Today the intensity in the classical music world reaches its climax: the most beautiful masterpieces are in demand, they are interpreted by the most gifted musicians in the most magnificent concert halls, which are then described in entrancing words by the columnists of the daily newspapers. But is it not a nature phenomenon that when everything is perceived as intense, it inevitably comes to a de-intensification. The “intensive” becomes the rule and norm and loses its attraction. The philosopher Tristan Garcia writes in his book “Intensive Life – Modern Obsession”: “The concept of intensity means a kind of volatile being that is no longer what it is, but it cannot sustain itself and therefore disappears when it appears.”
What will happen in the future with the “old classical music” when the peak of intensity is exceeded? Today new works by contemporary composers are pushing to the light. They are so diverse that they cannot not be assigned to any genre. The main feature of new classical music is the variety of elements and fusion of different styles. This music can be characterized by refreshing, serene and optimistic sounds with distinct melodies that in their own way provide an answer to the increasing complexity and atonal sounds of our daily life. The number of the composers is increasing and at the same time the range of interpretations of their works. The development of music scene goes even further. Especially young listeners appreciate small events and unusual locations. They cannot relate to the exeggerated language of the columnists that appear to them as a relic of days gone by. Today the intense music experience is set against by listening to music without intentions, which invites to think, relax and draw strength. This musical experience leaves room for the development of our own ideas and feelings.
The old intensities disappear; new forms emerge, which one day will disappear again. Intensities come and go. Only the cycles are likely to be shorter, as with many other modern developments. What’s next?
„Uncertainty was yesterday, today is chaos”...Does the increasing complexity in life have an influence on the way the composers of today write music? When I am playing the music of contemporary composers, I ask myself – does this music express the feeling of modernity? When yes, what is it? Can it be captured in words?
„Uncertainty was yesterday, today is chaos”. This was the title of an article that I read last week in the Harvard Business Review. The author speculated that today we had such a great variety of influence factors for making decisions. These factors have unpredictable correlations that make it almost impossible to come to a clear conclusion. Our lives are influenced by giant forces such as mobility, globalisation, non-conformism, cultural and social diversity. No wonder we feel that the complexity is increasing.
Does the increasing complexity in life have an influence on the way the composers of today write music? When I am playing the music of contemporary composers, I ask myself – does this music express the feeling of modernity? When yes, what is it? Can it be captured in words? The search for the feeling of modernity is not new. Let me share with you the thoughts of Charles Baudelaire who was a great poet, an art philosopher and a deep thinker. He believes that any artist is a “spiritual citizen of the universe“ by his or her very nature as a super sensory sensitive person who is very inquisitive and who has an immense yearning for knowledge and understanding. Baudelaire had an interesting thought that the way of artist’s reacting to the world would eventually lead to some cultural progression – in other words, an artist is forever in search of modernity.
There is one more thought by Charles Baudelaire that fascinated me. He says that the hardest part of being “contemporary” artist is to love the present times, embrace them, and not search in the past. He wanted the artists to live in present and enjoy it. To discover the beauty of today and listen to the present. To hear “today” and understand it! That is how artistic motto of Moving Classics TV “Discover the beauty of contemporary piano” and “Listen to our life” was born.
What is contemporary piano? Just by listening quickly to our “Fantasy notes” playlists, your impression will be a mixture of every conceivable genre: from the distant Bach polyphony and Lisztian harmonies to the jazz rhythms, ethno sounds, ambient, minimalism, lounge, pop, to name just a few. It is hard for purists to find a certain sustainable line. But the compositions are just like our life: multi-stylistic, extreme diverse, non-conform, flexible, still fresh, and childishly pure. There is a reason for it too: composers are able to draw their inspiration from a practically limitless array of sources, from Palestrina singing to Lady Gaga viral songs. The absence of limitations nourish the composer’s soul and bring more creative ideas. It is more a question of making a well-thought choice and being loyal to one own beliefs.
The contemporary composers have a much more complex society to deal with. They are trying to meet the taste of a society that is influenced by breaking news and the thoughts of flexibility, comfort and entertainment. Our society is also highly performance-oriented. Internet made music available to everybody at no cost and if people are in search of inspiration or just want to relax or get entertained, they will be listening to music. To be the source of inspiration for the society, contemporary composers compete with the genius of the past. It is often the case that if our society wants to get more “culture”, they go to the concert featuring the 19th century music. Just look at the program of any concert hall in the world. Or just type in Beethoven & Chopin in Google line or YouTube and listen online. It still works. The genius of the past still inspire us.
In a world that seems to be more and more unpredictable and sometimes chaotic, there is a wish to reduce the complexity of life. No wonder new age, ambient or just relaxation music grew in popularity or just any background-oriented music to support our multi-tasking activities. I think an important role of the contemporary music today is to reach new upcoming milieus in the society. A new type of listener needs a new kind of music. A new listener does not want to invest much time in trying to accommodate his or her ear to the music. They are inpatient, they want to be either immediately carried away or they just leave, they want music that allow them to lean back and let the mind wander. Having said that, I would like to conclude with the words of Charles Baudelaire: “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one-half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.”
