Where is the turnaround?
Where is the turnaround?
The German word „Wende“ is difficult to translate. Basically it means “a change of direction”, a “turnaround”. It is very often used in politics to denote a change of government, or in economics to describe the change from a baisse to a hausse or vice versa.
Basically a “Wende” decides what paradigms will replace the old paradigms from now on. A paradigm change (like recently in the cultural politics of the Netherlands) is rarely a sudden thing. It has a preparing history and then a culmination point at which you suddenly realize that the train has left the station and will not turn back anymore.
I recently read in an open letter by famous German conductor Michael Gielen (addressing the much discussed orchestra merger in Freiburg/Baden Baden) that 36 orchestras have been closed forever in the last 10 years in Germany. If one takes this as a “trend” (and it definitely is a new trend, as there was nowhere near as many orchestra closures in the 10 years before) and also takes the fact into account that practically no new orchestras were created in the same 10 years, it is easy to theroetically calculate a statistical point where there will be no orchestra left in Germany. At the current speed this would be very roughly in 100 years, but the gut feeling of everybody at the moment is that the speed of annihilation might actually increase, therefore this would actually be a very optimistic guess.
Of course foreseeing the future is a tricky thing. Anybody who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s (like me) was pretty sure that space travel for example would be constantly developed from the first moon landing onwards. But there was a trend change – foreign politics changed, and with them the necessity to have a “space race” to prove the superiority of one system against the other diminished. The result of this trend change was severe cutbacks in the funding of for example the NASA, resulting in a much slower progress than everybody predicted.
And one should also not forget that trends create countertrends, that nothing constantly stays the same.
At one point there might be too much of one thing, but once that happens that very thing is rarified up to the point where it is suddenly “valuable” again. This is why in spite of shopping malls and amazon.com the odd grocery store and bookstore will survive, simply because it is the last one of its kind left.
When I was a student in Munich there were at least 10 different stores where you could buy classical sheet music. During my studies these stores vanished, one by one, until only two were left. After competing for a while these two stores merged and exist in this form until today. If you want to buy sheet music you now head for one single place and descend the stairs into a small room which contains so little sheet music that most of it will have to be ordered via the internet anyway. The store survived, but not in a form that is very attractive to customers.
We all are aware – and I think not only in Europe – that classical music is currently in a clear “downward” trend that is gaining more and more momentum. I have to stress that this is a trend that is not fuelled by dwindling audience interest. That might be locally the case in some instances, but is always a result of a failure in cultural politics in the preceding years. If you fail to satisfy a certain customer base it will slowly go somewhere else. Cities that have failed to create an interesting cultural offering over the years (meaning providing a certain number of theatres, opera houses, museums, concert halls that correspond with their size) have almost without exception lost inhabitants and attraction. People simply move away to more interesting and exciting cities, and that’s a fact. And the lack of these people as an audience then further fuels the arguments of local politicians to reduce the funding for the arts. Basically this constitutes a downward spiral that constantly feeds itself.
Arts in general are always forced into an argument that is usually based on purely economic reasoning, which gives an altogether wrong perspective. It is clear that money from somewhere is needed to make art happen, and that this money should be spent wisely and with a certain amount of restraint. But in our world of stock markets and investment schemes there now seems to be an expectation that something of immediate physical value should be created in return, which is of course impossible. Measuring art against that demand results in depicting it as a worthless endeavor, whereas its value lies in something completely different instead.
Taking all this into account, looking at the years before us is still a tricky thing. It is clear that the current “paradigm change” already has visible effects. The amount of commissioning possibilities for younger or unknown composers has been already severely reduced in Germany over the last years. Will this mean that there will be also fewer composers in the future? There already is a noticeable change in the average profile of students applying for the academies. Where 20 years ago somebody wanting to study “film music” was something of an oddity it now seems to be more and more common to want that instead of writing “more difficult” non-commercial music. What has happened is that there is a selective process now that makes those young talents that don’t value personal artistic freedom over the ability to make a living choose the “safer” way of film music instead, as the purely “contemporary” or “E-Musik” composers more and more drift into a kind of idealistic oblivion based on a not very small amount of self-deception.
Not that film music is “safe” – of course it is a very hard and competitive business, but once you make it to a certain level you actually can make a living, whereas that level is much harder to obtain in contemporary music. Even in Germany there are probably only 10-20 “serious” composers who could really live by their craft alone, and most of them have a professorship anyway.
But I digress – what I really want to ask in this article is:
Where is the “Wende”, where is the trend change? Where will it come from? What will stop this downward spiral?
Where will the sudden event come from, that might incite a real turnaround? What external thing could happen that changes the rule of the game, sets classical/contemporary music onto an upwards trajectory again, like the sales of CD’s (when they were new) did in the 80’s? Is there actually any chance of it happening as long as our cultural life remains grounded in ideals and procedures still lifted from the 19th century?
To hope it will come from our increasingly uneducated politicians is probably moot, as is hoping the general populace will suddenly make a stand and demand more quality in arts and education (they should, but they are kept dumb by people who like them dumb, and who sell them dumb shit until the people have forgotten what quality is).
The current trend will probably – as described above – reach some form of saturation point. Some orchestras in some very rich cities might survive, as well as the most elite of academies. But how relevant will they be for our culture as a whole? Visiting an orchestra concert will probably become more and more expensive and become an entertainment for the very rich again. Only privileged talents from privileged households will even consider studying music.
What will surely happen: Classical Music will slowly cease to exist as an art of the people, it will be representative and museum-like in nature. The last surviving classical stars will be paraded around by their “owners” like made-up cattle, milking their last drop out of them, while constantly reminding them how little commercial revenue they actually create, how worthless and superfluous they are. They will become like hollow husks, like exchangeable mainstream pop stars. Careers will come and go without leaving the same lasting impact as the greatest classical musicians of the 20th century undoubtedly have. Record companies and publishing houses will more and more become like agencies, surviving through contracts that ensure they are getting percentages from concert fees. For every decent artist there will be a garish David Garrett or Andre Rieu, fighting for the spotlight by dumbing down everything we love. For the general audience classical music will become more and more removed and far away from their real life, limited to the appearance as pacifying background music in an elevator or in a subway station, or in a commercial for expensive cars. Classical music will be like an undead zombie – going mechanically through the motions without any real life energy behind it.
And if I really think about it: All this has happened already.
The train has long left the station, and there is no signal, no change of direction, no “Wende” in sight.
Sometimes – late at night – I lie awake in my bed and pray for it.