A Symphony Musician’s Point of View
by William L. Cahn
© 1992 William L. Cahn, 8740 Wesley Road, Bloomfield, NY 14469
All Rights Reserved
For the performing musician, symphony orchestras represent perhaps the greatest paradox in the state of art music in the late twentieth century. On the one hand these venerable institutions – born in the palaces of the European kings of the eighteenth century, nurtured in the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution, and aged in the ever accelerating technological change of our own time – are wondrous vehicles which have the power to transport each listener, including the performing musician, into the realm of some of the most inspiring creations of the human spirit, and on the other hand they embody a structure which often requires the same musician to sacrifice the very same individual musical instincts which, when exercised freely, can produce the highest level of musical self-fulfillment.More often than not, however, the symphony orchestra environment is structured in ways that can only produce frustrations for member musicians caused primarily by the perception that the final authority for one’s own act of music-making is not fully in one’s own control, but rather is subjugated by force or otherwise to external sources, either to other people or to institutional practices beyond the player’s control.
While most symphony musicians readily accept and even embrace the fact that some individual authority must of necessity be surrendered to the interest of creating a musical whole, the real heart of the matter is the way in which the surrendered
authority is used in either encouraging or restricting the individual player’s desire for musical expression. If the surrendered authority is used (or perceived as being used) for any purpose other than encouraging the musicianship of each player, then frustrations will certainly emerge. The real challenge is for each person, regardless of position, to apply authority in a manner that will best motivate others to contribute to the music-making while remaining as true to one’s own individual musical instincts as possible.
Symphony orchestras, like other human institutions, require the involvement of many individuals and are therefore in many respects political entities. As such, the real issue for each musician in an orchestra is to define the relationship between his or her own personal need for self fulfillment through musical expression and the corresponding needs of the other people who make up the organization – colleagues, conductors, composers, managers, and audiences. Furthermore, because all of these needs are constantly developing and changing, the process of balancing interests is a never-ending one.
Fortunately, there is a common ground where all of these needs may intersect and that is in the music itself. To the extent that each person who contributes to the music-making – be it as performer, listener or fund-raiser – is able to feel that the contribution
is a meaningful one and is appreciated by others, then the possibility exists of not only
reducing frustrations, but also of generating a positive motivation in others to contribute more.
In order to realize a healthy environment, it is first necessary to make a few basic assumptions about people:
1) people generally want to do their best
2) people generally want their efforts to be recognized and appreciated by others
Based on these assumptions, it is proposed that the highest level of music making and self-fulfillment in a symphony orchestra occurs when two factors are present:
A) when individuals most freely give of themselves to the music, and
B) on the opposite side of the coin, when individuals freely accept what others uniquely give to the music.
Of these two, the latter condition is perhaps the most difficult to achieve since it requires the placing of trust in the musical contributions of others even though they may be operating under differing aesthetic approaches, and it is not always easy to accept such differences without somehow perceiving them as challenges or even as threats to one’s own aesthetic. In fact, the ability to accept differing aesthetic outlooks in others may well be dependent upon one’s having already achieved a secure sense of self. In other words, it may be necessary to have the first factor in place before the second factor may also be realized.
At first glance both of these factors may appear to be easily within reach , but the reality is that musical environments containing both of them are rare, and in the case of symphony orchestras, where literally a hundred performers are involved, they may be almost impossible to find. However, it is the contention of this essay that with the application of authority towards the end of motivating and encouraging others, both factors can be nourished and cultivated. In this respect, symphony orchestras (and indeed, music itself) may be seen as a microcosm of most human institutions and relationships, and it is precisely in functioning as such a model that symphony orchestras (as distinguished from symphonic music) may ultimately have a positive influence on people’s understanding of each other and themselves.
However, here again the paradox presents itself. The symphony orchestra as a rule remains as one of the last bastions of authoritarian rule in the industrialized world.
All too commonly symphony orchestras are built on a foundation of highly centralized authority where the music is influenced primarily from the top down, as opposed to an alternative model suggested above in which the music might basically be influenced from the bottom up – not unlike the manner of Japanese-style management, in which authority ideally is dictated by product quality (ie. the music) as defined largely by those on the line closest to the product, and where leadership consists primarily of facilitating each person’s contribution to that quality.
But how is quality in music to be defined? This may be one of the most challenging questions of all. In order to address it, however, it will first be necessary to form a basic concept of the nature of music. What is music? Is it a physical entity (a material thing) or is it not physical at all?
