CDOut my (Seattle) way, local composer and Seattle Weekly columnist Gavin Borchert this week offered up something titled “Small Apologies“. A few excerpts:

Not that I have anything against Tony Bennett or Norah Jones or any of the other recording artists whose work is propped up next to the biscotti, but I was wondering when Starbucks would get around to classical music. At last they have, a CD starring the home team: The Seattle Symphony and Starbucks Entertainment have announced their co-release of Echoes, containing newly commissioned works (!) from six composers [Bright Sheng, John Harbison, David Schiff, David Stock, Samuel Jones, Gerard Schwarz, with an older piece by Aaron Kernis], each one asked to somehow rework an older piece he (and they’re all “he”s) loved. As an opportunity for time-travel collaboration, a meeting of musical minds from different cultures and eras, it’s a great idea; as a concession to conservative classical fans who can’t take their new music straight, it’s dismaying. [….]

The fact that Starbucks and the SSO are giving seven living composers exposure is exemplary. What bothers me is the philosophy that seems to underlie the project, one endemic to the classical music business as a whole these days. Composers and performers alike so often present new work, whether strong or weak, innovative or comfy, timid or bold, with a tentative sort of hat-in-hand stance—emphasizing, above any other virtue the music might have, that it won’t be scary. Constant reassurance, even apology, is the tone, in media coverage, program notes, PR material, casting musicians as supplicants and listeners as 3-year-olds who have to be coaxed to finish their beets. [….]

There is an untapped audience for new classical music, but reaching them, I believe, will require a new approach. They’re the people who aren’t averse to classical music, who are interested in the arts in general, but who need a reason to give their time and money to us rather than everything else competing for their attention in our hypersaturated culture. Suppose the wheedling and cajoling with which we serve up music is turning them off. These people aren’t going to attend classical concerts or buy CDs unless they think they’re going to hear something they can get excited about. I don’t mean merely not offended, I mean actively thrilled. Which means, for heaven’s sake, we ought to start talking about something other than nonscariness, ought to start pushing aesthetic virtues other than accessibility.

The floor’s open…

21 thoughts on “Contemporary Grande Frappucinos”
  1. “Why did he do that track with an acoustic bass?”
    You hit it, there. Real passion means also such a passion for perfection that you lament the misturns, that you aren’t afraid to say what’s wrong with people’s music. You can do that in Bluegrass forums. But the new-classical world is so reliant on others that we’re all afraid to diss anyone else’s music. And if you can’t hate, you can’t love.

    check out for a bit on an 1886 Wagner bootleg, and how unimaginable that would be today

  2. Thanks for explaining my shit, Alex! 😉

    I think at a certain point, we’ve become so accustomed to being disliked, so accustomed to accepting the fact that it’s the audience’s fault that our music isn’t adored that we’ve stopped questioning why more people don’t love our music. Why is our audience so small? Why do we have to advertise to people that ‘yo my music is accessible’. It’s just weird.

    We ignore or react with hostility reactions to our music that are not obviously reflective of the academy’s rationalizations of the historical progressivist model of our musical canon. And as long as we have this ‘protected space’ of ‘we write what we have to and it’s accepted that we won’t be liked because our audience doesn’t know better’ I think our musical culture dies.

    We are not engaged with a living musical culture that responds with passion. We live in a cold, heartless careerist driven world that itself can barely get excited about new music. When was the last time we saw, here at S21 anybody say, ‘This record is the most unbelievably great record I’ve heard in ages.’ Where is the passion? The fanaticism? The undying adoration that music from living cultures engenders? It just ain’t there. This is highly unusual for an art community. The heat is generated more by formal discussions here than music itself!

    When I used to participate in electronic music BBS’s and forums and a new record by a big name came out, say Squarepusher, the ongoing debates would be endless. ‘What’s happened to him?’ Is this the greatest SP record evah? Why did he do that track with an acoustic bass?’

    It was endless and fascinating and indicative of passion. It would be ferocious. We see these same types of fanatical devotion in classical music forums, bluegrass forums, but in new music we have zilch. That is also weird.

    In large part, I believe, this refusal to engage the listening public because only WE know what is right is contributing to the incredible stylistic stagnation we’re witnessing right now. Dudes writing the same shit over and over that their teacher did and now that their teacher’s teacher did. We have witnessed practically zero stylistic innovations since minimalism in large part, I believe because of our musical separatism.

