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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Concert music and the importance of storytelling

Updated: May 15, 2018

I read with great interest – and, frankly, great irritation – the article on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog about a young Estonian composer whose work was cancelled by the New York Youth Symphony because it quotes a Nazi hymn. (You can read the article here:

While I can think of many different ways the NYYS could have handled the situation what I want to focus on here is how the composer handled the situation, because he bears at least some of the responsibility for how this has played out, and because it’s an example of an extremely common and troubling attitude in the classical music world. You see, when asked to explain his use of the Nazi hymn – which he surely knew had the potential to be inflammatory – Jonas Tarms refused. He’s quoted as saying the following:

"I strongly believe that the music should speak for itself. This is the most disappointing thing about the situation for me. I felt like I had something important to say, musically speaking, and I was not able to say it. Shostakovich, Mahler, Beethoven — you cannot find any official program notes they provided at their concerts, describing what the music means to them."

Ah yes, that tired old trope: The music should speak for itself.

Some historical background. Music has been evoking non-musical imagery and attempting to communicate non-musical concepts since the very beginning, but composers’ relationship to that process has frequently changed. In the Baroque and early Classical eras, composers sought for a sort of intellectual purity in their non-vocal works. The working out of motifs, harmonic structure, and form was what the piece was about. No extra-musical explanation was required because none was intended; the delight of the listener resided exclusively in the spinning out of the music itself. (It should also be noted that the audiences for the instrumental and non-sacred music of the day were exclusively made up of aristocrats and royalty who were well educated in the language of music. There was no “general audience” for Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Haydn’s string quartets.)

By the time the 19th century got going, though, this began to change. Works like Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and many others, explicitly evoked images and scenes of a dramatic nature; in the case of the Berlioz, a full-blown story is told. And thus began the question of just how much a composer should explain about his or her work, a question that pretty much every composer since has struggled with.

Stravinsky famously said that music was incapable of any meaning beyond itself. And while that’s a fine intellectual argument worth debating, composers have taken that quote out of context and used it to justify a closed-mouthed approach to their music. Mahler’s practice of writing elaborate program notes to his symphonies and then refusing to share them with his audience is usually cited as well. It would seem that many composers today feel that they are somehow demeaning their work if they offer any description of their work or guidance to their listeners. Many are downright offended if you ask, and stubbornly refuse to offer any insights into their intentions or what they would like their audience to get from the experience.

There are several problems with this attitude. The first is simply that “it wasn’t done before” is never a strong argument for not doing something now. So what if Mahler struggled with whether or not to print program notes? Are we living in Mahler’s time? Are we in the same society as he? Moreover, what if his choice (and the choices of those like him) was a mistake? What if he was just driven by arrogance, or the desire to place himself in the same category as his idols (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, et al.)? The hubris of withholding information from the audience is blatantly exposed in Richard Strauss’s claim that his music could evoke a pencil moving across a page – and the listener would know what he was depicting. Oh, please. (No doubt it was this sort of hyperbole that Stravinsky was reacting to, at least in part, in his famous quote.)

But the point is this: never once have I heard anybody convincingly argue that the listener’s experience is enhanced by a lack of information about what’s going on. And if we desire our music to communicate something to our audience then shouldn’t we do everything we can to facilitate that communication? Whether or not the music “should” speak for itself is, frankly, irrelevant: we know that it often does not. So it’s all of our jobs – composers, performers, and presenters – to do everything we can to make sure that the musical experience does speak to our audience. Otherwise, why should they bother supporting us with their attendance and their money?

This is where I reach my point of irritation. To proclaim your music’s intent to be readily transparent, based solely on its inherent qualities, is a pretty damned arrogant attitude if you ask me. First off, while maybe Bach or Haydn could pull it off, are you comparing yourself to those guys? Furthermore, in the case of Jonas Tarms (and many other composers with the same attitude), his intent included extra-musical themes – while the instrumental music of Bach and Haydn did not. By his own admission Tarms wasn’t writing a piece of “absolute music,” he was trying to say something about human cruelty in our history. So why not help us understand that? Don’t you want your audience to “get” what you’re trying to say, or is it somehow more important to hold yourself up as the great master composer, whose work is so strong it conveys its universal truth without such demeaning things as words to help?Boiled down, it comes to this: if you can’t figure it out on your own, that’s your problem.

And with that I’m once again drawn to how an entrepreneurial mindset challenges those of us in classical music to reverse our thinking on the relationship between what we do and the audience we seek. Because the attitude that High Art should not be “explained” runs rampant among far more people than just composers. Performers and organizations buy into that same mindset all the time. Even our marketing – which tends to be based on the notion of simply convincing an audience to attend – is driven by our assumption of the inherent value of the work we’re promoting. Said another way (though no performer or presenter would ever say it this bluntly), the deeply embedded attitude is that if you don’t value our art there’s something wrong with you.

That’s a convenient attitude, of course: it absolves us from any responsibility to connect with our audience. “Here’s what I have: take it or leave it.” When people choose to “leave it,” we can blame the lack of education, or insufficient marketing dollars, or too few outreach events. We’ll point the finger of blame for dwindling audiences towards anyone and anything other than what we might be doing to drive patrons away. Unfortunately, this is the very attitude that fuels the widening gulf between classical music and the general public. It reinforces the “insider’s” sense of superiority and alienates everyone else. And as long as that’s the mindset we’re in, all the clever marketing and outreach we can devise – often under the banner of “being entrepreneurial” – will not yield results. It’s about as contrary to true entrepreneurship as one can imagine.

So how can we change this? One of the core qualities of entrepreneurship that practicing entrepreneurs often cite is the ability to be a “story teller.” When pitching an idea to potential customers or investors, entrepreneurs must tell a story: a concise, clear, and compelling reason why anybody should care about their product. It’s a critical component to entrepreneurial success, because without connecting their product to someone who cares about it the entrepreneurial venture (or any other venture) is doomed.

In the case of concert music, it’s less about where the “story” resides and more about using every aspect of the experience – with music at the center – to tell a story. And since music is an abstract language (regardless of whether or not the music has an extra-musical intent), and it’s foreign to many, we need to look at other aspects of the experience to help convey meaning – including the spoken word, visual elements, or whatever is appropriate. I’m not suggesting a “travelogue” of everything that occurs, or a specific and limiting assertion that “This is what you should hear.” After all, that still implies that if you don’t hear what you’re “supposed to” something must be wrong with you. But we can open up the world of the composition for our audience, invite them into the experience and give them some guiding thoughts – at which point they’re genuinely equipped to connect with the music and still do so on their own terms.

What’s interesting about Jonas Tarms is that once everything hit the fan he added the following to his website: "The piece is devoted to the victims who have suffered from cruelty and hatred of war, totalitarianism, polarizing nationalism — in the past and today." Okay, great! Why would he resist saying this at the outset? Why wouldn’t he want to help ensure that people grasped this message through his piece? Did maintaining an air of inscrutability somehow make him feel more like a “real” artist?

But of course this isn’t really about Jonas Tarms, nor am I defending the way the NYYS handled the situation. I’m sharing this because it’s a powerful object lesson in the still-prevalent arrogance and elitism that underlies so many practitioners and presenters of classical music. It’s something we need to own and examine closely, because until we do we cannot truly revitalize the music we treasure and revere. In short, we have to learn to tell our stories, to help audiences understand why we do what we do and what it is we’d like to share with them. It is our job to facilitate this connection. When we stubbornly refuse to do so, we shouldn’t be surprised when support for our work disappears.

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