Classical music: Shutting down a comment thread

The comments on Tristan Bliss's 'unreview' of a 45th Parallel concert started to get out of hand

ArtsWatchers arriving today might notice that I’ve shut down the comments to Tristan Bliss’s “non-review” of a recent 45th Parallel concert.

That’s not unprecedented, but it’s not something I expected to do at all when ArtsWatch flickered into existence on July 1, 2011. ArtsWatch was supposed to be a place that encouraged debate and disagreement. It still is but not when the comments attack the writer or other commenters personally. I killed off several comments that went WAY beyond what I consider constructive argument, though I left a few I find pretty awful just so you can get a little flavor of what I’m talking about.

No, calling out the writer and challenging him to compose a piece for 45th Parallel if he has “the balls,” as one 45th Parallel musician did in the thread, really isn’t constructive. It IS kind of amusing, from the outside, especially when Bliss, a music composition student, picked up the gauntlet. But if you look at it from Bliss’s point of view—and I’m just imagining, I haven’t talked to him—it must be a little startling. 45th Parallel swims in the ocean he hopes to compose for, and the hostile reaction his “non-review” received must be giving him serious pause. I hope it makes him yet more resolved to push his ideas about how classical music can and should evolve in the 21st century, though I’d understand if he took his musical interests in an entirely different direction. At this point lemonade is still possible if Bliss composes a piece, 45th Parallel plays it, a new audience hears it, and we all rocket forward toward musical experiences richer than ever.

Michael Ancher, "Art critics, Study," Google Art Project

Michael Ancher, “Art critics, Study,” Google Art Project

Some commenters thought that Bliss’s post (which I didn’t edit, by the way) shouldn’t be a part of Oregon ArtsWatch at all. Let’s clear that one up right away. ArtsWatch gives arts writers a place to publish and provides a development process that we hope will help them down their paths as writers. We believe that those engaged writers can make the culture-shed we inhabit better—more responsive to change, more aware of the possibilities for the future, fairer, more inclusive, more democratic, and yes, even more musically astute. If Bliss continues to write for ArtsWatch—and I hope he does—watching his turns and shifts will be fascinating. One of the best descriptions of a critic I ever heard: A critic is someone whose education goes on in public. I love the open-endedness of this, the very opposite of the image of the close-minded critic we are used to seeing. Yes, Bliss has a home at ArtsWatch for as long as he wants it. Of course, you do, too! And so do the many writers who contribute to our classical music stream, each coming at things from a different perspective. That multiplicity is one of the things I’m happiest about on our site.

This is aside from what I think about the essay, which took a 45th Parallel concert as a jumping off point to talk about how classical music can become more exciting to Bliss’s generation than it is now. (He was a lot more passionate about it than that simple sentence is, which is why he got the reaction he did, I suspect.) I would love for a discussion about that topic to continue on the comments thread here. Not just assertions and certainly not insults. Real arguments.

  1. What responsibility does any classical music organization have to the music composed in its own time? What about its own geographical place?
  2. What responsibility to classical music in general does that organization have to cultivate its own future audience?
  3. What responsibility does it have to make it clear what it thinks is at stake in any given program it produces?

Those are the questions I thought about after reading the Bliss essay. And then I tried to imagine various schemes and mechanisms music groups might employ for various answers. Bliss suggested a few for those groups who do want to locate and attract new audiences. I would count 45th Parallel in that number, by the way, despite the reaction to the essay, and I know a little bit about how much energy the group has put into its education efforts. I thought the program in question was pretty progressive, actually, though I didn’t attend. Which is why I found their response to the post disconcerting, though maybe, after 38 years of working in the media, I’m more inured to negative comments than 45th Parallel is. If you accept the challenge to create experiences that a new generation of classical music fans will enjoy and embrace, then Bliss’s post is simply a data point to be considered in your problem-solving.

So, those questions. If you have thoughts about them you’d like to share, by all means! The comment thread rarely approached any of them, and if you’re really interested in the existence and evolution of music in the classical tradition, they are the ones that matter. Let ‘er rip!

41 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    I read a comment here a bit over an hour ago posted by “Jack” that has since evaporated. Curiously, did “Jack” request its removal?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      It simply wasn’t pertinent to the discussion and was gratuitously insulting, so it was removed.

      • bob priest says:

        Thanx for letting me/us know.
        I must say that i worry a bit about what might register to some as censorship. Perhaps this be a good time for a broad-spectrum statement of OAW comment policies?
        Oh, your 3 questions above are jolly good & i’ll give ’em a crack sometime soon!
        Avanti . . .

        • Sue Louis says:

          I’m interested in this issue Bob has pointed out, as well. Revisiting the other article after reading this one, I do believe that I saw maybe a dozen more comments yesterday – some pretty crazy, but nothing worth deleting – all gone today. Why were these deleted by the writer? By the editor? And what did these comments say?

          Given that comments here and on the other article were appealing for more editorial thoughtfulness, it seems unusual that the comments thread are so extensively edited while the contributing writer was not edited at all.

    • Nick says:

      Many comments have been deleted by the writer or editors, Bob.