  3. Comments appreciated , Frank H. … And there’s nothing “just” about being a listener; You’re just as much who we’re aiming for as any composer. No fear about us going off your radar, either. I’m signed on at eMusic, too, and I can tell you that you can find all of these Sequenza21-ers music hanging out there:

    Alex Shapiro (& Belinda Reynolds from over at NewMusicBox):

    Beth Anderson:

    Mary Jane Leach:

    Lawrence Dillon:

    Tom Myron:

    And of course me, myself and I, on a CD that also includes a great piece by Jeff Harrington as well:

  4. I’m “just” a listener, and a relatively uneducated one at that, but I can’t resist commenting, for better or worse:

    Re Alex Shapiro’s frustration about terminology: As an outsider this is frustrating to me as well. Even non-negative terms like “contemporary classical”, “new music”, and so on, are pretty much useless to me in terms of telling me anything about whether I’d be interested in hearing a particular work by a particular composer. Contrast this with (say) popular electronic music, where there’s endless inventiveness in coming up with new terms to identify new styles (see for example “Ishkur’s guide to electronic music” ), and where most such terms (e.g., “techno”, “trance”, “glitch”, etc.) are at least generally evocative of what the music sounds like.

    Re the “accessible” question: “Accessible” is a relative term, not an absolute one, depending as it does on the background a listener is bringing to a work. I don’t want composers to try to appeal to some imagined lowest common denominator audience (whether Starbucks customers or whatever); they should write the music they want to write. However at the same time very little music is truly sui generis, and there’s no question that I and others can better appreciate music that has points of resemblance to things we’ve already learned to like. I’d therefore appreciate composers and critics pointing out affinities between new works and existing works, especially existing works that are “popular” (if only in the restricted sense of not being perceived to be part of “high culture”.) If you think that your instrumental works would appeal to fans of (say) Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky or that your art songs might be of interest to Bjork fans, don’t be afraid to say so.

    A final comment in terms of “marketing”: As I was commenting on Kyle Gann’s blog a little while back, it’s nice that composers now have their own web pages and make MP3s available (and I appreciate “Steve’s click picks” and other attempts to highlight them), but at the same time people with limited time (like me) prefer to get music through a correspondingly limited set of channels (in my case, eMusic). So I think it’s important that composers still work to put out formal releases of their works in formats suitable for distribution through services like eMusic, the iTunes Store, etc. (eMusic in particular has a critical mass of subscribers with relatively esoteric tastes.)
    Maybe someday applications like Songbird will make it dead easy to treat the “music web” as a unified virtual music store, but for now I at least find commercial digital music services much more convenient, and anything not available from such services is pretty much off my radar.

  5. And in the case of several film composers I can think of, if Starbucks had them compile a disc of music that inspired them, well, you’d be getting almost their exact film score note for note! 🙂

  6. “Van Twee” wrote: They’ve released a number of discs along the lines of ‘Joni Mitchell presents music that’s inspired her.’ Taking the same approach to classical music should probably not be so offensive to classical lovers.

    Now that would make a nice disc: a compilation of other people’s music that personally inspire(d)s Reich, or Adams, Glass, etc. etc… Hell, even one from John Williams might be interesting to me (& definitely more so than one of his own stuff!).

  7. In defense of Starbucks(!): this is the strategy behind their pop releases as well. They’ve released a number of discs along the lines of ‘Joni Mitchell presents music that’s inspired her.’ Taking the same approach to classical music should probably not be so offensive to classical lovers.

    Of course, if you’re still insulted, or if you’d rather patronize the independent record shops and cafes that get cut out of an “exclusive” deal like this, I should point out that Starbucks is a really easy place to shoplift.

  8. I mean, ok, I’m a woo-woo kinda gal from the beach in sunny southern California, so admittedly, my UV-drenched brain is programmed to have a shiny, positive outlook on things.

    Alex, that remark makes my day—thanks!

  9. As for the spam flags– must be all this talk about shit, Toub! Ha ha.

    Okay, so departing for a moment from the scatological (actually, I had interpreted Jeff’s use of the word not as the “crap” meaning, but as the “stuff” meaning), I agree with Gavin Borchert’s essay. We, the music-makers, seemed to be enslaved by our negative thinking. Jeff is right when he says that the issue is with our music and not with the audience, and David is right when he says yup, that’s why composers write what they want to hear without counting on an audience to appreciate it. Both views are simultaneously true. And that’s why for the most part, concert music is not called “popular” music. Duh.