It is difficult to answer. Music has been part of my life as long as I remember myself.
Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?
I agree, but I think that fantasy cannot function without reality. Combining both in a composition or performance, gives the essential contrast that leads to musical excitement.
If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?
Probably an engineer, related to electronics. I love everything that is related with technology and I feel happy that I can use it to create, perform, record and promote music. On the other hand, if I was not musically talented, I would probably be happy as a recording engineer.
The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about your future?
The music audience generally, is getting old. I think that most of the stuff that young people „consume“ now is far from what I should consider as music. I would call that stuff „entertaining audio products“ and I am OK with that. They are nice if you want to dance or (just) mention the problems of your life, but no, for me they are not the art of music. All these products are far, not only from classical music, but also from all other honest artistic music genres, like Traditional, Jazz, quality Rock and Folk, etc. The audience diminishes in every real music genre. It is sad, but it will pass…
What do you envision the role of classical music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?
Of course there is a transformation. The classical music performer is not anymore in his room practicing countless hours for the „one concert“. The classical composer is not anymore creating music „to be discovered“ some years later. Music technology and use of the internet has given new tools for everyday creation and performance. Reaching your audience is a completely different process, in comparison to the (even near) past.
When I say that classical music is searching for new ways or that classical music is getting a new face, what would come to your mind?
Classical musicians were never isolated. Absorbing ideas and feelings from other cultures and music genres was always an inspiration for all really talented artists. However, music from all over the world is now at our fingertips (and ears) all day long. It is normal that classical music should become more and more „open“. For me, that is a blessing. I can perform or create music as I want it, no obligation to be „tonal“ or „atonal“ or „serial“, etc. My artistic palette may include everything, without any guilt!
Do you think that the classical musician today needs to be more creative? What’s the role of creativity in the musical process for you?
I think it has been answered before
Do you think we musicians can do something to attract the young generation to the classical music concerts? How will you proceed?
I think that being honest and simple is enough. Young people don’t like the snobbish attitude in art. Of course, mixing sound with video, acting, dance, etc. can help to expand our audience. I like every creative collaboration of the arts. But I also like the simplicity of „just music“. To close your eyes and immerse yourself in music.
Tell us about your creative process. Do you have your favorite piece (written by you). How did you start working on it?
It i not easy to answer. I have been a guitar soloist for all my life and I cannot „escape“ from that attitude. Quite a lot of my guitar works were created to be performed by myself. However, some of them proved to be more suited to my performer’s personality and they have become „mine“, and maybe I love them more, as I enjoy them through performance. Some were suited to others, and they „went away“. Generally speaking, I see my music from a distance. Maybe it is normal, as I am a composer that needs motivation to make music. Most of the time, that motivation is the admiration for others, musicians or groups that finally perform them.
We, Moving Classics TV, love the combination of classical music with different disciplines: music and painting, music and cinematography, music and digital art, music and poetry. What do you think about these combinations?
We are musicians, but mainly we are artists. Collaboration with other arts is an obligation and a great motive for creation and artistic pleasure.
Can you give some advice to young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?
To listen as much as they can to the work of the great masters of our art, composers, performers, maestros. To be open to new ideas and (if they are technically educated) to use their music tools to experiment with everything, without hesitation. Classical music in the 21st century is the only music that really has no borders. Think about it. You are free to create or be in any style you want. You can even create your own unique style, no need to be labeled as experimental, traditional, jazz, rock, etc.
Now it is common practice in the media to say that classical music is getting into the consumption business, do you agree? We are speaking about the supply and demand rules and how to sell your “product”, in your case your compositions. How do you see it?
You cannot create honest art following the market rules. Innovation can rarely become profitable. Fake innovation yes, all media are full of clichéd audio products labeled as „brand new“. Of course, a work of art can become mainstream and profitable when it matures. Nevertheless, I believe that an artist must be free from market rules. That is why I think it is necessary for all kinds of fine art to be financially supported, preferably by the state.
Do you have expectations what regards your listeners, your audience?
I think it has been answered before
What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?
I recently completed a recording project, a collection of guitar works by myself and other composers of the 20th & 21st centuries. Its title is „Kostas Grigoreas: Recording Guitarist”, and you can listen at
or buy at https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/kostasgrigoreas4
I am now recording some solo works, including my favorite guitar composition by Benjamin Britten „Nocturnal after John Dowland, op.70“. I am also preparing a collection of works by me, performed by various small instrumental groups. To conclude, I should mention that I like to make music for solo instruments or for small groups where each instrument „plays a role“. Probably, my soloist-composer nature leads me to that.
Let us face it, all musicians know this dilemma. You can read the heated debates in the Internet, listen to the emotional talks between musicians, get angry at the very thought and still, all musicians did it at the beginning of their career.
There are myriad of reasons for the asking and equally as many reasons for the accepting. The possible reasons for playing could be self-promotion, the wish to “test” your repertoire, get stage experience, meet new contacts and followers, try out new locations, play with your favorite colleagues and friends. Just love of music, promise to get a well-paid gig next time…Everybody has his or her reasons but nobody likes to admit the fact they accepted the free gig. The musicians decide on the case-to-case basis – if they see benefits from investing their time, dedication and talent into the free job.
