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?

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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?

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A short essay on the political influences of the elite to suppress tonal music

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Composing is always something of a gamble for a composer unless (s)he’s already well-established. The first thing any composer has to decide on is what idiom they are going to write in. The smart money is on very intense post-modernistic atonality and the more atonal, the better. As always, it’s a very individual thing. Some composers can adapt tonality to a slight degree but however they choose to do it, ultimately they must please the powerful men and women who rule the classical music industry with an iron fist and the first rule for any composer-hopeful is NO MELODY! Melody is sentimentality; sentimentality is gushing; gushing is too reflective of the bygone days of Romanticism and Rachmaninoff. The order of the day is always looking forward, not backward.

There’s only one problem with all this and it’s a gigantic one: to paraphrase the immortal words of lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein–”We’ve gone about as fer as we can go” and then some. Personally, I can’t envision a composer breaking any new barriers or exploring any new frontiers. They’ve already been broken; they’ve already been explored by hundreds of composers. In a nutshell, and this is my own opinion, any composing from now on is either going to be stagnant or regressive. I mean when you’ve got computers doing the composing for you and a score looks more like an electrician’s schematic than music notes I think there’s a problem.

This is not even taking into account the fact that roughly 90% of everything being written is for small ensemble of not more than 10 players. Why? The short and simple of it is expense; it’s very expensive to mount a new symphony of the grandeur of a Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”–so expensive in fact that I doubt it could be done in today’s era of budgetary cuts to orchestras, even if the symphony were written by an established composer.

That’s on the one hand. On the other is what I alluded to earlier–that a group of very powerful and influential foundations, boards of directors of orchestras, musicians, etc absolutely do not want any music they premiere to smack an iota of Romanticism or sentimentality or melody.

So a budding composer has two paths before him/her. One to the atonal world, the other to the tonal. If a composer is smart they’ll go for the former to keep this powerful lobby happy. If they choose the latter they have signed their death warrant as a composer. There’s no hope they will ever succeed in their endeavors. Proof? Show me a composer today who writes neo-Romantically like Rachmaninoff and is successful.

So if I may continue my metaphor of gambling here’s how a typical scenario plays out. A gambler goes to Las Vegas (or “Lost Wages” as they not-so-affectionately call it). He can play for high stakes on the roulette wheel and bet 0/00 and walk home wearing a wine barrel. Or he can bet red/black and if he can stay consistent walk away with a few bucks in his pocket. If the reader is not following me let me spell it out. The red/black play is the composer who chooses to follow the herd and tread the territory already being tread by thousands of other post-modern composers at this very moment. The 0/00 player is the one who says, “Enough of this formless, melody-less, non-tonality. I’m going to write something I think the people want to hear, not what the establishment wants me to write!”

But composers take his path at their peril. The haute couture will stop at nothing to stop this composer from ever achieving anything remotely resembling success. Remember the golden rule: NO MELODY; FORWARD, NOT BACKWARD!

Which finally leads me to myself after a long-winded introduction:

I wrote two piano concertos in 2011 and 2013 to fulfill a promise I made to myself as a young piano student that I would write a piano concerto and then premiere it much in the same way Rachmaninoff did with his 2nd, my intention being to launch a career as a composer, pianist, & conductor. Well, fate had other plans—a severe finger injury grounded me as a pianist at 19 and I never wrote that concerto. Instead, I entered the business world for number of years. The dream eventually faded, though it apparently had been lying dormant somewhere underneath my psyche in the intervening decades. In the meantime, to keep my music skills alive and because I enjoyed it immensely I read orchestral scores as leisure reading–analyzing how great composers achieved the sounds they were after; the different combinations of instruments they used. Then one day a few years ago an innocuous tune just popped into my mind. The old dream bubbling beneath the surface of my consciousness suddenly surfaced and I finally committed myself to writing that piano concerto, which became the No.1 in F# Minor Opus 1. Although the reception was enthusiastic I later came to realize that my First Concerto was not the concerto I had always wanted to write. The Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor Opus 2 is that concerto.

It is unabashedly romantic. It has melody. And it commits the greatest sin of all, it looks backward, not forward–to that great tradition of the late 19th century when form and melody meant something and didn’t provoke an explosion of laughter or bitter derision. Which is why the music industry will make sure it languishes. Whether or not it’s any good is irrelevant. The point is it’s carrying the classical music world in a direction the industry doesn’t want the classical music world to go.