  2. Joan Rogers says:

    A couple of things are coming to mind for me. One is that Mr. Bliss “review” of the 45P concert should have been a review of the concert, and if he wanted to write a piece about cultivating and capturing audiences for classical music, and about new music vs. standard repertoire, those opinions would have been better received (and his philosophy therefore better served) in a separate essay. The title of the piece did make it clear that it was a “non-review”–but…why? In my opinion, one of the things a writer learns to do is to gauge where one’s audience is, and engage or capture that audience. There is a place in all journalism for negative engagement, but this seemed like a curious place for it. That said, these would be my answers to your questions.

    1) No arts organization has any responsibility to anyone or anything or anywhere except their own vision of what they want to be. If a group called itself “New Music from the Northwest All the Time,” then sure, they’d be setting a specific set of expectations. Some groups do have a particular aesthetic and artistic vision–Third Angle, for example. But that’s their choice. Artists of any kind have a responsibility to honor their own individual truth and figure out what allows them to enrich the lives of others. It might be Bach, cubism, Timo Andres, pointillism, sonnets, free verse, found-object sculpture, Beethoven. If a chamber music group puts together a program called “Forbidden Music” and plays music that came under sociopolitical scrutiny, I don’t know that they have a responsibility to embrace definitions other than their own of what “forbidden” should mean or what “music” should mean. It is of course the case that audiences may choose not to attend the concerts of groups that define themselves in a constricting or offensive way, but that doesn’t mean the group has a responsibility to define itself or program itself differently. It may wish to do so, but there’s no overriding ethos that demands it.

    2) Cultivation of a future audience could mean all kinds of things. It doesn’t necessarily mean programming of contemporary music. In fact, I might suggest that it means exactly the opposite. I’ve introduced several kids and teenagers to classical concerts of differing kinds, and I’ve introduced new listeners to classical music. Usually what they respond to most strongly are pieces that are accessible to the listener. Some contemporary pieces are like that; many require an experienced ear. The two factors that seem to be the greatest barriers to audiences are perceived elitism and cost. Performances in easy access venues, or places where people can eat and drink and maybe even talk a little…that’s probably going to have a more audience-friendly effect than programming regional or contemporary pieces. I’d also say that as a concertgoer for thirty years, the mean age of the audience has always been about the same. As a teenager, I didn’t understand why. As an adult in my forties, I do understand, because the only people I can get to come with me to concerts are either people much younger than I am who don’t yet have kids, or people 20 years older whose kids have left home. Older concertgoers are partly a function of finances and free time. One of my friends who now comes with me, who didn’t believe this when I said it to her ten years ago, now agrees with me…now that her daughter is a college graduate and she and her husband are empty nesters, they have time and discretionary income that they never had before. Of course it makes sense to make the arts accessible to a younger audience, but it’s unlikely that standard programming is largely to blame for the lack of younger audiences.

    3) If a group is putting together a program that has an agenda, then it is a good idea to make it clear what that agenda is. I think calling it a “responsibility” is probably a bit much, but the audience will enjoy it more, and the group has a greater chance of success if they communicate the ideas behind their programming (if there was a particular set of ideas in play). When I am writing program notes, often it’s clear and delightful to me how the pieces link together, but it’s probably not obvious to most listeners…and sometimes I wish that someone would say from the stage, “We wanted to play three pieces that all featured the idea of direct communication from personified Death,” or “Each of these pieces takes very different inspiration from Magyar fiddlers,” or whatever it may be. I think that providing a narrative for the logic behind programs can be an exciting discovery for the audience.

  3. Deborah Eaton says:

    As a lover of music I have enjoyed the ingenuity of 45th Parallel and their programs. Each one is different, creative and and well put together. Although I have not been able to attend all of the presentations due to living in Tacoma WA. the ones I have enjoyed and really TRULY enjoyed were the ones with new artists and some of the older works. Music in and of itself is something that must be listened to, whether the Beastie Boys or Beethoven.

    As to what audience- well, unless a person is exposed to music as an embryo, there is an audience for everything musical. We can pick and choose, delight or not- but music will remain a freedom. When I played a DVD of a performance by Adam LaMotte and his string group “the Orchestra” for some felons in the mental hospital they were entranced. They were grateful for the opportunity to hear “live music” (although not really live). I wish you could have seen how enthralled they were! Were they concerned about what was played-no way! It was all magical to them. I guess I would just like to say, music is a freedom- we can still pick and choose and
    return to a place where our mind can be at rest, excited or enthralled. Let’s not get too snooty about it.

  4. Niel DePonte says:

    I think you make some very good points. I responded not on Artswatch but in another part of Facebook to the posting. For me the crux of the issue was that there was a belief (misconception?) that this was a review of the concert. If Artswatch wants to allow for open ended “forms” (if you will) of reviewing, so be it. The piece read like an editorial and, in editorials IMHO, all is fair game in my view. But it should have been framed that way, or named that way. I also thought some of it was provocative to the point of being rude and inconsiderate of what goes into putting on a concert. I find that unnecessary and distasteful. Some of Mr. Bliss’ point were good ones and, as you state, worthy of discussion. Sometime when I have a bit more time I will be happy to address those. Maybe you and I could have an open two-person dialogue on your pages about those questions (like point/counterpoint!). Might be fun. ND

  5. Photo-wallah says:

    Silly artificial conflict. The “reviewer” was writing from, and about, its own narcissistic ego. The “review” had no reflection on the evening of transcendental music that I, and I suspect many others, experienced.