The negative contra arguments would be the abuse of musicians’ love of music and their willingness to play or letting others earn money through their talent. Many musicians believe in the clear distinction between the so-called “Pragmatic Amateurs” and the so-called “Professionals with no freebie mindset”. Both would have the same artistic level if played in the same concert but “pragmatic amateurs” would have their income from non-concert activities. There is one more reason that is even more worrying. It is an economic phenomenon – dumping. When musicians accept the free or low-paid gigs, they bring the prices down for everybody who is out there on the market.
There is one more “killing” argument – the reputation. Playing for free officially can hurt the status as it is de-mystifying the image of a professional musician. Surely, playing charity concert for a good cause is a very different matter.
Music business is tough for any newcomers, be it the musicians who just graduated from the Universities or the rising musicians who are entering into new markets. The Piano News Magazine published the study about the graduates of piano faculties saying that there is no such job title as “Concert Pianist” anymore, as nearly all graduates need to develop extra-musical skills to survive and get their income from several sources. Today a successful musician needs more than just a musical talent. He or she needs some entrepreneurial and managerial skills for the self-marketing and the self-organization.
It is a long way of getting enough stage experience. The maturity needs time and concert opportunity to test for real what musicians have been learning. Nobody can learn the repertoire in the warm and cozy practice room, then go on stage in the Carnegie Hall, and play the concert of their lifetime. Great maestros like Vladimir Horowitz and Svjatoslav Richter have been touring Russian villages at the beginning of their career, playing nights through to get the music into their fingers for everybody who was willing to hear…
So, to play or not to play? What would you decide? Thank you for sharing your opinion.
Blog about classical music and fashion, Mozart love of luxury, what the stars of classical music wear on stage, embodied cognition and most importantly: Will Beethoven sound differently depending on the attire of the musician?
Shakespeare once said, “Clothes make the man”. Nobody will deny that styling can play a decisive role in the image of a classical musician. We are so used to the excessive PR campaigns and the pop culture stars like Madonna, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé who set the benchmark in the world of image making. Today we are speaking about a new image of classical musicians. Especially when they are searching for new ways in classical music.
When we think about musicians in philharmonic orchestras, we immediately see people wearing black. It could be black tuxedoes with tails and white ties for highly formal event like a gala or opening night of a new season, or just black suit jacket with monochrome necktie. There is a convention that musicians should wear the “concert black”: the specifics (jacket/no jacket/tie or no tie/vest or without) are less important as long as it is black. The tradition comes from Mozart days when musicians wore the uniform of the court they were paid by. Tailcoats became a substitute “uniform”. In other words, the “concert black” is the musicians uniform. Even back in those days, the soloists were permitted to wear just about anything: The most popular performers wore the best clothing they could get for their performances. Mozart himself had a penchant for luxurious clothing. As is evident from his letters and contemporaries, extravagant dress was Mozart’s preference, but it was also necessary as a vehicle of his artistry in Viennese society. In a letter to his father on September 5, 1781, Mozart writes, “I could not go about Vienna like a tramp. One must not make oneself cheap here – that is the cardinal point – or else one is done.” Here is a description by Irish tenor Michael Kelly who wrote in his memoirs, Reminiscences: “I remember that at the first rehearsal of the full band Mozart was on the stage, with his crimson pelisse and his gold-banded cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra”.
Psychologists noticed the frequency with which many musicians show a vivid interest in fashion. For many musicians the fashion and interest in luxury is an extension of their creativity and attempt to invent and re-invent themselves. Musicians are being trained to excel, so they transfer it to other areas of creativity. This search can be extended to even further field of searching for beauty in every aspects of their lives.
Today it is difficult to tell if it is a musician who decides what to wear onstage or if it is a decision of the artist’s management. Here are some interesting facts: 21-year-old Canadian pianist Jan Lisicki wears classical black jackets but he loves the splash of color for his socks. Nicolai Tokarev is often seen onstage wearing the tight leather pants and designer long-sleeved T Shirts. Daniil Trifonov is playing with a business-looking suit, white shirt and a fancy colored tie. Star violinist Joshua Bell looks very casual on stage without a jacket. Christoph Eschenbach frequently wears a Nehru jacket when he conducts. Violinist Hahn-Bin favors a flamboyant look, really extravagant. But the most unconventional is definitely an English pianist James Rhodes: he shuffles around the stage in sparkly shoes, skinny jeans and oversized glasses, shoulder-length hair.
The women have more freedom when choosing their attire. Pianist Olga Scheps has a “natural look”, Helene Grimaud seems to not to think too much about what she is wearing. One musician remembers her carrying her concert clothes in a brown paper bag in Cleveland: “She’d arrive ten minutes before the concert and pull out a blouse from the sack.” But her artist management knows that the style matters! It is fascinating to read the reviews about her CDs and your hairstyle. New Yorker Magazine wrote in 2011: “At a recent performance, her hair was up for the Mozart, down for the Liszt. On album covers, her hair telegraphs a mood. It is pinned up in a Clara Schumann-like bun for a Brahms recording, and on the cover of “Credo”—a CD of Beethoven and a pair of mystic-minded modern composers—it is tucked behind her ears, in wan, heroin-chic strands. Ordinarily, her hair is shaggy, with too-busy-to-blow-dry bangs.”
