So many different settings, so many different kinds of action, so many different ways of organizing sound into meanings, all of them given the name music. What is this thing called music, that human beings over the world should find in it such satisfaction, should invest in it so much of their lives and resources? (Small 1998: 2)
How does one begin an article about music? Which point of departure does one take in the universe of sounds and perceptions? Where does one begin the process of narrowing down the meaning of words until they strike just one chord resonating with the reader's standpoint, a reader who might be coming from very far, or standing right there? Music is, in the truest sense of the term, a matter of perception. Writing about music reminds us acutely that simple words and concepts can hardly capture the complexity of perception. Yet, I am here to write about, or around, music.
My essay is subheaded “Exploring Contemporary Performance Practices of Classical Music”. For about 200 years, the standard classical concert has been taking place in concert halls, although it is worth noticing that this performance practice only became a norm in the 19th century and, thus, is actually quite a recent practice (Small 1998: 40). As this research project is dedicated to uncovering contemporary performance practices, I have set out to explore forms of performing classical music that deviate from this norm. Usually, the term “performance practice” signifies “the privileged performance of any music from the past” (Dreyfus 2007: 253), with connotations of “privilege”, “correctness” or “authenticity” attached to it. But it can also be re-read simply as what musicians do when they perform. During the period from January to December 2017, I have closely observed the classical music landscape in the West of the Netherlands by visiting concerts, speaking with musicians, organizers, and audience members, as well as developing a catalog that demonstrates how diverse contemporary approaches to the classical concert actually are. Despite the rather limited time and geographical space, these can be seen as exemplary of broader tendencies that have been characterizing the classical music world for about two decades now and will probably continue to do so for some time.
Besides a natural curiosity about my own future playing field as a musician, an additional reason I have conducted this research project is my considerable concern with the political-economic and social conditions surrounding classical music-making. Recently, the art sector (not only) in the Netherlands has gathered its energies for restructuring and change, primarily linked to the unfavorable cultural policies implemented by neoliberal governments who drastically reduced the public subsidization of art, focusing financial support on a few large institutions and referring other formations, such as ensembles and collectives, to private sponsoring and project funds. In addition, I was intrigued by the notion of a “crisis of classical music,” which became a widespread outcry in Western scholarship. What would such a crisis entail? Would it be an artistic crisis, one concerned with artistic stagnation and lack of vibrancy and innovation, a crisis that concerns the music itself? Is it an economic one, where the art suffers due to a lack of appreciation “from above”, thus impacting the artist's ability to sustainably continue their work? Or is it a crisis of relevance to the broader public, concerning the perception of the audience? Intrigued by the urgency of the crisis rhetoric, but simultaneously skeptical of its justification, I was inspired to attempt an unraveling of the various aspects that are thought to comprise it with the aim of finding some answers to these questions. It seemed reasonable to nuance the crisis narrative by shedding light on particular practical responses to it that engage with specific aspects, rather than addressing the crisis as a whole, and therefore give us an indication of what it specifically entails. What kind of solutions do musicians find to address decreased funding and rising competition as well as a dwindling public? Importantly, my aim in this essay is to give an up-to-date impressionof what is currently practiced, with no aspirations of painting a complete picture or approaching the material in a normative way, attempting to judge the efficacy of the different approaches in addressing problems of the classical music sector. I see this article more as a “brief history of what is now changing” (Gumbrecht 2004: 21): an initial exploration of contemporary performance practices of classical music that might serve as a foundation for future, more elaborate research undertakings, a research project that remains open to gaps and refinement, that explores instead of explains, that questions instead of concludes, just like the various musical performances that form its foundation.