Being Relevant – Who Cares?

October 5, 2015

An open letter to musicians and orchestras

The MacArthur grants were announced this morning. There is not one musician (performer or composer) among the 24 recipients. Surely, then, music must have lost its relevancy, right? The arts, and especially music, have been on a decade-long quest for relevancy. This national mandate is older than the iPhone. And what are our results, beyond splashy self-congratulatory pieces? Have we broadened our audiences significantly? Maybe we haven’t tried hard enough. Or maybe there is a fundamental flaw in our panacea.

In the West, the arts have thrived on diverse response rather than socialist-realist national agendas. How irrelevant is music? After all, when a national or local tragedy or happiness occurs, we turn to music, and often symphonic music, to bring more humanity to our lives. Four months ago, a board member of the Bay Atlantic Symphony, of which I am Music Director, told me she sat next to a student in the performing arts center of Stockton University during our performance. The student was crying. Our board member, without stating her relationship to the orchestra, asked if the student was OK. She replied, “the music is just so beautiful.” We were playing Debussy.

Relevance, to be sure, somehow remains a popular notion these days, especially in matters of culture. The arts seem to have moved away from past watchwords such as “cutting-edge,” “avant-garde,” or even “new” or “fresh,” or (dare we even say?) “powerful” or “beautiful.” We in the classical music world are tasked now with “making music relevant for current and future audiences.” This phrase, in fact, appears in virtually every job description for music director searches, and has for at least ten years. Certainly nobody—least of all a performer—wants to be irrelevant. The art-world is striving for relevance as a prevalent value, and it seems all conductors (in addition to being consummate musicians, masterful technicians, savvy business minds, powerful communicators, and ambassadors in the community) are expected to make music relevant. Even universities have jumped into the fray (“Career U: Making College ‘Relevant,’” New York Times, 1/3/2010), eliminating departments and courses in classics and philosophy for more vocational, and therefore “relevant” offerings. For these reasons, I find myself motivated to consider what we mean by relevance and whether it actually suits our art and its evolution.

For starters, I find the goal of relevancy a paltry one. What composer or other creative artist ever hoped to write a piece that was “relevant”? Earth-shaking, powerful, searing perhaps, sublime even, are visions that have driven composers painters, novelists, playwrights, actors, and dancers have through the generations. In a less overtly philosophic vein, other ideals could be embodied by the voluptuous, sexy, humorous, or urbane. But relevant? No composer or arts institution in the past has limited themselves to simply begging for a place at the table and be granted license to speak. We aim for mind-smashing, wordlessly sublime, not just witty or topical enough to get mention in the weekly column for splash. The founders of arts institutions (symphonies, opera companies, and museums) expect these to be the focal points of urban or regional life. Wouldn’t we rather be vital than merely relevant? By setting a goal so low, we ensure a meager result.[1]

The word appears to derive from something being “raised up” or perhaps placed in relief, so it is at core an artistic, even sculptural, term. And in that sense, what person involved in a cultural pursuit doesn’t seek a singularity of experience, something that rises above the ordinary, the baseline? As a conductor I do believe every performance should strive to be as compelling as possible, and that the music performed should be experienced in full relief. For that matter, the entirety of the experience in the hall should stand above our more commonplace experiences of the day, week, or month.

Relevance as an ideal could justifiably convey an aura of transcendent power, nuance, contour, peaks and valleys of emotion, intellectual force and so on. Great performers in any genre would subscribe to that ideal as just discussed—and have for centuries struggled with their insufficiencies and demons to try to achieve those goals over a lifetime. But because those goals are time-tested and seem axiomatic, I doubt this notion is what is implied by the recent ascendancy of “relevance” as a kind of cure-all the art-world has gulped down as though it were the latest health-craze supplement.

