Sometime last December, I was sitting in the apartment I was renting from some Dominican friars in Sweden when I got an email from a friend in Brooklyn. He was working on a documentary. Something about how the classical music industry was in trouble but was flourishing on the fringes as what's sometimes frustratingly lumped together under the term "Indie-Classical." Come work for me, he said.
I had finished a master's program in June, made some quick money cleaning hotel rooms in Norway, and was enjoying a leisurely fall semester of writing, home-brewing and wild-boar hunting. But Sweden is an expensive place, and freelance writing is not what you'd call a lucrative career move. Not that wading into the classical music industry is, either.
How do you talk about contemporary classical music without talking about the death of classical music? Or maybe not the death of classical music -- that's melodramatic pap used to scare up orchestra donations -- but the shuttering of orchestras, the labor disputes, the declining ticket sales, the aging audiences. If you're wanting to feel particularly glum, read about the implosion of the classical recording industry -- which may actually warrant the "death of" honorific.
Many in the classical music industry blame the lack of interest on a vapid culture. I'm sympathetic to this, but the defense usually comes off as stodgy conservatism. Take this graf from the American Spectator, which substitutes "serious" for "classical" :
A pianist friend, Ivan Ilic, says the pervasive public ignorance of serious music has been a major factor in the current crisis. "It is naive to pretend that people will spontaneously flock to concerts because, say, the harmonic progressions are worked out in more detail in a Schubert symphony than those is a song by Lady Gaga."
Other critics point the finger at the classical music industry, which has refused to adapt to changing trends and seems either foreboding or uninteresting to young listeners. When we interviewed Judd Greenstein, the composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder, he told us:
This is a world of music that basically erected giant walls around itself, didn't build a door, threw away the plans, and then wondered why no one was coming in. And, all we're doing is saying, you probably stand a better chance of getting visitors to your house if you at least build a door.
It's this second claim that I'm interested in exploring here. How closed-off is classical music? What context is needed to start listening to classical music? And if the classical music scene is truly in decline -- does it matter?
If I can answer some of these questions, it's because I don't listen to classical music. Not really, anyway. (Ok, full disclosure, I'm listening to a Philip Glass song on repeat at the moment because I find that it helps me to concentrate. Call it a masochistic writing habit.) I went to the opera frequently in college, but that was because I liked the narrative and the grandiose staging. Also because I was pretentious, and it was a fancy date location. I didn't understand what I was listening to. And I'm afraid I still don't. So this blog won't be offering any music criticism. Rather, it will be something of a travelogue of my journey through the New York classical scene, as well as a place to gather ideas for the documentary. But more on that later. In the meantime, I hope you'll read along.