News & Notes: Defending my homie

Brett Campbell suggests shorter classical music concerts; world comes to an end

Beaverton's iSing chorus used video in its winter concert.

Beaverton’s iSing chorus used video in its winter concert.

ArtsWatch classical music critic Brett Campbell is perfectly capable of defending both himself and his arguments after he posted his roundup of reviews of holiday season concerts a couple of days ago, “MusicWatch reviews: Less is more.”

But because his primary contention seems to have hit a nerve in the music community, maybe I can help him out a little, by providing a little more context for his primary suggestion.

In case you didn’t read his post (and you should, it navigates a LOT of music, some of it beautifully played), Brett argues that music directors often stuff their programs too full of music,  to the detriment of the both the audience and the music itself. In doing so, he addressed the processes that go into making a concert a little bit, specifically the amount of rehearsal necessary to prepare a complicated piece of music for the public. And he considered the capacity of the audience to digest large chunks of that complicated music.

I’m not sure why some of the responses to his post were angry ones. Maybe the commenters think that both of those subjects should be off-limits to the critic, even though they are critical to the experience of the audience (and the musicians, if you think about it).

But with the performing arts in general and classical music in particular, we’ve reached a point of dwindling resources and shrinking audiences. And perhaps it’s time to begin to re-consider our processes and experiences. Strike that “perhaps.” It IS time.

And in any case, Brett’s arguments don’t come completely out of the blue. Artists and arts administrators are thinking about them in other places, and some have even begun to experiment with new models. Maybe classical music has resisted that experimentation more than most other forms. (And maybe strike that “maybe”?)

***

The modernist architect Mies van der Rohe popularized “less is more” in contemporary design, but I hadn’t thought about it as a principle performing artists might apply. But then a  few years ago I ran into a manifesto by the Collective Artists Think Tank, a group of arts administrators from some of New York City’s best and most adventurous performances spaces—PS 122, the Chocolate Factory, Dance Theatre Workshop, that sort of place.

It was aimed at performing artists and made the case that they needed to change their practices, if they wanted to survive. Some of their suggestions were pretty prosaic: “Do real budgets,” for example. But one took me by surprise. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

“Do less with more,” they said. “Meaning, make work that is fully realized, fully-resourced, and created in an appropriate amount of time.”  By doing that artists make better art, and they also accomplish some other goals. They deal with the supply and demand problem (too much art for the existing audience), and they give themselves more time to market and educate their community about their work.”

I wrote a column about it for The Oregonian, suggesting that the Oregon Symphony might want to consider taking that advice. That was impertinent of me, wasn’t it! (They didn’t trim the number of concerts; in fact, they went in the opposite direction!)

Now, if the arts in general were in a healthy place, with lots of revenue and swelling audiences, I wouldn’t have written what I did and neither would the Think Tank. But the context was then—and sadly, is now—that the arts were struggling in a variety of ways, most notably in paying artists a living wage, but also in making contact with huge swaths of their communities, to the detriment of all. And their attempts to do the opposite—do more with less—were unsatisfying and unsuccessful, a thin spread of resources couldn’t create the thick engagement they wanted, either with their art of with their audiences.

***

I think of Dave Allen, who played bass with Gang of Four back in the day and now works as a digital strategist for the branding firm North, as a sort of practical philosopher. One of his frequent topics is music, specifically popular music, and how musicians can survive and thrive in the Internet Age, which has made a shambles of the music industry.

So, I looked forward to reading his most up-to-date thinking for the Oregon Humanities magazine, “Who Cares About the Future of Music?”. It’s a good read, with lots of history about the evolution of music on the Internet, current thinking about fixing the new problems that have arisen with that evolution and some thoughts about where the future might lead.

One of Allen’s best stories involved Kodak, and its inability to see itself clearly and consider its customers deeply enough. “Executives were blind to what people wanted and what they were really doing. They never thought to study user behavior, a fatal mistake as it led them to miss out on a new market.” That new market, of course, was the digital camera.

I also recommend taking a look at Allen’s year-end blog post at North, which wanders and links around his personal quest for understanding, both the digital world and himself. I was drawn to the paragraphs about the dangers of multi-tasking and the advice that we should concentrate our thinking energy. But for our purposes here, one injunction stood out: “Do less, better.”

