An article in Slate magazine written by Mark Vanhoenacker that was published online on January 21 asserts that classical music in America is dead.  It does not take much effort on my part to refute his thesis.  There is, in fact, quite a lot of classical music being performed and listened to in Vermont.  (I am part of the classical music community, and proud of it.)  Since Vermont is nominally in America, his assertion is therefore false.

But Mr. Vanhoenacker is hoping for a more nuanced appreciation of his article, so I will try to engage with his argument a little longer.

What he is really talking about is declining revenues associated with classical music, and he is factually correct there.  This is not exactly news, but it’s worrying nonetheless, especially to those of us trying to earn a living as classical musicians.  Revenues in classical music are declining because the relational distance between those who play classical music (both professionals and amateurs) and those who do not, is increasing.

There is a good bit of current research on the subject of relational distance and commerce.   With globalization, money is increasingly exchanged for goods and services made or delivered by a person or entity many miles away from the receiver.  One such researcher is Oliver Ibert, who defines relational distance in a mostly sociological way: “Relational distance refers to the degree to which people interacting with dissimilar subsets of cultural rules experience interference from each other’s systems of norms and shared beliefs.  [Relational distance is] fundamental to understanding the generative powers of sociocultural dissonances and to understanding the unavoidability of conflict in innovation processes.”

This definition succinctly describes the antipathy that non-classical-music-listeners feel toward classical music, and their antipathy is reflected in the tenuous economic state of classical music today.

The way we “relate” through the medium of classical music is fundamentally different from the way it used to be.  We used to relate through participation.  There are, of course, many different ways to participate in music, including “just listening.”  But “just listening” is the least significant kind of participation because it happens so rarely.

It happens rarely because our ears are not designed primarily to receive pleasure, but to receive and perceive meaning.  Simply put, when it comes to music, whether it’s classical or any other kind, if you have a first-order connection to a musicmaker, then your ears are instantly attuned to receive a more intense and memorable kind of meaning than if you listen to the same music in isolation.  Music stays in memory in direct proportion to one’s emotional response to it, and the closer you are to origin of the music – the closer your relational distance to the musician, instrument, or ensemble who made that music – the more important the experience will be to you.

So for musicmakers at any and every level, the responsibility is (merely) this: every time you play or sing, every loving contact you make with another person, is an opportunity to tell the world something important about the music that moves you, and tell the world that music to you is meaning, and vital to your health and well-being.

The last sentence of Oliver Ibert’s definition of relational distance is the part that intrigues me and gives me hope: [Relational distance is] fundamental to understanding the generative powers of sociocultural dissonances and to understanding the unavoidability of conflict in innovation processes.”  The concept of the generative power of sociological dissonances is, I think,  an especially important one, and one that has been characteristic of classical music (though not of classical music institutions) since the beginning.

Consider the music of Maria Schneider, this year’s big winner in the classical division of the Grammy Awards.  Her music literally comes out of (and is particularly interesting because of) the sociological dissonances that exist within the jazz, classical, and pop music worlds.  And she has wrestled with the “unavoidable conflicts” in the innovation process.  Listen to her describe the difference between how jazz and classical players interpret rhythms in this interview on YouTube (start at 5:05).  This, within the microcosm of classical and jazz composition, is a tiny window on the world of difference, engagement, and reconciliation that needs to happen in societies around the world, to say nothing of the classical music scene in America.

In Maria Schneider’s hands the result of wrestling with such unavoidable conflicts is music – music that’s very much alive – and an award-winning recording that was funded by interested music lovers through a crowd-source funding scheme.

Classical music, in the hands of loving amateurs and professional musicmakers is, and shall remain, very much alive.