Web Essays

Rage Against the Machine

If the American symphony orchestra is to survive, it must be rewired and reengineered

By Douglas McLennan | October 13, 2022
The Brevard Music Center Sinfonia performing on July 15, 2022, with baritone Sidney Outlaw (center left), conductor Angel Gil-Ordoñez, and tenor George Shirley (on the podium) (Mark Clague)
The Brevard Music Center Sinfonia performing on July 15, 2022, with baritone Sidney Outlaw (center left), conductor Angel Gil-Ordoñez, and tenor George Shirley (on the podium) (Mark Clague)

As a piece of technology, the modern symphony orchestra is an engineering marvel, a project underway now for more than four centuries that has flourished through countless software updates and component upgrades to its user manuals and core instrumentation. The orchestra has been shaped and defined and redefined again and again not only by those who work on and operate it, but also by the evolution of its underlying technologies and by the social and cultural traditions in which it operates. The orchestra is, in short, an exquisitely balanced synthesis of people, technology, and culture with all of its swirling forces and alchemical interactions. It is perhaps the apotheosis of a community engineering culture built around the interaction between human and machine.

Perhaps counterintuitively, one sign of the enduring importance of the American orchestra might be continuing concern about its health. Although expressions of those concerns over the past half-century have usually begun with changing market forces and popularity—tickets sold, number of concerts given, financial health—followed by conjecture about cultural cause-and-effect, the disruption caused by Covid lockdowns has proved something of a new dividing line in the debate.

Not just because of Covid. During the pandemic, the George Floyd murder, which played out on screens worldwide and provoked wrenching national anger and demonstrations across the country in the summer of 2020, intensified attention on diversity, equity, and inclusion across America’s cultural sectors. As it should have. America’s cultural industries, central to the national economy (entertainment is America’s number one export to the world), play a significant role in helping to shape and define American-ness and its values. If they didn’t take up the cause, who should?

These conversations had been going on for decades, but the summer of 2020 was an inflection point, with most operations on hold and without the pressures of having to actively produce for the public. Existential debates took place about what it means to be a cultural institution in America, alongside the very real, very practical questions of survival.

The precariousness of traditional arts institutions has grown over the past 20 years as the Internet has upended and disrupted business models. Indeed, one could frame the history of the Internet as a full-frontal attack on traditional business, civic, political, and social institutions. One common thread through all of it has been a challenge to culture. In an era of profound destabilizing disruptive change—celebrated with gusto by the lords of technology—pretty much everything about how culture is made, who makes it, and how it gets shared, is up for reinvention or reconsideration.

In the arts in the first decades of the 21st century, we’ve seen a transition from what had been for nearly 50 years a relatively stable, largely institution-based system of nonprofit and commercial cultural production—institutions had been the most efficient way of aggregating resources to make excellent things—to one in which many of the fundamental rules and basic infrastructure that had supported culture have been dismantled or blown up.

In its place are not so much new systems and power centers as a series of endlessly evolving networks of “warring state” cultures in which the very concepts of who is an artist, what is an audience, and relationships between culture, community, and creativity are up for debate. These have largely overshadowed more traditional debates about stylistic evolution within any particular art form. In an age in which anything new has to compete with everything else ever recorded (much of it now accessible online), and every piece of culture competes with every other culture, genres and boundaries have blurred.

Institutions such as orchestras, museums, and theaters, not to mention industries such as popular music, movies, TV and publishing, have been caught in the middle, neither as nimble as newer, networked, open-source models nor as tuned in to cultural trends and changing consumption patterns that are powered largely by social media platforms and new digital tools. The scramble to survive collapsing business models built for another era has inexorably threatened to dominate over the art these institutions are trying to create.

In an odd twist, perhaps the pandemic pause was something of a reprieve for America’s arts institutions, many of which came out of lockdown in better financial shape (unlike most artists and arts workers) thanks to PPP loans, various government relief programs, and generous donors and foundations. The nonprofit model is founded on the notion that the more you produce, the more money you lose (and therefore have to subsidize). Unable to produce, many arts organizations found themselves in a stronger financial position than they had been for some time.

