Postmodern Conservative

Scruton and Balio on Classical Music’s Future

In the spirit of my “Little Man at Chehaw Station” post, here’s a link to a valuable essay “Saving Classical Music” over at Imaginative Conservative by one Andrew Balio, veteran trumpeter with long experience in symphony orchestras.  He also has long experience with the all-too-similar trends that come and go in an effort to reform orchestras, or otherwise make them more appealing to young people.  Here’s a telling bit about the pressure many orchestras face to feature more contemporary compositions in their repertoire:

During this cold war of sorts with living composers, we have let a few come over the border for supervised visits, but our audiences still do not trust them, and frankly, neither do the orchestra musicians themselves. Too many of us have felt betrayed by the fashionable twentieth-century composers with their ugly and inhuman sound art–rather like the obnoxious cityscapes of concrete, glass, and metal that have chased human settlement into the suburbs.

Our audiences, voting with their feet when they smell a modernist lurking, have actually been our best friends in this regard as they have been the firewall that prevented us from jumping head first into the shallow end of the avant-garde.

Even better, Balio has started something called the Future Symphony Institute.  Balio has his eye on the business and marketing sides of contemporary orchestras in addition to the core aesthetic issues.  And he has the good taste to have become influenced by the anti-modernist (and very Porcher-esque) architect Léon Krier, whose architectural ideas he often makes musical analogies to. 

In another good sign, the Future Symphony Institute website features a little taste of philosopher Roger Scruton’s music writing.  RTWT, but this bit is particularly astute:

That tradition is not dead. But it has entered a new phase, in which listening and playing take second place to hearing. We hear music everywhere; we carry it about in our ears; we are locked into it as into a cage. But the experience of active listening, as part of an audience rendered silent by their joint attention, is increasingly rare. So too is the experience of making music together, united by a movement that arises between us and carries each player along on a collective wave of energy. Increasingly – and this is especially so for young people – music is a background to other things, and seldom enters the foreground of experience, to become the sole object of attention. 

Scruton makes the case that as classical appreciation wanes, so do the younger generations’ experience of live music generally, as classical music depended so much more on the live experience.  I’m can’t address that entire issue here, but I will say that while all good music is better appreciated live, to my ears, it is triply the case with classical music.  A number of times I’ve gone to a classical concert thinking, “Well, this sounds okay on the radio, if a little tedious, but let’s give it a chance,” and have been completely won over by the performance. 

Balio speaks about the need to “re-legitimize” classical music.  At some point, that will mean looking at how rock and disco-pop became its chief musical competitors, and in a sense de-legitimized it.  As the author of Carl’s Rock Songbook, I have thought more about such subjects than most have, at least from a conservative perspective.   Scruton looks more directly at the issue of comparative musical quality, and does so from a schooled-in-classical-music expertise which I lack.  But I do think my coming at things from the more typical “schooling” of our time, the anti-formal one so shaped by rock music, can shed its own kind of light on the question of what kind of music feels legitimate for a modern-democratic era.  The Songbook essay Balio-sympathizers would find most interesting on this score is ”Roll over Beethoven.” “It Was the Dawning of the Age of the Harpsichord” and “The SMiLE That Wasn’t” develop some of its ideas further.  They should also peek into the essay on Ralph Ellison below.

Here’s wishing the Future Symphony Institute every success.  

UPDATE:  BTW, as far as I can tell, one of the best ways of keeping up with classical recordings and artists (besides reading Jay Nordlinger in National Review, of course!), is Listen magazine–it is very generous with content online, and you can usually find it at your Barnes & Noble.  

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