    This program was supernaturally prescient in its material, blending modern Western and Persian music. Rarely in one life does that happen, and we were very fortunate to be in it.

    45th Parallel in its philosophy and execution triumphed. The reviewer, poor thing, did not get it at all.

    • Dean says:

      I agree with Photo-wallah that the sense of “ego” in the post written by Mr. Bliss was problematic, i.e., the occasion of the concert seemed just a pretext for his expounding on all sorts of ideas (like criticizing musicians for listing their accomplishments in their program bios) that could easily offend. It’s helpful for young writers to learn, from mature editors or just over time, where novel ideas end and hubris begins. Totally subjective. But a bit of guidance there could have kept his better ideas, however critical, in better focus. Here the post suggests Mr. Bliss is learning in the public forum. It strikes me, however, that Mr. Bliss did not give afford the same courtesy to the participants of the concert.

    • Bradley Hogle says:

      What leads you to believe that:

      1) The reviewer is a “poor thing” – do you know him personally? This comes across just as a personal attack, not relevant to your argument or his article.
      2) He didn’t “get it” – he described the music that was performed, and the performers. He focused on other things, but that information was present. I don’t think that having a different experience or opinion of the same event points to a lack of understanding.

      Also, have you considered that what you perceive as narcissistic ego is honest frustration? That his piece was not intended as a personal attack, but as a challenge to a community?

      • Nick says:

        I think the commenter here used the phrase “poor thing” rhetorically in a condescending fashion, but calling it a personal attack might overstate the power of condescension.

        The reviewer Bliss certainly seemed frustrated, and clearly the enjoyment the audience found in the concert caused him to write quite strongly in his “challenge to the community,” as you put it. The question is, what context is appropriate to challenge a community? How do you title it? Present it? Who do you rope into it? Is it 45th parallel’s job to present an apple but achieve an orange, magically, for every attendee?

        Certainly, if he writes this piece of music that he’s been invited to write, he’ll have an opportunity to challenge the community with his talent. And the community will have just as much of an opportunity to be blown away, non-plussed, etc… but frankly, it seems like his music should have earned him a spot on a program, not a blog post. It also strikes me, in opposition to Barry’s description here, that Greg’s response seemed pretty clever, and Bliss’ “Game on” retort reveals a mindset – it’s all a game.

    • The only sin he committed was voicing an opinion that many other people struggle with in obscurity. It isn’t narcissism to expect to be compensated for your having bought a ticket. It isn’t egotistical to wish the fine performers from your own city would be interested in programming your work.

      I agree that 45P is well on its way to changing the music community into what many believe it should be; an artistic community rather than a business one. But is it not also worthwhile to recognize that we still have some distance left to cover before we can firmly state we’ve achieved that goal?

      * As a postscript, I agree that the “poor thing” was in poor taste. It was extremely condescending and dismissive, as if his youth or lack of experience makes him less worthy of your respect. And by respect I mean treating him as a human being with the same capacity for intelligence and complexity of perspective that you have, not as some Stravinsky (or whomever) reincarnate whose subjectivity should be the standard from which we should derive our objectivity.

  6. Lydia Van Dreel says:

    Thank you, Barry, for following up the “non-review” review. I appreciate Joan Roger’s response (above). Your follow-up also got me wondering about a few other questions. Would you have the time to answer them?

    1. What responsibility does an arts blog have to the live performances it reviews?

    2. What responsibility to journalism in general does that arts blog have to cultivate its own future audience?

    3. What responsibility does it have to make it clear what it thinks is at stake in any given review it produces?

    • Leslie Durant says:

      I echo Lydia’s sentiments, and appreciate her thoughtful questions here. They lay somewhat bare the fact that this lengthy follow up post focuses on the responsibilities of arts organizations, when in fact it is the question of irresponsibility of the original post’s writer that sparked controversy. As Bob Priest points out above, the ambiguity around deleting comments critical to writers casts readers against editors, critics against performing arts organizations. I’m very interested to hear Barry’s take on these questions Lydia has posed.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Sure. They aren’t really that difficult to answer. The hard part is trying to live up to the answer day by day.

      1. What responsibility does an arts blog have to the live performances it reviews?

      We don’t have a responsibility to a “live performance.” We have a responsibility to the culture in general, our readers and to the writer. That responsibility is as I stated in the post—to help create a better, more responsive culture here, to help our readers sort out issues such as the ones we are talking about, to help our writers in whatever way we can.

      2. What responsibility to journalism in general does that arts blog have to cultivate its own future audience?

      A major responsibility. The primary way we attempt to meet it is by helping writers of various ages and writing backgrounds find their paths as writers on ArtsWatch. Our operating theory is that the more different voices we include here, the better the chance than any particular reader will find one that speaks to her or him in a special way. Writing isn’t the only way to reach our audience, and we’ve done some experiments with podcasts, classes and public events, too. We’d like to do more.

      Journalism nationally and locally is suffering greatly these days, and one of the reasons is that we didn’t start experimenting early enough with ways to reach a more diverse audience than the one we were reaching. Journalism and the fine arts have many things in common, in my opinion.