Literal dictionary definitions of music such as ‘the science or art of pleasing, expressive or intelligible combinations of tones’ or ‘sounds having rhythm and melody’ only raise questions. . . . pleasing to whom? Is it music if it is not pleasing to an Eskimo? Is it music if it has no melody or rhythm? Is music really capable of being understood on such an objective level or does a definition of music also require some reference to people, and if so, can definitions of quality in music which do not take the diversity of people into account really suffice? If an attempt is going to be made to address the issue of quality, certainly such limited definitions can not and do not suffice.
Music does not exist independently of people. Whether they be Europeans, Mongolians, Africans, Eskimos or any other grouping of humanity is no matter. In every case music begins and ends within the human soul. Therefore, ultimately music is not really a physical thing at all, but rather a state of human consciousness, and while this state may be achieved by means of physical things such as musical instruments and sounds, nevertheless, those sounds or combinations of sounds do not constitute music without the perception and response of human beings. Furthermore, this combination of perception and response may be induced in listeners not only by sounds which have been intentionally produced by other people, but also by sounds which have been unintentionally produced by other people or even by natural events not caused by people at all. And of course, this response occurs in performers and listeners alike.
Are there consistencies in this human state of consciousness called ‘music’ which apply to all people regardless of the culture in which they reside? Indeed there are! In this state of consciousness called music, there is firstly, a sense of bonding or of connection to other people, whether to dance partners in an Ewe tribal ceremony, to a loved one during a Frank Sinatra ballad, to the performers in a North Indian instrumental ensemble, or to a symphonic composer who lived hundreds of years ago.
Secondly, there is a sense of connection with one’s self. This connection enables each listener to develop an awareness of his or her own unique response to the music (and perhaps to non-musical occurrences as well) and to come to terms with that response. It is in coming to terms with this response regardless of the manner -accepting, questioning, or denying are a few possibilities – that the listener is empowered to learn more about his or her own nature. The wonderful thing about this process is that while it leaves space for each person to make the inward connection, at the same time it allows for an endless number of possible differing responses in others. The dignity of the individual is preserved precisely as it becomes possible to extend that same presence of dignity to other individuals.
Now, how can such metaphysical wanderings relate to the day-to-day practical operations of symphony orchestras? If music is to be defined subjectively in terms of human consciousness, then how can the issue of musical quality best be approached?
Perhaps quality should not be defined in objective technical terms (ie. ‘quality is when the ensemble is together’, or ‘when all of the notes are played correctly’), but rather with more emphasis on subjective humanistic terms (ie. ‘quality is when people feel enriched by a performance’).
How are we to evaluate whether or not people are enriched? Is it necessary for every listener to feel enriched in order to achieve quality? In the present market-think psyche of North American economics, it is tempting to simply define quality in terms of the number of people who buy tickets to performances. But this kind of definition only avoids the issue. There may be many reasons why people buy tickets to symphony orchestra concerts, and musical quality, regardless of how it is defined, may very well be at the bottom of a very long list, so it is risky to jump to the conclusion that quality equals ticket sales.
Quality can only be defined by the individual based on an awareness of one’s self, of one’s own prejudices and tastes, and that is the real point of this train of thought. Any attempt to define quality by means of objective criteria – say, through numbers or numerical expressions – must of necessity deny individual dignity by drawing conclusions that will in theory apply to all but which will in reality apply only to some, and never to all.
This situation may appear to be very discouraging, especially in a technological age when it seems to many as though the entire universe can be quantified and understood through numerical expressions and statistical analysis, but it is extremely important for a counter-balancing weight to be given to the subjective, unmeasurable side of human understanding (or more precisely, to the limits of understanding) in order to avoid the dangers of human behavior based on false certainties. It is in this subjective arena that symphonic music and indeed all of the humanities have much to offer to our present time and place in history.
Ironically, it may be the difficulties associated with this very same subjective process of defining quality that have led individuals and institutions in the past to freely grant to authoritarian leaders the responsibility for defining the standards which everyone would then have to accept, perhaps out of fear that otherwise some sort of chaos might result. In such an environment there exists a kind of symbiotic relationship between the authoritarian leader and the people or institutions granting the authority – the authoritarian gains power and self-aggrandizement, and the granters of authority gain a dispensation against having to accept responsibility for making their own decisions (for example, determining what ‘quality’ is) and then living with the results.
This unfortunate symbiosis is also evident in the system of education in Western classical music which has all too often been focused on the student’s unquestioning acceptance of the teacher’s authority or pedagogy in creating a ‘school’ of followers rather than on the development of each student’s own ability to create an individual voice. In spite of the fact that it has been the individual voice rather than the ‘school of thought’ which has had the greatest influence over the development of Western art music, nevertheless, responsibility for defining quality has come to rest de facto not on each individual but rather on a hierarchy of authority titles – including composers, conductors, orchestra musicians and music critics. An examination of each of these areas of authority may shed some light on the forces that can either encourage or inhibit the music-making in a symphony orchestra.