    But for me, the biggest frustration with all of this is that we– the creators of the stuff/shit/etc.– keep insisting on defining it by what it isn’t, rather than by what it is. It doesn’t necessarily have a beat. It doesn’t necessarily have a tonality. It doesn’t necessarily make you want to dance or screw. It doesn’t scare people away. It doesn’t attract throngs of fans. It’s not popular music. Blah, blah, blah. Even my friend Dennis Bathory-Kitsz’s coined phrase, “non-pop” music, defines what we compose by what it is not.

    The very people who have the power to change public perception– those on all sides of the music business– persist in this demented Rorschach test whereupon the negatives are as readily seen as the positives. This aligns with my disgust at slapping the starter phrase “neo-” on to so many new pieces of music. In both cases, the reason we describe things by what they are not, or describe things by what they sort of sound like from the past, is because we do not yet have words for what they are. It is not because of the music, but because of our language limitations when it comes to describing something intangible, like music that is brand new. We lack the terminology. So did Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music when the composers of those periods were working. What the hell did Bach, Beethoven or Brahms say to their colleagues and audiences when describing their music?? What catchy, negative phrases did their critics use to put those new and as yet undefinable sounds into a neat category? The inside-joke SNL skit possibilities are endless.

    I agree with Hanlon’s comment above. Enough with the friggin’ negatives!! I mean, ok, I’m a woo-woo kinda gal from the beach in sunny southern California, so admittedly, my UV-drenched brain is programmed to have a shiny, positive outlook on things. Hard to believe I was raised in Manhattan. My key to the executive turnstile at the 96th street IRT station was revoked long ago. Here in La La land, we’re all about affirmations, positive thinking, self-actualization, empowerment and vision statements. Hey, anyone seen “The Secret,” or “What the Bleep Do We Know?”? The way to be happy and successful is to envision what you want and what you already have, rather than to focus on what you don’t want. We attract what we say and think. And in the case of our negatively described music, we get what we attract. Let’s begin to change our music world by changing our language. That’s the place to start.

  10. Let me put it another way: nobody loves anything because it’s accessible, pop or not. It’s like saying “I really like this book because it’s in English and the words aren’t too big.” Those qualities might be important to those who fear French and polysyllables, but wouldn’t inspire love.

    Touting a work’s accesability is essentially negative. It says that there are classical works out there that are scary and forbidding. It affirms the potential listener’s fear of encountering these things. The accessible work in question has the virtue of being “not scary.” That’s not very descriptive of the piece, and bad for the rest of the musical community. Starbucks aside, Borchert is quite right in this.

    Far better to describe the positive aspects of the work. I do like Steve Reich, but not because he’s accessible but because of his rhythms, the group interplay, the textural counterpoint and so on. Were I to market a Steve Reich concert, those sort of things are what I would emphasize, in much sexier terms. And with a healthy dose of “You don’t want to miss this!” instead of the “If you give it a chance, you might actually like it” message of the accessible.

  11. I went to the AWS performance of Verese at Miller back in the end of January. It was packed. And the audience loved it. (People were waiting in line for last minute tickets…) What melodies?

  12. what’s with the spam filter, BTW—each time I post a comment, it ends up flagged as spam and I have to go in as an admin to de-spam it. Never happened before this week. I’m not including URLs or any HTML tags that should cause my posts to be flagged as spam. Is someone trying to tell me something??? 😎

  13. My question is: is it all of us who write “shit?” Is it only some of us, and if so, on what basis is it “shit?” I mean, one man’s “shit” is another man’s…well, you get the idea. Postminimalist folk like me and Galen Brown write music that often has a definite beat, but may not have much melody, so is my music then only half a shit?

    I am absolutely crazy about both James Tenney’s Forms 1-4 and most of the Cage number pieces I’ve heard to date. None of these has any real rhythm or melody. Are these pieces, then, shit, and am I a shitty person for listening to them and liking them? I guess another question that comes to mind is: what isn’t “shit?”

    NP: Unisono Diviso by Stiebler. No melody, no rhythm. Definitely not shit, however.

  14. I’ve never heard a fan gush “I just love Beyonce, she’s so…accessible!!!”

    True, but a certain degree of accessibility is taken as a given in pop music. It’s unexpected in the classical bins – so you will hear non-composers say that about Glass, Bryars, Reich, etc…

    Of course on the flipside, that’s why you hear composers say they don’t like Glass, Bryars, Reich, etc…

  15. As many folks have posted here before, it is just to frown at marketing that lauds a music’s “accessibility.” I’ve never heard a fan gush “I just love Beyonce, she’s so…accessible!!!”

