April 15, 2012

The flower in the driveway

Picture me crawling on hands and knees, struggling to reach the finish line of this Arts Blogger Challenge... did it really start just last month?  ...seems longer... I'm mentally fatigued... stressed... I'll probably start twitching convulsively like the Patient Of The Week on an episode of House M.D.  ...I'm gonna miss that show...

Enough! Time to pull it together and craft one more entry and then retreat blissfully into my comfort zone: writing snarky-yet-insightful pieces about opera.  The final assigned topic mandated by Dale Carnegie himself (he is the guy who owns Carnegie Hall, right? Along with his lovely wife Mellon?):  "Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts?  If so, what would 'saving' them mean?"

<Sigh> Can I just say that I hate questions like this? Yes, I should probably keep that to myself since the judges, whom I picture all sitting in a jacuzzi together reading these entries on their iPads with a jug of White Zinfandel nearby, might look askance at such an attitude. (Way to blow it, Glenn.)

But no kidding: in my natural state, I don't spend a lot of time pondering earnest, idealistic concepts like "saving art".  And when I find myself amongst a group of Dedicated Arts Educators and they get all revved up in such discussions, my mind starts wandering.  Possibly to episodes of House. (Seriously - love that show...)

But that's neither here nor there and time's a-wasting, so:

Ready... set... BLOG!!

Short answer: the arts are like that flower (or weed - whatevs) that grows in the tiny crack in the pavement in your driveway.  The soil was thoroughly rid of plant-life and then covered with a truck-full of concrete; yet years later, in the inevitable crack , a violet stubbornly pops up.

Creativity is like that.  It is proof that the divine dwells in humans, and it is the spark that cannot be killed. 

People worry about the arts and ponder "saving" them for two reasons:
  1. They feel that art has either "sold out" to the lowest common denominator of popular taste or, conversely, that they've become too intellectual and academic; or
  2. They realize that arts institutions and organizations of the past, and specifically the business models under which they operated, are no longer sustainable due to new technologies, new economic realities and other societal shifts.
Pipe organ, Samuels Church, Copenhagen
In both cases, I'm afraid that "saving" them often boils down to how we can manage to cling to "normalcy" -- the state of things we've always known.  Sometimes, when it comes to the arts, people are like grumpy elderly church-goers who are appalled, appalled, I tell you, at what's become of the music at their church.  "That lovely, majestic pipe organ sits unplayed, while these kids get up there with their gee-tars and their keyboards and drums!  Drums in the Lord's house!  And we never sing the good old hymns like "Blessed Assurance"; instead, they blast us with whatever rock song with words about "my pal Jesus" is the latest to go viral on YouTube. I'm going to talk to the pastor about this.  I'm going to SAVE CHURCH MUSIC!"

But church music is, in this respect, typical of the arts: it doesn't need saving because it constantly saves itself, which is to say that it evolves and adapts to changing audiences and changing technology.  Churches have pragmatic as well as spiritual reasons for ensuring that the role of the arts in worship is relevant to their constituents: the power of music to manipulate people is potent when those people can relate to it.

Church music has always known this!  When 16th-century liturgical music became abstrusely polyphonic, a transformational genius, Palestrina, gave it new eloquence.  Martin Luther understood the power of singing in the vernacular of the worshipers; Charles Wesley freed sacred music from exclusively Scriptural texts; the "Second Great Awakening" in 19th-century America engendered lively gospel songs and African-American spirituals. 

And each of those movements was doubtless greeted with derision by the grumpy elderly church-goers of those eras.

Let it go, grumps; let it go.  And this applies to the grumps in the areas of theater, opera, symphonic music, modern art, poetry ("Why can't it RHYME, dang it").  Art always evolves.

One more example before I grapple with the business model crisis.  Wanna know who saved music? Philip Glass, that's who.

When Glass was first learning how to play the same five-finger patterns 178 times in a row, contemporary music was being held hostage by Milton Babbitt and the Gang of Total Serialists.  Concert music had reached such an extreme of intellectualism and complexity that human beings could no longer perform it accurately (bring on the computers!) or understand it even upon repeated hearings.  Audiences: disenfranchised; composers: oblivious and arrogant (Babbitt authored a notorious article with the nose-thumbing title "Who cares if you listen?").

I was watching cartoons in those days (House was decades away) and not paying attention, but I'm sure there were many conferences, papers, symposiums and panel discussions hand-wringingly devoted to "How can music be saved?" 

In the meantime, Philip Glass, in between driving a cab around New York and occasional gigs as a plumber, wrote music no one cared about.  There was, um, quite a lot of it.  He was as prolific as he was unpopular.  "Concerts" of his music happened in lofts, free of charge, with sparse attendance at first.  Critics, when they came, were alternately snide, puzzled, indignant and dismissive; one often-quoted "review" said Glass's music was to composition as "See Spot run" was to literature.

It's half a century later, and, very quietly, he's become perhaps the dominant figure in music: omnipresent in all media (including an episode of House featuring his second string quartet!), wealthy, busy, lionized, imitated, studied, analyzed, feted.  Total serialism?  Not so much these days.  House has ignored it...

The thing is: Philip Glass's contributions to music were the product of no conference or how-to-save-music article.  His activity was unpredictable, unmanufactured, spontaneous... and transformational. 

