These challenging political-economic conditions stand in sharp contrast to the still wide-held image of the Netherlands as a thriving innovative environment for the performing arts. While the past forty years of development in the arts sector have yielded a large increase in the number of ensembles of every kind, these must now compete for a share in a severely reduced budget. Another problematic aspect of the decrease of national funds is that local governments are expected to compensate for the lack of funds while at the same time maintaining public institutions such as libraries, music schools, theaters, museums, and associations (Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science2006: 15, 41, 45). Despite - or perhaps due to - these constraints, independent performance groups are required to find ever-shifting and innovative ways to present their music in order to appeal to funds and extend their public.
II: A Crisis of Classical Music? Scholarly Perceptions of the Status Quo
Many Western scholars situate the questioning of the relevance of classical music today within a broader paradigm shift, including a transformation in the way society produces meaning and knowledge. Literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht dedicated his book Production of Presence – What Meaning Cannot Convey (2003) to the theorization of this paradigm shift. According to him, societal thinking patterns are moving away from a culture of representation towards a culture of presence. Until now, the production of knowledge and meaning has been based upon the interpretation of the material world: extracting meaning from or attributing meaning to the world around us (Gumbrecht 2003: 52-54). We have arrived at a point where many are realizing that the ever-repeated interpretations have led us to forget about a possible presence-based approach to the world, one that is more concerned with the performance, or presence, of substance and reality, than with the interpretation thereof (53-54, xiv). For Gumbrecht, the still prevalent culture of representation clashes with a contemporary “longing for presence” in the (post)modern reality in which we live – which is why we are in need of a new approach to understanding the world, an approach that includes noninterpretive concepts and complexifies meaning by basing it on presence (11, 52f.).
This change in thinking patterns in turn impacts the ways in which society experiences art, something which composer Micha Hamel and musicologist Joep Christenhusz thematize in relation to Gumbrecht's ideas (Hamel 2016: 15, 58, 61; Christenhusz 2016: 12, 14-15). They concur with one another that enjoying music increasingly comes to mean an all-encompassing, multisensorial experience instead of an act of contemplative listening only. Listening thus attains a shift in focus; the conscious act of seeking to understand musical forms or structure has become a subpart of a broader, immersive experience (Christenhusz 2016: 13). In line with Gumbrecht's call for the complexification of meaning, Christenhusz argues that it is time for a different kind of terminology that does justice to the complexity and interwovenness of contemporary musical practices, with meaning “spread across the surface” instead of “hidden in the depth” (10, 14). That is to say that in the 20th century, understanding and grasping meaning was still pursued through immersion and dedication for the sake of literally “getting to the bottom of things” [doorgronden], whereas now, the essential substance is constituted by scattered points that need to be connected (14). Hamel writes that a societal awareness of the destructive nature of the contemporary human lifestyle generates a pessimism which removes any optimism regarding future human existence. Applied to art, this means that “no art is eternal, because humanity is not. What happens is what counts” (Hamel 2016: 266, emphasis added). However, this is not simply an affirmation of complete resignation and surrender, but instead a motivation for the creation of meaning based not on existence in general, but on present action (265).
Besides a conceptualization of music based on (individual) presence and perception, experiencing music can also be framed in social terms. Musicologist Christopher Small situates the construction of meaning in its social nature, conceptualizing the concert as an encounter determined by physical and social settings (Small 1998: 10). The “concert industry” can consequently be seen a social construction embodying values of an industrialized society and middle class, elevated through its conveyed contrast with the proletariat and popular culture (Small 1998: 37). The general thread of his argument is that because these values increasingly lose appeal and relevance in contemporary societies, it should not be surprising that concert halls attract a very specific group of people while repelling an ever-larger part of society. Classical music has come to be connected to big concert halls, although it is worth noting that it does not always require such spaces. These halls impose not only particular social relations and codes of conduct but also a one-way direction of attention, which clashes with contemporary multidimensional approaches to performance in a field of split attention (Small 1998: 25; Hamel 2016: 340, 337). Since the elite no longer guides cultural conscience, the public's choices have become more individualized; they are increasingly a question of taste and possible identification rather than of doctrine (Hamel 2016: 33). With the never-ending array of possibilities, present-day consumers are continuously under pressure to distribute their attention across the “force field of the attention economy” (10). Thus, an expensive classical concert is yet another thing one can, but is not required to, spend one's money on (38). A rather traditional standpoint on this issue is offered by music philosopher Lawrence Kramer, who argues that it is the contemporary sociocultural context that has deprived us of the ability to listen – declining interest is more a matter of capability than will (Kramer 2007: 12). For him, the problem is more cultural than economic or demographic: people do not take classical music seriously anymore, and it has ceased to occupy an integral spot in cultural life (3). Through its trivialization as background noise, music is losing its special standing that used to demand and enforce conscious and devoted listening. With the development of recording technology and online platforms, music has become instantly and widely available, whereas formerly, those who desired to listen to music had no choice but to attend a concert (Kramer 2007: 2).
In summary, the relevance of classical music to society is understood to be decreasing because it is widely associated with the values and conventions of a past culture materialized in traditional performance spaces. Scholars not only offer analyses of the current situation but also explore present and possible strategies for change. In practice, a tendency toward expanding the concert experience has become prevalent throughout the classical music world. Turning the concert into a “total experience” results, among other strategies, in augmenting the event by means of preliminary talks, coffee and tea provision, aftershows, etc., in order to increase the audience’s involvement as well as the depth of their experience (Hamel 2016: 200). This almost develops into an obsession with filling and emancipating the “inbetween spaces” that the music itself leaves (208). Furthermore, the interdisciplinarization of the performance itself is designed to meet the contemporary desire for multi-sensorial experiences and spectacle (264, 339). The desired effect of this is an intensification of the conveyed information through the addition of layers of meaning by the technique of juxtaposition, but it can also result in a possible undermining of the music by directing attention away from it (177). However, Hamel does raise the criticism that, due to this strategy, concerts begin to resemble each other more and more, which actually undermines the contemporary quest for unique experiences and a diverse cultural landscape (273).
Specifically in the Netherlands, the dominant strategies used in order to attract a wider audience to classical music concerts are: increased marketing, commissioning famous artists, inviting pop artists, relocating to alternative locations, researching audiences' preferences by means of questionnaires, and initiating support associations (Hamel 2016: 88). In addition, educational programs in the form of adaptations for children and families play a big role. Another strategy, that of focusing concert programming on the “iron” repertoire, assigns to the concert industry a museum-like function of reiterating a cultural canon (Hamel 2016: 10). In this way a “spiral of success” is created, where more and more prominence is accorded to already established works (274), obstructing the development of new or differing performance practices. In the end, all envisioned solutions seem to center around more audience involvement; everyone seems to be in search of the public. Whether an encompassing experience is offered with the intent of attracting more paying visitors or whether it is deliberately and artistically deployed in order to establish relevance and immediacy through a relational approach, extending thescope of classical music towards a larger and more diverse public that is (ideally) representative of the composition of the current population, is central to the debate concerning the position of classical music in contemporary society.