Pianist Yuja Wang surprised the classical music world in 2011 when she made appearance in Hollywood Bowl wearing club wear – red mini dress. There were several negative reviews. For example, one music critic Klickstein, stated that “the moment the audience catches sight of the performer, the performance has begun — their mannerisms, their attire, everything matters.” It was the first time when the critics and bloggers asked the question if a performer’s fashion choices should be taken into consideration in a music review.
Katja Batiashvilli is also known for her eye-catching sexy outfits and glamorous stage presence. There is still a controversy if the sex appeal should be part of the classical music world: in 2011, eminent Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer abruptly withdrew from Switzerland’s Verbier Festival in protest against the classical world’s – celebrity-driven culture. He wrote in his withdrawal letter: “Let’s admit – all of us have something to do with the poisonous development of our music world, in which ‘stars’ count more than creativity, ratings more than genuine talent, numbers more than … sounds.” He also claimed the classical music industry had a “misguided fixation with glamour and sex appeal”. On the other hand, we have a very clear opinion about the classical music and glamour: Jessica Hadler, director of artist programs at Concert Artists Guild which manages and promotes rising classical performers and coaches them on matters of wardrobe and styling says, that if an orchestra is presented with two equally accomplished soloists, it will likely hire the more attractive of the two. Jessica Duchen, a journalist for The Independent newspaper tells openly: “I’ve heard some fantastic female pianists who might be overweight or they don’t happen to look like supermodels, and they don’t have the careers that they could. They literally do not.”
The dressing code in the German business world has changed over the last couple of years. Even the most conservative companies made their dressing code more casual. The top management does not wear ties and you can see more employees wearing jeans for business meetings. The whole society is going through the transition.
But back to the original question. Will Beethoven sound different depending on the attire of the musician? What we wear affects not only the perception of the audience but also our own perception of ourselves. This psychological phenomenon is called “embodied cognition” There were numerous studies by the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychologies” that if people put on medical white coats, they will be more focused and concentrated in their work, if they put on white coats that belong to painters, there will be no change. According to Galinsky, clothes have symbolic meeting: we must see and feel the clothes on our body—experience it in every way—for it to influence our psyche. Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state. Dr. Galinsky says: “Our thought processes are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts. “I love the idea of trying to figure out why, when we put on certain clothes, we might more readily take on a role and how that might affect our basic abilities,” said Joshua I. Davis, an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College. It means that to be a successful virtuoso, we must wear the clothes that we believe successful virtuosos wear.
Personally, wearing fancy dress and stage make up is a part of my performance ritual. It helps me to deal with the stage anxiety and prepares me for the concert program. Surely, the outfit and the music I am playing should go well together. Sometimes it is a deliberate contrast or a special effect or “sound” that I want to achieve with my outfit. I experienced it myself how the outfit affects my playing during my work on Moving Classics videos – wearing the flamenco dress for Spanish serenade or Charleston dress for Gershwin “The man I love”. I thoroughly enjoyed the punk styling of Beethoven lost placed video that I would like to share with you here.
How will Beethoven sound when we see a pianist a. wearing traditional black suit, b. mini red dress or c. t-shirt and ragged jeans? Have you made experiences how your clothing affected your playing? I am looking forward to reading your comments and feedback!
The list of Mozart clothing owned by upon his death per the (Suspense Order) document. 1791: Mozart’s Last Year by H.C. Robbins Landon.
-1 white frock coat of cloth, with Manchester (cotton) waistcoat
-1 blue ditto
-1 red ditto
-1 ditto of nankeen (ie. of yellow or pale buff color)
-1 brown satin ditto together with breeches, embroidered with silk
-1 black cloth whole suit
-1 mouse-color great-coat (ie. dun, greyish-brown)
-1 ditto of lighter material
-1 blue cloth frock coat with fur
-1 ditto Kiria with fur trimming
-4 various waistcoats, 9 various breeches, 2 plain hats, 3 pairs of boots, 3 pairs of shoes
-9 silk stockings
-4 white neckerchiefs, 1 nightcap, 18 handkerchiefs
-8 underdrawers, 2 nightgowns, 5 pairs of stockings
Imagine the situation. You are on the way to your job, it is early in the morning. As you step out of the Metro train, you see a violinist standing next to the exit. An empty box for money is in front of him, and some CDs are scattered on the floor. Does the situation seem familiar to you? I bet it is. Only this time this musician is a famous one, he gave a solo recital in a big hall for 1000 listeners yesterday and his CDs are produced by the leading recording company and were even nominated for some important prizes. Do you think I am telling you stories? Not at all! My story is based on a real fact.
In April 2007 Joshua Bell, one of the leading violinists, agreed to participate in the experiment conducted by “Washington Post”. He was asked to play the most beautiful violin melodies in the metro in the rush hour. The idea behind this experiment was to observe the people’s behaviour: will they stop and listen? Will they hear the beauty of his playing? Will they give him money – if yes, how much? Tricky questions. The journalists of the “Washington Post” were curious about many things: about the context of musical performance, listeners’ perception, and priorieties. They also wanted to know how the musician felt and what he experienced.