That strength is, alas, proving ephemeral. Though in-person performances have resumed, audiences so far have not returned to theaters, concert halls, and galleries at pre-pandemic levels. Ticket sales are generally down 15 to 40 percent across the board according to many reports, and costs—including paying for new security and Covid protocols—have increased, which means that even with the Covid cash infusion, a difficult winter lies ahead. And, unlike during the lockdown, government assistance is unlikely to be repeated. Arts supporters, perceiving the Covid threat to have eased, are unlikely to come to the aid with more emergency relief. The bigger threat is that this downturn will be longer lasting than a season or two.

It’s difficult to say how much of a legacy institution’s audience attended out of habit, but the importance of routine in that habit shouldn’t be underestimated. Consumers of culture didn’t just quit cold turkey during lockdown. Indeed, there’s evidence that cultural consumption went up online, where new habits were formed. The audience calculation in deciding to return to the theater has become more complicated now that legacy habits have been broken.

All of which brings us back to orchestras, which, along with ballet companies, are possibly the most vulnerably and inflexibly institutiony of arts institutions. Museums and performing arts centers can close their doors and hibernate. Theater and opera companies can scale up and down depending on productions. Movies and TV shows and books can be made or not depending on the market.

But orchestras’ activities are proscribed in union-negotiated contracts that need to be paid whether an orchestra is performing or not. The modern orchestra contract is breathtakingly inflexible in what it will and won’t allow, spelling out in painstaking detail the rules about rehearsing, performing, recording, and working that govern institutional life. In other words, the modern orchestra’s legacy operating system has become so encrusted with lines of code that it is wheezing under the strain of trying to compete in contemporary culture. Alas, what might have been an opportunity to rethink a creaky institutional model was instead largely regarded as accommodation to pandemic disruption until the return of a pre- Covid norm. One that may no longer exist.

In 1989, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Berlin wall falling, Francis Fukuyama, then a deputy director of policy planning at the U.S State Department, wrote a highly influential article in the journal The National Interest in which he wondered whether the world had reached “the end of history.” He argued that if history is a coherent narrative in which one event leads or reacts to another and if that story is one of evolutionary political progress, then the implosion of the USSR suggested that liberal democracy had triumphed, becoming the final, best form of government. Thus the end of history. Fukuyama later turned the article into a 1992 book called The End of History and the Last Man.

Fukuyama wasn’t suggesting that nothing more would be added to the historical record or that history had stopped. And, from the vantage of 30 years later—he certainly wasn’t right about democracy’s decisive victory. But his central idea—that looking at history as a narrative suggesting an ultimate state of arrival or resolution and that perhaps we had achieved it—was an animating idea for a world that was going all in on globalism.

The kind of progressive model that Fukuyama (and before him Hegel and Marx) had proposed for political history has long been discarded as a useful way of thinking about history in the arts. First, not all artists work in the same style in a given era. Second, art is not always reactive to what came before it. And third, the idea of artistic “progress” suggests improvement, and that’s not necessarily how art works.

Baroque music isn’t “lesser” than Impressionist music, it’s just different. Beethoven isn’t a better composer than Bach because he came later and wrote louder pieces. Michael Jackson wasn’t better than Elvis because he improved on “Blue Suede Shoes.” Indian ragas and Chinese opera aren’t superior to Western European music because they’re based on more expanded musical scales. There is no ultimate, universal moment of arrival at which artistic perfection is reached. The musical language might be more sophisticated, the instrument and recording technology might be more advanced, and the style of one composer or era might speak to you more personally than another, but quality isn’t a linear chronological process toward some notion of perfect. Art interacts with and is changed by the context of the time and culture in which it’s being encountered.

Further, notions of an artistic canon, a mechanism for sorting out what’s valuable historically, break down when cultural authority fragments and weakens. In a structured, hierarchical, institutional system, a “canon” that can serve as a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding art feeds and strengthens the system. In the Internet age, as professional critics’ voices are diminished, institutions under attack lose power, cultural “norms” fragment, and any definitive “canon” loses authority.

