Can we make Classical music a for-profit endeavour?

We live in a time when most classical music organizations are constituted as non-profit entities. I live in the U.S. and that’s how it is around here. I understand that in Japan, classical music supports itself nicely and does not need subsidies to survive. That is not the case in the vast majority of the world.

And a frequent topic of conversation I hear in classical music circles is wether or not the music will survive.  I think that its survival depends on it being more popular and gaining more fans that would fill more concerts halls and tune in to it more.  But many of the premieres I hear of new classical music are accesible only to people that are already immersed in the world of classical music and are somewhat disagreeable to the  people sitting outside of this world or on its edges.

So, how do we change this? As a composer, I think we have to change our concept of what new music should be like. I think that by going into the world of dissonance and abandoning the world of tonality, of  the chordal system that was developed in Europe in the XVIII and XIX century, the so-called “Common Practice Period” , we have alienated many potential listeners. I happen to believe that the musical system developed in Europe  is based more on discovery than on an arbitrary juxtaposition of sounds. You can see how easily the chords that this music uses have penetrated in places where they were not used in the XIX century and taken over.  Pop music all over the world has adopted the tonal system. True, many times you can hear tones based on regional scales but on a bed of tonal music.

Now, classical music reached a peak at the end of the XIX century with the Romanticism. And a new generation of musicians wanted to put its imprint on their music. Two new schools arose, one of composers that looked into staying in the tonal system but with more dissonance in their writting and another that proposed music organized around the 12 tones of the scale used at once, without a tonal center, the serial system, which is atonal. Neither of these currents became popular with   the general population. And we are still relying on the great composers of the XVIII and XIX century to keep classical music alive.

What would my proposal be to solve all this and make classical music more popular? I offer several points that we could use to create new music that is more appealing:

  1. Continue using the tonal system as a basis for compositions, although somewhat altered by each composer to make it sound fresh.
  2. Use rhythm as a bridge to society. Rhythm has become very important in popular music and we could elevate the rhythmical patterns that are used to a higher complexity. Chopin sublimated the waltz. Maybe we can sublimate the rhythms of hip-hop and rap. And make them less repetitive, so as not to be writing actual hip-hop and rap.
  3. Eliminate the sequence as a transition from section to section. A sequence, the repetition of a pattern of notes two, three or even more times to go from one section to another in a composition, can be replaced by a desintegration and integration, a device where the music loses cohesion and regains it, dissolves, so to speak, to transition. The desintegration can be done by exagerating the intervales that form a melody until we lose the sense of melody that the notes had and then reshaping the melody from there.
  4. Or eliminate the sequence by the use of a serial row in transition, a written sequence of 12 tones, a chromatic passage to go from one section to another.

These are the suggestions that I have arrived at after some reflection and it is not a complete list by any means. The mistake would be to despair and think: “Everything has been written already”, “I have to go extreme in order to be noticed”, “There is nothing new under the sun”. We just have to keep trying. But trying in order to be able to reach more people and produce the aesthetic experience that composers like Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, and many others were able to achieve. Their work appealed to our intellect and to our emotions, both at once. I think that’s the goal. And as the new works appeal to more people, maybe we can start being viable and profitable, too. Because writing new music to satisfy just a small circle of “initiated” listeners, as a friend of mine used to put it, seems to me a self-defeating proposition.

Sergio Barer





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