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The Crisis of Classical Music 16

img  Tobias

Know your scene and you shall know yourself – this simple statement sums up the development behind entire cultural movements. It is also the main factor preventing Classical Music from escaping the age trap it is currently being held captive in.

From Jazz to Pop and Rock and from Rock to Techno, there has been a scene behind all of the major musical developments in the more recent past. While Rock defined a counterculture to the inhibited, racist, chauvinist and traditionally risk-averse society of the 50s and 60s (yes, I AM exagerating slightly here), techno and house opened spaces for people to dance, leave their worries behind and meet on uncomplicated principles and without bothersome ideologies. Even though they were also about finding new sounds and fresh ways of artistic expression, what really propelled them forward were their social events. Just as much as there can be no religion without active parochal communities, no strong musical genre can do without concerts, open jam sessions, record stores or raves. It is in these places that a scene forms and its individuals are bound together, be it only for a few hours. If you look closely at the history of trends over the past decades, no long-lasting musical genre has ever been able to establish itself without these events. And it certainly makes it easier to understand the demise of those styles without mass-scenes: Drum n Bass, which celebrated a two year long extensive media flirt, disappeared from all radars in the late 1990s. Why? Because the group celebrating at associated clubs remained limited and comparitively small. Now, Drum n Bass has withdrawn to its niche again, to cheap flyers and DIY FanZines. Will the same happen to Classical Music?

There are many signs this could indeed be the case. Of course, things have not always been like that. The Classical concert used to be a meeting point for people of all ages and Classical stars were filling newspapers and magazine-pages with their quotes, quips and – last but not least – artistic endeavours. While it may not necessarily have been “hip” to listen to him (that term was only coined by the Jazz revolution), it was definitely completely natural to enjoy Chopin at home with your friends. Thus, there was a societal component to the music, which kept it alive by the interaction between its listeners. Frank Zappa claimed it was impossible to talk about music, but in reality this has been its main motor for ages.

The situation today greatly differs from that picture-perfect world. Not that there isn’t any Classical scene any more. Only, it has withdrawn entirely to the concert situation. Except for the divas, Classical stars have all but disappeared from the gazettes and from the daily lives of the young. Or to put it differently: There is no place or occasion to meet and enjoy it anymore as a group. Can you imagine a club or even a cafe playing Classical Music? The “Yellow Lounge” in Berlin is just as much an exception in this regard as the operatic wallpaper in trendy italian restaurants is an example for counterproductive cliches. Ask any Hip-Hop fan about why he is a fan and he will tell you that Hip-Hop is more than just music, it’s a way of life. Somehow, one can not imagine this happening with someone who likes to listen to Beethoven.

If you look at the efforts of the major record companies, however, you will quickly discover that this is what they are working towards. Classical Music has now been targeted at children, lovers, chillers and many more. While this may lead to short-term sales, it can never replace a real scene. Communities grow naturally, their entire nature implies that they develop a momentum of their own, which far surpasses that created by a single individual or even the huge marketing budgets at the disposal of the majors. With the crumbling of the young scene behind it, Classical music is bound to turn into a niche sooner or later. Interestingly enough, this thought may imply it has a great future ahead of it.

After all, the underground is not the worst of places to start a second coming. If Classical musicians start founding their own record companies, if festivals are popping up everywhere and artists are forced to go out and play whenever and wherever they can to sustain a living, then that is certainly a sign of a crisis. But it also means that local communities are forming, with much stronger ties than the ones of the “golden 70s and 80s”. In the absence of mass expectations and in the safety of conceptual freedom, this music is again free to start living – and to open up spaces for debate, exchanges and meetings. It does require  the industry, the artists and the media to realise that a scene means much more than just the right pair of sneakers, however. And that may prove to be a hard lesson to learn.

"The Crisis of Classical Music" by Tobias Fischer

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