Dead horses, rotten vegetables and fine wine

I’ve been a bit surprised to find how totally polarizing the whole electroacoustic issue has been- it’s been more controversial than anything I’ve dealt with before. I have to admit I spent much of last weekend wishing I’d never thought of posting on it.

Funnily enough, I feel like I came up with a metaphor that really works for me to express how I feel about it on the plane coming home. I had planned to keep it to myself in hopes of letting the discussion pass into memory, but decided to go ahead once I wrote it out in an email today…. It’s as if I know the horse is dead, but I just thought of a better way to beat it.

When it comes to “fixing” the problems of a so-so hall with amplification, I was reminded Monday of fresh vegetables (no, I’m not thinking of other bloggers).

We all know that fresh vegetables have serious flaws- they go off, they have to be prepared (peeled, washed and so on), and they’re hard to transport. In the 20th century we developed means of addressing those flaws through freezing, canning, freeze-drying, and even breeding and genetic modification. Just in the last ten years, it seems like society has woken up and decided that it’s all well and good having frozen corn in your freezer, but that it doesn’t taste nearly as good or do as much for your health as the fresh variety.

Amplification, however sensitively done, to me is kind of the same thing- it solves some problems, but creates others. The debate should be over whether that is a good trade-off? I think it’s not, but I’m perfectly open to the fact that others think it is.

Where I get worried is when people say there is no trade off, and that you can funnel an orchestra in to a PA system and back out again without losing anything- I’m the son of a physicist and I just can’t accept that as a matter of science…. Canned food doesn’t have to be bad, any more than canned music does, but it’s not the same thing as fresh food. Likewise amplified symphonic music is not the same thing as truly live acoustic music. Some vitamins and nutrients are lost in preparation. I think musicians have good reason to point out the difference between fresh and canned music, just as farmers have good reason to point out the difference between fresh and canned veg. I’d rather have canned tomatoes than rotten tomatoes, but is there another option? (fresh, non-rotten tomatoes?)

Actually, the whole world of organic food, micro-brews and boutique wineries may have a lot to teach us about marketing classical music. Just when classical music seems to be backing off from talking about how good (and good for you!)  our music is and admitting that what really matters is how sexy your violin soloist is (bearing in mind, I’m all for sexy), small farmers and brewers have found a model for competing with Kraft and Budweiser. In doing so, they’ve completely turned the tables on public perception. 30 years ago you would have been square to prefer organic vegetables to McDonald’s, but now corporate food has become associated with being backwards and micro-production with being hip. Better food used to be marketing death, now it’s the future, and plastic food is on the ropes for the first time in 50 years.

Look at the US wine industry now versus 30 years ago and versus that in France today:

Thirty years ago, Americans were making sketchy, mass-produced wine, because everyone thought that the old world model of fine, small batch wine, was doomed and made no sense economically. Today, Americans have reinvented the small winery- while the French have lost market share because they’ve been too conservative in responding to changing tastes and markets, the US and Australia have made big progress by making better wines, and by creating a marketing approach that combines elitism (or shall we say, the pursuit of excellence) with freshness and innovation. Right now, the conversation seems to be whether the classical world ought to be going the 1970s Gallo model or the modern French model. We seem to be being told we either have to choose between marketing wine with the same tools and values as one markets Coke, or sticking with an antiquated image and marketing approach, and demanding the consumer come to us because, damn it, this is good shit and we deserve their business.

Why not be more aggressive about telling people why Mahler is better than Timberlake, while also letting classical artists be seen as people and personalities of our time, rather than artifacts of a dead era? Can we make a case that listening to music in an intimate and focused environment is not a burden but a blessing? That it is a better way to hear music?

Can we throw off the stuffy image without losing quality (including the quality of the concert experience as well as the quality of the music)? I hope so! Can we improve our position if we don’t continue to grow artistically? I don’t think so….

I like my orchestras organic, I like my music locally sourced, I like my sound straight from the producer.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

1 comment on “Dead horses, rotten vegetables and fine wine”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » The organic orchestra

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *