Monday, January 27, 2014

The Life and Death of Classical Music

MANY – perhaps most – of the people who follow the state of culture get tired of stories about the graying of the arts audience, the decline of arts education, the falling off of record sales, etc. I used to be among them, until it became clear to me a few years ago that the problems were real and that ignoring them did us (and the arts) absolutely no good.

So I’m well aware that many of us – who love music, reading, and visual art, and don’t quite understand why other people don’t share our ardor – will reject or ignore this Slate story about the “death” of classical music. (The headline, I’ll admit, is a bit cartoonish – go to see my local group, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, most nights and classical music will seem quite alive and its audience quite robust. There are also a great number of substantial musicians these days, young and old.)

But there’s much of value in this piece by Mark Vanhoenacker, which looks at the pitiful state of classical record sales (2.8 percent of a fairly small pie), the fading out of classical radio, the fact that donations have since 2005 exceeded orchestra ticket revenues, and the way the audience is not renewing itself. The story employs some valuable data by music critic and ArtsJournal blogger Greg Sandow:

Sandow notes that back in 1937, the median age at orchestra concerts in Los Angeles was 28. Think of that! That was the year, by the way, that Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer festival, was founded. I grew up near Tanglewood and had various summer jobs there in the 1990s. When I worked at the beer and wine stand, I almost never carded anyone.
Sandow and NEA data largely back up what I saw on Tanglewood’s fabled lawns two decades ago. Between 1982 and 2002, the portion of concertgoers under 30 fell from 27 percent to 9 percent; the share over age 60 rose from 16 percent to 30 percent. In 1982 the median age of a classical concertgoer was 40; by 2008 it was 49.
… Younger fans are not converting to classical music as they age. The last generation to broadly love classical music may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.

Some of my view on this whole thing comes from the fact that I find most of my generational peers – I am 44 – fairly indifferent to classical music. I’ve also watched as the press – newspapers, magazines, alt weeklies – cuts back on its coverage, which has a centrifugal effect.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Slate piece has already drawn angry denunciations. Former Naxos and iTunes executive Andy Doe clearly loves classical music, and makes some good points in his retort. But I find the shoot-the-messenger tone here a bit odd. I guess part of me thinks that those of us who care about non-corporate culture and want to see it survive are on the same (shrinking) team and should work together as best we can. That requires admitting that we're in a crisis -- and plenty of people aren't ready to admit that yet. 

Of course, I welcome comments on this fraught complicated issue.

UPDATE: A very intelligent and less defensive refutation to the Slate piece went up here, by the Washington Post's estimable Anne Midgette.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Sorrows of Gene Clark

HERE at The Misread City, we're huge Byrds fans, and Gene Clark is, some days, our favorite member of that great L.A. band. With the Byrds he wrote and sang songs like "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" and "Set You Free This Time"; his country-tinged solo career was rich and varied, and included Tried So Hard" (covered by Fairport Convention and Yo La Tengo), "Why Not Your Baby" (covered by Velvet Crush) and some soulful collaborations with Byrd Chris Hillman.

But there's always been a sense that the Missouri-born Clark, who left the Byrds during their heyday, in 1966, because of his refusal to fly, never quite arrived. (This is the guy, of course, who co-wrote "Eight Miles High.") There is a strong Clark cult among musicians and fans of country rock, but it's not nearly as large as that commanded by Gram Parsons. Much of the poignant work of his solo career remains largely unheard.

Clark was reticent, often anxious, sometimes self-destructive and did not love the attention the group's fame brought. And he felt deep disappointment that his 1974 record, No Other, which he recorded in Mendocino and was intended comeback, never hit. It was a lasting sorrow for a musician whose best work is about loss and missed connections.

So it gives us great pleasure to see a number of indie musicians -- Beach House (pictured), the Walkmen, Grizzly Bear -- performing a handful of tribute concerts to Clark and this oft-overlooked album. They're at the 9:30 Club in D.C. (a club important to me as a teenager, for what it's worth) and in Brooklyn this weekend.

Here's the New York Times' Jon Pareles:

A British Invasion beat carried Clark’s early songs with the Byrds, like “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” — which, in a typical Clark touch, brings uncertainty to its chorus, “I’ll probably feel a whole lot better when you’re gone.”
But rock often gave way, during his solo career, to something closer to the country music he had grown up on, transformed by his lyrics. His songs have been recognized as a foundation for what would later be called alt-country or Americana. Clark wrote story songs as stark as traditional ballads, and deeply haunted mood songs like the two chosen by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss — “Polly Come Home” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night” — for their 2007 album “Raising Sand.”
Yet “No Other” is no one’s idea of down-home roots-rock. Mr. Clark and its producer, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, gave it a far more lavish palette, and even the songs that start out countryish end up in realms of their own. There are gospelly female choruses, horns, synthesizers, Latin percussion, wah-wah violin and, in “No Other,” a bruising fuzz-toned bass line played by a phalanx of overdubbed basses. The head of Elektra/Asylum Records, David Geffen, was furious that a $100,000 studio budget had yielded only eight finished songs, and the label barely promoted the album. In a notorious Hollywood incident, Clark and Mr. Geffen nearly came to blowsat a restaurant.

Now, let's have a Gene Clark tribute in the state he called home for much of his career. Let's start with the city in which his old band was formed -- Los Angeles.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Catching Up with Stephen Malkmus

THE other day I spoke to the former leader of what may've been the greatest band of the '90s -- Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. Their mix of melody and noise electrified me during my misspent youth, and it was gratifying to see the band reunite a few years ago and actually play like they meant it.

Malkmus, who recently returned to Portland after a couple years in Berlin, has a fine new record out on Matador. He'll be touring soon. Here's my interview. Just don't expect straight answers from him. I've spoken to him several times over the years -- on each occasion he gets a bit friendlier and a bit more cryptic.