I started writing this over a month ago, then got distracted. Returning to it this week, I realized that I wasn't heading anywhere profound or original, but I went ahead and finished it anyway. If you're interested in "classical" music and our society's often shaky relationship with it, you might want to read both the original post and my response.
Rob Deemer is a contemporary American composer. Recently he wrote a piece for the New York Times that puts his life experiences in that most unusual of professions under the magnifying glass. It is well worth reading.
Toward the end, he sums up his predicament in three poignant sentences, which echo themes I've heard repeated and developed extensively in my field:
"One has to remember that composers are working in a field that emphasizes a limited and established repertory of historical works and in many areas lacks even the limited balance between old and new that the other arts are much better at promoting. They are also fighting a decades-old stereotype that assumes that all 'new music' will be aurally dissonant, conceptually confounding, and, most of all, frustrating to experience. These hurdles have accumulated over time to the point where an entire generation of composers is almost unknown to many professional musicians and audiences throughout the country."
I can confirm a lot of this from personal experience. When I started teaching at a state university in the early 80s (this was before the dry spell I wrote about in a recent post), most of my music majors - to say nothing of the non-majors I taught in "music appreciation" - profoundly hated 20th-century classical music. Their contempt for Arnold Schoenberg, in particular, dripped from their essays and comments in class.
By now, eleven years into the new century, that is changing. I still have quite a few students who have trouble with anything written after 1900, but the interest in hearing and performing contemporary classical music among Baylor students probably exceeds that which I encountered at Oberlin (always a non-conformist kind of place) as an undergraduate in the 70s. At least among the limited number of people who care about such things, "new music" is coming back to life in exciting ways.
The broader problem still remains, though. As Deemer suggests, not many people in what he regrettably calls the "lay public" could name a single important classical composer active in this country today. The same would not be true if I had written "important artist" or "important writer" in the previous sentence. The conclusion that today's classical composers just aren't that important is hard to avoid. After all, to be important, you have to be heard, and to be heard, you have to be noticed - noticed, that is, by someone outside of the small world to which classical musicians now belong.
Hence the problematic nature of the term "lay audience." As one of the comments on Deemer's article notes, this term plays into all the stereotypes that someone interested in the health of classical music might hope to avoid. The alternative to "lay," of course, is "clergy." Whenever the lay audience is invoked, the subtext is one in which classical musicians are performing a sacred rite and are perhaps obscured behind a symbolic altar. It doesn't help that many concert halls are still built to resemble churches, and that the stage is normally elevated so as to minimize contact between performers and congregants. People come to such surroundings to be edified by music that is comforting and familiar.
This point can be illustrated through the much-noted "film score paradox." Movie audiences with minimal musical training will accept - even welcome - a level of dissonance and other forms of musical modernism in a movie sound track that sophisticated concert audiences might find it hard to tolerate. What I think Deemer and others who share his concerns should conclude from this is that music doesn't work as a hairshirt. People who come to a concert expecting a religious experience want the compensation of beauty without having to confront the shock of the new.
So let's forget about speaking to the lay audience and accept the fact that music is often expected to be a form of story-telling. Many great composers have embraced this expectation, and only a few have fought against it. I don't doubt that Deemer would be more than happy to embrace it as well. First, though, that lay audience needs to come out of the trance and acknowledge that music can shock us, fill us with horror or at least genuine surprise, and also make us want to get up and dance before the Lord with all our might. The audiences for those other arts that Deemer mentions are certainly not afraid of these things. Why should concert audiences fear them?
Poscscript- Maybe they don't. When I was younger, I used to think that the audience for classical music was dying out. My evidence was the fact that when I went to concerts, the audience consisted mostly of people over 40 and college students. As the older people continued to age, I was afraid the college students wouldn't be able to keep up.
Now that I'm in my 50s, I note that audiences at classical concerts still seem to consist of people over 40 and college students. The audience isn't dying out. People just seem to want to hear classical music more when they're over 40. Now, though, the over-40s are baby boomers like me. Many of us grew up expecting to hear music in a more, shall we say, relaxed ambience. As we've gotten older, some of us have embraced music different from what we used to enjoy. Those 60s sound tracks, though, are still playing in our heads. Write for us, Rob.