A better frame for understanding history in the arts might be as a “conversation.” It’s too easy (and boring) to make the same thing over and over again once it’s been done, so just as in a conversation, someone who wants to contribute meaningfully has to further an argument, refute a claim, or introduce something novel to the fray. Conversations go forward, but they often loop back, and rarely do they move in a consistently linear way.

That said, we may, in fact, have reached something of an “end of history” point in music. For most of human history, the music that was available to us was the music of our time. In the 19th century and earlier, that meant live musicians performing for you. Listening to music was an intimate experience that was unique to the moment and unrepeatable. So by definition, the music you heard, even if based on something older or traditional, was contemporary. When radio and recordings came along, that evolved. The context of listening to music was shifted from the here-and-now to the hear-and-then. That is, you could experience a full symphony orchestra time- and place-shifted to your living room, or later on your Walkman as you engaged in another activity. Technology made possible recordings and listener experiences that were almost impossible to replicate in any live performance.

The primary relationship that most listeners now had with musicians was through their recordings rather than live encounters in a theater. And the act of listening to music began to detach from its shared communal context to one of personal experience planned and unplanned—for instance, immersing yourself in Bach’s Goldberg Variations while in your car. Not that live performance ever went away. And not that it doesn’t offer experiences that can’t be replicated by listening to recordings. But the culture of listening began to shift.

Still, the evolutionary arc of the conversation was visible. In the 19th century, the technology of musical instruments got better and more precise; in the 20th, as modernism dominated, composers and performers became fixated on the new and latest. Pop music was all about this week’s charts. In art music, multiple challenges to and explorations of what exactly we thought constituted music—tonality, form, sound, origin, style—dominated. Complexity versus minimalism. Balance between rhythm, melody, tonality and harmony (or lack thereof). Explorations of diverse sources and traditions musical and non-musical. The conversation about music expanded and contracted, became more abstract and then porous and elemental. The availability of music of all kinds fragmented musicians and audiences.

But the evolution in how we listen to music took an even bigger shift with music streaming. On first consideration, streaming looks to be simply more expansion of choice. But streaming also emphatically helped midwife the negation of context. In recordings version 1.0 of the 20th century, listeners still had to proactively choose and acquire (buy) the music they wanted. In recordings version 2.0 in the 21st century, streaming (abetted by the algorithms that increasingly drive what we listen to) has flattened the selection process.

Any piece of music is merely a click or two away from any other piece of music, erasing original context or meaning, making the entire history of music accessible on demand to virtually anyone, anywhere, and anytime, but stripped of its original cultural location. Worse, algorithms increasingly choose our music for us, giving the illusion of discovery even while narrowing our musical tastes by feeding us what we already computationally “like,” Stripped even of the need to choose, these empty calories lead to a kind of deadening of desire to seek out new music that will mean something to us.

Musicians and composers of the 20th century certainly were exposed to works from other genres. But musicians and listeners in the 21st century have been surrounded from their earliest moments by a variety of musical styles and genres ubiquitous enough to have become embedded in their formative experiences. Today’s “classical” composers (“please call us ‘genre-less’”) grab their musical influences across the entirety of our music history, Western and non-Western, popular and arty, and not as dustings of exotic fairy dust, but as authentically internalized influences. Lang Lang’s new Disney classics album may well be a marketing stunt, but Disney movie soundtracks are now every bit as much a piece of the average listener’s common musical heritage as is Beethoven or abstract atonality, which once was perceived to be inaccessible to many but now colors and shapes virtually any movie we see.

This flattening of musical styles, eras, and genres has produced what seems like something of a new era in music; the language(s), materials, and sources have not so much expanded as they have realigned as to what constitutes common cultural reference. Gone are the old tyrannies of 20th-century musical conversations that rigidly defined the rules for “serious” music, now replaced by a Wild West view of ahistorical musical heritage, in which ideas can (and do) come from anywhere.

Music on TikTok, for example, is used as an essential shorthand to anchor viral memes. These memes act as strands of connective tissue across nonmusical culture. The New York Times employs a team of composers to color, evoke, and amplify meaning in the stories told in its podcasts. Music has become atomized, attaching as nano-particles to nonmusical elements, smoothing memes on their journey through the culture.

