Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What if classical music were popular?

In this lovely little TED lecture, Benjamin Zander aims to sell his audience on the idea that every one of them--and indeed, everyone else--secretly loves classical music and needs only a little guidance to discover that love.

Near the end of the talk, Zander says that people in the classical music business always think along these lines: two percent of people already take an active interest in this music. What can we do to raise that to three or four? Zander says that the approach should instead be to assume that everyone does love or will love classical music and to take the actions that flow from that assumption.

Zander thus evokes one of my favorite thought experiments: what if classical music (broadly defined, but of the "serious" rather than "pops" variety) became truly popular? Specifically, how would the 2% of, say, Americans who currently identify themselves with classical music react? Some, I presume, would revel in the spread of their preferences to a larger number of fellows. Many, I guess, would feel dismay at the loss of the cultural capital that we confer on exclusive forms of high culture. I would predict that this group would find ways to create new mechanisms of exclusivity: we might, for instance, see a certain kind of chamber music gain new clout, with its patrons building extremely specialized concert halls whose performances would not only be costly to attend but also impose daunting conventions of dress and behavior. If this happened, I would further predict that the devotees of this music would lament that it commanded such a small audience and suspect that, in their hearts of hearts, everyone truly has a taste for it.

Do you, reader, have a different and perhaps happier vision?

Bonus question: what has the evolution of jazz, which has frequently seen its more popular branches defined out of the category of "jazz," told us about this imagined scenario?

No comments: