Trends: Only Connect (or, The Kids Are Alright)

By Ronen Givony

“Stop asking 50- and 60-year olds who know not a single person in their twenties to figure out how that demographic might be brought into the concert hall.”

In the classical music world at large, it is a truth universally acknowledged that no subject remains more perennially vexing than What Exactly Is Up with These Confounding Young People Today. The diagnosis is familiar and not a little self-serving in its distribution of blame. Subscription rates and musical literacy are declining; orchestras and presenters are folding; audiences are shrinking and steadily aging. The BlackBerry, the instant message, and the iPod have diminished our attention spans and capacity for sustained, concentrated listening. For the first time in its thousand-year history—or so the litany goes—the unquestioned relevance and authority of classical music in the greater culture have been supplanted by mindless and disposable rock, hip-hop, video games, reality TV, and every other bogeyman to stalk the bedrooms of America’s youth.
And yet, to anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the popular or not-so-popular music of the last 40 (or 5 or 15) years, the commotion can only seem curious, if not willfully hysterical. That is to say: for anyone who has heard a single minute of music by artists such as Radiohead, Boards of Canada, Múm, Aphex Twin, Björk, Joanna Newsom, Sigur Rós, Animal Collective, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, The Books, Brad Mehldau, Sufjan Stevens, LCD Soundsystem, or Deerhoof—to say nothing of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, New Order, My Bloody Valentine, and every other experimental-minded band to win a mass following—the idea that young listeners today are somehow less interested in challenging and compositionally intricate music than a century ago iscondescending at best and downright foolish at worst.
Why, then, do the desperately coveted 20- and 30-somethings of the world look to rock, hip-hop, and electronic music for the nourishment they might have found at another time in classical? There are many reasons, of course, but none more easily remedied than the bumbling fashion in which the classical establishment has failed to articulate an authentic, timely, or convincing gesture to earnest young music lovers today. Indeed, although all but a few in the industry seem either consciously or unconsciously oblivious to the fact, there has never been a more favorablemoment for classical music to win over the many millions of intelligent but uninitiated listeners of our time to the sound world that already means so much to the rest of us.
All of which is not to say that the classical world is uninterested in drawing young people; quite the contrary. The problem is rather in the kind of young people that the establishment is convinced it needs—not the 25-year-old who sees three concerts a week after work and spends most of her disposable income on records, but the 25-year-old who works in venture capital or investment banking, who might one day buy expensive gala tickets and join the board of trustees. Not the young person who devotedly pursues new music and artists on iTunes, Rhapsody, Pitchfork, and MySpace, but the young person who follows the society pages, whose interest is less in music per se than the perceived status and social privileges that classical music allegedly confers. Not the astoundingly underserved audience of passionate and omnivorous young listeners with a lifetime of musical discovery ahead of them, but the audience the classical world has grown comfortable and complacent with over the past century-plus. Not, in other words, on the terms of the world as it currently exists, but on the way it once was, and will never be again.
Such was my thinking two years ago when, for reasons that are still not fully clear to me—having produced a total of zero concerts or events of any kind in my 27 years previous—I decided to start a series called Wordless Music. At the time, I was working as a grant writer for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and dividing my evenings more or less evenly between classicalconcerts uptown and club shows in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side. One day, at work, I happened to open a volume of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and idly turnedto the section titled Chamber Music. I still remember the flash of recognition I felt as I read that “chamber music” was “music written for small instrumental ensemble . . . intended for performance in a small concert hall, before an audience of limited size.”
This made me pause and wonder: What exactly distinguished the music for small instrumental ensembles I was hearing at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall from the music for similarly small instrumental ensembles I was hearing at the Mercury Lounge and the Bowery Ballroom—smaller rooms, with audiences of even more limited size than Alice Tully Hall? Why was a quartet with two violins, viola, and cello called “chamber music,” while a quartet with violin, viola, cello, and laptop was called “indie rock”? Why was a person who writes music performed for seated audiences (no matter how small) considered a “composer,” while a person who writes music performed for hundreds or thousands of people standing up considered . . . something else? More to the point, why did the young people listening quietly and intently to instrumental music at the Mercury Lounge seem to know nothing about Bach, Haydn, and Schubert, while the people sitting next to me at “new-music” recitals in Zankel Hall had never heard Loveless or OK Computer?
