I’m conscious of the practice of defaulting to the Chinese… or Mark Twain… when trying to attribute a quote – but in this case, I’m fairly certain there’s a traditional Chinese curse that states “May you live in interesting times.” According to Ben Cameron, the industry guru from the Doris Duke Foundation we heard speak on Friday, the entire classical music industry has been thus execrated for over a century (although presumably not by the Chinese), with the interesting times rarely if ever relieved by periods of stability and growth.
Ben’s an extraordinarily engaging , energetic speaker, but given the state of the industry, he’s only the latest in a long line of well-informed Cassandras resolutely cold-shouldered by the performing arts. His is an important voice calling for change, but sometimes I get the feeling that the performing arts just aren’t listening. In their partial defense, there have also been many ill-informed prophets of doom over the years peddling apocalyptic clichés concerning live music or dance, none of which have come to pass. Still, that doesn’t excuse the static, almost moribund nature of the sector.
I have some direct personal experience with this systemic intransigence. About two years ago I was a finalist for a conducting position with a professional Canadian orchestra, an organization I forbear to name. The audition process was somewhat unusual in that the conducting component came first, after which two finalists were chosen to be interviewed. During my interview, I spoke, as I always do, about my belief in the need for orchestras to develop a participatory culture in audiences, while referencing el Sistema-like ideals. They couldn’t show me the door fast enough. It’s almost superfluous to add that I didn’t get the job.
But I recall very well the reaction on the faces of the people around me. It was fear: cold, rank fear. They had stumbled along for however many years and were content to continue stumbling, because the only alternative they could envision to the status quo was utter collapse. Again, I don’t fault them entirely for this attitude, because in the past that might have been true. In the face of larger economic and social changes, however, it felt like a policy of “don’t rock the (leaky) boat” while remaining oblivious to the tidal wave about to demolish the dinghy. That simile reminds me of a western US conservatory, in which the student society rejected a proposal to fund lessons to disadvantaged but talented children, in favour of continuing to make capital purchases on behalf of the school. (In this policy they were aided and abetted by the conservatory leadership, who saw the society funds as existing solely to supplement their own purchasing budget.) The tidal wave hit: the society’s funding was reduced by NINETY percent ($5000 dollars down to $500) by the student senate. Clearly, the consequences of doing nothing can be as dire as the consequences of doing something – and personally, I’d prefer to make apologies for having acted rather than having failed to act. Perhaps that’s just me.
Frankly, most music conservatories are as happy in their quicksand as their professional performing counterparts. The schools view themselves as the guardians of a sacred and ancient tradition, in which “innovation” is limited to the painfully esoteric area of computer music or the pointless, ever-changing realm of “music business” as viewed only through the narrow lens of technology. New England Conservatory is a startling exception to the rule: the fact that Abreu Fellows Program even exists speaks volumes about the leadership. In the world of musical academia, where schools cling to “the most recent bad performance” like the emperor to new clothes, it takes incredible vision and commitment to break the normal mold and support an alternative vision of the future of music.
The alternate vision is only one half of what is required to compel system-wide change. The other half is simple: not to decry or denounce the current model, but render it obsolete. As Mark Twain (might have?) said : “A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” Change is coming, of that you can be certain. We can either lead it, or be left behind by it.
And if you want to use that quote, please credit me and not Mark Twain.