Saturday, May 13, 2017

Grazing the classics

One of the standard-issue explanations for the decline/impending doom of classical music is that in recent generations attention spans and tolerance for complexity have been in decline, and have fallen off the cliff among young people (not to mention, ahem, some adults) in the 140-character age of social media.

Alan Davey, controller (i.e., general manager) of BBC3, the network’s classical radio service, begs to differ:

“Young people’s brains aren’t experiencing a backward evolution. Their ability to articulate points of rhythm, melody and the flow of words in musical genres they have made or developed themselves prove that, as human beings, our urge for musical expression and facility lies deep. Young people are not afraid of things that need to be worked through. Complexity, curiosity and adventure is the new counter-culture,” Davey writes for The Guardian:


After three years working among college students at WDCE-FM, the University of Richmond’s radio station, and sampling what this admittedly high-end slice of the under-25 population listens to, I agree with Davey, but with reservations and qualifiers – some of which he implicitly acknowledges in the examples he uses to support his argument.

Young people are not alienated by classical music – the very young, in fact, are as receptive to it as to any other music, as their tastes have not been overly affected by peer pressure and commercial signals.

Many young adults, I’ve found, have a good deal of curiosity about this genre, but their curiosity doesn’t lead them along the traditional music-appreciation path. Many start with a contemporary composer, contemporary specialty ensemble or rock musician influenced by classical music, and listen their way “backward” into the standard repertory – Reich to Bach, not the other way around.

As with most aspects of contemporary culture, context and branding counts for as much as content – arguably more. This is why so many classical musicians and presenters are staging concerts in nightclubs, brew-pubs and other settings in which younger audiences feel more at home than they would sitting silently in the dark in a concert hall. And performers are tailoring what and how they perform to these new venues.

For years I’ve observed, here and elsewhere, that there’s really no telling anymore what people listen to. The old indices of listener preference – sales charts of recordings, ratings of radio stations, what record companies choose to release and promote – are increasingly irrelevant when more and more people program “their” music via services such as Spotify and websites such as YouTube, whose range of musical choices is more or less unlimited and often not neatly segmented by format.

It’s instructive to read the comments on any given classical selection on YouTube. Like as not, they’ll range from “the definitive recording of this piece is from Sviatoslav Richter’s 1957 Prague recital” to

The younger you are, the more likely you are to be a grazing listener, sampling all kinds of music – including, yes, classical music.