Here are a few more of his ideas:

“Think edge. Things happen there.
Think alone.
Be wrong way more often than trying to be right.
Be happy with not knowing.
Consider anthropology.
More ideas, quicker.
Don’t shelve ideas, make them real, forget them or give them away.”

Now, in these essays, Allen was thinking both about the social, market world, where we have the need to serve our customers and audiences, and the personal one, where we serve ourselves. Inevitably, the relationship between the two gets tense and tangled. But for our purposes here, I think it’s important to keep them separate. My practices as a writer or artist or digital strategist aren’t the same thing as my “product” (whether it’s an essay, a concert or a plan for media dominance). The pursuit of art and the packaging of that art into a concert for audiences are related but different.

Brett argued that music directors weren’t paying enough attention to the audience when they assembled their programs, and that if they considered them from the beginning, it might improve their artmaking. I’d argue that it might also improve their outreach, by giving them more time and energy to be as creative about THAT as they are about their music making.

I’m not sure what Allen would say about this argument. (Maybe he’ll come on board and make his own recommendations.) A good audience survey might help clarify things, especially one that focused on newcomers to classical music who had wandered into the concert. But even more, we could use some good information about the general population: what they want and what keeps them away (price, location, long concerts, formality, lack of musical education, conservative programming, weird new music).

Perhaps Portland’s music groups could pool their resources and poll the metro area about these things. I’d love to help devise the questions and ArtsWatch (and just about anybody else in town with any interest in classical music) would happily publish the results! (And if anyone has actually done such surveying, I’d love to see the reports.)

***

At this point, instead of that imaginary survey, we have Brett’s experience of going to a heavenly host of concerts during the past six weeks, and then we have the response to his account of that experience.

Just for the record, I appreciate that response, especially that of 45th Parallel music director Gregory Ewer, even though I’m about to, um, “analyze” it a bit. As writers we should welcome the testing of our descriptions, conclusions and propositions, and learn from them. That’s how we arrive at a better understanding of things. And by “we,” I mean both the writer and the reader.

Of course, if I think that about writers, I also think it about musicians and music groups.

First, of all, just to clear the air a little: Anyone who has read Brett’s columns at ArtsWatch and elsewhere knows that he’s a generous and open-minded critic, appreciative of the effort it takes to make beautiful music for an audience. From my many conversations with him, both about particular stories and more general matters, I can debunk the idea that he is “insulting” toward musicians or puts limits on what they can achieve . I don’t think his standards are impossibly high, and he recognizes that there are all sorts of different circumstances for music-making that require adjustments of those standards in any case.

Ewer was basically responding to what Brett said about 45th Parallel’s concert, I think, the one that started his thinking about the length of individual concerts. It was just two paragraphs, and one of them included this sentence:

“Because these are primarily orchestral musicians who lack the time to really develop chemistry with each other or interpretive depth in a given piece, we can’t expect the same level of mastery of chamber works you’d see in, say, a Friends of Chamber Music or Chamber Music Northwest concert; one member admitted that the group had spent only a week with one of the pieces, Bruch’s seldom performed Octet.”

Ewer confirmed the basic information in this description:

“WTF Brett?? Way to slap a glass ceiling onto the musicians of your community. As the Artistic Director of 45th Parallel, I believe in taking risks. Many of us get up on stage having just explored a piece for the first time, knowing full well that with another week and a few more rehearsals it could be more polished.”

And then he attacked its implications:

“And even so, I say with confidence that some of the more magical performances from our first four years would measure up nicely, even against the stiffest of competition.”

That is something that Brett has confirmed here at ArtsWatch from time to time, of course. And it’s not really the point of Brett’s criticism. What he was saying was simply this: If you’d dropped one of the pieces from the concert (he recommended the Bruch), you might have done better by the Mendelssohn and you would have given the audience a better, more manageable evening in the process.

What does Ewer think? Could the time spent on Bruch polished the Mendelssohn?

We know what he thinks the audience would have said about dropping the Bruch from the program:

“As my esteemed colleague Justin Kagan remarked this morning, “More than a few spoke of crying at the beatific final measures of the slow movement of the Bruch.” You know…the Bruch…that piece you suggested we should have “booted” to allow “more time for socializing at the reception afterward.””

