The Information Barrier

What’s the primary impediment to increasing the classical music audience?

Education.  Hardly a surprise answer.

But if we look at education as something that can happen on the fly — through imaginative presentation of information and new concert formats — we may be able to do something about this problem in our lifetime. Sure, public schools should stop cutting music courses, but looking at long-term education is only one way to attack the problem.  Let’s use the tools of the digital age to educate in striking new ways.

So, the primary impediment to increasing the classical music audience?

Information: how it’s presented, how we absorb it.

First, two case studies.  Take the highly-educated modern-art devotee who scurries to MOMA for some shroom-trip of a digital-art exhibit — a mélange of video, sexual politics, Jesus, spray paint, maybe defecation.  But this same person, with absolute sincerity, tells you he’s too intimidated to attend a symphony concert.  He claims to know nothing about music, when to clap, what to wear.

Then there’s the alt-rock or indie electronica fan who exhibits incredible curiosity about new artistic experiences — attending noise-pop shows or Burning Man parties — but avoids the concert hall because he never studied an instrument.

Within the field, we find these excuses maddening.  We know that the great concert music requires no PhD.  If you are alive, you will understand a Mahler Symphony, a Ligeti Piano Concerto, a Mozart string quartet.  Of course, repeated encounters will make the experience richer, and the accumulation of repeat visits to the concert hall transforms someone into an informed listener.  But it’s getting that first-timer to show up that’s a challenge.

Breaking this information barrier requires imagination, technology, and audacity.

Start with the program book, that novella-sized collection of encyclopedia-length articles about the music we’re about to hear.  Make it cinematic.  Using the sides of the concert hall as a screen, project brief videos about the upcoming work.  All those illuminating anecdotes about Beethoven laboring over his melodies would be much juicier with accompanying shots of the obsessively-edited manuscripts.

Far more images could float by than in a traditional program book, accompanied by insightful commentary from a variety of luminaries.  Musicians from the orchestra could describe their experience inside the piece, the conductor could give an overview of the form, and all of this could be tastefully edited to a much more concise length than if spoken from the stage.  Besides, there are plenty of dead spaces in a classical concert: when the piano is being rolled on, the percussion battery switched out, etc.  Let’s turn those energy-killing moments into information opportunities.

Then look at the lighting.  Make it darker, more imaginative, more like theater.  Music sounds better in the dark anyway.  Since the program book will be projected, no need to keep the house lights at that lame half-level the whole time.  We don’t want a Pink Floyd laser show; we just need some tasteful stagecraft to frame the concert.

The look at the lobby.  Are there any parts of the building that could better create social platforms?  Post-concert music, some food and drink that’s not run by a catering mafia?  Music is about community, and people need not flee the concert hall as if it’s on fire.

We are experimenting with all these things on the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series, the new-music arm of the CSO that happens at the Harris Theater.  The series has been going strong for a longtime under the stewardship of several outstanding composers, but it has really exploded in the past two years.  It’s not unusual to have audiences nearing a thousand showing up to hear new chamber music.

The projected program notes may not be Spielberg, they may not be loved by our print-loving friends in the newspaper community, but they have worked wonders with both the many new listeners and the longtime attendees.  What better way to hear about a new piece than from the composer himself?  A crisply-edited interview, shot in the artist’s creative environment, has at least as much value as some drab text about pitch-classes.

The lighting may not be Cirque du Soleil, but it blows the doors off the standard half-lit concert experience.  Pools of light divide the huge stage into many smaller pods, where everything is pre-set to minimize set changes.  We once used a traveling spotlight to follow a saxophonist around the audience — he was on a wireless mic and had an interactive electronic soundworld responding to his gestures.  (The excellent Corail by Edmund Campion.)

The post-parties may not be The Love Parade, but they hit the trifecta of excellent downtempo DJs, free beer, and free pizza.  We partner with the local DJ collective illmeasures to provide promotion and the right kind of mellow electronica, and it’s become a wonderful new platform for the Chicago musical community.  A big scrum of folks stick around after each show, creating a festive atmosphere that adds social value to the whole experience.  Most important, of course, is the music itself, and the programming of diverse, captivating composers is the element that takes the most of our time.

Many kudos to Martha Gilmer, Nick Winter, and the Chicago Symphony staff that has supported Anna Clyne and me in this transformation of the concert experience (particularly Phillip Huscher, the program annotator, and Jeff Stang, the production manager).  Maestro Muti has ultimately been the driving force, with his vision of reaching deeper into the Chicago community in new ways.  The added production bells and whistles are not as cheap as the pizza, but they are an investment that’s already paying dividends.  Other orchestras can do this too, even on the regional level, with the help of a few forward-thinking sponsors.  Don’t intrude into the music, and please don’t project a slideshow from the local zoo during Carnival of the Animals. But please, please remember that people of all ages who inhabit the 21st Century are hungry for immersive educational experiences.

What’s next?  My wish list includes mobile program notes that give a preview to the upcoming concert; one could choose one’s difficulty level, as in gaming, so that even a seasoned concert-goer could read something of interest.  I’d also like to see the lobbies of orchestra halls become destination hangouts, complete with top-notch mixologists whipping up imaginative cocktails and LED screens providing, yes, information.  What if a symphony made a lobby bar so compelling that hipsters showed up even if they weren’t going to the symphony?  While they enjoy their Ramos Gin Fizz, they may even learn a thing or two from that LED screen about Charles Ives.  They may then stumble inside the sanctum the next time around.  Let’s not be offended if someone first hears Ives because he had a fantastic gin cocktail made with frothy egg whites; when he hears the Fourth Symphony, we will have him.

Classical music is alive.  Its presentation should be too.  There are tasteful and innovative ways to educate the audience right now, without waiting for a twenty-year change in our school system.  And if you’re in Chicago this month, come by the Metro club on June 15 for the return of Mercury Soul — where you can see some of this in action.