I began to notice this fragmentation in the early 2000s at panels of classical music critics at the Aspen Music Festival. In talking about where music was going, after getting beyond a handful or so of contemporary composers, critics struggled to debate what was happening more broadly. The problem? There wasn’t—even among people who were closely paying attention—enough common ground to stake definitive positions or even debate. The problem wasn’t the absence of enough interesting ideas; rather, so many ideas had gained traction, it was difficult to determine larger directions and trends with any consensus. “Classical music” now ranges across expansive territory of previously excluded ground in ways that are redefining it.

This has been happening while “pop” music burrowed deeper into its familiar tropes within genres. The result—as on the classical side—has been a fracturing of the pop audience. The days when a big pop artist could dominate the charts for weeks and weeks are gone; now it isn’t just a different artist every week at the top, it’s likely a different genre of music. User statistics on a platform such as Spotify suggest that more than 70 percent of streamed pop music today is not new, not the latest thing, but part of the pop music catalog—the Eagles, Elvis, the Beatles, Motown, Prince, and Steely Dan, and on and on.

Younger listeners see this music as part of the contemporary musical heritage at their fingertips, but it might also speak to a contemporary pop music culture that seems not to have found traction to coalesce around meaningful new directions. There’s no shortage of inventive and original new pop music, each sub-genre with its own fan base, but with a few notable exceptions, there are few younger performers able to command the stadium-size audiences of the ’60s and ’70s, when pop was a mass-culture lingua franca.

If the late 20th-century story was that “classical music” was a domain of rarified afficionados and pop music the soundtrack for the rest of us, perhaps an apt 21st century comparison might be that pop music has become the reliable comfort food, while “classical” has become the slow food of artisanal aspiration. Surely a rich new vein to mine. And yet, while classical music’s institutions (aka orchestras) have begun to embrace the new playing field, this new terrain is largely at odds with how the institution of the orchestra and its artistic aspirations were built to function.

In July, a group of music historians, musicians, and orchestra executives gathered at the bucolic Brevard Center in the foothills of northwestern North Carolina for The Brevard Project: Reimagining the Future of Orchestral Programming, a think tank/symposium focused on the heritage and future of American symphony orchestras. Brevard is a summer training camp for young musicians that traces its origins to the 1930s. Each summer, some 700 young musicians come to play in orchestras and ensembles and get coaching. In recent years, Brevard has also endeavored to reach out beyond instrumental training to consider the broader culture of music and its place in culture. The setting is idyllic, a mirrored lake surrounded by concert spaces and practice rooms, and echoing through the trees are the sounds of young musicians rehearsing for the dozens of concerts given each summer. An inspiring setting, amid the sound of aspiring musicians of tomorrow, to reflect on the state of an art form.

One of the difficulties across the arts of addressing big issues is that working artists and institutions are so challenged by producing their own work and keeping the lights on that gatherings focusing on big-picture debates are rare. The Mellon Orchestra Forum convened such discussions for several years in the early 2000s, and the League of American Orchestras, through its conferences and symposia, tries to serve that function, but a focused, curated opportunity such as Brevard is rare.

The week-long gathering was the brainchild of Joseph Horowitz. A one-time music critic at The New York Times, Horowitz has been for decades, in his roles as a music and cultural historian and an artistic director and producer, a passionate advocate for connecting the art of classical music with its cultural and historical contexts. Through 11 books, countless articles and blog posts, and numerous concert productions, he has explored how classical music came to America and evolved culturally. His 1987 book Understanding Toscanini is a perceptive and insightful study of how classical music was positioned and popularized in America. As celebrity worship became the vehicle for winning fans for great music, argued Horowitz, the die was cast for the place of European classical music in America.

As the pandemic hit, Horowitz astutely grasped challenges to American culture and its cultural institutions, and he authored a series of thoughtful articles and video conversations diagnosing threats and exploring contextual connections between art and culture. Perhaps the heart of his thesis is in his latest book, Dvořák’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, so named for the composer’s observation after coming to America in 1892 that the path to a unique American musical voice was not by extending European traditions, but by building on the wealth of Black and Indigenous music he encountered in his time living here. “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies,” Dvořák wrote. “This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

Horowitz then goes on to document the social and political disconnects and policies that ensured this would not happen.