To this response, I’d invoke the idea of Small Sample Size. “More than a few”? How many exactly? And what proportion of the total audience?

When I worked at The Oregonian, we used to joke that if two people called the editor to criticize a story, that story’s reporter would get a dreaded closed-door meeting with the editor. It’s just how we operate, isn’t it? From a few shreds of information (or misinformation), we construct a story, that then becomes nearly impossible to dislodge: the error-ridden story or the universally loved Bruch. (This comes right out of Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking: Fast and Slow,” which is a delightful compendium of our common cognitive errors!) But we can’t draw conclusions, either about the story or what the entire readership of the newspaper thought about it, from just a couple of non-random readers. A couple of people who cried at the Bruch? How do they balance with the dozers that Campbell observed?

Personally, I have enjoyed the 45th Parallel concerts I’ve attended. I like their relative informality, and I like watching them bear down on a difficult quartet. I could also imagine another take on this, an even more informal “workshop” concert of freshly encountered music. Ewer and another responder, Heather Blackburn, point out that professional musicians can give good, occasionally wonderful accounts of music they haven’t played together much. Maybe I’d pitch it this way to my prospective audiences: “We’re going to have a casual evening of some music that has caught our ear; we’re going to talk about it a bit and give you the chance to talk about it; maybe we’ll even repeat a passage you want to hear again; and then we’ll all retire to a nearby beanery for a snack or two.”

Is this insulting? Of course not. If I heard that Dave Frishberg was going to get together with a few friends to work on a few songs, I’d be there in a flash (especially if Duke Ellington was involved). I wouldn’t expect recording-ready performances, either, but I would enjoy the sense of exploration involved. And it’s the sort of thing I might be able to talk a classical neophyte friend or two into going to with me.

***

Ewer didn’t address Brett’s larger point: Concert after concert seemed too long, and one of the reasons they felt that way was that they contained pieces that either weren’t very good, intrinsically (which is a relative judgment), or they weren’t performed very well (probably because they were under-rehearsed). The individual concerts needed an editor, and those editors needed to be aware that they were part of a larger performance ecology.

The effect on someone either new to classical music or an occasional drop-in? Brett hypothesized that it would be negative. (Presumably, old-timers have made their peace with the programs as they exist, but they aren’t the problem.) And so he suggested thinking about the care and feeding of those fringe classical music people, and their near-cousins, the non-classical music people.

That doesn’t seem like such a radical proposal to me, though it does de-center things a bit and in uncomfortable ways, perhaps. I didn’t interpret Brett to mean that there shouldn’t be evening-length classical concerts ever under any circumstances. I think he understands that having a variety of performance formats is crucial to a healthy ecology. But Brett has suggested that the “better” that Dave Allen talked about must be served, too, because he thinks that “better” and audience satisfaction go together, not to mention artist satisfaction.

Better is hard. I mentioned this on a panel I served on at a digital journalism conference a couple of months ago. We were talking about web journalism at the time, and only one audience member responded favorably to the observation. Nearly everyone else blithely thought that they were doing most excellent work and that their problems had more to do with technical issues. They just had to figure out the best buttons to push. In this they weren’t any different from their mainstream colleagues, but I’m of the opinion that mainstream AND digital journalism needs to get a lot better at what it does, and that’s just as important to their future as spiffy, interactive web design. (Actually, the two go together!)

I was encouraged by the part of Ewer’s response that acknowledged change is necessary: “You are right that the classical music world needs to have its collective eyes wide open and its thinking caps on in order to respond to a changing musical landscape.” But I don’t think thinking caps are enough. I’ll quote Allen again from above: “Don’t shelve ideas, make them real, forget them or give them away.”

Sometimes, I have the feeling that the culture we share here in Portland is in the middle of tens of thousands of little experiments, any one of which could blossom into a big experiment with major implications. And when I feel best about our arts community, I think we are involved in a lot of those experiments, too. If we can somehow do enough creative work around engaging new audiences in classical music to make a difference here, that would be a very big experiment indeed.

Now, that’s not the only purpose of music groups and musicians, of course, but maybe we would all agree that it’s an important one.

