Julia Friederike Pank


Research Project “(Re)positioning Modern Concert Music in Contemporary Society”

Research Traineeship Program 2017

Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University, the Netherlands


Having dedicated these thoughts to the transformative potential of contemporary performance practices of “classical” music, it is now time to zoom back into the reality of classical music practice in the contemporary Netherlands, into the cultural-political circumstances of this time. The production of discourses surrounding an artistic production is a vital element, constructing that production's “value” or “relevance” and in turn, assigning it a position within the field of cultural production (Bourdieu 1983: 17). The terms “classical music” and “classical concert” are inflexible categories with heavy connotations, yet, up to the present, we have no alternative terminology that might relay the diversity of classical music-making. Musical practices have long since moved beyond these outdated concepts, but the discourse surrounding them has so far failed to adapt to the changing realities.


So, I believe that if we still want to speak of a crisis, we at least need to make a distinction between an artistic and an economic one. In terms of artistic innovation - be it through repertoire, multidisciplinarity, location, or set-up - the flexibility and creativity of the bustling ensemble culture offers impressive and multifaceted contributions to rethinking classical music and repositioning it within contemporary society. In this respect, there can certainly be no talk of a crisis. In economic terms, however, the crisis rhetoric might not be entirely misplaced. The struggle of musical groups to ensure funding for carrying out their ambitions is very real. One could even say that contemporary innovations of performance practices are to some extent even driven by the necessity of being ever more attractive to sponsors and the public. The dominant economic framework of reference reduces the scope of quality and relevance assessments to indicators of audience sales and the ability to win subsidies, and as such, has led to the superiority of the “symbolic production of art,” meaning the attachment of social, economic, and political value to art (Bourdieu 1983: 318). This can potentially turn into severe constraints on artistic expression, as it subsumes the variable of artistic innovation in favor of the primacy of the desires of an (imagined) public, thus limiting the framework in which answers to the question of whether - and, if so, in what way - classical music is still relevant are sought.


Still, it would be more productive to refrain from speaking of a crisis in an abstract way and instead pinpoint the specific challenges that the classical music world faces.One specific aspect that should certainly be questioned is the nature of education at conservatories, where the focus is upheld on the production of the excellent soloist or the orchestra musician, while the scarcity of such positions is widely known. Instead, broadening the approach to being a musician by including education in management and entrepreneurship, as well as other art forms, could help prepare young musicians for multiple possible careers in a more realistic fashion. Secondly, it should be realized that there is no default solution for creating a classical music concert experience that caters to the publics of our time. The tendency of stuffing ever more multidimensionality into one evening might not always be particularly constructive, as it helps create an incoherence between how contemporary audiences listen and what the suppliers bid for (Hamel 2016: 9, 45). It is a pitfall to think that by overcrowding performances, all audience members will feel equally addressed and satisfied. There is no one right combination that caters to all desires of increasingly heterogeneous audiences: “What we should keep in mind is that those taking part in performances of different kinds are looking for different kinds of relationships, and we should not project the ideals of one kind of performance onto another” (Small 1998: 49). This realization calls for retaining and fostering a diversity of choice through sustaining a lively and diverse landscape of musical practices.


Perhaps we should dare to abandon the question of whether and how classical music is still relevant altogether, since it seems impossible to determine. In attempts to circumscribe the importance of classical music, Kramer writes that it “distance[s] us from the distracting immediacy of everyday life” and carries an “intrinsic power to give what is needed” (Kramer 2007: 11). Dreyfus affirms that it brings joy to its “lovers and players” (Dreyfus 2007: 272). The case studies in this essay reveal that performers are currently seeking to convey its relevance by means of presenting classical music in an interdisciplinary way, providing references to societal themes, as well as engaging in personal contact with the public. Yet, explaining the relevance of classical music seems to be, even to those who dedicate their lives to it, an unaccomplishable task – all musicians I spoke with had severe problems with answering this question. Beliefs concerning relevance seem deeply subjective and dependent on the framework of reference, so a collection and compilation of these beliefs would not produce any tangible and verifiable conclusions. However, as these beliefs are translated into performance practices that inform us about actual and possible discourses, it becomes more than evident that traditional definitions of “classical music” and “the classical concert” fail hopelessly in capturing the richness of centuries of music-making. In practice, musicians - composers and performers as well as producers and technicians - have been expanding their playing field by continuously adding new dimensions to what classical music can be. Nonetheless, besides the omnipresent struggle for funding, the conceptual limitation of the persistent discourse surrounding classical music remains a large obstacle. Fortunately, a space of negotiation and reinvention has opened and is waiting to be discovered and inhabited – not only by musicians, but also by the public, and society as a whole. We simply need to enter.