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Music: The Individual and the Institution

The search for irreducible components is sometimes painful, always instructive. For individuals, such a basic quantity is survival. Our minds and bodies are geared to withstand a spectacular variety of internal and external pressures and, already over 100 years ago, Mr. Darwin told us a thing or two about surviving. Although Webster suggests a competitive ingredient to survival — "a living beyond the life of or continuing longer than another person, thing, or event" — the word may simply mean "to live on." We exist in order to go on existing.

The same does not hold for institutions because, although they may be staffed by flesh-and-blood individuals, they are themselves lifeless abstractions. They have no will of their own, no propelling drive, no genius. The institution's "bottom line" has to do with things other than body and soul. Its basic elements are money and power.

The individual, in order to thrive, must have the perception of productivity. He must feel himself to have an outlet for his creativity (although he might not, in fact, be producing anything of general significance); or conversely, he may lament his failure to funnel energies into what he regards as truly creative channels (despite being well rewarded and appreciated for what he does do). An example of the former is the enthusiast who can't wait to get back to the object of his passion even though that fervor may not be shared by his society. An example of the latter is the anonymous composer of music for commercial jingles who would love to be writing (and recognized for) string quartets, but who is the envy of others less financially fortunate.

In a world as unwieldy and sophisticated as ours, the resources of both the individual and the institution are indispensable. One dimension that seems to be facing increasing difficulties these days, however, is the arts institution, and one example is the organization concerned with concert music, be that as music makers (such as performing organizations) or music purveyors (such as publishers, record companies, etc.).

Take the symphony orchestra, for instance. Despite the boosterism and rhetoric of such lobby groups as the American Symphony Orchestra League that regale us with promising statistics and synthetic optimism regarding our concert life, the facts speak for themselves. Fewer people under the age of 50 are drawn to concert music events than in the past. Performances of music by composers who are living in and loved by the contemporary world have decreased. Many composers have either withdrawn from the world-at-large and retired to the hermetically sealed safety of academia; or they are writing a type of music for which most younger people, even reasonably well-educated younger people, are ill-prepared and to which they are unreceptive. The largest and finest orchestras do play their share of new music, but rather as an obligation than a dedication. Mid-size and smaller orchestras barely try. Most have become music museums for older audiences.

Consider this within the context of orchestra economics — let alone the vastly more expensive medium of opera. Except for the major orchestras of major cities (that have always been sufficiently endowed to survive), the economic spiral that has affected American orchestras has had grave consequences. In the '50s and '60s, orchestras of smaller cities were largely community affairs that employed smatterings of professionals for ludicrously low recompense. As cities grew, so did the degree of musical professionalism, aided and abetted by the Ford Foundation and similar industrial benefactors that enabled orchestras to attain a higher calibre. But as these groups became locked into ever higher rates of spending, the question arose: where would these funds keep coming from? For a while, the National Endowment for the Arts together with the private sector seemed to do the trick, but both sectors find themselves hard-pressed as our century enters its final decade. Moreover, between the availability of mass media, increased logistical difficulties of high ticket prices, parking hassles, etc., and (not least) the diminished ability to concentrate on serious musical offerings, people have chosen to spend both their dollars and their precious leisure time in other pursuits.

In a painfully troubling article, "Trouble in the Music World," Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom writes: "Perhaps one reason people have stopped coming to concerts is that the novelty of hearing background music played `live' simply wears off. The serious-music publishing industry is almost defunct. Many music-publishing houses, once proud producers of editions for the masses and for specialists, are now marginal operations." It is true, as Mr. Bolcom surely knows, that some music publishers continue to exist by having been "absorbed" in corporate mergers and acquisitions; and others are able to hang in from the income of works still protected by copyright. Time ticks relentlessly on and copyrights expire, and then what? Technological advances, moreover, such as xerography and tape, have been both a blessing and a near-fatal curse.

The dilemma of the arts institution and its ancillary organizations triggers a sensitive question. Are we telling ourselves that such institutions as symphony orchestras should survive because they wish to survive? Naturally they don't want to disappear, and all their constituents, from management and auxiliary forces to the players themselves, pull out whatever stops they can grasp to bring in the paying customers and supporters. It is a desperate but ultimately losing battle and nothing, to quote Sol Hurok's immortal malapropism, "will stop them when people don't want to come."

Some MadAminA! readers may be too close to the problem to see it dispassionately. But no one would take issue with the claim that surgeons do not survive because they want to. They survive some say, only too well-because there are ill persons who need and want them, and whose lives may be extended by them. It is the individual who creates the need for the practitioner, not the other way around. And — to continue the medical analogy — data, technique and technology change in our concept of health (just as style, form and content change in what we perceive as art). What remains constant and ongoing is the relationship of care-giver and patient, and the quality of both.

That quality is far easier to test in medicine than in art. The patient lives or dies, or he gets better or worse. And the great doctor is the one who can diagnose and remediate, perhaps where others have failed. But who is to say what is great art? Certainly not the artist with his vested interests and commitments; and even less the institution existing to sustain him — in the case of music, the performing organization, union, guild, and academia. The English musician and scholar Deryck Cooke had it right when he wrote that artistic standards "have not been created by criticism but by informed majority opinion. If enough intelligent and sensitive artists want to perform a composer's music and go on performing it, and if enough intelligent and sensitive listeners want to hear it and go on hearing it-then that music has to be regarded as being of the finest."

Intelligent and sensitive listeners, however, are not born that way. They are methodically disciplined over a long period to a point where their listening shows almost as much concentration, almost as intense a creative effort, as the composer's. It involves study and ongoing exposure to the musical experience.

Which brings us back to Mr. Bolcom's essay. "How do you get people to pay real attention to music again?" he asks. "A possible answer: People become interested in activities in which they have participated even reasonably well." Kindle those people's interest, then. Get them to love music and to listen to it keenly enough "to want to hear it and go on hearing it." Then shall we no longer need to depend on even the most well-meaning arts institution to save itself and its art from oblivion. Individual music lovers will eagerly funnel their resources — their leisure hours and unique sensibilities — into singing, playing, listening. Then shall the tide of their enthusiasm be unstemmed, and they will expend their energies through music, giving the institution a lift along the way.

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