Outsider Art

3rd November 2013 | Concerts, Musings, Travel | 10 comments

DSC01293Here I am in conversation yesterday with Professor Mary Hunter in the Studzinski Recital Hall during the Klavierfest at Bowdoin College, Maine.

We were billed to talk to the audience about various issues to do with performing, but as many conversations do these days, it turned into a kind of ‘Whither classical music?’ discussion. It seemed appropriate to wonder what was happening to young audiences when we were in the heart of a college campus, but found ourselves addressing an audience largely made up of older people from the town. The fact that it was a Saturday morning may have had something to do with it, but all the same I was struck by the absence of students. What more can you do to reach out to them than make the effort to be right there in the middle of their campus, talking, teaching and playing?

Someone in the audience (I’d acknowledge him if I knew who he was) commented that pop music has now become The Establishment, with pop artists feted by presidents and prime ministers on both sides of the Atlantic. Classical music, he suggested, has already become almost a kind of ‘Outsider Art’. Paradoxically, this may even give it a new lease of life, because outsider art pursued with skill and dedication often attracts followers. We agreed that it might even be better for classical music to situate itself consciously at the margins rather than struggling to maintain some kind of position at the centre of the music world, where there is overwhelming competition – not least in the form of decibels. Someone else said they had asked some of their students what they didn’t like about classical music. ‘Too soft’, they said.  And yet it is not soft. It has every kind of tone colour the human hand can produce.

10 Comments

  1. Mary

    I have spent much of my professional life working with young people who declare, “I don’t like Classical Music”, apparently unaware that that is precisely what they are playing with me, week after week, year after year. The ‘trick’ as a teacher is to get them listening to and playing classical music without them noticing; then they come through teenage years able to enjoy both without any particular bias. But I’m talking about what we do in music lessons, of course, and getting them to commit time to going to classical concerts is quite another matter. The UK policy of orchestral outreach programmes is relatively successful with ‘Family Concerts’, but the cost of tickets and parking is quite a deterrent in the current financial climate. Big scale policies are hard to set up when The Arts face more and more cuts, so it is up to teachers and keen parents to stretch and educate younger ears – however slowly and surreptitiously!

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    • Susan Tomes

      It’s galling, though, when you realise that the cost of going to a classical concert is ‘too much’, but the much greater cost of going to a pop concert is gladly paid. I have been astonished lately on hearing people describe the ticket prices for pop concerts – comparable to opera, which is often criticised for being ‘unaffordable’.

      Reply
  2. Mary

    I agree. Many parents (and now, grandparents), who were brought up in the 1960s to think that classical music was ‘for toffs’ and not ordinary people, often display exactly this kind of perverse attitude to ticket costs.

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  3. violinist

    I find my (university-level) students are more open to commenting on and talking enthusiastically about contemporary classical music than the earlier works. Perhaps it’s because they can’t feel entirely comfortable forming an opinion on older, standard works — the 18th and 19th centuries are now viewed as very, very remote by most young people.

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  4. Mary Hunter

    The “outsider art” comment was made by Russ Rymer, a writer and journalist who is in residence at Bowdoin for this year, along with his partner Susan Faludi, the feminist writer.

    I think he’s right that classical music is a sort of outsider art these days, at least in the sense of being on the margins of most people’s consciousnesses, but I’m not sure that it could soon develop the kind of insurgent status that he imagines, because it has such a strong history of being the ultimate “insider” art. On the other hand if the increasing young-performer practices of playing in non-concert-hall venues, using flash-mob techniques and combining the canonic material with accessible and exciting new music are successful, who knows what could happen!

    Thanks again for visiting Bowdoin. We were honoured to have you and Bob here.

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  5. James

    But do musicians need to take some of the blame, too? My work has taken me to the sidelines of orchestral concerts and on occasion I’m shocked by the attitude that the players have. Many of them just want to get home as quickly as they can, cutting rehearsals (and even concerts) short. On one occasion the audience was clamoring for an encore but it was 9:28pm and the musicians couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) stay on stage after 9:30 without overtime being paid.
    I remember, on the other hand, a concert I went to in Germany last year. The orchestra played a magnificent encore (a beautiful suite by Bizet) and after finishing shook hands, hugged and stayed on stage chatting. I am certain that everybody who was in the audience will go to a classical music concert. It felt like we were part of a celebration, an important event, even like we were participating. Such a nice change from that grumpy orchestra.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      James, I’d be interested to know which orchestra it was that stayed on stage at the end of the concert in Germany, chatting and hugging. It doesn’t sound like any European orchestra I know, not even a German one. Could it have been one of the Venezuelan youth orchestras, who have a very different way of doing things? I agree it’s a charming way!

      I know what you mean about classical musicians having to take some of the blame. No doubt there’s some truth in this. At the same time, you might be surprised if you knew why some orchestral musicians seem grumpy and don’t like to extend concerts past the advertised programme. Maybe they have to drive themselves home to another city, as promptly as possible in order to be up and ready for a 10am rehearsal the following morning. In Britain especially there are tough schedules. The picture may be more complex than it seems.

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    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Mary. I looked up Mr Rymer and saw with some terror that he has made a special study of disappearing languages …. !

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  6. Ruth

    Wwhen on holiday in Vienna, I have seen the members of Concentus Musicus shake hands and chat after a concert but it has been a different story with the Vienna Philharmonic! However nice it is to think that the orchestra has really enjoyed performing, it is a job, they have homes or hotel rooms to go to and it isn’t the best paid profession on the planet. As long as the musicians shine when performing I shall settle for that. On the subject of youngeer audience members, in Edinburgh at concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, I notice that there is a much wider age range for the Sunday afternoon concerts and those where there is at least some 20th/21st century music in the program.

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  7. James B

    The orchestra I mentioned was the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra after they played Mozart, Strauss and Ravel at the Konzerthaus in Berlin.

    Reply

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