 

11 Responses.

  1. Greg Ewer says:

    “Defending my Hiney in the Age of the Apocalypse”

    Thanks for your post Barry. I appreciate the time you took to respond. Before I address a few of your points, I just want to state for the record that I admire Brett Campbell’s thinking, his writing, and most of all his contribution to our arts community. Heck, I think he’s a great guy. I hope the frustrated tone of my initial response doesn’t in any way imply the contrary. In fact, Brett’s past writings have probably influenced my thinking about the arts more than he realizes.

    So with that out of the way, let me get to the points.

    1. You wrote: “Ewer didn’t address Brett’s larger point.” – I am aware I didn’t address Brett’s larger point. That’s because I don’t necessarily disagree with it. My frustration with his suggestion of booting the Bruch had more to do with his reasoning for it: that it would have allowed more time to rehearse the Mendelssohn as well as to socialize after the concert. You asked, “What does Ewer think? Could the time spent on Bruch polished the Mendelssohn?” My answer is no. What could have helped, on the other hand, was a dress rehearsal in the venue…especially for an acoustically challenging ensemble like an octet. Circumstances didn’t permit it. My bad. Lesson learned. I wouldn’t expect Brett to know about that, but I don’t have to accept his hypothesis either.

    2. The other statement I took issue with was Brett’s point that the community shouldn’t expect greatness from its local musicians because they’re too busy making a living. It wasn’t the central point of his article, but it is one worth arguing, and perhaps even getting a little rankled about. It is a point he has implicitly made before, and as the spokesperson for an organization that celebrates musicians of the Pacific Northwest, I simply don’t agree with it.

    3. I really like this statement of yours: “Sometimes, I have the feeling that the culture we share here in Portland is in the middle of tens of thousands of little experiments.” – I agree. 45th Parallel is one of them. We’re producing richly rewarding small ensemble concerts at a fraction of the price of similar organizations across the country. Last year, our programming included a virtuoso gypsy fiddler, an Irish fiddler, a swing band, a poet, an opera by a local composer and yes, some Mendelssohn and some Dvorak. Sometimes I get the feeling that folks are so busy calling for change in the classical music world that they fail to notice some of the ways it is happening.

    4. I like your suggestion: “I could also imagine another take on this, an even more informal “workshop” concert of freshly encountered music.” – 45th Parallel did this a couple weeks ago in a small venue, for an intimate audience over wine and snacks. I’d be thrilled to do it on a larger scale. Feel free to be in touch if you’d like to explore this idea further.

    Best,
    Greg

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      Interesting – I didn’t understand Brett to say that “the community shouldn’t expect greatness from its local musicians because they’re too busy making a living”. I understood him in a much more narrowly focused context, chamber music, in which greatness IS most definitely a function of time spent together working on repertory. Even Chamber Music NW’s performances are often a bit lacking in this respect – I was a little surprised to see Brett give them as an exemplar – which shouldn’t be surprising in a summer festival context with ever-shifting personnel, no matter how incredibly good they are (and they are). Anything the local folks can do to stack the odds in their favor is worth considering, and spending more rehearsal time on less music might well be one such.

  2. Barry Johnson says:

    Greg, Thanks for responding: that really helped me understand what you were saying.

    The primary issue for you with what Brett wrote seems to be existential almost, yes? And it’s connected directly to the discussion started by W Benjamin: What’s the role of the classical musician in the age of mechanical reproduction? Which is a very long discussion that doesn’t end in a specific answer, I’m afraid.

    We’d have to get Brett to respond to your complaint, I suppose. I resolve things by splitting up my needs. Sometimes, I’m looking for fresh “cognitive” interpretations of particular, great pieces of music. I need to stop hearing that Mozart or Mendelssohn in the same way, and I’m hoping for a creative account that turns it around for me. (I might feel the same way about “Uncle Vanya”!) And there, the sustained investigation of one piece by an established quartet (or whatever) might have a better chance of succeeding than… something else.

    But that’s not why I go to hear music, generally. Why do I seek it out? For dozens of overlapping reasons,from the sense of community, to the “somatic” jolt of being there in person, to the chance to hear something I’ve been longing to hear live, to the chance to hear something entirely new.

    And now to the question: Can groups such as 45th Parallel, composed of excellent professional musicians with “day jobs,” satisfy these needs of mine? Of course! You have already! And honestly, you can even solve some of those “cognitive” problems I might have as well.