While the creation of a musical composition is one of the highest forms of personal expression, it is also of necessity a political statement. The creation of a musical composition certainly carries with it the implication that the composer intends for his or her work to be performed and listened to by other people. In creating a musical score the composer is also asserting authority over the actions of other people (known or unknown) who will translate those written notations into sound.
Does this mean that the composer of music for a symphony orchestra must not only have knowledge of composition and orchestration, but of people as well? Certainly, in today’s symphonic musical environment, with literally hundreds of people who may be involved in bringing a new work to performance and with staggering economic considerations in terms of the cost of running an orchestra, the answer is yes.
What kinds of issues ought to be considered by composers in relating to other people in the process of realizing a composition? For one thing, since the composer is in the highest position of authority for a performance of his or her own music, especially when present at rehearsals and performances, a sense of the boundaries between asking too little of others and asking too much would be useful. A well-developed sense of such boundaries could ultimately lead to a greater freedom and willingness on the part of others – performers and listeners – to commit to the composition. It is simply a matter of considering how others will be affected by one’s own actions in creating a composition. How can such people skills be acquired? In short, they can be developed simply through the act of listening to other people. Listening includes the careful and thoughtful observation of what others say and do in response to the application of one’s authority. It also includes the placing of one’s self in the other person’s shoes.
In the eighteenth century many composers were frequently, if not entirely, called-upon to compose music for specific musicians with whom they shared the same patron. Composers created music not necessarily for posterity but rather more immediately for their musical associates, whom they personally knew. This situation created an environment of give-and-take between composer and performer. The performer played a substantial role in the creation and interpretation of new music, and in many instances the roles of composer and performer were one and the same.
In the age of the romantic movement in Europe things changed. The composer/performer became the composer/conductor. Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner are examples which make the point. These composer/conductors assumed a more authoritarian posture, producing – as for example, in the case of Beethoven – no shortage of complaints from musicians about being asked to perform impossible tasks on their instruments.
In the twentieth century with but a few exceptions, the roles of composer and conductor gradually became separated, thereby removing for many composers a day-by-day opportunity to interact with symphony performers and to share with them a working knowledge of each other’s musical lives.
Today, it is standard practice for symphonic compositions to be created in a composer’s private quarters over the course of many months, and the first time that another person, other than perhaps the conductor, may enter into the process of realizing a performance of a new work is at the first rehearsal for a performance which may be only one or two days away.
Furthermore, the limitations of time, which are imposed by the economics of the symphony orchestra in today’s world, mean that in a practical sense, when a composer brings his new work before an orchestra, it will be all but impossible to have any real influence over many aspects of the composition other than in the most general way. Even if the composer also conducts, there usually will not be enough rehearsal time for the composer to give attention to the thousands of possible details within the work. Thus the composer is forced by such realities to concentrate on the big picture and to concede much authority to the performers for the realization of the intricacies of the composition.
This circumstance, however, is not necessarily harmful to the music. In fact, it may very well be that such limitations are ultimately beneficial to the music, since the performers are thereby forced to assert more responsibility for contributing to the performance, thus increasing the importance of their personal involvement in the music. Given this environment, the greatest self-fulfillment for the most people can perhaps be realized if the composition provides reasonable challenges to both performers and listeners, as well as opportunities for them to demonstrate initiative in approaching those challenges. The composer’s ability to avoid the pitfalls of placing too many unreasonable demands on others will in all likelihood be based on an understanding of those very same people who, after all, are directly affected by the composer’s authority.
Of course, composers also have much authority and influence even when they are not physically present with the performers at a rehearsal or concert. That authority comes from the printed page. If Marshall McLuhan’s observations were correct that the manner in which information is communicated may be as influential as the content or message that is being communicated, then certainly the manner in which performers receive signals to direct their performance is going to be very important.
In most of the musical cultures around the world, musicians receive performance signals from two primary sources – from listening to the music as it is performed and from watching the other musicians in the ensemble as they perform. In the symphony orchestra, however, a third influence is present and that is the printed page. The effect of this third factor is powerful indeed, because unlike the first two, it exists independently of and is unaffected by human variables.
Just as the printed word acquires greater importance than the spoken word, so does the printed page of music acquire authority. As soon as a word is spoken or music is performed, the sound disappears. It evaporates into the consciousness of each person who heard it. These forms of expression are transitory in nature. The power of the printed word or the printed page of music arises from its seeming permanence – from its potential for outliving the person who created it. It is the power of this permanence which may well lead performing musicians to embrace the authority of the printed page in the realization of a symphonic composition. Furthermore, because the printed page exists in an unchangeable form, ‘perfection’, a decidedly unhuman quality, becomes conceivable if it is defined as the state in which the human performer has absolutely realized each and every notation on the inanimate printed page.