Standard histories of American music history feature 19th- and early-20th-century struggles to identify a unique (as opposed to derivatively European) musical art identity, which was judged especially difficult when the most promising young American musicians and composers journeyed to Europe for their training. Or at least that’s how the commonly-taught narrative goes, arguing for a line of American musical identity emerging from European roots that runs through Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein.

Horowitz emphatically believes this was a critical wrong turn, separating American culture from its true authentic self, and he proposes an alternative branch that leads through Dvořák, George Gershwin, and Charles Ives, but includes other notable figures. George Chadwick (1854–1931), a composer much influenced by the Realist movement in the arts and a longtime director of the New England Conservatory, is one. Arthur Farwell (1872–1952), a composer associated with the so-called Indianist movement, and Silvestre Revueltas (1899–1940)—a Mexican composer who, for Horowitz, hasn’t gotten his due—are others. The line also takes in Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975), known for his affecting music for Hollywood movies; George Walker (1922–2018), a composer influenced by jazz, hymns, and folk music and the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in music; and the iconoclast Lou Harrison (1917–2003), who crafted a tonal idiom often infused with the sound of the gamelan and other Eastern influences. The reason American classical music of the 20th century lost cohesion (and audience) was its failure to recognize in itself a compelling musical narrative and build on its roots.

In Horowitz’s account, American music of the traditionally taught story peaks before 1900, when two dynamic figures—Theodore Thomas, founder and music director of the Chicago Symphony, and Henry Higginson, a businessman who founded the Boston Symphony in 1881, were its inventive entrepreneurial impresarios. Higginson wrote: “The scheme, half-baked, no doubt, was simply this: to give concerts of good music, very well performed, in such style as we had all heard for years in Europe; to make fair prices for the tickets and then open wide the doors.”

These orchestras were hugely popular, says Horowitz, because of their sense of musical mission—they were led by the belief that music elevated those who made and listened to it, and thus, decisions about how these orchestras were run were musical decisions. Where things went astray, Horowitz suggests, was when the artist manager and businessman Arthur Judson took over management of first the Philadelphia Orchestra (from 1915–1930) and then adding the New York Philharmonic (1922–1956), giving him unprecedented power in the orchestra world. Under his regime, power shifted away from the traditional center of a music director to one of star guest conductors and soloists (aka artist-manager clients). A mission driven by music soon became dominated by stars.

Over the years since, there have been attempts to alter this model, but the culture of the star performer system yoked to the need to sell tickets has proven stubbornly resistant. Worse: absent champions for a native music-first culture in orchestras, American art music culture fragmented and lost a constituent audience. Indeed, mainstream audiences grew actively resistant to “modern music” in the last half of the 20th century. Many orchestras still programmed it, but more out of a conviction that it was the “right” thing to do, while failing to find ways to make what they played compelling.

Popular music, on the other hand, ingested Black musical heritage, built on it, reinvented it, and created a flourishing musical culture that thrives to this day. And yet, there is a significant but neglected body of orchestral work by Black American composers that until recently has gone unplayed. In the past few years, as orchestras have struggled to diversify their programs, a rush of new performances and recordings exploring composers of color has been released. Significantly, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Florence Price’s First and Third Symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon won this year’s Grammy for Best Orchestra Performance. Other composers of color, including Nathaniel Dett, Harry Burleigh, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Margaret Bonds, William Dawson, and George Walker, offer further evidence of accomplished composers whose work largely failed to penetrate the repertoire. At the Brevard meetings, discussions during the day of this alternative history and of contextual programming and where it is working—the South Dakota Symphony’s Lakota Indian Project, led by conductor Delta David Gier, being a prominent example—were followed by performances of music by these composers and others each evening.