Many listeners have been very kind to me. Here are some of the comments they have left on my various videos of the concerto. Note I didn’t solicit these nor did I make any up. I can verify every last comment as authentic:

“…the [main] theme sounds absolutely epic. I think this almost reaches the level of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2 ”
“…this equals if not beats the Saint-Saëns G-Minor Piano Concerto.”
“…probably one of the best “romantic” piano concertos of the XXIst century…”
” I was blown away by your piano concerto. The composition is brilliant! ”
” This is so amazing I only realized my jaw had dropped five minutes after the concerto started. ”
” I love the orchestration and the virtuosic piano passages. +5 ”
” Beautiful harmonies…The overall energy of the [last] movement is fantastic!”
” I was so enthralled by the opening movement that I just listened to the whole piece at once. ”
” A masterpiece. ”
” OMG!!! did you compose this??! It completely amazed me from the first seconds. It’s like a Rachmaninoff concerto, but it’s still your style, your creation. I loved it. Thank you”
” I could listen to it 100 times.”
“…this sounds simply brilliant. ”
“…I’m just amazed! Beautiful sir! well done! ”
“…let me thank you for this piece. ”
” I have to say I love your piano concerto!”
” A masterpiece! – beautiful work!”
” It’s a great concerto. BRAVOOOOOOOOOOO!!! ”
” Beautiful!! Bravissimo!! ”
” Your concerto is awesome!! ”
” This is really awesome! ”
” Wow!! Just Wow!! Two thumbs up!! ”
“…let me thank you for this piece. ”

Dr. Darrel Ray, a noted psychologist and author wrote me this note. I have his permission to quote it:

Joe, I am a big lover of Rachmaninoff as well. I just bought and listened to your concerto THREE TIMES in one sitting. That is what I do for a Rach #3 or #2. I don’t even do that for Grieg, Beethoven or Saint-Sans. I am just in awe of what you have done. I really hope you get a premier. As an author of 4 books I know how difficult it is to get people to pay attention to your work when you have no visibility in a particular field. I have done it twice, successfully, but it took a lot of perseverance. You have a wonderful piece that sure got my attention. I have posted my comments on Facebook and everywhere else I can. I want my classical music friends to hear this. I have no connections in the music world, but feel free to use my comments as a very well educated listener and consumer of classical music. I wish you all the best and hope when you get that premier, I will be in a position to come and hear it. Please put me on any mailing list you may have XXXX@XXXXXX. By the way I found your piece while listening and watching the Rach #2 on Youtube with Anna Fedrova. Your comments and reference to your own work got me curious. I thought to myself, “This guy has a lot of chutzpah, comparing himself to Rachmaninoff, he is either a total lunatic or has something I should at least listen to.” I am a psychologist, I doubt if you are a lunatic! but you are sure a hell of a composer.

Dr. Darrel Ray

Publically he wrote on Soundcloud:

Darrel Ray says at 7:34:

I am astounded at this piece. I only wish it could be performed by a major orchestra and pianist. I love Rachmaninoff, but Joe Townley meets him head on with this piece. Most of my life, I have wondered, “Where are the Mozarts, Beethovens, Rachmaninoff’s? They can’t all be writing Rock music and Broadway shows. I know they are out there, but in the clash of music cultures, romantic and classical has been lost. This concerto is among the best. I hope it finds its way in to the repetoire. It is just too good. It deserves to stand by the Rach 2.

So it appears to me there’s something of a market out there for this kind of music. Sadly, it will get no support or encouragement from the bigwigs at the top. And I’ve resigned myself to the fact my concerto will never have that grand premiere with Lang Lang at the keyboard and Gustav Dudamel at the helm of the Los Angeles Phil. That’s life. But I do hope that more people like Dr. Ray speak up and shout, “Enough is enough! We want something with melody. We want a composer who writes something that touches our hearts and moves us to tears.” I am not that composer, I have to admit. But I hope my concerto maybe is a catalyst that encourages another composer with real talent, even genius to take that latter path I spoke of earlier. In the end I think if enough people with influence spoke up the music Bourgeoisie would be forced to listen.

Here’s is my concerto. Judge for yourselves. If it deserves scorn definitely deliver it. But if you find yourself liking it kindly leave a comment and share on your favorite social media outlet:

Video with complete orchestra score (lower-quality audio due to screen capture degeneration)

https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=jjP0_cP8TA8

More superior audio w/o score:

https://soundcloud.com/j-joe-townley/j-joe-townley-piano-concerto-no-2-in-c-minor-opus-2

In any case thank you for your time

Warmest Regards,

J Joe Townley

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