2005-07-11

Sky Big, Chicken Little

One of many things I love about living in Asia is the escape it offers from the myth that my art form is in some kind of peril. Kids take piano lessons and go with their friends to concerts and everyone has a good time. People leave it at that. Kids do the same in the US and UK, but the myth that classical music is 'dying' holds a strange but consistent fascination in these societies.

Empirical evidence does not support this. The symphony orchestra has been called a 'dinosaur' for at least fifty years now. In the 1960s conductor Georg Solti had to contend with predictions that the concert audience for his repertory would be pushing up daisies in toto by 1990. The prediction went bust, but people keep making it. It's like so many doomsdays. People keep saying they will live to see happen even though no one quite--seems--to--get there.

The expectation comes not from observing a reality but affirming a creed. But where does the creed come from?

Here are a few theories.


1. Channeling Harold Hill

The doomsayer wants you to believe a crisis exists so you will buy the product they are about to sell you. It's amazing how often the doom scenario is followed by a proposal for a remedy that involves the doomsayer's own product.

'You are losing your audience. Your entire art form will be dead in another generation. Fortunately, I have just the remedy. Hire me to come play my new concerto for Coke bottles. It's the fresh sound everyone has been waiting for. You'll laugh, you'll cry...'


2. By the way, your favorite music went extinct yesterday

The doomsayer has a column or a book to sell. Giving it an apocalyptic title like Who Killed Classical Music? will goad people who love classic music to discuss the book, buy the book, and get agitated. They will write letters to the editor contesting ideas in the book--and thus giving it free publicity.

When in 30 years classic music is still going strong, the book will naturally look a bit dated. But no matter. By then the author will be comfortably retired.

What's interesting about this phenomenon is that a substantial audience for classic music has to exist in order for the book to get attention. The fact that its premise causes an uproar is testimony to the continued relevance of, and passion for, classic music.

No one writes and sells books called Who Killed Crwth Music? Why not? Because the music really was killed.


3. It May Be Out but I'm Still In

The doomsayer is having trouble getting gigs. Rather than admitting one is having trouble, one can think the industry is having trouble. This way, the out-of-work musician still gets to be part of the industry. It's an industry with no future, but at least the musician is part of it.


4. I'll Get You, My Pretty, and Your Little E-flat Clarinet, Too

The doomsayer is having trouble getting gigs. Rather than admit that the music profession is a popular one that attracts a lot of talented people, and that this can make the going tough, one can console oneself with thoughts that all those talented people zooming past in the fast lane will hit a brick wall just around the next curve.


5. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

The doomsayer wants immortality--if not for herself, at least for her music. An audience of younger people makes them feel more immortal than an audience of older people.

The audience for classical music has always skewed older and the audience for popular music has always skewed younger.


6. Faure the Fall Guy

Record company execs find it easier to say 'classical music is dying' because they like the story better than 'quality classical label bought by a bunch of pop-heads who mismanaged their assets until sales tanked.'


7. Dot Records Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Chuck Berry was singing 'Roll Over, Beethoven' before the Big Mac had been invented. Many people who were kids then didn't know any better than to take him literally. They are big kids now who still think of rock music and related commercial products as much more revolutionary than they really are. (Pop music is creatively far more conservative than classical.) Beethoven is still kicking, but they overlook this because they really did believe what they were told.


8. Dion Envy

The doomsayer sees attention and money being lavished on musical products in the commercial world that are often distressingly mediocre. The doomsayer wants a piece of the pie. Why struggle to make the best art you can make for a modest fee when inventing a marketable if mediocre product can put you in Bel Air? The problem is how to justify this cash grab to one's colleagues. One answer is to present going where the numbers are as a virtue in itself.


Which theory of doomsaying strikes me as the most credible? All of them. It depends on the doomsayer doing the talking.

Here's my prediction. Fifty years from now, people will still love the sound of a great orchestra. They will be playing Mozart. Some will write their own symphonies.

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