Herein lies the printed page’s most profound effect on performers. Where most people would have an extremely difficult time in attributing perfectness to another human being, there seems to be a great willingness to attribute the printed page with perfection even though it was certainly created by another imperfect person. The result is that performers are often willing to grant a great deal of authority to the printed page, even when upon reflection, it may be contradicting other sources of authority including their own musical instincts.
From the printed page is also born much of the authority of the conductor, for it is the conductor who, aside from his or her task of keeping the orchestra playing together, is in effect the leading scholar and interpreter of the printed page in lieu of the composer.
The conductor’s musical authority in affecting a performance, stems primarily from a knowledge of the score – the printed page. Where and how that knowledge is applied, however will also be very important. Obviously, applying means working with other people. Once again a well-developed sense of the boundaries between asserting too much or too little responsibility for realizing the printed score in performance will be helpful.
It has been wisely noted that the baton, as well as the printed page, makes no sound. In order for a conductor to have influence over sounds it will obviously be necessary to motivate the other people who will actually create the sounds, and to delegate a certain amount of musical responsibility to musicians who may not only be total strangers, but who may also have differing aesthetic approaches to music-making. An inability to fully comprehend the complexities of dealing with other people, not only in trusting others but also in accepting and positively reinforcing the results of their contributions to the music can only lead to frustrations.
If the question is ‘how does one motivate others to become involved in the process of realizing music and to attain their highest level of commitment to a performance’, then the answer may again lie in simply listening, not only to the music but also to the other people involved in the process of making music.
Put another way, the real issue is how to motivate other people to do their best in contributing to a performance. Here again, a concept – if not an understanding – of what motivates others is important. Certainly self-fulfillment is a primary motivating factor, and this can be achieved best when individuals feel that their own personal contribution to the music is important. To the extent that a conductor is skilled in not only encouraging others to contribute their musical ideas but also in embracing, or at
the very least, nurturing those ideas, then a foundation is being laid on which the highest level of fulfillment in music-making can be achieved .
In many North American orchestras conductors must also apply the same principle in working with people who are involved in fund-raising (boards of directors) and management as well as with the supporting community at large. This is a great deal of skill to require of one individual, and it is rare indeed for a person to have acquired such people skills without having had a considerable amount of experience.
There is another factor which is an important extension of the conductor’s authority, and that is the phonograph record. Just as the composer’s creations achieve the traits of permanence through the printed page, audio recordings serve to make posterity accessible to the conductor. The fixation of a performance onto a phonorecord also has the effect of endowing that performance with a sense of importance and authority.
This situation is filled with irony, because most recordings today are really not made from a single performance at all but rather from a patchwork of performances which may even take place over several days. The most desirable portions of each performance are selected and these are spliced together to make the final product. The result usually is a synthesized performance that displays among other things, a complete absence of unintended events such as frequently occur in live performance. Furthermore, once fixed, a recorded performance is incapable of change or of adapting to varying performance influences, and so at least in one major respect phonorecords are decidedly unmusical and therefore, unhuman. And yet, phonorecordings do have the power to communicate with listeners, and that power is evident in the fact that phonorecords have become the standard by which many live performances are measured, not only by the general public, but also by many performers themselves, because the ability of phonorecords to be played over and over again allows them to be studied and imitated, and this endows them with a great deal of authority in affecting other people’s tastes, even though the phonorecords may consist of entirely artificial performances.
The Symphony Musician
In the general public perception, it may appear that the role of the individual orchestra performer in giving life to musical compositions has been reduced to that of a machine to be programmed and operated from the podium, with little or no real authority remaining in the hands of each musician for influencing the music-making. This is not really the case. The popular public perception of the omnipotent baton notwithstanding, it has always been true that individual musicians performing in symphony orchestras have had a substantial amount of control over many aspects of realizing a composer’s creation.
Perhaps the best example of the individual musician’s influence is the one alluded to above – sound. The symphony musician’s primary domain is the sound made by his or her instrument. Among the things which can have an effect on an individual’s sound are the selection of instruments, the influence of the musician’s teachers and colleagues, the ensemble’s tradition in performances, phonograph
recordings made by other orchestras, and the personal experiences of the musician. These elements, when combined within the instrumentalist to create a sound, will to a large extent determine the individual musician’s musical personality, and this musical personality may be so strong after many years of study and professional experience that anything that is perceived as a challenge to any of these musical elements may also be perceived as a challenge to the musician’s personal identity as well.