      3. What responsibility does it have to make it clear what it thinks is at stake in any given review it produces?

      This is a major responsibility, too. Sometimes we’re better at it than at other times. But our hope is that any reader here has an idea of why the writer thinks a particular subject is important and deserves consideration.

      • Lydia Van Dreel says:

        Thanks for your excellent answers, Barry. I truly appreciate the time taken to engage in this conversation. May I suggest that OrArtsWatch should look into stronger mentorship for young writers? It would be a service for them and for the reputation of this site. I was impressed by the DCA list that someone posted on the ArtsWatch blog, and I think they’re a great starting point for anyone considering writing a live performance review. I think they’re worth reprinting here.:

        Twenty Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start to Write About a Performance

        Compiled for the Dance Critics Association by Deborah Jowitt, Marcia Siegel and Elizabeth Zimmer
        How much space (how many words) will I have for this review?
        How much time do I have to write it?
        What formal demands are made by my publication that will affect the way I structure my lead?
        What credits to I have to work into the review? Is an “ID box” required? A title?
        who is the audience for this dance?
        Who will be reading this review?
        What facts (as opposed to opinions) about the performance are germane to my readership and to the historical record?
        What is the strongest impression I carry away for the dance event? How might I build the review around this impression?
        What idea can I express completely about this dance within the space and time available?
        What can I extract from my notes that is helpful?
        Have I read and interpreted the program notes with intelligence and skepticism?
        What were the performers actually doing? What kind of people do they appear to be, and what does their movement reveal about the organization of their society?
        Where is the choreographer coming from? What’s the cultural attitude or context or framework behind the choreography? In what movement idiom does it present its ideas?
        What information about the artist’s training and background is important for my readers to know?
        What was the visual environment (space, sets, costumes, lighting) and what was its effect on the work?
        How does the choreographer use the music or other sound accompaniment?
        What kind of atmosphere or environment does the music suggest?
        Does the work succeed? If so, how? If not, why not?
        How skillful are the dancers? What was the quality of their performance?
        What else do I think or feel about the work that hasn’t been touched on above?
        What extra-dance factors — the seat I was given, my frame of mind that day, the dinner I had (or didn’t have), friendships or enmities with anyone connected with the production — may be affecting my response to the concert? How can I avoid letting these factors distort my review?
        What are my difficulties in assembling this review? How can I address these so it is easier next time?

  7. I should start by saying that Tristan Bliss was correct on every point he made and that I’m sorry I didn’t read his initial article until now. If I had, then perhaps I could have been a voice for his side of the coin when the debate was still heated.

    I’ll just comment by answering the questions… because I fear that I may be likewise shamed for having an informed, however controversial, opinion.

    1) What responsibility does any classical music organization have to the music composed in its own time? What about its own geographical place?

    Perhaps I can best answer these questions with questions: What responsibility does the public have to music played today? Why support local performers when you can find albums of ensembles like Roomful of Teeth or the Kronos Quartet online for the cost of a concert ticket?
    We need to stop imagining that the plights of the performer and of the composer are somehow different. I propose that the solution is for us to work together rather than to sell out in our own separate ways. Let’s stop lying to ourselves when we say “we programmed the Messiah again this year not because we know it will be effortless revenue but because we honestly look forward to singing the same piece every year for the xth time”. Or “I wrote this choral arrangement of ‘Baby Got Back’ because I think it speaks intimately to people about how much back my baby truly has”. You want to get paid, which is cool, but don’t call it artistic integrity. I have a dream that one day my neighbors, who already like music, will be interested in the music I’ve written for them just down the street. Oh yeah, I’m *also* a composer… and a performer currently working in and around Portland.

    2) What responsibility to classical music in general does that organization have to cultivate its own future audience?


    …but they can’t be surprised if and when their audience shrinks. Like Bliss said in the original article, a classical music concert’s audience is made up of the same groups of people regardless of who they are: friends and family of the performers, old people, and younger musicians. Now the number of friends, family, and old people isn’t going to change. But younger (LOCAL) musicians? You can change that. How? Involve them. Play their music. Invite their ensembles to perform. Then you *can* change those other numbers as you’ll have changed the number of local people who know those of whom are involved with the concert.
    But again, the best answer is a question: What responsibility does an audience have to its local organizations? Not a lot but we hope that they would care.

    3) What responsibility does it have to make it clear what it thinks is at stake in any given program it produces?


    …but it’s not the responsibility of the non-musician public to enact the change we wish to see as musicians. Also, I would like to think that it is our artistic integrity and not our financial bottom line which is at stake when we talk about this. Sure, we can play the same tired pieces over and over because the audience expects it of us but is that why we all became musicians? To tow the company line? To just get paid? To play and write elevator music? If there is anyone out there who wants to do something more, you know where to find me.

  8. Nick Y. (the "Nick" from the original review) says:

    Kudos to Barry Johnson and OAW for actually bothering to have a writer that appeals to Millennials like myself and my friends of my age groups (in addition to other like Bob Priest who enjoy his style).