    All the same, while I agree with Borchert’s larger point, Starbucks is not the best starting point from which to make this criticism. What all the Starbucks artists have in common is that they make not-terribly-aggressive background music that is nice for gentle coffee drinking and paper reading, but the music might reward you with subtle pleasures if you choose to listen more closely. More simply put: Starbucks’s music brand is conservative, and it is valued for its conservatism. Disapointment that they don’t change their brand’s profile for the sake of new music seems a bit misplaced to me.

  16. “I’d rather write music that I love to listen to but is unpopular than write crap that a lot of people like but that isn’t what I want to write. It’s not that any of us are taking a Babbitt-like approach; we do care if people listen. But we also have to be honest and write what grabs us.”

    I was going to comment, but David said it for me.

  17. I guess the question is whether we write the “shit” we write in order to attract an audience, or (as I maintain) one can write “shit” that is honest and expresses something and over time, people catch on and like it. Reich once said (and I agree) that it is a very strange person who doesn’t want people to like his or her music. Let’s face it—we all want our stuff to be liked and to be performed. However, unless some attention is called to it, even the best “shit” will remain unheard. Just because you write great stuff doesn’t mean anyone is going to know about it without some sort of marketing. That doesn’t necessarily mean doing a serious PR campaign. Just distributing it on the Web for free, calling attention to it on MySpace or S21, etc. can do it. And if that’s not marketing, then I don’t know what is.

    We all end up marketing our music in some way, shape or form. I do agree that music that is devoid of any expression is not likely to attract a large audience. But is that the metric we use to value a piece of music? My metric is simple: do I like it or not. I could care less if a ton of other people like it, or if it’s “popular.” Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire is something I’ve loved since the early 80’s, and yet has no melody, no rhythm and no large following. The music of Scelsi also, in many cases, has no beat, little if any melody, etc. Yet a growing number of people are captivated by his music, myself included. And so and and so forth.

    If the masses don’t like the “shit” we write, then that’s life. If our music expresses what we want it to, then that’s all that matters, at least to me. I’d rather write music that I love to listen to but is unpopular than write crap that a lot of people like but that isn’t what I want to write. It’s not that any of us are taking a Babbitt-like approach; we do care if people listen. But we also have to be honest and write what grabs us. If there’s something there, then the audience will eventually come. Or not—but that’s not the primary thing of importance, at least to me. There will probably never be a large following for Scelsi, Young, Palestine, Partch and probably most new music composers. Even Glass and Reich have nothing on Coldplay or U2 in terms of audience size. And they have “beats” and “tunes,” so clearly having these features is no guarantee of attracting a large market of listeners.

    I would agree that the music should “sell” itself. In a perfect world, it would. But the reality is that some degree of marketing, even just getting Web sites to link to one’s music page, is still necessary otherwise no one will know about it. Otherwise, why blog, reblog and do all the things many of us do to get the word out?

  18. There just is no market for music that doesn’t have a beat or tunes. It’s just a fact… so how do you market new music that does have a bit of a beat and a tune like this CD? By telling your audience just that. And it comes out like marketing pablum – why? We don’t have an audience for this shit. We have the academy and that’s it.

    We adopt poses, manners, techniques that people hate and then we complain.

    Since we insist on continuing to write music that is in styles that nobody likes, somebody is going to have to prove that music in these styles can rock. Talking doesn’t do shit.

    Until that happens… until it’s proven to absolutely rock large groups of people… until people clamor to hear it – it’s hopeless to wring our hands and complain. When it happens it’ll be like a thunderclap. People won’t need to be marketed to. And don’t bother citing piece X and piece Y. We don’t have anything that excites audiences – anything – like rock music, classical music or practically any other genre. If we did, all the thousands of dollars we spend in audience building would be working. People, as in a story I heard told by Gubaidulina, would be tearing through brick walls to hear a premiere (true story from back in the 70’s – students locked out tore down a wall to hear one of her premieres).

    It’s us who have to prove our case! Not the audience. Audiences don’t have to prove shit. Music should be adored, obsessed over, manically disputed and acclaimed. It doesn’t need marketing if it really excites people.

    It is our music that is at fault. Not our marketing.

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