“Of Course, You Know, This means GWAR!”

Facebook is a very dangerous place.  You can find yourself deep in all sorts of either totally ludicrous exchanges or heavy philosophical discussions.  Sometimes those “friends” of yours can pose a real challenge as did one of mine recently.  Here’s my response:

My buddy Erik recently went to a GWAR concert.  Frankly I wouldn’t get near this band with a ten foot battle lance and I wasn’t shy about posting that to his Facebook page.  It’s not that I’m against new music, or that I support any activity which so much as borders on suppression of any artistic endeavor.  I’m all for people enjoying whatever music they happen to like.  But I also know what music I like and I’m not into speed metal, death metal, or any of the related genres. Or as the band Genesis so eloquently put it: “I know what I like and I like what I know.”  That’s just me.

Which didn’t prevent Erik from posting:

“Bill, that’s the attitude that prevents people from coming to orchestra concerts, maybe a good topic for your blog.”

Well, since that particular gauntlet is thrown I shall be most honored to pick it up and ask my second to prepare for the duel, sirrah!

First of all, what is wrong with knowing what you like? and, consequently, avoiding what you don’t like as if it was the plague?  I do not expect anyone to like every kind of music, and I’m under no illusion that every person will or should like classical music.  I am certainly not a Convincesualist – someone who believes that if people would only come to the Holy Temple which is the Concert Hall and subsume themselves in the Glorious Wonder which is the Complete Works of Mahler then they will prostrate themselves before our Glory and renew their subscription every year because it is their Duty to do so.  Not at all.  I believe that we are fighting, and frequently losing, a battle to be heard above the din which is modern society and the arrogant “we are superior to those other forms of music” line just isn’t going to work.  Honestly, I’d be darn happy if I could reach 1 out of every 100 or so folk out there but in today’s iPhone world it’s hard.

But I also keep my ear to the ground.  Jazz, World, Reggae, Rock ……. all these genres and others I listen to and try to keep up on.  I have a tangential familiarity with GWAR and what little I had heard prior to this exchange made my head hurt.  If given the opportunity to experience a full night of GWAR my natural instinct would be to say “thanks, but no thanks.”

Is this really the same attitude that prevents people from coming to orchestra concerts?  On one level I’d say absolutely not.  I would guess offhand that I’m going to have more familiarity with the music of GWAR than the average GWAR-head would have of the music of, say, Stravinsky.  Perhaps that’s not true but I’d be pretty surprised if it wasn’t.  I’m pretty sure I have a much, much greater familiarity with the genre from which GWAR hails from than the average GWAR-head has of classical music.  I remember being into Ozzy before he was a caricature of himself, let alone before there was an MTV reality show.  There are other deep, dark secrets about my musical past but perhaps they should stay hidden.  The point is that I do know something about GWAR, and I’d rather stay home and harass my children.  But that decision concerns GWAR itself, not the genre.

But on another level then, yes, quite certainly this is the same attitude.  I can’t claim to be intimately familiar with GWAR – I’m not going to recite any of their lyrics offhand – and that’s fine with me.  It would take quite a lot to lure me to a GWAR concert, and this is exactly the problem that the classical music industry faces on a regular basis.  Classical music tends to be painted with one very, very large brush which does not take into consideration the huge differences in music one can hear in the course of a two hour concert.  I recently did a program which encompassed a contemporary South African work by Forsyth, some late Kabalevsky, and the 2nd symphony of Brahms.  These are three very different pieces of music, and in GWAR’s world that would be like that band adding some Peter, Paul & Mary and some DEVO to their set.

The problem that we face in the orchestra world tends to be one of perception.  Before we can drag anyone into the door we are fighting the perception that we are an old, stuffy, boring, outdated art form.  Whether that’s a true perception is an argument for a different blog. We could start blowing out the marketing budget, pull out the bells and whistles and…… pardon the expression……  sex things up a little bit,  but one can’t market an orchestra like that, or at least it never happens in our business.  I am sure that anyone in the business of marketing orchestras would take one look at that program I just conducted and say “We should push the hell out of that Brahms.”  It’s familiar, it’s inoffensive, and perhaps our core audience will be gracious enough to ignore the fact that there are two unfamiliar works on the program (as glorious as they are).  The problem being that in order to expand our reach beyond that core audience pushing the Forsyth or the Kabalevsky might make much more sense.  Both of those pieces are much more contemporary, musically and sociologically, than the Brahms, and very well might appeal to a wider audience, or at least an audience not constrained by the 19th century orchestra ideal.

And here we see the dilemma – in order to expand our audience we need to change the perception of what an orchestra concert is.  Unfortunately this is going to seriously upset the core audiences for most orchestras, those who only want to hear their overture, concerto, symphony combo.  In the interim those of us in the business need to act as ambassadors to the general public, find a way to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally attend our concerts.  One example – many, many years ago I developed a friendship with a guy who knew almost nothing about classical music.  What he did know was heavy metal.  So one evening we got slightly toasted and I put on Le Sacre du Printemps as loud as my stereo could go.  Today that guy has a larger classical collection than I do, with a special emphasis on European music 1900-1950.  As far as I was concerned it all had to do with finding the right key for the right lock.

Hmmmmm…… and I’m going to have to ask that old friend if he’s ever been to a GWAR show.  Me, I’m much more excited by the fact that DEVO is coming on tour.  But that’s just (boring, old-fashioned, out of touch) me.

2 thoughts on ““Of Course, You Know, This means GWAR!””

  1. Great column, Bill. Jeff and I talk about this quite often- raising a teenager and sharing our love of classical music with a reluctant concert-goer. Most of his generation’s music contains a strong visual aspect….whether it be gaming music, filmscores, or heavy metal…there is always something to see. Even if they listen to the music apart from the media, the visual subtext is always there. GWAR is heavy into the visual drama. And that makes up for some pretty schlocky music (IMHO) Imagine combining great music with great visuals…

    Loved your Stravinsky story- we found a way into our son’s psyche thru Sacre, John Adams, Steve Reich, and the Goldberg variations. He could “see” the music in his mind- the rhythmic locomotion spoke to him. And now he gets it. As old fogeys, our challenge will be to connect to the visual world…whether collaborating with art institutions, film, dance, or good old fashioned story telling. Not that we need to put on a show to sell classical music- (because the music can do that on its own)- but we do need to find a way “in” to this new audience. Then, just like the friend you converted, the audience will be intrigued enough to come back and create their own personal visual landscape. At least, I hope they will!

  2. Bill, first thanks for immortalizing me in your blog and for taking up my challenge. The point which I was unsuccessful in making was that though one might find a particular band or genre distasteful or offensive the key lies in experiencing the music LIVE. Believe me, for the week leading up to the GWAR concert I tried to listen to the heavy metal station on my Sirius satellite radio and couldn’t get beyond the first 30 seconds. I was dreading the whole idea of going, however I once I got there I was transfixed by the opening band “Red Chord”, their musicianship (both in endurance an in negotiating intricate meter changes by memory) and by the intensity and involvement in the performance. Then GWAR with the whole theatrical aspect of their “show”. Why do they do what they do? Because shocking people is fun, that’s why. I was also pleasantly surprised at how nice all the fans were to a middle aged dork like me, much more so than if a kid with a GWAR t-shirt were to show up at a symphony concert. Since we are in such a struggle to find new audiences the last thing we should be doing is telling someone “the music you like is garbage, here now listen to this.” In a 2 week time span I saw GWAR, performed with Yo Yo Ma, and went to a Bruce Springsteen concert. I honestly feel that they are all great artists who provide a transcendent experience for music lovers, which, after all, is what it’s all about.

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