    Barry did a great job answering the questions, but I guess I’ll add a few points:

    Pretty much everyone of my age group or younger who I know likes to be challenged by a what they read and engaged by it, not merely passively absorbing it, and that’s exactly what Tristan Bliss’s review does, it challenges. I think it’s fantastic that many of you were offended by it; you probably needed to be and it provoked a great discussion.

    And who really has the right to to tell us what a review is? I’m thrilled that Oregon Arts Watch doesn’t try to force outdated formulaic standards on their writers.

    Photo-wallah; ummm…I’m happy you experienced that whatever it is you are talking about, but sure, Mr. Bliss didn’t. So what? People inevitably experience art differently. That doesn’t mean he’s narcissistic for expressing that it didn’t work for him.

    Also from my experience, I have to partially disagree with Joan Rogers when she says: “it’s unlikely that standard programming is largely to blame for the lack of younger audiences.” It’s a pretty big part of it. I’ve been trying to drag my young friends to classical concerts for years, and when a performing group does occasionally actually bother to program new music, it’s been a strong selling point in bringing in younger people.

    • Dan Rasay says:

      Thanks for joining the discussion with us old farts! 😉

      I’m curious what programming ideas/changes you’d make in order to better connect with Millennials. In your opinion what organizations (if any) are moving in the right direction?

      • I’m not Nick but I have some thoughts as well.

        I’ve always had an issue with the way we go about recruiting children to the musical family. Granted, I’m talking about earlier age groups than millennials at this point but it still applies. Music, unlike other art forms or crafts, believes it’s best to play music *at* them which was decidedly not programmed for their age group in mind. And since the allure of many of these programmed pieces is largely technical, like “and we’re finally at the recapitulation”, it is lost on a large percentage of them since they have not been educated on why it should be admired. Instead, we should try to play music *for* them; pieces with a program they can follow with their mind’s eye rather than cold, imagination-crippling pieces like some random prelude no. X. Kids will flock to classical music when the music starts being about and for them.

        As for the millennials, I don’t know. I can only speak to what I would like to see as a millennial in a concert and in an organization. I would like to see either half of every concert or one entire concert every year from every conceivable ensemble being dedicated to living, local composers. “But what about those ensembles who exclusively play period music?” you ask. Living people can’t write a Bach cantata? There was a time when performing almost exclusively new music was the status quo. It wasn’t the same ten to fifteen operas being programmed on some sort of conveyor belt. New and exciting is the key, not old and possibly exciting. There’s a reason why we will pay $12-15 to see the new Bond movie and hesitate to pay the same rate to go and see Goldfinger (even though it’s regarded as one of the best of all time). Is music so different from cinema?

        • Dan Rasay says:

          Thanks Brandon! I see that you’re a composer and appreciate your response from that perspective. I’m not judging/hating but non-composers might have a slightly different perspective. 😉

          I couldn’t agree more with you on “recruiting children to the musical family”. I was “fortunate” as a student in California’s public education system in the 80’s & early 90’s in that I had hands-on exposure to instrumental music. Started with those awful plastic recorders then violin in 3rd grade, cello in 4th grade, upright bass in 5th grade, jazz electric bass in 7th grade & viola in high school. I participated mostly because my good friends also played… perhaps a bit of peer pressure to take lessons (ie. not suck).

          My school’s 4th grade class took a day trip to San Francisco and attended a SF Symphony kid’s concert at Davies Symphony Hall. I don’t have the faintest clue what they played or if the musicians were phoning it in. What stuck with me was the space, sound/timbre and the shared experience with a couple thousand engaged peers… the profound live musical experience that can’t be replicated digitally. IMHO that is the value in kid’s concerts. They are a supplement to hands-on music education as a view of the musical possibilities outside the school band room/cafeteria/broom closet.

          I’m not a professional musician and didn’t study my primary instrument (violin) past high school. It is the aggregate of meaningful experiences on stage and in the audience that drives my participation in the classical music world today (not to mention draining my checkbook).

          — On your second point

          As Ron Blessinger points out ensembles are ultimately responsible to their mission and constituents. The Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Chamber Music NW, 45th Parallel, Third Angle & Fear No Music all have different missions. Change at large organizations can be at a glacial pace because they often have broader missions and different constituents. The savvy orgs are moving incrementally to build relevancy but may be ultimately limited by their mission.

          Whenever I think that classical music is dying I pull up Ben Zander’s TED talk (, take a few deep breaths & think about possibilities. If there isn’t an organization doing what you think should be done (ala Tristan’s view of the current musical landscape) – Craft a mission statement to fill that gap, create an organization/ensemble and be a change agent. I’m not being snarky… Bob Priest’s awesome March Music Moderne is a perfect example.

          Interesting point about living composers writing period music. I can mention that to PBO… “you game?” LOL

          • I agree that composers might have a different perspective but we can be and are part of the audience these ensembles are programming for. I mentioned in another comment further up how involving more local talent brings in more of the biggest subset of any audience: friends and family of those involved in the concert. So forget about the altruism inherent in programming a local, less-well-known composer and think of the pragmatic benefits of involving people in whom the community will have a vested interest, rather than a curious one. There’s a reason why so many groups program pieces with children choirs. Nothing pays the bills quite like mom and dad ticket sales. The same is possible with local composers but on an obviously smaller scale.