Whereas many people who are not professional musicians can hear and distinguish the sound of an instrument, say a clarinet, from other instruments, many symphony musicians can in addition hear subtleties which frequently enable them to determine the identity of the particular performer by ear alone. Furthermore, so sensitized to sound are they, that symphony musicians may even be able when listening to recordings to distinguish which orchestra is performing, not by clues in the interpretation of a work as many non-musicians attempt to do, but rather by the sound of individual musicians in the orchestra.
The difference is the ability to perceive sounds as unique unto themselves, rather than as stylized concepts. For example, while a symphonic score may indicate a ‘clarinet’, it does not and cannot indicate a specific sound. Even though clarinets are to a large extent standardized in materials and construction, and therefore in tuning and range, etc., nevertheless the word, ‘clarinet’ really only indicates a limited range of possibilities of sound, rather than a specific sound. The individual clarinetist is the only person who can produce a specific sound, and there can be a perceptibly wide range of specific sounds possible. This is a fortunate situation for the clarinetist, for it is in seeking an individual sound that the clarinetist’s – and of course, any instrumentalist’s – musical identity can be achieved.
The situation can perhaps be demonstrated even more clearly in relation to the percussion section of the orchestra. With the exception of only a handful of the traditional symphonic percussion instruments (for example the xylophone, and the glockenspiel) there is virtually no standardization. The word ‘cymbal’ can be inclusive of a very wide range of sounds produced by instruments of widely varying sizes and weights (and consequently, pitches and overtones), and struck in a number of differing ways. And the range of sound possibilities will of necessity be limited only by the nature of the particular instruments available to the performer.
When non-traditional percussion instruments are required, the situation becomes even more acute, because there is even less standardization, let alone a general availability of such instruments. Every individual instrument will possess sound qualities which are unique and different from other instruments, even though other instruments may appear to identical in size and shape. This means that the only way for a composer, conductor or percussionist to insure a specific desired sound on such an instrument (say, a Chinese ‘wind’ gong pitched in middle-C) is to physically carry that specific instrument to each performance venue.
So, the physical sound of a musician’s musical instrument is unique and very important, and it is one of the primary sources of an instrumentalist’s authority, but it is not the only factor in defining the individual musician’s musical personality. The musician’s utilization of sound in phrasing and expression is also important. To the extent that each performer’s unique individual contribution is encouraged through the application of authority by colleagues and conductors, the potential for fulfillment in music-making is enhanced.
It is therefore important for individual orchestra musicians, especially section leaders, to develop people skills too. If it is essential to the process of performance for musicians to receive positive reinforcement, then it is also equally important to freely give such feed-back to others. When such an environment exists in which people are supportive of each other’s contribution to the whole, the resulting sense of fulfillment can only have a positive effect on the music, producing the added benefit of an increased enthusiasm for the art which, when shared with others, whether they be colleagues, members of the board of directors or of the general audience, can only enhance the motivating effect and the sense of quality achieved.
If anything can be said with any degree of certainty, it is that no matter what happens in any particular performance of music, some people will like it and some will not. This is true not only for the audience but for the performers as well, and far from being an anathema, this is quite a desirable result even if it is also unavoidable.
There is a story about an internationally renowned American composer in which it is told that following a premier performance of a new work, the composer was approached by a woman in the audience who informed him that she did not like his new piece, to which the response was given, ‘who cares?’ Was the composer implying that the only person to whom the opinion mattered was the one who formulated it?
Professional music criticism in the Western countries has long consisted of individual opinions expressed by writers who have achieved a certain degree of authority based on their education and experience. The critic’s job has largely been one of combining factual reporting with creative writing, derived from the critic’s analysis of his or her own personal reaction to a particular performance. In other words, the primary source of music criticism has been the critic’s own inward look at his or her personal experience, which has then been translated into the medium of the written word, thereby revealing a personal point of view. This style of music criticism has functioned under the rationale that the critic is serving as the authority representing the eyes and ears of the audience, thereby counter-balancing the authority and self-interest of the performers.
This situation poses several questions. Does this style of music criticism really serve the interest of the listeners or readers? What is the music critic’s role in writing about the experience of music? Should the music critic be concerned with the effect of his or her actions on other people – performers, listeners and readers? Put another way, should the music critic attempt to motivate the reader to appreciate a musical experience, or should the critic disregard such concerns in order to communicate as directly as possible a personal point of view as to whether a performance was good or bad? Will people skills also be helpful to the music critic in this task?
Interestingly, there is a conceptual approach to music reviewing which addresses such questions, albeit in a non-traditional manner. Examples of such an approach may already be found in a country that is a relative new-comer to music criticism, and therefore, relatively unburdened by traditional Western styles of writing, Japan. In this alternative approach to music criticism, if it can even be called criticism, the ability to communicate an individual point of view is not as important as the ability to help others to appreciate music by communicating a sense of the various possible ways in which a performance might have been perceived.
The role of the critic then becomes one not of evaluator or watchdog, but rather one of facilitator in helping the reader to become involved in the process of developing an understanding and appreciation for his or her own response to a particular performance. Rather than determining for the reader the extent to which a performance achieved a technically good or bad realization of the composer’s score, the emphasis may be entirely on attempting to capture various subjective aspects of a performance or of a composer’s intent with no reference whatsoever to technical details or to qualitative judgements. The tacet underlying assumption may well be that the writer’s personal opinion is not necessarily relevant to the reader’s needs or interests. Any evaluation about whether or not a particular performance was successful in stimulating listeners may simply be left to each individual listener or reader to formulate, thereby recognizing that each listener may have a unique personal experience. Some may like what they have experienced and others may not . . . and that is OK.
The thing that is most appealing about this approach to writing about music performance is that it displays a certain reverence for the subjective nature of music and consequently a respect for the uniqueness of each person’s listening experience. By not attempting to determine for others which of the many possible ways of perceiving a performance is ‘correct’, it does not reduce the experience of music to a level of simply determining whether or not the performers pushed the right buttons, or whether a composer or composition is good or bad. It inspires and motivates the reader to appreciate the experience of music.
Having briefly glanced at some of the fundamental sources of authority in and around symphony orchestras, it is proposed – though by this time it should be evident – that the various forms of authority that ultimately affect the performance of symphony orchestras are distributed amongst all of the participants, with each person having responsibility for applying his or her authority towards the end of achieving musical quality, defined as the condition in which personal enrichment through the experience of music is most effectively encouraged. It is further proposed that such musical quality can best be achieved when each person’s authority is primarily directed to the cause of motivating others – listeners and performers alike – to realize self-enrichment through the experience of music.
It can justifiably be asked whether or not such proposals constitute a realistic way of looking at the institution of the symphony orchestra. It may very well be that in any human organization there simply are people who will not only be unwilling or unable to use their authority to help others, but worse yet, who will seek to use authority to manipulate others for personal gain. In any event, however, is it not still reasonable – and perhaps essential – to set forth such proposals as desirable goals which, based on an appreciation and respect for the value of each person’s individual musical experience, are worthy of attaining? How can any institution which strives to bring so much inspiration to so many people settle for anything less?
Social and Economic Issues in 2004
and Their Impact on the Arts
In the 20th century world of specialization, artists found their position in society as the purveyors of new possibilities through open and free thought – from Picasso and Stravinsky to Jackson Pollock and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Having broken away from the intellectual boundaries of the Victorian era, their artistic direction, known as the ‘modernist’ movement, led toward ever greater abstraction and ultimately to a disconnect of their ‘high art’ from all but a small inner group of cognoscenti.
At the end of the 20th century, however, a new artistic revolution emerged, sometimes called the ‘post-modern’ movement, which may be generally characterized as the rejection of abstraction, and the merging of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms – high art being the classical forms, including Jazz, and low art being the popular forms. This revolution is still underway.
Influential new ideas today are mainly coming not from artists, but from technology and global communications – via jet travel, the internet and other electronic media – giving everyone immediate access to the world’s wellspring of ideas. Whereas the artists’ challenge formerly was to open minds and lead society into new ways of thinking, now the challenge is for artists 1) to seek like-minded niche markets that are large enough to sustain their work or 2) to connect their ideas with the general public (the mass market) by having some relevance to their lives.
On Sep. 12, 2004 in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, asking rhetorically whether classical music will ‘regain the standing it had in society in the first half of the 20th century,’ Tom Strini answers, ‘No. Classical music and new music rising from that tradition will remain marginal.’ He adds, ‘We can take comfort in the fact that almost every cultural commodity is marginal these days. . . . Most of us are intensely interested in certain things and oblivious to many more things of intense interest to millions of our fellow citizens. We have sliced and diced ourselves“and been sliced and diced by media manipulators“into hermetically sealed demographic bits.’ In this environment, Strini concludes, ‘Classical music must embrace its marginality and make a modest nest in a splintered marketplace.’
There are presently two models (or paradigms) of the arts in existence in America concurrently. The first I call ‘the old model’ or ‘the European model.’ It is characterized by 1) artistic freedom, 2) an imaginative artistic vision that seeks to open minds, and 3) patronage – private individuals or public institutions supporting the artists’ vision. In this model the market follows the artist. This old model, while still present to varying degrees depending on each particular circumstance, is gradually losing favor in America.
