicians as Dessner and company certainly have the ability to do so.

With the availability of information on the Internet, it’s also easier than ever to follow that path and trace a musician’s influences. One could quickly be led from Muhly to Britten to Beethoven, or from Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist of Radiohead and a composer in his own right, to Olivier Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki. In fact, there’s even an album of Penderecki and Greenwood orchestral pieces a few quick clicks away on Spotify from Kid A.

Greenwood also provides another inroad to classical music through his work in movies. He has composed orchestral scores for There Will Be Blood and The Master, among others. Someone could easily see a movie scored by him, enjoy the music, and search out more like it. (Having the hip credentials of being composed by a member of Radiohead helps). This process worked for György Ligeti and both Richard and Johann Strauss when Stanley Kubrick used their music in 2001: A Space Odyssey and brought them to wider public attention. Who’s to say the same thing can’t work today, when there’s the Internet to expedite the process?

Some musicians are also working to make classical music more accessible by moving it away from formidable, dark concert halls into alternative spaces such as art galleries, bars, or the outdoors. Events such as Make Music New York, which is a series of hundreds of free concerts throughout the city, strive to make music interactive, approachable, and fun, free of pretension. Once again, an easy inroad into classical music. Remove its imagined barriers, and it can thrive.

Despite the many predictions of doom, classical music is not a dead art. Like any other art form, it’s just adapting, adjusting itself to contemporary values. New developments and offshoots should be encouraged if classical is going to live on. The success of those new forms and musicians allows the tradition to survive and can lead many to the expressive power of older music. The great works of Bach and Beethoven will never disappear. It’s our job to nourish them with new audiences and encourage the creation of more masterpieces.



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