            The problem I have with the approach of early childhood music programs is that they are sold to children as compulsory classes rather than as the fun elective. I know most of the elementary, middle, and some high school teachers in and around Vancouver today and by far their biggest gripe is dealing with kids who don’t want to be there. Kids that will never want to be there. Granted, children should be involved in the arts but we’ve failed before we even started if we force them to be there against their will. To speak your language, the problem is marketing, not availability.

            Ron is exactly right. But, I have the sneaking suspicion that Ron believes that ensembles and individuals oftentimes have different agendas. I believe this because he played for me in one of my student showcases a few years ago when I studied at Marylhurst. Forget about his time, his stipend probably barely covered the gas needed to come down for rehearsals. He obviously did it because he was helping us out and because we needed him. Now, my response to your comment is this: if many of the other performers, program coordinators, and donators are likewise altruistic (as I’m sure they are when working on smaller, more personal, scales), why is it so impossible to be similarly altruistic when they come together to form these organizations? I believe the answer is not due to mission statements or the whims of their constituents but due to fear. Larger organizations have a lot more to lose than the individuals that make up their ranks. Not just *their* time and money is on the line but the time and money of others. But again, my answer is that I would rather have hope guide my actions and not fear. But then again, I’m poor so what do I know? 🙂

            I spent most of my early twenties complaining about the bureaucratic nonsense that made me toil in obscurity. I don’t do that anymore. In fact, I have done (or are in the process of doing) exactly what you have proposed. You see, I have been conceptualizing and planning a choral group for the past few years made up of entirely of composer/performers like myself. The goal is create a musical community for these men and women to come and have their pieces performed in exchange for performing the pieces of their peers. Each concert would be a program entirely made up of pieces written and performed by its membership. Half of which would be premieres written during the previous concert period and half taken from what would quickly become an extensive library of past (but still new) pieces written by those who are not premiering one. Concerts at semi-erratic intervals would be dedicated to larger works based on when these pieces could be completed. Everyone pulls their own weight in every aspect of the ensemble from composition to performance through publicity and recruitment. This would give myself and others an opportunity that I have been yearning for since I started being a serious musician; the chance to be the engine of my own success rather than to wait by the tracks for someone already established to come and pick me up. As of right now it’s just a dream. Money and the availability of enough talented composer/performers to equally fill all SATB parts are the only obstacles I can currently foresee.

            Haha, I’m personally not interested in trying to rewrite Bach but I did meet a rather… impetuous young man from North Carolina studying music theory during my time in the UK who was convinced he could do Bach better than the man himself. My comment was given more as an advocate for these people. Well, maybe not him in particular… But I do welcome any requests where I am allowed to use my own voice. You know of any of those sorts of games? 😀

  9. TL:DR
    The review in question was a review of the musical landscape right now for younger composers by a younger composer which was inspired by a specific concert.

    • Dan Rasay says:

      Wait – I thought it was a non-review…

      • Perhaps review is still the wrong term. Maybe “survey” would be a better one since it is in response to a trend vs a single event. But then again, I didn’t write the piece so I can’t speak with authority regarding its purpose. I can only comment on the lens through which I personally read the piece.

    • If anyone is curious this is the best summarization of my review that I’ve seen, although not exclusive to young composers, but simply of the musical landscape.

      • Oscar Wilde says:

        The artistic critic, like the mystic, is an antinomian
        always. To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness, is obviously quite easy. It merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain low passion for middle-class respectability. Aesthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong. Aesthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilisation, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not because they make the renunciations of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without hurt to the soul, and can wish for nothing that can do the soul harm, the soul being an entity so divine that it is able to transform into elements of a richer experience, or a finer susceptibility, or a newer mode of thought, acts or passions that with the common would be commonplace, or with the uneducated ignoble, or with the shameful vile.

  10. Perhaps what is still being missed by the publication as well as many commenter on both sides of the debate over this article is that this review masquerades as a judgment of not just the concert but also the organization 45th parallel. The author reports from a perspective claiming all kinds of standard, financially successful practices in the event were bad without any acknowledgement that they are standard AND have been successful for years. The best example is performer biographies. This is the single thing that audiences like most, if you bother to ask them. Knowing why a particular artist is accomplished to present these works as an expert is exciting to audience members. Anyone who has actually spoken to audience members around the world, or to presenters, whose job it is to put busts in seats, knows this.

    Mr. Bliss may wish that the world were different, but it is disingenuous of him to report on the way it is as if it were am absurd thing, and articles like this have a very real financial impact on the organizations they refer to. This is not some intellectually snarky game.

    Had Mr. Bliss cared to do any research on the state of programming in the country before writing, he would have easily seen that 45th Parallel is in fact doing more innovative programming than 99% of SUCCESSFUL classical music presenters even though many of the composers are not alive. News flash: there are pieces of music that audiences old and young enjoy that were written by dead composers too.

    It is mendacious assertions like the ones I cited in the non-review that are the problem. And a responsible editor would have challenged him on these prior to publication.

    By all means, write an article challenging the status quo, but back it up with numbers, examples from the real world and controversy. Otherwise your articles have all the real-world importance of a bunch of stoned friends saying “yeah man, those guys should totally do it different man”

    But when reviewing a concert, it is journalistic integrity to report a distinction between the author’s personal opinions that differ from the mainstream, and not present them as obvious truths.

