Recently, my nine colleagues and
I had plans to attend a panel discussion at Harvard entitled "Classical
Music in Crisis," featuring several prominent figures and commentators in the music world. We were all looking forward to dissecting and examining the state of what some
deem to be a "dying art form" and what role the El Sistema movement could
play in this trajectory. Due to a delayed meeting at NEC, rush hour
traffic, and insistent rain, we showed up more than a few minutes late, but still
zealous to jump right in.
Much to our dismay, we were confronted with a closed door and a sign reading "sold out,” although we could see through the soundproof glass walls that there was room for ten more enthusiastic people. We pleaded, not believing that we could be kept out of this important discussion, but the guard pointed at the sign, which was (ironically) taped over the event poster that boasted "Free and Open to All."
After it became clear that not even my usually effective "sad face" could get us in (it was a fire code issue), we moped for a while outside, grumbling that this was the very reason why classical music was "in crisis." Too often places in which classical music is housed are closed off from the public by soundproof doors. Many people are only able to look in from a distance, while not having any idea what is actually going on.
As my sad face turned into the evil eye directed at the guardian of the door, I noticed another potential audience member standing outside. I struck up a conversation with this individual, who I soon found out was Michael Reichman from The Sounding Board, also very passionate about the topic, and soon a couple of others joined in. Before long, we had started our own panel discussion in the hallway about why we thought classical music was in crisis. And the conclusion we came to? It's not.
As I mentioned earlier, too often these days the words "art" and "death" are strung together in the same sentence. But if art and music are some of the very things that define humans, how could this possibly be the case? Enter the "institution,” symphony orchestras, museums, theaters, etc. They were conceived as ways to make art more public and are now, in our present day and society, the means by which we connect people to art: a vehicle. They are not, in and of themselves, art, and yet we see them as such because for as long as we can remember the "arts world" has made them synonymous. But if, in an eerily futuristic world, all symphony orchestras ceased to exist, would that mean that the music of Beethoven would as well? Of course not. Symphony orchestras are not the music, they are our way of accessing the music, and it is these institutions that may be dying. And perhaps this framework is the very heart of the problem.
At a related Harvard lecture the day before, I had started to think about the difference between outreach and education. One is simply exposure, and another is creating and nurturing relevance. I posed this idea to a couple of my colleagues, and Diogo Periera phrased outreach like taking a child to the zoo. "This is an elephant” or, "This is a tuba." There is nothing wrong with it, but, as Jessie Berne added, the child won't really care about the elephant until they take it home as a pet. Many institutions take the going to the zoo approach. They may be nice for an afternoon, but after we leave, it really has nothing to do with us. Thus, we can and should start to see this three-way relationship of people, institutions, and art, through a different lens. What if people and art were on the same side—undivided—as they are intended to be, and the institutions reflect and support these humanistic habits? Maybe it would take some weight off their shoulders, the responsibility of being art must be a huge burden.
This notion is only just a seedling, and I will be the first to
say that it is one thing to dream up ideas, and quite another to put them into
practice. One of my own primary questions is about how much we need to
break down before we can begin to rebuild. Perhaps that is too cynical;
there are so many good things going on, maybe we just have to facilitate some
changes and conversions? This may be where the El Sistema movement comes
El Sistema-inspired programs are like taking the elephant home as a pet. In fact, it's more than that. It's like taking the whole Serengeti home. It reflects and enhances the ecosystem of the community. It pushes the margins of the present world of classical music while drawing in and strengthening communities. It has the potential to embody relevant and beautiful music. Anyone in the center of such a program would look at you as if you were crazy if you said the art form was dying. It is alive and vibrant, raw and genuine, just as it has always been.
Sistema Fellow, '13
Update: audio from the Harvard panel discussion that we missed is available here.