So what would you expect? If you think, that the crowd recognised that he was very talented, you share the view of Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra whose prognosis was: 35 out of 1000 would recognise the quality and stop and listen. Now finally the results: in 45 minutes only 7 people stopped by and listened for less than a minute. Twenty-Seven gave money on the run – to make a total of $32. It leaves more than thousand people who hurried by and did not even pay attention. So the experiment showed that the people did not recognize the exceptional talent and did not appreciate the beautiful and unexpected moment in monetary terms.
It was interesting to read about how Joshua Bell perceived the situation. Apparently, he was even more nervous than in Carnegie Hall as he was wooing the people’s attention, was not getting any. He experienced “The awkward times: It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops.” I guess it is a vicious circle for many talented musicians: if they do not get back the positive feedback from the audience, their performance gets less confident and they cannot show their best. It reminds me of a recent performance of one rising star pianist where the audience greeted him with the standing ovations at the very beginning. Very different situation.
I was fascinated by “Washington Post” experiment and questions kept coming to my mind. I guess we all agree that the context matters. I experienced it myself several times when I had gigs in the restaurants or exotic bars with seemingly interesting concepts of classical music for everybody, but our attempts failed. I was often frustrated and blamed me for choosing the wrong pieces, not being “cool” enough, not being 100% confident, not explaining the music etc. till I realized that the expectations of the audience in these locations made the performance of anybody impossible. It is the effect of priming too – how different stimuli influence our perception of the situation!
Yes, perception matters! How many times have we experienced it the other way round that the good branding strategy works for musicians who do not strike us as being extraordinary talented! There are tricks like glamour, sex-appeal, approval of the stars we all know, the references by the people we consider to be experts, the institutions like competitions, prestigious festivals, participation in a masterclasses with stars, you name it. There is always a matter of subjectivity when it comes to discussing the artists’ names and their performances. I heard people say that in order to be successful; you have to appeal to at least 60 % of your audience. So the subjective opinions of the majority will turn the opinion into the objective ones, right? The other day I followed a heated discussion about the Rachmaninov 3d piano concerto performance in Facebook. The opinions were so different that it led me to think that there is no single recording (including the composer playing himself) that would be regarded by the majority as acceptable.
It leads to the next question: how can we measure the beauty of music we hear? How can we measure the talent? Can we measure the beautiful playing of Joshua Bell by the amount of sold tickets, CDs or people who would forget everything, stand still, and listen in the morning? In order to measure something, we need a benchmark, some kind of indicator. The measurements are made possible by comparisons. I am thinking of an imaginary situation, I am stranded on the uninhabited island like Robinson Crusoe and there is one musician there, playing. Believe me, he/she will sound like Paganini, in the moment when I get my smart phone out and check out the same pieces on the YouTube, I would know more about his/her performance. No wonder we have competitions to measure the talent and decide whom we want to see on a big stage in the future.
Another striking thought. Have you ever thought that music, no matter how beautiful, can be perceived as the disturbance? Some kind of noise? The metro experiment shows that our lives have priorities. Beauty and search of beauty in the morning is not high on the list. The phenomenon that John Lane described in his book “Timeless beauty: in the Arts and everyday life”. I like the idea when he is saying that we need beauty in our everyday’s life, we are human only in contact with beautiful. It is our instinct to search for beauty. It gives us inspiration and makes us more creative. John Lane says that in the past we were more instinctively tuned to the beautiful. Do you remember the books from the 19th century where men would sacrifice their lives for the sake of one kiss by a beautiful lady? Manon Lescot, Tosca, Paganini wondrous playing, Liszt charisma. Immanuel Kant says that the beauty is a combination of measurable facts and personal opinion colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer. I did a small experiment myself: I made a compilation of the Rachmaninov Prelude op. 32 Nr. 10 with a totally unknown pianist, my favorite pianist Horowitz, my first piano teacher, Lugansky, Matsuev and Van Clyburn. I listened to the recordings without looking at the names at different times: before and after taking the meals, very early in the morning, or when relaxing in the evening or in the metro and was so surprised that my opinion was oscillating and was always different depending on the situation. At the beginning, I was influenced by my own taste: everything that Horowitz plays is the best, and then I read in the Internet that Lugansky interpretations of Rachmaninov are the best and it changed my opinion, the unknown pianist looked very attractive in YouTube etc. Nevertheless, one fact was disturbing: when I was in a bad mood or hungry or in a hectic, no pianist was playing beautifully in my headphones.
There is an old philosophical question that I would like to ask you: if a great musician is playing beautifully but no one wants to listen, is he or she great? What is your opinion? I would like to start a discussion and am very excited about your comments!