It seems, on the contrary, that today’s term means something different: something flashier or seemingly more topical. If relief, the notable contours of something, is good, isn’t more of a good thing even better? The greatest contrast in dynamics and in tempos, the splashiest visuals—wow! Yet, a performance that banks on extremes of volume and speed often yields results that are emotionally simplistic and flat. In contrast, I believe that for the work to speak as profoundly, as fully, in as nuanced a way as possible, it must be performed with freshness and conviction, even edge and risk, but not with exaggeration for effect’s sake. In distortion, the essence of that work—and if the work is truly great, it will have a palpable essence—is overshadowed by the histrionic. Yet it is precisely these kinds of “hip” ventures that are often chalked up as fresh, according to the pundits, and appealing to today’s middle-agers (with kids!—the audience of tomorrow!) who were steeped in heavy metal.

Let’s return to our assignment: “making music relevant.” This mandate of course implies that currently, symphonic music is not. When and how did it cease to be? By what metric has it been determined not to be relevant? Now I think we may be getting close to the impetus for the word’s recent ubiquity. If attendance is dwindling, then, it would seem to follow, the experience of concert-going must not be as relevant today. Not topical. Of course, the caveats are well known: competing custom-tailored, immediate experience via the web, shortened hours for free time, and suburban sprawl are real factors for audience decline. Let’s face it, goes the logic, the economics of the art-world are fierce, so music must “be made relevant,” as measured by the marketplace.[2]

In other words, really, relevant is a nice way of saying “sellable.” Yet, relevance and marketability are not in the least interchangeable. In the recent National Endowment for the Arts/Census Bureau survey, live sports events and movies both lost a higher percentage of audience than live music, yet nobody is questioning whether the NFL or Hollywood are still relevant. Perhaps because downloads and television broadcasts are more profitable, than ever, relevance hasn’t been raised for those commercial enterprises. While a large percentage (18% and second place behind Latino music) of the American people consume classical music in a digital format, those activities are not particularly lucrative. We therefore question live performance’s relevance. Even after the market collapse of 2008, we as a people and civilization have allowed the voracious, almighty, and capriciously punitive market to set our parameters, to ascribe our values, define our terms. Our preconceptions about the market now set our cultural dialogue, limiting its range, potential, and content.

I propose that we should be honest and clear-visioned about what we are saying and not confuse our terms. As we will see, obfuscating our terminology creates a muddled purpose. And when there is a failure of clarity, a crisis of nerve and spirit can often result. Such a recipe is artistically fatal.

By using the euphemism, “relevance,” or for that matter “accessibility” (last decade’s term) instead of what we really mean, “market success,” we are making our task harder. We enfeeble the art far more than if we are direct about what we mean. Only by being direct can we openly explore and evaluate the relative worth of our options to solve explicit issues. Music may not be as sellable and the tickets not as remunerative as we want. That state of affairs needs to be addressed, honestly. However, irrelevancy is what we are being asked to correct. Yet the music is only assumed to have lost its relevance because its market share isn’t sufficient to make it profitable. There are clear historic reasons for orchestral music’s “lack of profitability,” including the fact that industrial and philanthropic America (especially the Ford Foundation) actually underwrote the symphony orchestra’s expansion as a 50-week a year enterprise. The cold war was a driving force: American orchestras and the Met (Texaco) would be competitive with government-sponsored Soviet artistic endeavors. It seems rather curious that the symphony orchestra seemed hyper-relevant between 1950 and 1989, and then mysteriously the underwriting just unhooked in the last 20 years.[3] However, if the art form’s relevance (rather than profitability) is really in jeopardy, doesn’t it seem odd that there are more performances and performing groups than ever in our history?

So if what people really mean by “relevance” is market viability, what can the art-world do to sustain itself and even become economically sufficient enough to take artistic chances? After all, such risk ultimately leads to relevance long-term and to a strong cultural dialogue that advances our society along a vibrant path. That is a great topic that I will try at least touch upon here. We must re-examine notions about marketing (niche-marketing, separate subscription series options, subscription-based selling in general) and how we present ourselves. Marketing strategies from our recently fizzled hyper-market-driven era are ideas transferred from the commercial product universe. The urgency with which those ideas were implemented is now about 25 years old in the arts. And, throughout the era of the product-driven approach to attract audiences, despite ever increasing dollars spent and re-designed formats, market share, to use the lingo, was lost.