    Is there a “ceiling” on my expectations or your ability to deliver maximum musical enjoyment? I guess I don’t think of it that way, no.

    Here’s another hypothetical concert scenario. “After deliberation, we decided that we have some ideas about the Mendelssohn Octet that we wanted to explore. So for the past two years, once a week, we’ve played and argued about it. This concert, with two different approaches to the piece, is the result of that exploration.” That would be a little like Andre Gregory’s famous 7-year process with “Uncle Vanya,” which generated my very favorite “filmed play,” “Vanya on 42nd Street,” and totally mesmerized me. And no matter WHAT I thought of the piece of music before, I’d want to be there to hear it.

    Just to respond to a couple of your points: I was there for the gypsy fiddler evening and it was amazing! Thank you! Yes, lots of experiments are going on, and we try to note and honor them. Maybe we need a little “conference” to share the results of those experiments, spread the news of the successful ones, and devise new ones? ArtsWatch would love to help convene such a gathering!

    And we’d love to sponsor a “workshop” evening with 45th Parallel! Totally love to.

    • Greg Ewer says:

      Ok Barry. I like it! Let’s figure out how to make both of these happen. (Bob, Feb 7th won’t work because of a symphony rehearsal. Don’t ya love the irony?)

      • bob priest says:

        oh, piffle!

        ok, what about “First Wednesday” instead?

        • Greg Ewer says:

          Here Bob. This could be a helpful scheduling tool. http://www.doodle.com/ -I don’t know what kind of timeline Barry et al. might have in mind.

          • bob priest says:

            thanx, greg.

            once (if) i hear from several other people that there is honest interest in seeing/making this happen, i will certainly do my part.

            as i’m currently working on getting March Music Moderne (7-23 March) into the full upright position, i have to guard what little extra time i have for projects with guaranteed momentum.

            btw, the first night of MMM includes a panel discussion:
            + paul schiavo – mod
            + james bash
            + brett campbell
            + james mcquillen
            + dan rasay
            + david schiff
            + pat zagelow

            although our focus topic with be the 100th birthday of “The Rite of Spring,” i’m sure there will be time for a few forays into the terra infirma we are presently traversing.

            “Ears Wide Open” will take place on first thursday 7 March @ Polish Hall. more info on this will be breaking PDX-wide before much longer.

            stay ‘tooned . . .

            ps
            there will be Vodka!

  3. Dave Allen says:

    Barry, Happy New Year!

    Thanks for the kind comments about my essays. As I began in the Oregon Humanities essay, essaying about the future of music has had a bleak past. That said, I occasionally try and I think the OH.m essay came out to my liking.

    In re Brett and considering your audience, I can only say that it is imperative in our hyper-connected world that your first concern be for them. Now I’m not talking about crowd-sourcing here, god no! The “crowd” doesn’t actually know what it wants… cf the Tea Party!. No, in considering your audience you might research them, poll them, to just get an accurate feel of the pulse as it were.

    Whatever the methodology, there is much that cannot be ignored these days. Ignore the audience at your peril I would say.

    D.A.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks, Dave. It turned out wonderfully well, and your year-ender had me reading the links for the better part of an afternoon!

      Yes… ignore the audience at your peril. That says it quite nicely!

  4. bob priest says:

    firstly, secondly & lastly, i sincerely believe this current exchange of ideas is fruitful & will potentially prove to be of benefit to one & all.

    additionally, while everyone is decidedly in a dialoging kinda groove, may i suggest we try to take this “live & undead” as follows:

    First Thursday Arts Panel Discussion I
    7 February @ 7
    Location TBA
    Reception Following . . .

    actually, brett & i had been discussing getting something like this underway last year.

    so, what sayeth y’all?

    i will help coordinate this get-together if a few collusive colleagues would like to join me.

    the time is RIPE!

  5. Jeff Winslow says:

    I suspect Barry Johnson was mostly making a point about statistics with the following statement, but it struck me as a profound and possibly unanswerable question:

    “A couple of people who cried at the Bruch? How do they balance with the dozers that Campbell observed?”

    Indeed, when considering our audience, how do we behave with respect towards both the inspired and the bored?

Comments are closed.