“There is no such a thing as the average concert listener and no one can speak in his name” was an opening declaration in the article “From the audience” by E.M. Foster, a famous British writer of “”Where the angels fear to tread”. This sentence came to my mind during my last recital. It came just as a wild contrast to every marketing guide that teaches us the audience analysis and urges us to ask the question: who comes to listen to our playing? According to Aristoteles, age is a principal criterion when analyzing the audience. The quick Internet research will confirm what every classical musicians see from the stage: persons over 50 years old, many retired, middle class upwards, well educated. Today we put more weight on the question about the motivation of our listeners: did they choose the concert themselves, or was it a gift, is the concert the only available entertainment on that particular date, does my partner insist on me coming along? The list is endless but every listener has his or her reason to attend the concert.
Our brain is playing tricks with us. There is the oscillation between our imagination and the facts. In other words, before we hear the first sounds from the stage, we have our wishes and our idea about how we want this concert to be. In the first seconds, we have to revise our expectations. Again and again during the whole concert. I experienced it myself when the exaggerated high or too low expectations change the perception of the audience about my performance. The musician is successful when he or she meets the expectations and tops them. But if the concert is below the expectation, it is a flop. Our brain has an easy logic.
No doubt, our audience is the most important instrument. Perhaps as important as the musical instrument we are playing onstage. I like the idea of Alfred Hitchcock who used to say that he wanted to play the audience of his films “like a piano.” He did not compose his great works in a vacuum, but rather with a careful and shrewd understanding of how each creative decision helped to shape a different experience for the viewer. The careful selection of the program for the audience would be the first step towards reaching the audience. But there is more to that. Establishing a contact with the listeners makes a difference. Some instrumentalists are at disadvantage as they sit with the profile to the audience and cannot establish an eye contact with listeners. Singers have a better situation as they address the public not only with the tones but in a conventional way, through words and are more direct in expressing their emotions. I mean the facial impressions. Today we live in a visual world; the classical music wants not only to be heard, but also to be seen. The audience wants to see how the musicians experience it through their body language. Through the empathy, some people would find a key to better understanding. I was surprised to realize it myself at the choir concert. First, I was concentrating on the music with closed eyes and it sounded a bit too dissonant. When I started watching the choir members, it felt a huge difference. What a joy to see how much musicians were involved in the music they were singing! I was immediately moved by their emotions and from that moment for me, their concert was a big success!
What is the experience of the listener during the concert? Mister Foster has more observation on the audience: “Not only does our enjoyment of music differ but also our attention wanders from it in different directions, and returns to it at different angels, so that if the soul of the audience can be photographed, it would resemble the flight of birds. This elusive flight of winged creatures is spending much of the time where it should not, thinking now “how lovely”, then “my foot’s gone to sleep”, passing in the beat of a bar “where Beethoven goes back to c minor again” and to “did I turn the gas off” to “I do think he might have shaved”!
The expression “soul of the audience” fascinated me. May be there is a real connection with the audience that is able to influence the musical performance? When on stage, I always feel the presence of the audience. There are 50 shades of silence that I am able to distinguish during my playing. It is a truly fascinating experience ranging from “you will hear a needle drop” silence with absolutely nothing to hear (not even my own breathing) to a restless shuffling sounds. The extremes are the sound of writing messages on the touchscreen, soundless buzzing of the phones and coughing. But there is an unconscious feedback too – it has to do with my own energy level – when I can keep the tension and canalize it into the musical tones, I get an immediate reaction from the listeners. I feel the direct response from them and it motivates and re-energizes me. I call these moments “magic moments” – the feeling that fingers are running by themselves, my inner hearing is fully activated and I keep control of my performance. There are some funny tricks to put myself back into the active concentration state like saying in my mind’s eye my name during playing or putting a question to myself” who is not listening”. It sounds strange but it works wonders. Apparently, our brain reverses the direction and restores the lost attention. This way the musician is part of the “soul of the audience” and participates in the collective listening experiences. The concept of “hearing from within” is powerful.
The size of the hall and the vicinity of the audience are big influence factors too. There is a paradox but the bigger the hall, the less we, musicians, feel the presence of every listener, the faces merge and depending on the lights, we can hardly see. Stanislavski speaks about the “public loneliness” and I guess it is the feeling of being onstage in the spotlight and being observed from all sides. I remember reading about Martha Argerich and her decision not to play publicly alone. The temperature in the hall, the lights intensity, the colors and the smell of the room interfere with our feelings and the perception of the concert will different.
The concert remains in the memories of the audience if their expectations are met. It is a big success if these expectations are topped. It is like a lottery for many “no name” musicians due to the priming effect: the marketing machines speak of the “incredible”, “unbelievable” and “unimaginable” whereas it is just good. A tough challenge for everybody who wants to succeed in the highly competitive music business and a big chance for all underestimated musicians!
I would like to finish my blog with the words of Mister Foster: “Over? But is the concert over? Here was the end, had anything an end but experience proves that strange filaments cling to us after the music has been gone. Schumann or was it Brahms? The concert is not over when the sweet voices die. It vibrates elsewhere. It discovers treasures that would have remained hidden, and they are the chief part of the human heritage.”
What is your experience with concerts? Do you have expectations? Do you think that every concert has the “soul of the audience”? What was your strongest feeling during or after the concert, as the audience or as a musician?