We found ourselves in bed with a corporate model we fell gaga over in the last decades, only to discover the night’s frenzy didn’t look so attractive in the morning. So what would happen if we cooled that relationship down a bit? Let’s remove words like “product” from the conversation when we really honestly do mean “art.” Returning to a notion of music as cultural rather than corporate activity may at least free us up in our investigating real solutions, without trendy quick-fix options.

In footnote 2, when discussing the history of attempts to redesign the American orchestra, I stated that both the Arts-side (how we make music in the most pure, inspired ways, unencumbered by budgets) and the Institution-side each need to be focused, both independently and still cooperatively, on creative dialogue with our rapidly changing world. Each of those areas are far too big to address in a paper of this scope. Instead, I will give some suggestions in an arena of profound overlap for Arts/Institutions: our communications with our audiences and supporters. How different, really, is the artistic word “expression” (literally pushing out, or, “outreach”) and “public relations”?[4] Their roots mean essentially the same thing.

For instance, without being cynical or even particularly Wall Street, we can be thoroughly innovative in reconnecting with audiences via new technologies. In this case, I think high-tech and high-touch can meet. They are no longer in opposition, quite the opposite. Social networking—rather than techno-glitz in the concert hall—is palpable way of bringing audiences and artists together in lively chat, and, at times even meaningful chat at that. We need to figure out ways for the potency of great music to reach audiences that admittedly bond, socialize, recreate, and rejuvenate with technologies unforeseen in the era when the symphony orchestra was born.

Let’s examine the well-established practice of the pre-concert lecture, as a kind of cross-section sketch, or exploded diagram for our relationship to our audience and our communities. Why, for instance, don’t we have enthusiastic lay-people sharing the stage of the pre-concert discussion with an expert? With these varying vantage points and experiences, wisdom about the works is shared and brought home in a way that connects with people. George Szell said in music we must feel with the mind and think with the heart. Perhaps bringing in a lay enthusiast allows the expert to feel more with the mind, and encourages the other lay-people to think with their heart. Szell was also fond of telling a joke about how everyone, when they die, ascends a staircase with a sign “to heaven,” except Americans. We all go up a stairway with a sign “to a lecture on heaven.” But why must the lecture be so removed from the joys and explorations of the concert experience? Why can’t the conversation on heaven (the concert) contain some of the heavenly aroma? Why should there be separate staircases? Stravinsky has an apt line about how we have all been taught to appreciate music too much, and to love it too little.

As a performer, when I give such talks before taking the stage, I increasingly like to share what I am going through as I am about to lead the performance. The talk becomes akin to having a movie director discuss what was relevant (if I may use the word) to him or her in exploring a script and making artistic decisions. I do not veer away from problematic or thorny questions I have encountered with the piece. By sharing these peculiarities, I find the audience becomes hooked in. They often will come back after the performance to comment on those very points. In other words, a little less posturing from the “musical experts” and a little more open (and heavy hitting) discussion brings the audience into our process. If, as performers, the music is relevant to us, and we share that process, the music will likely have real relevance to the audience. When, however, we only show people what they should be hearing in the music, if, by chance, they hear something different, and maybe equally as wonderful (or more so?) they could walk away thinking the music didn’t speak to them. What an unnecessary tragedy.

I believe that great new music and great time-honored music are as relevant as ever, because the human soul requires singular experiences. If we disbelieve this premise, then we start propping up, “helping” pieces that require instead a powerful advocate and in-depth an immediate interpretation from our performers, and ways to let our listeners know about it. When we discredit the fundamental power of great music in performance, we also inadvertently shift our priorities on whom we hire based upon anything other than strength of the artistry and conviction of a vision that must both take chances and still shun cheap effect. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.” Wilde’s quip is not anti-modern at all, but rather very succinctly shows how fads are anti-relevant in the long term, and trivializing in the short.

