Classical Music: Awkward, Then Snobbish, Like the Nerd at the Party

The New Yorker‘s classical music reviewer Alex Ross, (whom the Observer‘s Doree Shafrir considers the best listener in America) and The New York Times‘ (mostly) jazz writer Ben Ratcliff have been firing off emails about pop, jazz and classical to each other and posting them on Slate for the past few days. They’re attempting to "leave their musical islands." Here’s a highlight reel:

Ross:

Classical music keeps getting marginalized in American culture, and, like the nerd standing against the wall at the cool kids’ party, it’s always making awkward attempts to strike up a conversation. Either that or it holds itself aloof ("Who wants to go to that stupid party when we can stay home and play Risk?"). Classical snobbery and classical populism may be two sides of the same coin—the melancholy sense of not belonging. But that can also be a kind of freedom.

Ratcliff:

Can we talk some truth about concert audiences? I know so many people who are at least casual enthusiasts of jazz—many of them among that huge bloc of amateur jazz musicians—who don’t go out anymore to see whoever’s new. I used to think it’s because jazz has become too thoughtful for its own good, but I am coming to think that it doesn’t have to do with jazz at all. It probably doesn’t have to do with expensive tickets, either. (A movie with popcorn and a soda costs only a little less than a set at the Village Vanguard.) People just don’t go out to hear music anymore, the way they used to even 15 years ago. It’s too much of a hassle. Maybe they read 75 recommendations for what to do in the New Yorker and 75 more in the Times, and they just say, fuck it, I can’t decide. And so the audience issue that Coltrane dealt with—was his late music somehow breaking a contract with his fans? Was it too harsh? Is he allowed to do this?—is now completely moot. To exaggerate a little bit, everything’s permitted, and nobody’s listening.

Ross:

I wonder, though, how deep this crisis goes. The Music—jazz or classical—may have fallen from a great height. Then again, aren’t audiences for the Music collectively bigger than they were 50 years ago—especially when you factor in Europe and East Asia? Across the oceans, the concertgoing habit seems more ingrained. I’m told that teenagers and twentysomethings show up in large numbers for orchestra concerts in Japan, where classical music holds a healthy 15 percent market share. I sometimes see hip young Japanese tourists at the Philharmonic, looking a bit confused, as if thinking to themselves, "Why are we the only young people here?" The crisis seems to be particularly, peculiarly American—though it may spread.

Ratcliff:

I have been brought up with the idea that subcultures are sexy as hell, and subcultures are pretty much engineered to keep older people out, right? They gather late at night … they don’t advertise very well … they’re great for just as long as you don’t know about it. I like to see commitment however I can get it. Death-metal shows, raves, tiny jazz clubs, whatever. Doesn’t even have to be teenagers. There’s a subculture for Czech polka in Nebraska, and it’s a subculture of 65- to 80-year-olds.