From Cartoons to Social Media – How Do You Make Classical Music Accessible?

For years “cartoons put art music in ordinary people’s lives in everyday ways.” The hijinks of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Porky Pig set to classical music’s greatest hits certainly served as an entry point for one generation of music lovers. But what are the entry points of today? This post by Paulla Ebron won an honorable mention in the American Orchestra Forum blog contest.

I have to admit that one of my first exposures to classical music was while watching old Looney Tunes cartoons. Colorful and irreverent, these animated snippets drew the attention of many young listeners whose living rooms became little concert hall. As viewers, we sat captivated by the characters, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Porky Pig either conducting or turning their comic appearance to perform something like. “The Hare of Seville.”

Cartoons put art music in ordinary people’s lives in everyday ways. They did so by naturalizing the music and making art music seem accessible. Admittedly, the rowdy crowds depicted in these cartoons are a bit unorthodox by conventional standards.

Formalists’ stomachs will turn at the thought of a popular genre meeting the staid conventions associated with high art. These same people would likely be upset by recent efforts to allow social media to be apart of concertgoers’ experience. Even further, having someone whose former job was to build the audience for baseball, now turn her abilities to build the audiences for art music could unnerve people with a set experience in mind. But the biggest challenge facing orchestras today is attracting large audiences.

An often-cited expression is “Music is a universal language.” Yes, humans have the capacity to produce music. But music appreciation is like a language system. As with any language, there are rules, syntax, conventions and phrases that make the system comprehensible. The magic of music is still believed to create affect in itself. The saying goes: “Music is beyond words.” But in saying this, what’s masked is how something is done. Getting inside the form inspires audiences to listen with an attentiveness. Through an appreciation of what’s going on, listeners may become committed supporters. We’re an anxious body these days. Knowing how things work is apart of grabbing and holding on to audiences’ attention.

With this in mind, I wonder how the stories about musical form and content might bring the dynamics and interiority of a piece of music to life? When one looks at a musical score, what do the symbols reveal? How did these symbols emerge? In the United States, the magic of art music seems missed on new audience members. People comment that they are less able to understand what is happening in an orchestral performance, even as some are still in awe. Someone mentioned this in the final audience conversation of the American Orchestra Forum in May 2012. A volunteer spoke of having never entered a concert hall. He feels that it is important to bring classical music to the students in his school district. He decided to become a volunteer as a way to become familiar with the scene. What would it mean, then, to explain things in ways that help inspire music appreciation and musical literacy? In order for orchestras to thrive, there is a need for musically literate listeners who can enjoy different forms of art music, art music defined broadly.

A suggestion made during a forum noted current efforts to increase audience size. One direction is to mix genres by including popular musical pieces and artists. This breakout seems to man a move beyond the seemingly ossified tradition. But another way might be to show the musical borrowing across traditions. Consider a musician such as Scott Joplin, inspired by nineteenth century European romanticism. How can one hear this influence in his compositions? Or Nina Simone’s use of the Bach inspired counter-point of a fugue. Who would know without clues? Learning more about Bach’s musical exchange with Vivaldi allows audiences to see musicians and their work at a much closer range. Staging performances of compositions with art music instruments from other parts of the world such as the 21-string West Africa lute/harp, the kora. Or pianist Rim Jeon practice of combining traditional Korean folk songs with the traditional, then Western art music and jazz is another attempt at showing how form inspires new forms or extended conversations with a score. Yet, the clues to how this is done are generally held in reserve for people who go to Conservatory. Composers and musicians are in dialogue with earlier composers and musicians. These intertextual and performance dialogues could prove exciting to many listeners.

A few weeks ago, NPR aired the story of a program in New York’s school system designed to teach fifth grade students elements of music theory (June 2, 2012). The students are then expected to compose music that is performed by the New York Philharmonic. Art music comes to life because the students spend weeks learning the language that most professional musicians take for granted, no matter the tradition.

Similarly, Suzanne Vega’s [radio] series, Thirteen Days When Music Changed Forever, is totally a cool idea. Part of telling a story about and through music helps people to appreciate what to listen to and listen for. Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead, is equally enjoyable for its ability to make art music have life. Recent examples of ways art music enters places outside the concert hall include film sound tracks. Or Phillip Miller’s Cape Town S.A. Rewind: A Cantata, Rewind for Voice Tape and Testimony, draws upon different forms of musical expression. It provides an opening and is successful in encouraging not so typical attendee for such an event to check things out.

I can’t help but wonder how an interest in art music is sustained in much of East Asia and still in Europe. Maybe there are insights to be gained by thinking globally about the questions posed by the Forum.

—Paulla Ebron

Paulla Ebron is an anthropologist currently exploring questions about Western art music as a form of cultural capital in the 21st century. She has taken music lessons on a variety of instruments. She is currently studying the cello.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Paulla for your audience-centric perspective!

    Working in developing audiences as well as a former symphony member among those who avoid symphony concerts, I point out many interesting facts and opinions to demystify the classical tradition. There are many MILLIONS of curious music lovers out here ready to learn more about the enduring power and beauty of classical. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to tell them much because traditionally the only time allowed for informative talk is the academic pre-concert lecture. Program notes, if the new audience is aware of them, is for the birds because hip audiences only read on smartphones and computers and DURING the concert.

    New audiences don’t want to be educated or enlightened by dry facts, they want to be informed and inspired by personal insights. This is quite possible, esp. in more comfortable settings and behind some food & drink! That’s why I believe restaurants and clubs are one of the best opportunities. I arrange many symphonic movements for my small ensembles to play slightly amplified in such non-smoking venues. I and other players introduce the works with personal and professional insights from the microphone. I also point out how Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (among others) often borrowed from local and exotic folk styles. Just think of how much of their music has Hungarian or Turkish flavors! My compositions similarly borrow from urban pop and folk.

    Cartoons helped introduce kids to classical. Smurfs carried on that tradition, although barely audible. What will do that now is to add classical to the background “soundtrack of our lives” in many non-traditional venues. I’ve discovered that when in the same room with a good string quartet, many listeners (1/3-1/2) respond positively. We want to create moments of epiphany in new listeners. We can do that AND keep the traditional, MEDITATIVE concert experience too. Whatever ends up working best can then reach thousands on YouTube. We are in the INSPIRATION business!

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