To me, relevance is a quality, like innocence. Some works have it, some performances have it. As a performer, I cannot make music relevant any more than a defense lawyer can make the client innocent. I can work to uncover what is so singular, “in-relief” about a work, for me, at that moment. If my artistic sensibilities and capabilities are hot and firing smoothly, it will be relevant. I can commission works from composers whose music I believe is vital, and who aware of our current musical milieu. But it is for a composer to write something that is relevant—and perhaps even timeless[5]. In this sense, I as a conductor can strive for relevancy the way all performers, over the millennia, have striven to share something bigger than themselves with audiences and touch on something that, in its powerful specificity reaches the universal. Embracing a fad is, in fact, the opposite of exploring innate relevancy. Instead, let’s remind ourselves daily that art functions by connecting each individual soul to something greater, in a shared environment that creates a mysterious bond for all in the concert hall. The more we distract ourselves from that central purpose, the more we weaken our bond to the audience members, and then, yes, we do lose relevancy.

So let’s reconsider that audiences are made up of members, not blocs or demographics. And let’s remember that those individuals can, in the best situations, nonetheless form a unified body communally engaged in the transcendent. Let’s build that bond by being—really being—with our audience members. Let’s talk with them—not in pre-concert lectures that tell everyone what they must hear, but by exploring the art together, in conversation that shows we, as “experts,” are also on a journey with that piece and with those juxtapositions of works that make a program. And let’s really be with our audiences by listening to them, not so they can tell us what music to play, but so we know why they come to concerts, and what in life is important to them. Then we can be more in-tune with our Zeitgeist, and more responsive, rather than reactive, to our communities.

And let’s hire and promote performers and composers because their art moves people, and—yes—because they connect with people about that art and in human ways, too. But above all, sure, let’s consecrate our art to relevancy—to bringing what is ineffable to the fore, with authenticity, with conviction, with rigor, and with humor, grace, and openness of spirit. Anything distracting to that quest is superfluous—in other words, not relevant.

[1] Do you bend low, you millions. Are you [truly] considering the Creator? Seek him over the starry canopy (Schiller, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony)

[2] Philosopher Richard Blum mentioned to me in a conversation on this topic that relevance was the mantra in his native West Germany’s (Munich’s) philosophical world of the socialist-prone late 60’s. It is curious, ironic, and should give us pause that our hyper-capitalist culture has come full-circle to the same mass-appeal cultural assumptions as socialist realism, in order to get tushies in the tier.

[3] Various thoughtful attempts have been made since the 60’s to re-imagine the American Orchestra. In the 60’s and 80’s the thrust was almost strictly economic, where the 60’s took a liberal grant-funding emphasis, and the 80’s a more corporate retrenchment and a procrustean efficiency model that we are still dealing with (see S. Fred Starr’s “Symphony Orchestras: How did we get here? Where are we going?” Symphony Orchestra Institute; October, 1997). The 90’s put a new appropriate emphasis back on the art, but with such a diametric reaction that I believe a flexible business modeling and informed economic creativity were unfortunately given too little consideration. Certainly economic viability (the 60’s and 80’s) and artistic viability (the 90’s) are both crucial, and of course, overlap. However, in my opinion, they can not be combined in a single-pronged thrust, as each of the three of the previous eras’ efforts have done, with each era doing injury to one or the other side of the Arts/Institution equation. Both sides—the Art (side one) Institutions (side two)—equally need development, creativity, flexibility, and separate, if still mutually considered, cultivation. It could be that “relevancy” started as a 1990’s visioning term for intensifying the experience, but that the term inverted to mean “mass appeal” because there wasn’t enough of a solid and creative business schematic to support and flesh out the vision.

[4] What a difference writing out “public relations” has in comparison with the menacingly ever-present abbreviation “PR.” “PR” carries connotations of glossy brochures, and audience as viewed spectrally. Abbreviations, like most all shortcuts, are dangerous.

[5] For me, something maybe topically relevant. If it is relevant to the human condition it is timeless. Sometimes, works can be both.