    • Dunja Jennings Marcum says:

      As a performer, I must disagree with your comments regarding bios. Not all audience members enjoy them, further, many of my colleagues treat them with disdain. I have programmed concerts, and have heard appreciation for either omitting bios, or editing them so all performers have equal length bios. This is not that uncommon, and I am merely offering a different view. Thank you.

  11. Barry Johnson says:

    OK. So far, so good. I almost deleted the diagnosis of “narcissism” comment, because it’s SO over the top and the commenter couldn’t possibly know anything about the writer. It’s a gratuitous insult, and contributes nothing to the thread. But perhaps we can learn from it, so I’ll leave it for now. Anonymous bullies aren’t really welcome here.

    We have a lot of people showing up in the comment thread who have never read ArtsWatch, at least that’s how it seems. So, they have nothing at stake here, on the site, or in our arts writing project. I would encourage them, you, to rummage around the music stream for starters so you know what we’re about. And then hop to another stream, just so you get a sense of how other writers in other areas are approaching things. Maybe you’ll even enjoy it, and want to stay. Which is what we hope.

  12. Ron Blessinger says:

    What responsibility does any classical music organization have to the music composed in its own time? What about its own geographical place?
    All arts groups have a responsibility to their mission, whether that be contemporary, baroque, Scottish Highland, or Tuvan throat singing. Same answer regarding geography.

    What responsibility to classical music in general does that organization have to cultivate its own future audience?
    I don’t see that any group has a responsibility to a genre. That strikes me as an odd way of considering the question of audience. Organizations have a responsibility to their board, to their audience, and to their performers/writers/composers, to represent the work in the best way possible. The calamitous decline of modern art has regularly been decried forever, and yet it persists, stubbornly. It can be a messy business, but what fun it is to play in the mud!

    What responsibility does it have to make it clear what it thinks is at stake in any given program it produces?
    Very interesting question. I didn’t attend Greg’s concert, yet I do see how a program curated by a composer-in-residence featuring a world premiere by a former cellist of the Kronos quartet could be seen as a ‘new music’ event. I think this is part of the issue here, or misunderstanding. The idea clearly was to use forbidden music as context to present a new work, which by the sound of it, Greg and friends did admirably well. The perception of this being a new music event perhaps gave the writer the rationale to write the kind of thesis he did. Whatever. I look forward to hearing Tristan’s piece next year on 45th Parallel’s series.

  13. bob priest says:

    I wonder about “the gauntlet” laid down for Tristan by Greg/45P.
    I, too, look forward to hearing what Tristan comes up with but won’t regard this “classical challenge” (thanx Dan Rasay!) as more than a game.
    After all, most superb writers/reviewers would self-skewer on their mighty pen-swords if they “had the balls” to either “put up or shut up” (Alex Ross, Kyle Gann, Paul Griffiths, Richard Taruskin, etc.).

    • Dan Rasay says:

      Ha – “classical challenge” wasn’t my best effort.

      Tristan jumped into the deep end with his ORArtswatch piece and while don’t agree with his approach & points the “classical” scene absolutely needs passionate individuals that will “put up or shut up”.

      I was reflecting on some of our past online interactions in light of Tristan’s non-review. Admittedly I was naive about a few of my past points (ala the OSO “bake sale”… facepalm). In the last four years I have gained a greater appreciation of the complexities of arts fundraising, marketing, operations & board/constituent/staff dynamics. There are always lessons to be learned…

      Cheers to Tristan for joining the campaign to further the classical genre!

      • bob priest says:

        And speaking of furthering the classical genre, that is exactly what you do, Dan.
        You are sharing your thoughts here, you’ve worked with decidedly non-establishment groups like Classical Revolution PDX, you donate money to arts orgs, you regularly attend concerts and you serve on the board of THE big daddy establishment band in town, the OSO – probably with considerably fresher ideas than many of your co-board members.
        Yes, you are somewhat of an “action hero” in town & i sincerely salute you!

        • Dan Rasay says:

          Thanks Bob! I don’t know if I deserve the title “action hero” though. Not to mention I am part of the “establishment”. There is a lively ecosystem of classical music organizations in Portland and I’m happy to help where I can. Believe it or not the big daddy board has recruited some pretty sharp folks in the last couple of years… not to mention a new CEO and VP of Dev from a little symphony orchestra in SoCal. On a related note there are some interesting things in the works for the 2016-17 season… program goes public in early Feb.

          • bob priest says:

            Thanx for your note, Dan.
            I’m particularly intrigued by your mention of “some interesting things in the works for the 2016-17 (OSO) season.”
            Does this simply mean more Stormy-Pantz & T-Laud or are y’all finally gonna be serving up Benedict Mason’s “Concerto for Viola Section & Orchestra?” In other words, give the violas some, already! :)))

  14. Niel DePonte says:

    Hmmm…perhaps with which we struggle on this thread is the fault of classical music marketing “fundamentalism”…you know, come up with a clever title, promote a known face or composer and leave it at that. How is anyone supposed to know what to expect, unless we give them what they think they are going to get based on the “branding” of a group over time. For example, when you come to the Oregon Symphony, you have an expectation of what the experience is going to be like because “IT’S THE FREAKING OREGON SYMPHONY” for Gawd’s sake. It is a known brand and with branding comes expectations (see comments by attendees who hate our 10-12 minute new music experiments we put on the first half of our programs, it frustrates their expectations).

