If You Like That, Then You Might Like This

January 20, 2011 by Paul Gambill
ipod 2

I was pleased to read Matthew Cmiel’s article, Talkin’ ‘Bout the i(Pod) Generation, on San Francisco Classical Voice last week. Matthew describes the ways the iPod has revolutionized our listening habits through the shuffle and playlists features. With permission from SFCV, here are a couple excerpts from Matthew’s article. First, his take on shuffle mode:

Suddenly, people who engaged with myriad forms of music, who loved jazz and country, classical and rock, were hearing these pieces back to back. What happened when music began to be played this way?

Well, overnight, people started hearing similarities between odd things. Composers who drew their influences from Perotin and Stevie Wonder and traditional Indian ragas were heard to apparently have things in common. These elements come up in a random shuffle, and hearing them juxtaposed became commonplace.

He went on to describe the experience of creating custom playlists, something that has become the norm, thanks largely to iTunes:

The other most significant recent invention in the field of recorded music is…the playlist. This has led to interesting developments. First, a lot of people my age couldn’t care less about the album. I myself don’t give a fig that you were clever enough to pair Adams and Ziporyn; to my way of thinking, the Adams piece still goes under “A,” and the Ziporyn under “Z.” The thought and care you may have given to the program of your CD yields to my reinvented order.

These listening experiences, which millions are engaging with, inspire the nagging question, Why do orchestras insist on putting music into boxes of similar style when so many people embrace music in just the opposite way, with hybrid playlists and shuffling that places contrasting styles side by side?

Before the internet world of total access, it used to make sense to always program and market concerts by style: classical, pops, world, jazz, etc. Now, orchestras are competing with music of any style being just a click away. Variety, experimentation and discovery have become the normal and expected experience for music consumers. Personal customization and engagement are the options of the day. Yesterday’s music experience included searching through albums that fit on the shelf together, today’s experience is driven by the marketing axiom “if you like that, then you might like this.”

Yet, in light of these super sonic changes in the way we engage with music, orchestras insist on yesterday’s model of “this only goes with that.”

Since attracting new customers (audiences) to our product (concerts) is the only way the orchestra industry will thrive, it is imperative that we experiment with new ways of leading people to engage with and be inspired by classical music. For today’s potential audiences that are not indoctrinated in the traditions of classical music, that is going to involve a new kind of programming. Programming that celebrates the new way audiences are engaging with music.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to collaborate with Tango Nashville on a program. I wanted to remix the traditional expectations of what a tango concert included, so I chose to focus on the bandoneón, the essential instrument of the tango ensemble, rather than on the musical style of tango. Click the Tango program cover to view the program listing.

To lead the audience to discover the bandoneón, we first performed works by its more popular cousin instruments, the concertina and accordion. The program began with each of the three soloists stepping into the spotlight at center stage to play a short solo demonstration of their instrument.

Tango introduction: Jeff Lisenby, accordion; John Mock, concertina; Raul Juarena, bandoneón

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The first half went on to include Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee, for accordion, an sea shanty for the concertina, and then three traditional tangos with dancers. The second half of the program started with Golijov’s Last Round, an intense work for string orchestra which the composer “conceived as an idealized bandoneon.” We finished with Piazzolla’s bandoneón concerto, Aconcagua.

This “playlist” led the audience through disparate works that shared a through-line: the bandoneón and related instruments. It is not unlike what you might get while searching iTunes for bandoneón, concertina and accordion. And it is not what you would get on a traditional pops or classical tango program.

If we are going to attract today’s audiences—that sought after group of young, hip, next-generation-decision-makers that every orchestra is courting— then we’re going to have to lead the musical discussion more. Not just with one new work mixed in among a program of traditional masterworks, but at times with a creative mix of music that will compel audiences to take notice that something unexpected is happening at the Symphony. When was the last time you heard someone talk about your orchestra that way?

For more audio and information on the soloists, orchestration and music availability for this program, go to the Tango Programs page here.

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2 Responses to If You Like That, Then You Might Like This

  1. Chris Stork

    You are absolutely right. Classical music is very misunderstood by the modern day audiences. I know plenty of people that if I ask them about classical music they tell me why I listen to the fancy snobby stuff. It is a great idea to mix music more and give more variety for the audience, but I think it is very important to respect the order in which composers write their works because that, in a sense, is where the art comes from. They put so much careful thought in to every note of every piece because that was their way of expressing themselves. Just look at the scores of Beethoven and how much he wrote and re-wrote his works and lets not even talk about Brahms and how more then half of his works he burnt because he simply didn’t think they were good enough. Who are we to change what they wrote, as musicians isn’t our job to show off how great the composer is? As long as it is done with good taste and a lot of fun I see no reason not to cut loose.

  2. Steve Emahiser

    Great article. I have been captivated by our previous conversations regarding programming.

    Another aspect of the age of the “shuffle,” however, is that listening experiences are relatively shallow. Music is wallpaper (although this has been happening for a long time, admittedly). This is a real challenge for music that is created from a stand point of an aural aesthetic, not as a product.

    As a corollary, and perhaps more challenging, shuffles create the impression of equality. While I love Earth, Wind and Fire and John Mayer, the relative depth necessary to compose and perform this material is completely different from Bach or Mahler. As arts outreach dwindles and music is increasingly “instant’ in nature, we must ask ourselves how we will make the case for deployment of resources into the fine arts.

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