Does the Noise matter?

I was delighted and genuinely surprised this morning to see something completely unexpected as the main story on an extended discussion of Alex Ross’s new book, The Rest is Noise from Kevin Berger.

I read Salon everyday, and have for some years now, but not for its arts coverage, which can only be called pitiful. The internet has been a boon to classical music, but not the top electronic newspaper. Salon is supposed to be news for the smart crowd, but their main cultural interests are network TV and mainstream film. They also religiously feature one thought-provoking essay per-week on what Brittney Spears tells us about society.

So how does a zillion page overview of 20th Century music end up as their main story? It’s the power of the blog, I’m sure. Although the New Yorker is great magazine and great publication, I’ll wager it is Alex’s blog that has really built the buzz behind this being the most talked about book on classical music since The Maestro Myth.  Ain’t that ironical?

No review here, as yet (a performer reviews a critic? don’t hold your breath….). I’ve ordered my copy to pick up in Oregon next time I’m there. I had hoped to catch Alex in Portland last week, but got in an hour too late.

However, Berger’s first excerpt from the book put me in the mood to be devil’s advocate….

From 1900 to 2000, Ross writes, classical music “experienced what can only be described as a fall from a great height. At the beginning of the century, composers were cynosures on the world stage, their premieres mobbed by curiosity seekers.” When Mahler walked the streets of Vienna in the 1900s, passersby would stop and whisper to themselves, “Der Mahler!” “A hundred years on,” Ross writes, “no one whispers, ‘Der Adams!,’ as the composer of El Nino walks the streets of Berkeley.”

Almost all the discussion of what has happened to classical music over the last 15-20 years, whether from those who say these are the darkest of days, or those of us who are more hopeful, has focused on the impact of non-musical trends: the removal of classical music from public school curricula, the over-saturation of the CD market, downloading’s impact on CD profitability, a steep increase in anti-intellectualism in Anglo-American culture, the disappearance of government support for the arts, a shift in wealth from established philanthropic families to boom-bust new economy millionaires (many of whom are the product of a business centered education and whose liberal arts backgrounds are nearly non-existent), the erosion of diversity of media ownership and the disappearance of locally owned newspapers and radio stations.

It’s a long, and depressing, list.

Everyone else blames Berio, it seems…

However, are there any musical reasons for the difficulties we’ve all experienced?

Far be it from me to compare the enduring musical qualities of Mahler and Adams….. er, ah…. But…. I would suggest that if one looked just at orchestras around 1985-1990, compared to 1990-2000, or 2000-today and considered who was conducting where, I think it’s possible that one might draw the conclusion that some orchestras are worse off economically now because they are producing a product that is in some ways less artistically compelling to that of 25 years ago.

Alex himself offered a potentially relevant positive factoid on his blog

Some good news from Chicago, via John von Rhein: “For the second straight year, the [Chicago Symphony] exceeded 85 percent paid capacity in ticket sales, including a more than 3 percent increase in single ticket sales from the previous year. Roughly 30 percent of CSO main series concerts were sold out or exceeded 95 percent capacity. The renewal rate for CSO main series subscriptions was more than 87 percent, the highest in 11 years, according to orchestra officials.”…

Is it worth considering whether the changes in artistic leadership that took place a little over 11 years ago and in 2006 might have had a direct and measurable economic impact? Is it possible that in the post-Solti years, some members of the Chicago public were staying away NOT because of all the cultural and economic trends I listed above, but simply because they felt the concerts were not as interesting, exciting or just plain good as they had been? Is it possible that they’re now seeing an upsurge in audience support that coincides exactly with a change in artistic leadership?

I’m just,er… asking….

I would say, however, that I grew up going to CSO concerts and was always impressed at how incredibly knowledgeable the audience there was….. knowledgeable and passionate about the orchestra…. musically literate and sophisticated…. I’d also say that I never saw a boring concert at Orchestra Hall in all those early years…

In the name of not completely torpedoing my career, I’m going to stop, but you… go on… have a think…. What other super-elite orchestras have had similar changes during this time? How many of the very top orchestras in the world can really be said to have superior artistic leadership in 2000 compared to 1980? Is there a correlation between those orchestras that downgraded or upgraded their artistic leadership and the long-term health of their economics? It’s too early to tell which way we’ve gone since 2000, but I do think that the artistic quality of our music making (and not just the technical perfection of our playing) will have some impact on how we’re doing in 2020.

Just asking….

NOW- Listen here to the sounds that ruined classical music. KW conducts the music of the accursed Luciano Berio, destroyer of music and stiffler of creativity around the world.  This is his Serenata for Flute and 14 Instruments from a recent broadcast.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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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

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3 comments on “Does the Noise matter?”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    2000 compared to 1980 is harder to do than 2006 to 1980, but, for example, James Levine is reinvigorating the BSO after too many years of Ozawa. In San Francisco, I believe it was Edo de Waart in 1980, and it’s been MTT since the mid-90s. That’s an upgrade. Los Angeles had Giulini in 1980, now has Salonen, both great conductors. Certainly Salonen has done a tremendous job of building the orchestra and its reputation, with very exciting programming. NY Philharmonic, one must just sigh and hope Gilbert is interesting and good.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Lisa-

    Great to hear from you. Loved your Berio post.

    I think your San Fran example is a good example of exactly what I’m getting at, as it seems that MTT’s upgrade has also brought a commensurate upgrade in the economics and health of the organization. I think it shows that good art can defy the dour trends alluded to above. Worldwide, especially at the super-superstar level, I think we’re a bit weaker now than 1980- no Lenny, no Solti, no Karajan, no Jochum, no Kubelik, no Svetlanov, no Kondrashin, no Giulini.

    I’ve both played under and covered for Gilbert. That’s the toughest job in the world, but he is a legitimately talented and strong guy, and he knows the scene there…

    Hope all’s well out there


  3. composerbastard

    Yes, but by what point of reference? Certainly SFO, (I’m from the bay area) has made gains, but still they are losing $. Moreover, its quite a sophisticated urban place – highly educated, more than a large share of liberal thinkers, and with deep technology pockets of cash. Not your normal industrialized old school city. MTT has a great public face…but rumour has it that there is a lot of resentment about his high salary…

    All those gains in new artistic leadership? I don’t buy that its all from program changes and good marketing. I DO buy that its from a lot of gum shooing rich corporate sponsors. And I raise the question on how many of those seats were gifted or underwritten? Just my thought…

    Beyond a discussion of the intellectual pursuits (whatever that means on the public level because I have my own personal one), the diversity of electronic entertainment and other ADD distractions should also be to blame. And the list could go on – too much emphasis on children being successful, a worship of the bucthe loss of any “civic” sense of what goes on around you or your duty…

    The world has increased the number nested hierarchy of subcultures – and art music is just one small tiny microscopic bud. Compound that by the fact that there are now 36-38% more people in the world than there were 20 years ago…global warming…war…emerging viruses…recessions…hate to say it. The importance of what we do in the larger scaleof things is just not damn much.

    Which leads me to Alex Ross’ book, and I’m reading. Its one of the best music books I’ve read. Some of it I gloss over – the narrative about how specific pieces are constructed for example. But I can’t wait to get your take on it.

    Ok, I just have to say because I have run out of ideas that I like Berio. Can’t stand Mahler. Losing total interest in Adams. And think film music is the worse…

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