The second model of the arts I call ‘the new model’ or ‘the American model,’ and it is characterized by a focus on social relevance and on technical concerns, like market size, statistics, bottom-line financial management and performance standards. In this model markets are not as concerned with the artist’s vision as with the artist’s technical proficiency in achieving social outcomes through adherence to social outcomes norms in performance. If the artist’s vision steps too far over the line drawn by audiences, critics, and even other artists, it will be rejected. Here the artist follows the market. This model is also present everywhere to varying degrees, but it is increasing in favor, especially in America.
I want to be very clear that I do not judge either of these two models to be good or bad. My intent is simply to describe what I see.
Current Social Conditions (in North America)
1) PARADOX – There is now a worldwide access to all music (ideas), but the ability to filter out disagreeable ideas is leading to a narrowing of tastes.
2) Now, with music on recordings, film, radio, television, computers, elevators, shopping malls, city street crossings, cellphone ringtones, etc., etc., music has become part of our environment – it is less precious.
Leisure Time –
3) PARADOX – Leisure options have exploded, but available recreation time for most people has become more limited; music is competing with more alternatives for less available time.
4) The main art form in N. America is movies. This is what most people talk about. In film, music plays only a supporting role.
5) The intellectual impact of music on society has lessened – the main impact now is from technology
6) Music (& arts) are devalued in Education – considered ‘extra.’ The value of the arts as a ‘humanizing’ counter-balance to impersonal technology is less appreciated.
The focus of education on technical concerns – the 3Rs, computer literacy, technical skills – has reduced the amount of attention given to imagination, intuition and creativity, all of which the arts seek to strengthen.
7) It cannot be assumed that primary and secondary music teachers are schooled in classical music & arts.
The educational emphasis in the arts is on active playing (doing), not on active listening (perceiving, thinking and critiquing).
Current Economic Conditions
1) Music (art) is becoming a commodity; artistic vision (old model- major cities) is replaced by marketing (new model – middle America);
In the New York Times for Monday September 7, 2004 , there is a profile of National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, ‘who to a large degree has won the Congressional approbation that eluded his predecessors. And he has done so without alienating artists, who tend to resist all restraints on their independence.’ ‘(Gioia’s) view ” that supporting audiences is a more urgent priority than supporting artists ” has allowed many conservatives who were opponents of the agency to get behind it Mr. Gioia hasn’t bothered to defend the independence of artists or the value of subversive art, stances that hampered previous chairmen,’ but he has ‘steered the endowment toward the creation of big, visible programs,’ a direction that has ‘dismayed some arts administrators, who say the endowment’s creation of its own programs ” and its solicitation of corporate funds to foot the bill ” puts the endowment in direct competition with the organizations it is supposed to support.’ Says Gioia: ‘The debate about public funding of the arts over the last 20 years has been determined by the critics I felt if one were to rebuild the agency, what we needed to do was to take an unapologetic role in creating the public conversation about arts support.’
2) Star power, as has been true with pop music for decades, is increasingly important in marketing classical (and Jazz?). Audiences now want hits and recognizable names; they want predictability; they do not seek new artistic visions – they prefer visions that have already been generally recognized.
3) Governments at all levels are squeezed by pressure to lower taxes.
9/10/04 2:50:47 PM, email@example.com writes:
Thursday’s Boston Globe includes a report by Catherine Foster noting that ‘ ˜Art Close Up,’ a series of monthly WGBH specials that focused on the creative endeavor, is the latest casualty of the current poor funding climate for the arts. The series, which began in January, got the ax shortly before the close of the public television station’s fiscal year, Aug. 31.’ Foster notes that ‘among the artists shown doing their work were now deceased Russian puppeteer Igor Fokin, choreographer Twyla Tharp, photographers Robert and Shana Perek Harrison, and sculptor Pat Keck. Lucy Sholley, director of media relations for WGBH, said the decision was difficult, and made strictly for budgetary reasons. ˜Securing funding for arts programming has been on ongoing challenge, particularly as state and local arts resources have become increasingly scarce,’ she said.’
Leisure Time –
4) There is an ˜equal options’ – ‘TV remote’ – public mentality (ie. ‘all channels and all programming are equal, provided they can hold attention)
5) Niche markets are overwhelmed by mass markets, but kept alive by internet marketing opportunities.
6) The web-based distribution of music generally ignores classical music.
7) North American orchestras have reached market saturation.
Musician’s jobs are devalued; there is an oversupply of competent musicians.
Cost growth in musical institutions is rising faster than income growth.