Horowitz considers Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony (performed by the Brevard student orchestra that week) a forgotten American masterpiece. Another highlight was the active participation of George Shirley, now 88 years old, and the first African-American tenor to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera. He powerfully sang “sorrow songs” and spirituals that come out of Black culture, and accompanied them with personal stories about his own career as a Black performer in the world of classical music. Not just through stories though. If there was ever evidence needed for Horowitz’s notion of the power of cultural context, Shirley is it. In the voice of an 88-year-man, the music was deeply personal, achingly respectful, and tragically beautiful.

And ironically, this is where Horowitz’s diagnosis both soars and stumbles. So right about the power of context and the crucial importance of authenticity, a music-driven culture, and taking up a vision for what music can be. But the attendant difficulties of preserving that authenticity among competing exigencies of musical institutional survival, not to mention competing cultural (and extra-cultural) forces, make it very hard to accomplish. As if to prove the point, many of the other performances at Brevard got respectful performances but lacked authentic heft. It’s difficult to make a case for a compelling alternative historical line with tentative reproductions.

I’d love to be excited by Florence Price’s music. It is well crafted and expertly orchestrated, yet considered in the context of its time, it sounds to me like music that looked back rather than forward when Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and countless others were searching for new musical language. Without doubt, Price was denied opportunity because she was both a woman and Black. Going back to the idea of music history as a conversation, Price never really had a seat at the table so how could she be part of influencing it? Given more access to opportunity, she might have exerted influence on the direction of music in 1932 when she wrote her First Symphony. But the animating ethos of the time (and not just in music) was excitement about the future, about progress, about what came next. Price’s musical language didn’t fit where the conversation was going; that didn’t mean it wasn’t accomplished work, just that—had anybody even really bothered to listen—it didn’t extend the conversation.

If we live in an age in which our institutions are under attack, traditional cultural models are being disrupted, and the contract between artists and their audiences is being reimagined, what role is there for context, particularly when context seems to be a pitched battle of attrition, if social media is any indication?

Today, the core of the orchestra’s essential technology works better than ever: its musicians perform at a high level, and excellent young musicians are more plentiful than ever, even if some of the most talented of them, in search of greater creative freedom, are choosing not to play in orchestras. The music being composed in the “after the end of musical history” era is inventive and less dogmatic than it has been in decades, and there is a fresh willingness to experiment and take chances, which hasn’t been as evident at this level for many years.

And yet, the institution of the orchestra—its operating system—is now old outdated technology that has resisted updates. It’s a laundry list of bugs:

  • a structure driven by the need to raise ever-larger budgets,
  • a business model that no longer adequately services artistic needs,
  • a stakeholder culture at war with itself,
  • a sclerotic backstage culture built for institutional production that increasingly doesn’t match a front-of-house culture richly served by competing offerings,
  • a star-driven music director model that no longer matches the orchestra’s artistic needs as they have evolved beyond the podium,
  • a culture that many young musicians feel is not enough personally creative or fulfilling,
  • inflexible rules and procedures that govern the work of the institution,
  • a failure to reconceive the structure of a top-down proprietary model into something that more accurately serves the mission of an orchestra (tech companies have figured this out for their industry, so why haven’t arts organizations?).

Oh, and that mission? It’s unclear what it is for some orchestras other than an imperative to survive. That might be their most fundamental impediment.

At a time when we seem to be at war with our own historical and cultural narratives, claims of “ownership” of any particular cultural strands are fraught. Claims of context may be equally so. An artistic OS in which the code is stripped of context ultimately fails to make a case for a reason to endure. If pieces of culture can be interchangeably snapped in and out without impacting meaning, they ultimately cease to have any. And yet, in these very challenges may lie a path forward.

To shift metaphors, fast food might be preeminent in America, but the Slow Food movement that started in the 1980s proved that a robust culture can be built around artisanal attention to context, one based on excellence and history and local roots. And over time, the Slow Food movement has had an influence across the whole of our culture, extending even back to fast food.

Whether Dvořák’s prophecy about Black music being the foundation for American music was the right path not taken is open to debate. But Joseph Horowitz’s larger point about authentically animating and invigorating the context of a musical tradition—about the search for meaning amid the pervasive background noise of our fragmented culture—seems a prescription for the times.

Read Joseph Horowitz’s companion piece in American Purpose, “The Soul of Black Classical Music,” here

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