Tuesday, April 10, 2007

From Bell to Lebrecht in 8.2 seconds

1. The Joshua Bell-as-busker article I wrote about has proved to be very popular. I've had countless people visit through searches for Joshua, Weingarten, Bach, Partita No. 2, etc. And there have been many bloggers writing about it, expressing everything from approval to dismay to anger to criticism of Josh's busking skills. I stand by my statement that Weingarten and his team of reporters were very thorough in covering most of the possible angles, from rush hour needs to noise pollution to iPods. The art of busking was not addressed enough, so SawLady's criticism is a good addition to the story.

2. There is an undeclared war between Norman Lebrecht and Alex Ross about the state of the classical recording industry. It is so undeclared that each of the combatants has not stated the name of his enemy. This war has a personal front, as a colleague and I have been discussing the issue for the last (academic) year. This last week this colleague, who is very involved in the classical recording industry, pointed out that even if Lebrecht's conclusions are faulty and unnecessarily pessimistic, his books have spurred the whole classical music world. Music ensembles pick more imaginative programming. Record companies have started to look beyond the "stars" to wonderfully talented unknowns who can be recorded much more cheaply. Orchestras are starting their own recording labels to save on costs, since the digital revolution and the Long Tail effect has made it so much easier to store, supply, and advertise these recordings.

I also foresee more emphasis on chamber music over traditional large ensembles in music schools, as career choices for professionals, and as programming options for performance halls. Chamber music requires fewer musicians, fewer administrators (thus lower salary costs), less time for set-up, smaller space requirements, and lower travel costs. And unlike the joke about cost savings in Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, moving to chamber music does not sacrifice in artistry or aesthetic possibilities. In fact, I believe that chamber music gives the opportunity for a more intimate experience between the musicians and the audience. The smaller group does not require the acoustics of a large hall, nor the financial needs to play for a large audience, so the musicians do not have to be put on the isolated pedestal of the orchestral stage. Even if the quartet or octet is playing in Carnegie Hall, the lower number of musicians will not overwhelm the memory constraints of the audience. An audience cannot be expected to note and recognize each of the eighty-five members of an orchestra, whereas they can pay attention to each of the members of Eighth Blackbird in the space of a single piece, and form attachments to each of the players. And attachments will bring audiences back. Look at the draw of star soloists like Joshua Bell. [See how I have brought the categories together?] Orchestras pay ungodly amounts to soloists like Bell so people will come to their concerts. And the audiences flock because they can focus solely on the soloist, forming that necessary attachment. Yes, the conductor is often the source of focus for those pesky non-concertos that orchestras play, but the attachment is not satisfying as the maestro is faced away from the audience most of the time.

So, pay attention to the music in your life, don't mourn for the death of classical music, and notice how much intimacy you feel for your favorite music experiences.


Chris Foley said...

I don't think people have any business predicting the demise of classical music from the Josh Bell experiment for the simple reason that there was never any control group used. Too get some real data on this experiment (especially regarding the twin parameters of fame and genre identification), it would have been necessary to also track the progress of at least two other musicians, for example a professional busker who knows how to work the crowd, and a famous musician in another genre such as rock music. What if, say, Keith Richards had done this experiment and had been ignored? Would we be writing about the demise of rock music?

Another example--classical music blog stats. My blog's readership has gone up 300% since the summer, a stat shared by many blogs in the genre (including Musical Perceptions). Does this mean classical music is becoming more and more popular, or is it merely indicative of seasonal variations, a natural uptick a blog's readership as is matures, or simply the fact that more and more people are accessing information on Google? It's really hard to draw proper conclusions about these things, but it would seem, all too easy for a press corps that lists the imminent failure of classical music as a permanent byline.

Scott said...

Chris, I agree that placing Bell in the subway was a stunt rather than an actual experiment. But I didn't get the impression from Weingarten that he was condemning classical music for the results. Instead, he was pointing out that society has become too hurried, with not enough time spent listening to the music or smelling the flowers. So the same conclusion could have been made if Keith Richards had been overlooked, or Branford Marsalis, or Ben Folds.

I wasn't aware that all the classical music blogs were experiencing more traffic, that is interesting.

Chris Foley said...

As a longtime peeper at other people's public sitemeter stats, it's something I've noticed in the last while, not on all the classical music blogs, but a good number of them. Run that one by Mr. Lebrecht.


As someone who just discovered the classical blogging community in the past couple of months, I'd guess that the uptick in blog readership is just a natural outgrowth of more and more people finding their way in. I'm quite sure that there's still a high percentage of classical music lovers who have no idea such blogs exist; the saturation point is way too far off to draw any conclusions from blogs about the state of the art. (As opposed to the fact that pretty much every classical fan knows about the recording industry.)

John said...

Great links on the Joshua Bell Busking Caper -- thanks!

The video is interesting, but from an anthropological or ethnomusicological perspective the "experiment" was insane! "Let's pick a time and place when people are least likely to listen to music, and see if they will listen to music." Recordings have made us so used to the idea of any music, on demand, any time of day, that the utter wrongness of the time and place didn't occur to the team who put it together. Sousa complained that records would devalue live performance, and he was right. But when live performance aspires to the condition of recordings, and strips itself of its sense of occasion, well, good luck.

Nobody should feel badly for walking on by. They had to get to work! On the assumption that work has meaning (and every job does, if we know where to look), being late for work can be an act of bad faith or bad karma or an anti-mitzvah -- whatever your spiritual tradition, it's not a good thing!

Joshua Bell -- would-be siren!

Anyway -- thanks.