What is your opinion on the elitism in classical music? Do you think we should foster elite thinking for musicians? What is your attitude towards classical musician? How can we value the creative work of every musician? What would be a creative push for our classical music scene?
One day I was browsing through the pages of musical faculties. A big announcement of the upcoming piano festival where the professors let their best students play immediately caught my attention. It was not an event as such but more the choice of advertising words: “come and listen to our elite piano students”. The word “elite” left me with an uneasy feeling and a state of rumination. I was trying to understand what is behind the “elitism” thinking.
What is elitism? Some people might have a high degree of achievement, some rigorous training, extraordinary abilities, and extensive history of dedication or wisdom in a given field. They form a group of people – elite – whose views on a given matter are to be taken more seriously. ‘Elitism’ occurs when an individual assumes special ‘privileges’ and responsibilities in the hope that this arrangement will benefit humanity. This is a pure theory and if you look at any classically trained musician from this point of you, we would all belong to the small elitarian group of people in relation to the whole world population who undergone years of very rigourous training. But it raises immediately the question of… have you obtained a degree or diploma in music from college? This kind of thinking will have to exclude a brilliant singer Anna Netrebko from our “elite” group too.
When searching in Internet for the words “elitism in classical music”, I immediately came across an article by a famous British music critic and author of the beststeller “Who Killed Classical Music” Norman Lebrecht. In his “Reframing the Classical Music Experience”, he asked: “Why shouldn’t we be elitist?” “Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. They should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.” Lebrecht suggests that the classical music experience should become more selective. More tuxedo…More long pieces…More expensive tickets…More sophisticated audiences…So in other words, as our audiences are shrinking very fast, we could foster a new type of audience. Surely, they will not fill in the big halls then but if we build smaller and more exquisite concert venues for them, they will be willing to pay a high entrance fee to enjoy this exclusive feeling. It made me think of Opera festivals. The tickets are at an exorbitant price, but who cares? The audience is wearing evening gowns with diamonds and smoking and your added value to buying a ticket would be to see the CEO of company XY in person or even shake hands with him/her during the intermission.
When I look through the concert programs, I think that our cultural life is being divided into two big sectors. You have “elite” players with Lang Lang and Co on the one hand, offering full-scale conservative recitals in traditional concert halls and on the other hand, you have a plethora of different concerts with low entrance fees or even free entrance in small or uneven unknown venues. Let us call them “anti-elite” group of musicians. Both groups are trying to win new audiences and have to work hard to be successful. As our culture changed over decades and generations, even the big “elite” players are more informal than they used to be, more spontaneous, more widely creative and far more diverse. For example, the symphonic orchestras try to make the listening experience more enjoyable for uninitiated through pre-concert lectures. Cheaper tickets are made available through public funds that can be ordered online 24 hours and the concerts are as a rule less exclusive. The “anti-elite” musicians see their goal in bringing the mood of classical music closer to contemporary life. They are open to more experiments: they feature unusual venues, tell funny stories between the pieces, permit the audience to clap between movements, and even dare changing the position of a concert grand. A completely new classical world is taking shape far outside the concert halls. Classical musicians play in clubs, restaurants, and shopping malls or even on the street or in the underground. They might sometimes attract an audience of thousands of younger people. According to Dr. David Cutler “Savvy musician”, “these classical music events are still very pale when it comes to comparison with the pop concerts. There are no Lady Gaga outfits, no light and laser shows to accompany the recital with sonatas, dancing fans in the front rows or sing-alongs. “ Sadly but true, the social status of these two groups of musicians will be different depending on their fees. But beside the social and economic implications of elite vs anti-elite thinking, there is one more aspect of being a musician: creativity. Creative thinkers mock the very idea of two different groups. There is a question if the elite group is the benchmark for the „anti-elite“group. If performance is only limited to perfect technique, virtuosity and musical expression, well perhaps yes, but a concert has more features to offer, like being close to the people, with more empathie to the audience, phantasy …. Then the „anti-elite“group could become a real benchmark for the „elite“ group.
Internet became our “bright new world” with a completely egalitarian view. Classical music is now a thousand times more accessible than it ever was before. The classical example is a real pioneer Valentina Lisitsa with her video of Sergej Rachmaninov Etude “Little riding hood” that she uploaded 8 years ago. Now it has over two million views. Her story of publishing solo takes of Rachmaninov concerts allowed her to make her dream come true and record all four Rach piano concertos with an “elite” conductor and “elite” recording studio, Decca.
No doubt, YouTube truly revolutionized classical music business. We are all speaking and dreaming of viral videos. To get started, you do not need the judgement of the tradional decision makers. Everybody has an equal chance of being viewed, clicked and shared. Internet blurres the lines between Decca recording artists and aspiring amateurs. The online audience does not consider the video of Arthur Rubinstein to be better or worse than a fresh video of XY from Toganrog, Russia they like and share. They feel comfortable clicking through hundreds of files and comparing them. They download their favourite music and do not care what the official musical critics recommend. However, in the last years, the online recordings multiplied like rabbits. Google and Facebook had to change the algorithms based on the probability of the appeal of videos to the audience.
