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Music critic, author, educator, and all-around transcendental thinker Greg Sandow is always a good read, and his blog is usually chockablock with tantalizing ideas, and you know how I love ideas. The subtitle of his blog is “Greg Sandow on the future of classical music,” and he often muses about solutions to contemporary classical music problems. One recent entry was a reprint of another blog (by Mike Oneil Lam) that speculated on an idea to make orchestral music more comprehensible to the uninitiated. Mike’s idea is to take the idea of the sports event scoreboard and bring it to symphony orchestra concerts. He imagines that the hall could use a projector screen or TV screen to display information about what’s going on in the piece as it unfolds. The information could be similar to what you would get at a sporting event – names of composer, conductor, current movement and title, game timer (how much time is left), information on what to listen for (e.g. solos, main themes) at any one time, etc. (Batting average of the principal horn? Only .999 this season – might be traded? Sorry, got carried away there…).

He may have something here. Classical music has an uphill battle in America with the current economy and the current raging ambition from some politicians to cut everything from the budget that has to do with quality of life, and these folks inevitably reserve front row seats at the funding guillotine for anything to do with the arts (in spite of overwhelming evidence that the arts spur creativity and creativity drives economies and lots more). The times necessitate new ideas, and the arts must now take arms against this sea of troubles armed with imagination to turn this over-the-top bumper crop of lemons into lemonade. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The arts will need to try some new things in desperate times. There are some ideas out there, but we really don’t know what the answers are yet. So, who knows – some version of orchestral scorecards may be a part of a solution.

Let’s look over some of the comments Mike received on his idea:

•Use the displays for program notes, and use the extra space in the paper programs for more information about the players.

•Hand out mp3 players synced with the music that provide interesting facts, etc.

•Time-stamp the program notes, then Tweet (say) “Note #6” when you get there.

•Don’t even think about it.

•It’s been done.

•Desperate and ugly.

•It would be a wonderful help to get newcomers into the music. Great idea!

•It’s like the PDQ Bach bit where sportscasters “announced” Beethoven’s 5th

And so on, with supportive comments running perhaps slightly ahead of negative comments.

The main danger of the scoreboard approach is that it might annoy some folks who like concerts they way they are. I think the answer would be to have an iPhone/iTouch App that retrieved synchronized commentary/information; then people who wished to receive this could do so reasonably discreetly without bothering concert-goers who wished only to see the orchestra.

Technology may be one way to deal with the decline of classical music in American culture. Another idea is for classical music to take a lesson from world popular music. There are a lot of other kinds of music going on in the world, and one thing that characterizes them much more than classical music has been the willingness to integrate cross-cultural influences. Blurring boundaries, genre cross-pollination may have the most promise in coming up with something new that may win newer and younger audiences. In the past century atonality and serialism alienated audiences, but even more disadvantageous was the general attitude of classical music and composers to keep blinders on, not absorbing or experimenting with all the other kinds of music going on in the world. Too bad – some marvelous fusion might have arisen the way it has in jazz and many kinds of pop and world musics.

There are some wonderful exceptions out there; the Kronos Quartet comes to mind. It’s possible that a new model of classical music may have to arise.  One idea: instead of the usual orchestra, the new model be more of a collective of musicians who freely mix and match in a variety of chamber music groups, and also get together (but perhaps less often) to perform orchestral works. The smaller, more fluid groups might incorporate more styles of music and kinds of instruments that are not usually found in the traditional orchestra. Orchestras are like ocean liners – grand, but expensive and slow moving, slow to avoid even obvious icebergs. Chamber groups are (or have the potential to be) more like speed boats – maneuverable, quick, cheaper. Maybe the new model could also dispense with the traditional budget busting traditions of a high-priced maestro and high-priced soloists all the time. Even classical chamber music could probably learn something from how pop/rock groups make things happen, although rock groups are used to inventing their own material. Classical musicians don’t usually create their own material (a grievous hole in music education is the systematic suppression of creative music, which should be a part of everyone’s training – it used to be before the Romantic Era). Chamber groups could partner with composer/arrangers.

Another change of the current model might be programming: in days of old, there was often much more variety in a concert program. It might have started off with a movement or two of a symphony, then a vocal aria, then a piano solo, then another orchestral piece, then another aria, then a string quartet, then perhaps the rest of the symphony. When the U of Iowa School of Music had its centennial year in 2006, every concert that year was a mix of different groups: band, orchestra, chamber groups, solos. I thought it was terrific, and made concerts much more engaging. Why not continue (and develop) that idea?

Differently packaged and aggressively marketed, classical music can reestablish its place. But it will take work and imagination from everyone.

Let me add a post script by Greg Sandow from his blog:

If a new paradigm of classical music could emerge in 1800, another one could start to show itself right now, or in 2010. And we also should remember that other things have changed in history. For centuries, educated people learned Latin. But now they don’t. For millennia, men ruled women; now they don’t (or at least their rule has been contested). In the 1950s (when I was young), you’d go to the movies or turn on TV and see a western; try to find one now. Also in the ’50s, no corporate executive would dare to wear a shirt to work that wasn’t white. Nor did executives drop out, as they do now, to open restaurants or run organic farms. Hardly anybody jogged, ran marathons, or lifted weights in gyms. Women mostly stayed home. Gays were in the closet. African-Americans sat in the back of the bus. Only teens (and blacks) listened to pop music that had a heavy beat. Non-western cultures were routinely stereotyped (African cannibals, Arab hootchie-kootchie dancers, “Chinamen” with buck teeth). So a whole new culture has emerged in recent decades. And if everything else has changed so forcefully, why shouldn’t classical music also show some drastic change?

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