9/10/04 2:50:47 PM, firstname.lastname@example.org writes:
In Friday’s (9/10) edition of The Independent (London) Louise Jury reports on a ‘new survey carried out for the Musicians’ Union. The salaries of Britain’s violinists, flautists and timpanists are so pitifully low, they are putting the future of classical music at risk, it was claimed yesterday. While star soloists regularly make several thousand pounds in one evening, rank-and-file string players earn an average of pounds 22,500 [annually], less than the national average wage of pounds 23,000.’ Jury writes, ‘The union polled every orchestral player with some type of contract in Britain and of the 20 per cent who responded, 86 per cent said they supplemented their orchestral salary with other work. Half said the amount of non-orchestral work they did to survive had increased in the past three years with one in five musicians taking non-musical work, such as plastering or plumbing, to supplement their income.’ Jury quotes Horace Trubridge, the union’s assistant general secretary: ‘the problem is getting worse at a time when the Arts Council stabilization programme was set up to give a secure future to orchestras. We decided that to try to improve things, we have to try to get people talking about it.’
Private giving is increasingly aligned with education (social) ‘pay-back’
In Wednesday’s (9/15) Philadelphia Inquirer, Peter Dobrin writes on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s ongoing contract negotiations. On a level ‘more enduring than money,’ Dobrin writes, ‘these talks and other forces at play seek a change in orchestra culture that would alter how musicians view themselves as employees. For the music-listening public, and the extent to which the orchestra is perceived as a responsible cultural citizen, the results could be profound.’ Management, Dobrin writes, seeks ‘work-rule changes’ in player’s contracts in its attempts to transform the orchestra ‘to more of an educational institution with a social mission.’ He adds, ‘A recognition that the orchestra has a wider role to fill, and perhaps an emerging social conscience, coincides with declining audiences and a funding climate that often makes it easier to find sponsorship for educational activities than general-operating support For the players, even those who have long argued for a greater educational role, such changes represent risk.’
9) Corporate giving is increasingly aligned with marketing (self-interest) ‘pay-back.’
9/9/04 5:59:46 PM, email@example.com writes:
In Thursday’s Salt Lake Tribune, Catherine Reese Newton reports on the new agreement between the Utah Symphony & Opera and UBS Bank USA, in which the bank will provide ‘major sponsorship in exchange for prominent display of the corporation’s logo.’ Newton writes, ‘UBS will be designated as a ‘season sponsor’ the next three seasons, with the donation going toward the symphony’s operating costs.’ The logo will appear in ‘US & O advertising and concert programs, and the firm will receive specific recognition’ at four season concerts. Of the agreement, US & O CEO Anne Ewers tells Newton, ‘It’s a new way [of funding the arts], and boy, do we need new ways.’ Newton adds, ‘UBS has similar sponsorships with major orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony.’ UBS Bank USA President and new US & O board member Ray Dardano cites the Utah Symphony’s ‘longtime focus on education’ as attractive to the bank.
10) Musicians are becoming music educators (without training).
9/10/04 The Des Moines Symphony Academy celebrated its first anniversary on September 8. The Academy, which started with an enrollment of 130 students, begins its second year with 210 students. It offers private instruction on bass, cello, flute, guitar, percussion, piano, saxophone, viola, and violin, along with group classes for children and adults.
What can be done
– advocacy at all levels- the case for (value of) music & arts must be simply and clearly stated and repeated over and over.
– keep music & arts in the mix of ideas – when teaching, speaking, volunteering, voting
– organize coalitions – music and arts institutions must act cooperatively in advocating, lobbying, and seeking efficiencies of scale to deals with ever-increasing costs.
– teach listening/thinking skills
– be informed about careers in music. Ask tough questions.
– balance technical skill acquisition with self observation (questioning, thinking)
– acquire advocacy skills
– realize that every artist is always a teacher, and that all art is educational – teaching us about ourselves and our relationship to others.
I have been a musician all my life and have never worked outside of music; nevertheless, my time today is mainly spent on the computer – emails, writing, accounting, generating work, and composing.
As a professional musician, I have always loved performing and listening to music, but even though a career in music has been very satisfying for me, I would not recommend it to anyone else as a career. The decision to devote one’s life to music is most fulfillingly driven by a love of listening to music (as opposed to a love of playing an instrument).
The distinguished American composer and educator, Howard Hanson, said that wherever he went he was approached by students asking if he thought they should go into music, and he always told them ˜no,’ regardless of who was asking. He said that the ones who eventually become musicians don’t listen to his answer.’
For most professional musicians, the love of music must be strong enough to compensate for relatively low pay and low long-term job satisfaction.