I think there is no incompatibility between being tuned in to say XY with 50 clicks and Karajan with two million clicks the next. If we have elitist attitudes, we will never think creativity. We won’t discover own potential. Setting too high standards can kill any good musician with a real potential for a growth. Elitism does not get us anywhere. As well as seeing the value in things that are not generally valued, creative listeners also see the value in people who are not valued. They try to tease out the potential in everyone because they know that no one has a monopoly on creativity.
What is your opinion on the elitism in classical music? Do you think we should foster elite thinking for musicians? What is your attitude towards classical musician? How can we value the creative work of every musician? What would be a creative push for our classical music scene?
Do you think that the classical music can be viewed as a sign of social distinction? The opening question will be left unseen by many people; the blog statistics might give me an answer by itself. This question might irritate the real classical music fans as for many people classical music is passion; it is a part of life style and for some even their purpose in life. However, let us think about it with a clear mind.
I would like to give you an introductory example. End of 2015 there was a heated debate in Munich about building a new concert hall to replace Gasteig, a relatively new (1985) cultural center with a philharmonic hall with an interesting wood seashell form but apparently poor acoustics. The government has been ruminating about the building plans for over decade. The classical music enthusiasts started their own initiative of collecting the “pro new music hall” signatures and got an approval from the government. The total investment costs for a new concert would be around 300 Mio Euro according to a leading German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. (A newly built Hamburg Elbe Philharmonic Hall is nearly 800 Mio Euro) A big victory for Munich concertgoers.
You do not need to study sociology to see that the audience of the philharmonic halls is mostly 65 plus. The journalist Christian Krügel describes the Munich cultural audience as very spoilt and highly demanding. They are expecting the best and hoping to see the innovations but there are hardly any experiments. According to him, the reason for this attitude is that there is more behind the real value of the art. There are personal interests of the small group of people who dominate the classical music landscape. Can you imagine all teenagers of Munich collecting signatures for a new arena for their pop and rock concerts? I am sure the reaction would be immediate: How can these young people expect that so much money be spent on their music! Perhaps we could express it in the language of Brexit. Similar to the results of “no to Brexit” of politically active population with 38% of votes in the age group 65 plus and 66% for “no” in the group 18 to 24 years, the small group of older generation overvoted the younger one.
How can it be possible? 300 Mio Euro is a huge amount of money. The alternative use of this amount of money might sound very idealistic: new schools with the new music instruments for everybody, highly trained educational specialists, new smaller concert venues, innovative locations, bigger budget for the cultural sponsoring, support for creative innovation projects. You name it. The arguments “pro” a new concert hall would be to build a new attraction in Munich city that would bring new tourists and new visitors and would surely be a point of distinction for Munich. This reasoning comes from a thought that classical music often serves as a sign for status and privilege. Julian Johnson writes in his book “Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value” that the classical music has a very long and entrenched tradition of social distinction that it is very rooted in our society. The tradition of classical music comes from the Enlightment philosophical debates where it was a humanistic aspiration that the classical music would understand itself. It was seen as a way of self-expression and knowledge. I remember from my school years that our teachers were telling that Sergey Rachmaninov’s etude tableau in E-Flat minor was the depiction of the humanity and the composer was trying to show the human race in the noble light. Definitely very ambitious goal – surely the reason why it is fiendishly difficult to play too.
When one studies the history of classical music, one sees clearly that the classical music was searching for the distinction itself and it got it back from the small group whose goal is to find a social distinction through the classical music. A famous French philosopher Didier Eribon who comes from a poor family and faces hard times because of his homosexuality writes in his autobiography “Comeback to Reims” some thought-provoking lines about social distinction. “Interest in art is a question of upbringing. I had to learn it first. It was a part of my “re-upbringing” that I had to do for myself so that I could enter into a new social class and leave the old one behind. Interest in music, art or literature always lies in the revaluation of “self”, consciously or subconsciously. This revaluation leaves behind others who do not have access to it. It is a so-called social distinction, a difference between oneself and others whom one sees as not “belonging to the class” and lower in social standing. This superior feeling speaks from the subtle smile, body language, expert jargon, ostentatious wellbeing…This posturing has intimidated me but I did everything possible to become like these people who behaved with ease and to show them that I was born like this.”
The example of China is extremely eloquent. Millions of Chinese kids are learning piano to move along a social ladder. India has a musical education for the kids from rich families. The opposite was true in the Soviet culture where the government wanted to bring the excellent musical performance to all workers in factories. Svjatoslav Richter could tell many stories of his experiences playing literally everywhere. Surely, his refusal to play in the chosen venues would have put a stop to his career. But it is not the point I would like to make. Svjatoslav Richter played because he truly loved playing and it did not matter for him where to play and for whom to play. He played for the beauty of music.
The beauty of music cannot be measured in terms of social status or prestige. The true art has an ability to truly transcend itself where the music would transgress the borders and free itself from inhibitions put by the classical music managers, career-minded performers and prestige-seeking audience. Bach, Berlioz and Beethoven will continue being played and stay alive despite the age of the works and the number of times they were performed. The high ideals of romantic aesthetics will live on….