The idea, then, was to rethink the structure of both the traditional rock and classical concert, and instead present seemingly dissimilar artists and music side-by-side to see if the conversation between them might reveal something new, illuminating, or surprising. On one half of the program would be a “classical” act—soloist, chamber group, or larger—that would perform repertory typically found in the concert hall: early, baroque, classical, Romantic, modern, or contemporary. On the other half of the bill would be one or more artists from the rock and electronic side of the aisle, whose music is usually performed in less formal settings but whose audience has a demonstrated taste for challenging and experimental fare, and was therefore especially predisposed to the listening demanded by classical music. In keeping with the unconventional artistic pairings, the concerts would happen in unconventional venues—churches, temples, meeting halls, and museums primarily. Equally important, the staging would incorporate the best of both rock and classical music’s production values, with an eye to appropriate and complementary lighting, house music, amplification, printed programs, wine, comfortable chairs, and merchandise. In keeping with the Internet-age demographic we were after, the series would not pay for print advertising and rely instead on e-mail announcements and our Web site alone.
After fumbling in the dark for some time to come up with a name, I decided to call it Wordless Music, which I hoped would imply a kind of neutral ground between so-called “concert music”on the one hand and instrumental rock and electronic music on the other. (After four shows with strictly instrumental rock acts, I learned to loosen up a little and just invite the “pop” artists Ithought were making the best music, regardless of whether they happen to write two-minute punk songs, dance anthems, electronic pop, or 20-minute symphonic suites—musicians who can’t help attracting listeners who themselves are open-minded, intelligent, and curious enough to explore new things.)
In the two full seasons that Wordless Music has presented concerts in New York and other cities, I have tried in my own small way to bring these audiences together, and in so doing, create a new one. Our concerts have featured Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline of Wilco on a bill with the pianist Jenny Lin, who performed music by Ligeti and Shostakovich; the Balkan-by-way-of-Brooklyn band Beirut next to chamber pieces by Bartók, Golijov, Debussy, and Chopin; minimal ambient composers Max Richter, Colleen, Stars of the Lid, Loscil, Polmo Polpo, and Eluvium next to music by Haydn, Ravel, Messiaen, Philip Glass, and Michael Gordon; the Chicago songwriter and violinist Andrew Bird with the pianist Steven Beck, performing Bach’s “Italian” Concerto and first partita for solo piano; the gloriously dissonant San Francisco noise-rock quartet Deerhoof next to an arrangement for brass and live electronics of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; the German techno pioneer Manuel Göttsching next to the medieval polyphony of Pérotin; the deafening Texas instrumental rock band Explosions in the Sky next to music for marimba by Steve Reich; the cut-up and heavily processed electronics of Múm, Cepia, Flying Lotus, and Prefuse 73 next to Xenakis, John Cage, Kevin Volans, and Chen Yi.
Not a little to my surprise, I have sat on the floors of nightclubs in Portland and New York, where 400 fellow young people drank beer and listened to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich—and again in Toronto, watching 20 punk rock and free jazz guys with multiple piercings and tattoos perform Terry Riley’s In C. Even more to my surprise, we have hosted full-orchestra concerts in New York and San Francisco where a thousand-plus young people sat more quietly and respectfully for two hours than any audience I have seen at Lincoln Center—all for a string orchestra program of contemporary music by John Adams, Gavin Bryars, Arvo Pärt, and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead.
The one question I have been asked more than any other in my two years of producing Wordless Music concerts is: Do they really get it? Does it have an impact? Is this a model that might be replicated elsewhere? Or are the kids just patiently sitting through the classical part so they can get to the rock? To which I can only answer: I have not the slightest idea—or at any rate, no more idea than if a Lincoln Center audience more enjoyed the Mozart concerto or the Beethoven symphony that was just played. To my mind, the lessons of Wordless Music are simple and limited in their application. They would be: Stop asking 50- and 60-year-olds who know not a single person in their twenties to figure out how that demographic might be brought into the concert hall. Entertain the possibility that the more experimental-leaning rock and electronic music being made today is not classical music’s competition, but rather its tributary. Look beyond the minds in the artistic programming department, and use the interests of your board members, community, and staff (in particular, the young people constantly listening to music on headphones in your office) as resources for programming ideas. Last, and foremost: All of us—classical, electronic, rock, and jazz people alike—have something very real and important to learn from each other. In other words: There is more music in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.
Ronen Givony is the founder and producer of the Wordless Music series ( in New York. In his increasingly limited spare time, he also works at Nonesuch Records and curates
shows at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village.


Search Musical America's archive of photos from 1900-1992.