Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.

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Friday, November 11, 2005
Book 'em, Danno: A Look At Composer Biographies as PR

I'm not quite ready to comment on our pal Greg Sandow's book yet -- I'm waiting until we get to some of the real meat, although he's off to a good start -- but last Sunday the New York Times Review of Books published his review of Edmund Morris's new Beethoven biography. Greg's thesis is that "classical music is slipping out of our serious intellectual culture," which is clearly true, and that biographies of composers intended for a general audience of “literate and cultured readers" too often fail to meet the needs of those readers because the author doesn't know how to deal with the fact that "literate and cultured" no longer implies even a basic knowledge of classical music. Greg’s review was brought up on a Classical Music e-mail discussion list I read, and several commenters made the interesting extrapolation that if some of these composer biographies were really good and really did meet the needs of the intended audience they might be very popular and might help reverse the decline of classical music in the public consciousness, much like how, for instance, Brian Green's book _The_Elegant_Universe_ was a blockbuster success on the subject of String Theory and other elements of theoretical physics. One might well think of Milton Babbitt’s famous comparison in “Who Cares If You Listen: The Composer as Specialist” between academic composition and advanced science and wonder “If Brian Green and Stephen Hawking can bring advanced science to the masses, couldn’t equally well executed books on Classical Music do the same thing?” I think this suggestion is very compelling, although ultimately incorrect in some very interesting ways.

The first problem that better books would face is the fact that for the modern public information is entertainment. Certainly people go to school and study hard to learn information that they need to know for their chosen profession and to cover their distribution requirements, but aside from that they mostly learn about things that already interest them. (For evidence of the dominance of entertainment value we need look no further than the recent evolution of the news media). Thus the public consumption of media is driven by taste and the search for entertainment value, and the market ensures that information sellers (i.e. the Mainstream Media) produce and market only information that they believe the public will find entertaining (Hence the broadcast of political foodfights in place of solid political analysis even at the price of an ill-informed public). I will return to this issue later, but first let's consider a couple of examples that illustrate the second problem.

For non-specialists interested in theoretical physics, the primary access is through books written for a general audience, because the primary means of transmitting established scientific knowledge is the written word. Theoretical physics (especially the weird stuff like quantum mechanics and string theory) is considered cool and interesting by society, so Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene are highly successful.

Similarly, for non-specialists interested in history, there are two primary access points -- books, and documentary movies and TV shows. Books are better for in-depth analysis and detailed storytelling, and video is better for presenting historical footage, dramatizations, and images of artifacts, and for providing more bite-sized chunks of information. History (especially certain periods and figures) is considered cool and interesting by society, so David McCullough and The History Channel are highly successful.

For non-specialists interested in music, however, the primary access points are concerts, and recordings (one might reasonably argue that sheet music for amateur musicians should also be on that list). Biographies of musicians and histories of musical historical periods are a distant second, since the main reason to be interested in Beethoven, to use the current example, is a love for the music. Additionally, people have a limited amount of time and other resources to devote to leisure pursuits, and listening to music crowds out reading about music even among Classical Music fans. This isn't to say that a blockbuster composer biography can't or won't happen, or that such a success would be anything other than great for Classical Music -- but a blockbuster composer bio would certainly be an anomaly, and I doubt we'll ever see the kind of robust, blockbuster driven industry that other fields have. My impression is that even biographies of major pop music figures rarely reach blockbuster status (if anybody has any hard data that would be useful), and if I'm right that supports my analysis of the relative importance of books in music versus in other subjects. Furthermore, since Classical Music is substantially less popular that popular music, the non-specialist fanbase that would provide the fraction of fans who actually would read the popular biographies is too small to support the industry.

The problem remains, however, that "classical music is slipping out of our serious intellectual culture," and if a lack of good books is primarily a symptom, we're left to wonder what the cause is. I think the suggestion that better books would increase interest is mistaken, but it's pointed in the right direction: the Classical Music PR machine is broken. Classical music, in contrast to history and theoretical physics, is _not_ considered cool and interesting by society -- on the contrary it's perceived variously as boring, "soothing" (in that good-for-background-music-but-not-much-else kind of way), old, for old people, elitist, and made by and for an elitist cultural upper class that looks down on popular culture. These days, information is entertainment, and as a result of the above stereotype the public doesn't see Classical Music as entertaining. Some Classical Music advocates take the elitist position (reinforcing the stereotype) that even if you don't find Classical Music entertaining you still need to know about it because it's Important -- but the public doesn't care about that argument any more so it falls flat. The mainstream media, marketing itself as entertainment and run by people who have also bought into the stereotype, reinforces and perpetuates the stereotype -- most media don't really cover Classical Music any more, and when it does it tends to force the story into the boring/elitist narrative. The great biographies that we all want to see and the good biographies that exist, both of which would discredit the stereotype, never make it into the public consciousness because they aren't covered, and even if they were covered not many people would read them for the reasons I listed above. Getting people to write good books would be great, but getting the Media to provide good coverage of the Classical Music scene, where "good" is defined as simultaneously entertaining and positive, is where the real effort needs to be exerted.

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