January 10, 2011

Guest blogger: Seth Boustead on the search for the holy grail

Composer Seth Boustead runs one of the most forward-looking grassroots arts organizations in the Midwest, Access Contemporary Music. When I ran into him at a neighborhood lunch spot recently, we got talking about how he and others in the “modern classical” scene view the future of classical music. I invited him to share that perspective in a guest post, which he was kind enough to do.

At a recent panel presentation attended by numerous people in Chicago's music community, I listened intently as the panelists discussed the future of classical music. The conversation inevitably featured a lot of hand wringing and dire predictions. It seems that everyone is worried about how to attract younger audience members, about getting larger audiences in general, and even about the continued relevance of classical music organizations.

As I listened to this, I couldn't help but think how removed I am from these concerns.  As the director of Access Contemporary Music, an organization dedicated to promoting the music of living composers, I realized that, while we in the contemporary music community certainly have our challenges, attracting young people is not one of them.

I never hear any of my colleagues complain about audience size, and I certainly never hear anyone wishing that they could appeal to younger audiences.  If anything, we have the opposite problem!  We could really use more older people with disposable income and a history of philanthropic giving in our audiences.

At one of our recent concerts I spoke with a person who works at a funding organization in town and was dismayed to hear him say that young audience members are the "holy grail" for any arts organization.  I was surprised how off the mark this was for our organization and that someone who should be “in the know” doesn't realize that there are different kinds of classical music organizations, with very different challenges.

We can't get older people to come to our concerts because many of them are old enough to have had bad experiences with contemporary music.  They've seen the self-indulgent performers dressed all in black who don't communicate anything, who come on stage and bloop, bleep and squawk and then pretentiously walk off.  I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of this performance practice and am truly happy that it is rarely seen in contemporary music circles any more.  But the damage has been done, and the “holy grail” for us is now the silver-haired couple willing to listen to a performance of music by a composer impolite enough to be still alive or only recently dead.

It seems silly to me that the classical world has created a culture that glorifies a select group of works, all over a hundred years old, and then worries about the future of their rarified form of ancestor worship.  It's as if a museum stated that there would be no additional acquisitions of art, no new shows or exhibits, but only a series of renowned scholars coming to the museum to interpret and expound upon the old art that the museum itself has proclaimed a masterpiece.

It is to me a bitter irony that most of the time when people talk about the future of classical music they are actually talking about future performances of music from the past, despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of composers in the world writing music and thereby extending the tradition and creating an actual future for it.

As a composer and as the director of a contemporary music organization, it has always been my fond hope that one day there will be no need for organizations that specialize in the performance of contemporary music.  There will just be ensembles large and small performing music from every part of the living, evolving compositional spectrum.  Judging by what I've been hearing lately—and who I’ve been seeing at the performances of organizations like ours—it seems likely that more up-to-date programming might just help classical organizations find their holy grail.

Nick Duggan — February 01, 2011

I couldn't agree more with Seth's comments! I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me because my eyes glazed over when asked to attend yet another 'rendition' of Tchaik. 1. Audiences are divided - we have to covertly sneak a contemporary work into a traditional program. Museums are wonderful - they usually tell a story of human development from before time to the present day. Not so with music. In most cases we stop before impressionism. I too am an escapee from the squeaky gate/dripping tap musical era and the damage that has done continues to this day. Keep up the good work building new bridges to new audiences.

Guilherme Schroeter — February 01, 2011

Classical music is not just a snapshot of the old times.
Is under continuing develop art form.
is very sad that people dont understand that.


Guilherme Schroeter — February 01, 2011

I can prove is using for example my case.

I write neo-romantic music, in my way.
My language is tottaly diferent of the "romantics"
As well the structure and form that I use






Sheldon Marcus — February 18, 2011

Great post and a much needed perspective. This somehow didn't register on my radar until someone sent it to me now but I very much enjoyed reading it!

Nick Duggan — April 04, 2011

Guiherme, I think you miss the point. For me, I am not tired of classical music - I am tired of the small selection available at the concert hall. it is great that you write neo-classical music...in fact my whole Phd is about the very fact that diatonic music is not dead but perhaps requires re-packaging, moving forward in a logical harmonic evolution - otherwise we might be in danger of creating pastiches. The point is - how many people will pay to hear a concert because it has a work by G.Schroeter?....perhaps only a few BUT there should be many, if only they have a spirit of adventure - but so many will look for the old familiar greats. I believe Seth is encouraging those people to be more adventurous and expose more people to more contemporary music - meaning - music written this century. P.S. I greatly enjoyed your music. Thank you.

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