People, people: we can't effect reforms by deciding to do so.  What we end up doing, in all periods of the history of the arts, is waiting for transformational geniuses to appear, and (hopefully) identifying them when they do so we can follow them into the next chapter of creativity. 

And they will always appear, be they named Josquin or Monteverdi or Shakespeare or Stravinsky or van Gogh or Warhol or Balanchine or Stanislavsky or Gertrude Stein.

As for arts institutions and business models, it's pretty easy to see how "normalcy" is slip-sliding away in front of our eyes. 
  • Orchestras are crumbling under the weight of shrinking endowments, poor attendance, reduced revenue streams, rising expenses, hostile labor negotiations begetting strikes (Yes, Louisville, I'm talkin' to YOU), and that gorilla in the parlor known as "relevancy".
  • Take everything I just said about orchestras and plug in the word "theaters". Done.  Actually, there are more actors and more theater companies than ever before in our country.  If you're thinking "You say that as if it's a bad thing!", ...you're right.  As plentiful as mushrooms, and as long-lived in many cases.
  • Conservatories and university music departments turn out a volume of superbly-trained pianists and orchestral musicians for whom there is a statistically insignificant number of jobs.  Any of those beleaguered orchestras advertising a position for flute will be inundated with hundreds of applicants all of whom audition at a very high level.  The life-cycle of the music major is a bit incestuous; it seems that many musicians are trained for no other purpose than becoming professors and training the next generation of unemployed pianists and flutists.
  • And perhaps most tellingly: we live in the digital age!  I read that the average fourteen-year-old now spends fifty-three hours per week online.  Think that kid's going to schlep to a concert hall for his music fix in twenty years?  Theater, opera, concerts, movies, books, newspapers, the freakin' Sistine Chapel:  it's all online!  All of it!  AUGHHH!!
I could go on.  Tell you what: pick up a copy of Blair Tindall's Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music or David Beem's recent piece in the Huffington Post for a truly groady portrait of the dysfunction in contemporary arts organizations.

So what's the solution?  Waiting for manufacturing to make a comeback so the economy rebounds and everyone is rich again?  Playing the music from Star Wars at orchestra concerts and having the woodwinds wave flashing light sabers at the audience?  (Note: this happened to my daughter at her first professional orchestra concert as 2nd flute for the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra last year.)
Charred remains of a forest fire with plant life returning

Or is there a coming Arts holocaust; a tsunami of theaters, ballet companies, opera houses, museums and concert halls going belly-up and closing their doors?

I beg of you: don't cling to the models you've grown up with.  They're going the way of the rotary telephone and the rolled-up newspaper plopping on your doorstep in the morning.  In time they'll be gone with the wind.

And we should remember them fondly, but prepare to embrace the new reality of whatever will be left in their wake; for the new arts scene will be leaner, smaller, stronger, more vital, and ready to grow again in the future -- like a shrub or flowering tree one prunes down to the ground.

Forest fires are not catastrophes, you know; they are Nature's reliable method of getting rid of overgrowth and dead trees.  There are some conifer trees that actually require fire to reproduce; their seeds remain dormant until sprouting after a cleansing fire.  Clearly, the planet has always known how to deal with over-population throughout human history with painful efficiency: hurricanes, floods, viruses, plagues, wars... 

My point: simply because the arts may have to endure a "forest fire", "hurricane" or other metaphorical hardship does not mean they should be "saved" from that development, any more than the forest.  I just am not one to insist that orchestras remain the centerpiece of every big metropolis; the Mountain that all of us Mohammeds come to several times a season, wearing our gowns and suits, sitting in tomb-like silence (OMG! Your cell phone rang!!!  OH-EM-GEE!!) and watching our neighbors to see just when to applaud at appointed, "correct" junctures in the program.

Perhaps orchestral playing needs to fall largely into the hands of unprofessionals for a while to re-kindle enthusiasm and renewed energy. Perhaps the role of the orchestra in the arts landscape of the future will have a more service-oriented, humanistic, sociological mission than merely edifying the wealthy.  Surely the deservedly celebrated El Sistema phenomenon and the amazing community orchestra in Kinshasa, Congo find their greatest worth in uplifting the lives of disadvantaged citizens and young people more than in training the virtuosi of tomorrow.

We have enough virtuosi, maybe.  We need more of the good music can do; of the model of working together as a productive, cooperative society that we find in an orchestra or a theater or a dance troupe or an opera house..

Guess what? I just changed my mind.  I LOVE QUESTIONS LIKE THIS! And, praise Wagner, this.competition.is.OVER.

Winters OUT!  Peace.  And all of you who sampled Operation Opera during the Spring For Music project - come back anytime and keep reading!  You're always welcome.

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online from amazon.com or at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.


  1. Thanks for an article.Its very interesting and very true.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Probably true what you say about this nice "creative destruction" model for classical/opera/dance/theater etc. going forward. Weed cracks in sidewalks blooming are local and traveling chamber groups. I'm sure many business-minded board members ultimately agree with that, and any orchestras with sizeable seasons will probably have players resorting to driving cabs once again. (It certainly was the case in Baltimore).
    The downside: in order to hear great Mahler, say, or a worthwile Passion, or devastating Brahms will Americans need resort to what one did in the 1800s -- go to Eurpoe? Or probably the Seoul Phil or Hong Kong or China, to which many American talents are fleeing?

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