    Perhaps in the “new music” or “challenging music” concert world we need to market the concerts differently. It might take more words on brochures…or more links to websites with longer explanations of what is going on at the show. I don’t think we can “fix” expectations in one spot, but perhaps we can narrow or inform them a bit. That might be good…or not. It depends on how open the listener is to enjoying the experience being offered rather than having the one they expected to have.

    I felt Mr. Bliss’ expectations were frustrated, based on his writing. And in fairness, my expectations of his writing were frustrated as well, for I had an expectation that I was reading a review and not an editorial. But since most new music tends to twist old forms into new shapes, I suppose we can give the new music reviewer a bit of formal latitude there as well, eh? Still, I enjoyed reading his writing about as much as he apparently enjoyed the concert. I found it lacking. I’m willing however, to cop to my own set of expectations and take some ownership of those, which I felt Mr. Bliss did NOT do, and that I found disingenuous at the least and disrespectful to the performers at the worst. I don’t appreciate that type of writing in art criticism. But that’s just me. And I will likely attend another performance of Mr. Bliss’ writing in the future, open to the possibility that this time I might find more personal enjoyment in it. I’m beginning to “brand” Mr. Bliss. My expectations have been modified. That may be good or bad! Time will tell.

  15. Eduard Laurel says:

    What disturbed me most about Tristan Bliss’ non-review was its careless vernacular tone. If gonzo journalism can delight, it requires
    consummate skill. Perhaps he might consider dipping into Rimbaud; Edmond Wilson could be a tonic.

    Personally, I find this student’s efforts shameful to his idol Hunter S. Thompson, but this will upset his publisher and fans. Classical music is not graffiti; it is not trance. Mr. Bliss must know that we musicians SLAVE away at our craft, our art, realizing that any chance of ‘success’ is slim. I find his condemning article less than unproductive, but I will gladly acknowledge I am OLD. A brilliant young composer had these words about the elderly audience: “When people age, they ask themselves ‘What is important; what does it mean?'” and they seek out art. Seems also that old people have a greater propensity to read… Though making many passes at the ORArtsWatch article, charting graphs to this reviewer’s thoughts, I was stymied. Alzheimer’s, surely!

    To Mr. Barry Johnson, the editor of this blog, allow me taking issue with his three defenses.

    1. What responsibility does an arts blog have to the live performances it reviews?
    We don’t have a responsibility to a “live performance.” We have a responsibility to the culture in general, our readers and to the writer. That responsibility is as I stated in the post—to help create a better, more responsive culture here, to help our readers sort out issues such as the ones we are talking about, to help our writers in whatever way we can.

    Though writers need protection from fascists, if an arts blog has no responsibility to artists, why does it exist? Do the needs of your consumers trump discernment?

    2. What responsibility to journalism in general does that arts blog have to cultivate its own future audience?
    A major responsibility. The primary way we attempt to meet it is by helping writers of various ages and writing backgrounds find their paths as writers on ArtsWatch. Our operating theory is that the more different voices we include here, the better the chance than any particular reader will find one that speaks to her or him in a special way. Writing isn’t the only way to reach our audience, and we’ve done some experiments with podcasts, classes and public events, too. We’d like to do more.

    Why? Perhaps to pay your fledgling scribes? Ages and backgrounds, special. A millennial has spoken, What about pre-preschoolers? Some classical concerts have experimented with lighters. The notice in question must have undeniably alienated an audience for the 45th Parallel, but it made it to Norman Lebrecht’s venue! Give this man a raise.

    3. What responsibility does it have to make it clear what it thinks is at stake in any given review it produces?
    This is a major responsibility, too. Sometimes we’re better at it than at other times. But our hope is that any reader here has an idea of why the writer thinks a particular subject is important and deserves consideration.

    What? There are not many declarations that are understandable as forgivable. If the reader has to presume on the writer’s intentions, it is a failure. “Sometimes we’re better… than at other times…” is not good enough for performers, nor writers. Is that why we glance at reviews? I wonder if the fault is not the the Bliss, but the Johnson.


    Eduard Laurel

    • Barry Johnson says:

      All the writers at ArtsWatch aren’t going to appeal to ANY reader. We do hope that SOME of them do, however. I have a feeling that if you scroll through the MUSIC tab you might find other writers more appealing to you.

      Bliss isn’t the only one who has pointed out the demographic problems with classical music. Some have argued that it isn’t a problem at all, because eventually the relatively small group of people who go to classical music concerts now will be replenished by the more discerning among younger music fans. Even if that’s true (and I have my doubts), the importance of classical music in the culture as a whole will continue to decline. And that leads a lot of observers, who care very deeply about classical music and its future, to argue for changes of various sorts, as Bliss has.

      If you see this as an attack on the existing older audience, I think you’ve got it wrong. The reformers simply want us to be surrounded by a larger and more diverse population of classical music fans.

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