Monday, September 27, 2010

Calling for a Post-Capitalist Orchestra

In January of 2010, The University of Michigan hosted the American Orchestras Summit. I was a panelist on a session titled “Re-conceptualizing the Symphony.” Here are some of my thoughts, delivered as remarks to the group of orchestra administrators, musicians, and students in attendance:

A video is available here.

Calling for a Post-Capitalist Orchestra

When we ask questions like “what is the orchestra, and how will it survive in the 21st century” we have a tendency to frame the questions in terms of what we believe is given: most notably the repertoire, and economic problems. When we do so, we are very prone to search for solutions that fit neatly within the frame of a capitalist model and its cycles of boom and bust and its insistence that what matters most is what people want most to pay for. What matters most to me, on a cultural level is not the economic exchange value of the orchestra, but rather what an orchestra makes possible. An orchestra is a working model to teach how we can make many bodies come together to make one, to make a tremendous animal that can burst into synchronized sound. It’s a miracle, is what it is, and we ought to be treating it as such. I fear that our efforts to save the institution of the orchestra might focus on saving the organizations and kill the animal.

We look, in short for economic solutions that confuse means and ends. The true end is not merely financial survival, but more importantly a deep relevance to society while being true to core values. As long as we are framing our entire discussion with the marketplace and how to survive in it, we will be chasing a standard by which all things are turned into products. To paraphrase the great writer Wendell Berry, markets and products cannot be true, unless we make them so. The only way we can make a market true to our place and our selves is to make them subject to our values, rather than subjecting ourselves to the market. I think we should properly frame the question of the survival of the orchestra in political, spiritual, and ethical terms.

I’d like to exercise my artist’s prerogative to be both unreasonable and impractical and urge us to choose the means first, and then follow them to where they lead us. I’d like to encourage the imagination of a post-capitalist, post-corporate orchestra. Another way to look at this is to try to give people what they need and not what they want, and to strive to figure out what an orchestra could and should be, what social and spiritual needs it might meet, instead of simply how to get people to come to concerts in larger numbers, or how best to pursue the cold, dead perfection of execution that is constantly referred to under the euphemism “artistic excellence.”

If I imagine an orchestra of the future in the US, what I see is a handful of key shifts that would be desirable:

I: Regionalism should be a driving force. I would call for a divorce from the internationalist aesthetics and idealized Europeanism that characterize both the aesthetic and organizational focus of most organizations, and favor a move to fully embrace regional cultural and musical variations. Instrumentation would change from place to place, and local ethnic and regional music styles should be incorporated into the performances. If this were so, the style of playing would change from region to region, and we would gauge our programming and our performances as to how they related to our actual place…not only the imagined European cultural origins of our place. Allowing regional variation in instrumentation and repertoire would permit the creation of something that would reach beyond regional economies of scale and donor corporations, and into regional economies of meaning. Local environments, local issues, local people, local food, and local soil would be considered as part and parcel with the music that the orchestra was a purveyor of. A simple equation to implement as a start toward this goal would be to reverse the ratio of European to American content offered during the season, as well as reversing the ratio of historical works to modern ones.

II: I wonder about a more political approach to the role and justification of the orchestra. I do not mean that the orchestra should participate in partisan politics, but rather that it should be recognized as part of a community, and a full participant in the broadest notion of politics, in the search to define and achieve what is good for us as a people. We have seen a massive disassembly of civil society over the last thirty years; economic Darwinism and the values of unfettered supercharged capitalism have bred an overriding disrespect for the common good. I like to think of the orchestra as if it had the status of Central Park in Manhattan—no one who lives there wants to see that park abandoned or turned into apartments, even though it’s prime real estate, it is expensive to maintain, it makes no profit, and is very costly in material terms, useless as a profit-generator. Even so, no one advocates its destruction, and no one is suggesting that Central Park should be parceled up and sold, because we need it. Central Park is valuable and necessary because without it we would be less human and the city itself would be too completely inhospitable. We couldn’t live quite as fully as humans in Manhattan without Central Park, and the status of the orchestra in our society is not entirely dissimilar. Orchestras are a civic good, one that should belong to us all like Central Park, and as such they have no business behaving like corporations or seeking to dominate markets.

III: I believe that orchestras should directly address spiritual concerns. The orchestra is important not because it can behave like a corporation; its value does not lie in the ability to make money or move fast in order to glom on to the next lucrative trend. We’ve heard too many times that our citizens and our institutions are compelled to play the game of figuring out where the puck is going and get there first, but why on earth should classical music as a discipline aspire to chasing after the illusory trends and fads when we have so often seen that they lead nowhere? I am saddened when I see orchestras caving in to of cashing in on short-term cultural capital, of cash in on short-term cultural capital: Brand-name celebrities and the next hot thing have little to offer us beyond the short-lived thrill we get from being near the glow of fame or a gift shop transaction. This is not the road to true relevance.
Instead I have a desire to see the powerful ritual of the orchestra concert recognized as a ritual, to bend it toward liturgy and away from product and profit. This powerful ritual order could be used to address any number of serious cultural problems, to take on environmental issues, or to embrace an educational mission that reaches far beyond the standard “music appreciation” mission–that is–merely teaching our children and our audiences why the great masters are so very wonderful. This ritual could be used to deal instead with the real issues of life and death and how to be a human in these times. We can make music the veins and arteries and blood and connective tissue that ties together our understandings of the world, that takes our science, our sociology, our stories and our knowledge and wisdom and ties them together into coherent worldviews and then performs them for us, making manifest our deepest beliefs about life through time and gesture, bringing our understandings to life in the present moment so that we can be filled with and altered by them. (In more simply practical terms, community partnerships with the orchestra as a prominent local institution strike me as being widely under-imagined.) My wish for the orchestra is that it would become a purveyor of urgent meaning, not merely a storied re-imagining of cultural origins, or a parade of highly packaged products, but rather a burning inquiry into what it means to be alive.

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