Is Classical Music Culturally Relevant?

Whenever I hear words like “relevant” or “important,” I always want to ask, “relevant or important to whom?” When that detail is left out, these words become codes or shorthands: “important” means “important to Serious Art People,” and “relevant” means “relevant to Real-World Audiences.” But “Real-World Audiences” is a code too, because the people who use the phrase seem to have a pretty narrow idea of who counts as real. Other musicians? Not real. Artists in other media? Not real. College students and faculty? Not real. People over 40? Not real. You can sell out a huge concert hall, but if everyone there falls into one or more of the above categories, you’ll still have people citing your show as evidence of classical music’s imminent demise. Because when people say “culturally relevant,” what they really mean is “relevant to young people with mainstream tastes.” And “mainstream tastes,” unfortunately, doesn’t include classical music.


In the past several months I've begun to obsess about the idea of "what it is that we are selling?" Not only for music, and classical music in particular (I'm on the boards of a chamber orchestra and a classical music concert series) but technology, culture, advertising, and all the things this site covers. We are all selling something. The words "relevant" and "important" are frequently heard in all those circles. So and so is an important designer, this is or that is a relevant technological innovation.

And yes, I too keep coming back to "to whom?" realizing that today those words in particular are mostly marketing tools to sell to niche markets. To deem something important is a way to sell to people knowledgeable in the field the item is a part of, it is a shorthand, a cheat that today has less to do with the actual work and more to do with how it is sold. To deem something relevant is just a way to try to convince the demo of "24-35, tech savvy, mobile connected, with expendable income (or at least income they are willing to spend)" that there is something out there they should not miss for missing it would render them uncool. 

Which is why I obsess, about what it is that people buy when they consume classical music (especially live), how can we re-boot and improve on the ticketing system when in reality what people are buying is access to an experience they themselves are probably incapable of creating themselves. 

In meetings, about websites, apps, advertising campaigns, orchestra concerts, music series, I am sometimes asked why am I so persistent about looking at what we are making, how we are selling it, how it is remembered. I always answer, because I want it to be art, not important or relevant art, but art made with respect for the past and a profound curiosity for the future. Art that brings wonderment, satisfies, art so compelling and human that its very existance can not be ignored. 

One last thought: if classical music is not culturally relevant to "young people with mainstream tastes," then why is it so frequently used on ads, on tv shows, on film, and everywhere as a shortcut to expressing emotion in the process of selling them something?



Happy Podcasting

I often listen to podcasts when I'm walking or commuting. I realized on my way home Friday night that, without meaning to, I bookmark my weeks with two "happy" podcasts. 

Monday mornings, as I walk to the train station, I listen to the marvelous Happy Monday podcast, hosted by Josh Long and Sarah Parmenter. As soon as I hear the first couple of notes of the upbeat theme song I am in a good mood and ready for the week. The podcast is designed to be short, commute-sized, and features fantastic interviews with design and web practitioners. Today's edition features one of my favorites, Seth Godin. You should subscribe and listen

Friday evenings, as I walk home, I listen to a podcast that is in no way work related. Pop Culture Happy Hour is NPR's entertainment and pop culture round-table podcast featuring spirited discussions of movies, books, television, and nostalgia. It is hosted by Linda Holmes and features a witty, self-deprecating, group of pop culture loving friends and guests. Last week's episode was about the new tv show The Bridge and the many faces of Doctor Who. You should subscribe and listen

Beyond the "happy" in their titles both podcasts have a similar section. In each episode of both podcasts a recurring question is asked. For Happy Monday the question is "what is inspiring you this week?" and for Pop Culture Happy Hour the question is "what is making you happy this week?" Fantastic things to ponder as you begin and end a week. 


And Answers

I've always had a fascination with questions and answers. The how and why of asking questions and answering them. Lately this fascination has been rekindled because I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the processes of collaborative communication. 

You already know each other, you are clients or service providers, freelancers, interns, co-workers, you know each other. You've been working together for a while and have found the routines of how you share information.

It is at this stage that we begin to answer the wrong questions. Or more precisely answering most questions wrongly. 

We think we know how the other person works, and how the other person thinks, so we begin to answer collaborative questions with what we think they want to hear, or what we think is the answer to a better question. Collaborative confusion ensues. 

I am reminded of a great scene from an episode of The West Wing. I forget the episode's plot but despite paraphrasing it many times remember the scene vividly. 

The White House Press Secretary is being prepared for a deposition by White House Council. After a few hours of going back and forth the lawyer casually asks the Press Secretary "can you tell me the time?" 

She replies, "It's 2:35."

He becomes, well, angry. Sternly he tells her, "stop that, stop doing that. I asked you, 'can you tell me the time?' and the answer is yes. Stop answering the question you think you heard, answer the question I asked."

That's it. 

Stop answering the wrong questions. 
Stop answering the question you thought you heard. 
Stop answering the question you think they should have asked.
Stop answering the question with too much information and not enough answer.
Stop answering the question undecidedly. 
Stop answering the question by pivoting the subject and saying something else you want to share. (Technique used most frequently during political debates.)
Stop answering the question in a way that hides the fact you don't know the answer. (Just say I don't know. Let me figure it out.)
Stop answering the question by providing more questions so you can buy yourself more time. (Just say I'm not done. I need more time.)
Stop answering the question without providing a solution. 

Can you tell me the time?

Answer the situation, the problem, the question they asked. 



Apple : Lincoln Center :: Google : Broadway

Google I/O is currently going on and Apple's WWDC is around the corner. This has led to many conversations between my developer and tech friends about which one is better, which one is moving ahead and which one is staying behind, and on and on. 

For me Apple is to Lincoln Center as Google is to Broadway

They both offer a multitude of products in various forms. They both have specific visions and financial goals. They both offer merchandise that intrigues me and makes me want to find out more. When they are good I seek them. But I definitely gravitate towards one and check it out first and more often because it is more in tune to what matters to me and what I enjoy.