Friday, January 31, 2014

The (fill in the blank) is dying!

If you slide down the front page of this blog to the mini-biography it displays, you'll discover (or be reminded) that I'm a musicologist by training, who walked away from a perfectly happy career in academia to set off on this fool's errand.  I have no regrets about doing so, even as I also assert the seemingly contradictory assertion that I loved that particular vocation.  To be clear, there's plenty about academia that any academic could happily do without, much as there is plenty about the church vocations that any pastor or any other staff member would just as soon skip.  Still, I freely acknowledge that but for this swerve I'd have been quite content to live out my days in Lawrence, Kansas, getting fat and happy teaching and writing and hopefully lasting long enough to be able to afford tickets to Kansas Jayhawks basketball games.

One of the oddly amusing aspects of this swerve (except when it's no longer amusing) is the degree to which I seem to have traded one dying field for another.

*Note: though plenty of musicologists work in other musics besides classical, for this post I'm placing  myself within the framework of the classical music tradition.  It was where my research resided, it was most of what I taught, and put most simply, it was my first love.  

See, Mozart still lives!

It is something of a sport among cultural critics to proclaim the death, either present or imminent, of classical music.  Whether in the New York Times or The New Yorker or The New Republic, somebody desperately seeking a way to fill column inches decides to whip out the latest round of ugly-looking statistics and proclaim in tut-tutting tones The Death Of Classical Music.  The latest round, possibly set off by declining attendance numbers at the Metropolitan Opera (or perhaps predating those stats? I'm not entirely sure), appeared in the online magazine Slate, authored by someone named Mark Vanhoenacker, frankly added nothing new to the argument.  Stats were cited with due reverence, anecdotal evidence was elevated to the level of holy writ, blah blah blah.  This of course touched off the predictable volley of rebuttals to the presumed thesis; one of the more interesting appeared in The New Yorker, posted by one William Robin, which if nothing else appropriated the clever quote from Charles Rosen ("The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition") and a fun visual aid, depicting various examples of classical music's presumed death throes through the ages, all the way back to 1324, before classical music, technically, existed.  It was dying before it was born!

The volley of articles of course is in turn filled out by panicked Facebook statuses and tweets, which provoke rebuttal Facebook comments and tweets, which in turn provoke oh-so-self-righteous defenses of the classical-is-dying claim, and so on and so on.  Eventually you're better off just popping in a CD or calling up iTunes and listening to some actual music.

I kid because I care.  This is perhaps not quite perennial, but pretty routine in the classical music field, and it is necessarily (and properly) part of the warning anyone who wants to study classical music, whether with ambitions to be a performer or teacher or researcher, needs to hear before making that commitment.  Indeed, one could argue that my departure from the field was in its own way a favor to some young rising musicologist who could make the move to a tenurable post at one of the better music schools in the country.  (You're welcome.)

I also kid because, as it turns out, I didn't really escape the narrative by pursuing this fool's errand; the terms merely changed.

In case you haven't heard, the church is dying.  You can hear it from the likes of neo-Calvinist (why don't we just call these people fundamentalists and be done with it?) Mark Driscoll; a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who foresees Christianity eradicated in Britain within a generation; by others who claim to welcome its demise (of course, if you follow that link you'll see that the author is really about something else with his claim); and if you flip the Google search to "Christianity is dying" you'll quickly get to the likes of Richard (A Little Pedophilia Never Hurt Anybody) Dawkins, who would be truly pleased to see it go.  The point being, you don't have to look very hard at all to find a lot of talk on the subject of the church's demise.

Having lived with it for many years in the classical realm and now settling in for a lifetime of dying in the church, it has become obvious to me that there are some definite similarities in the x-is-dying narratives:

1. Both the church and classical music are perceived as having been "dominant" institutions in the United States for a time.  In both cases, the extent of that dominance is probably overstated.  The church might have been able to build itself big buildings with tall pointy steeples and pass a lot of Sunday blue laws at its peak, but looking at the shape and trajectory of American history it's fairly questionable to what extent the church actually had any influence; far more, it seems, that the church in these here United States was shaped, prodded, and to some degree absorbed by the culture it thought it was redeeming.  Classical music, similarly, was never quite so dominant as its would-be undertakers like to claim.  To the degree that one thinks of the widespread availability of, say, live orchestral music, it's hard to argue that there's been a better time than now, when one can find orchestras -- and good ones at that -- in places like Richmond, Tallahassee, and other small to mid-sized cities where such a thought would have been laughable a hundred years ago.  They may not be full-time orchestras, but they are there.  Also, one can suggest that whatever cultural clout classical music may have had at it peak was squandered much as the church's was.  When classical music actually had "mainstream" radio access with the likes of Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra or other such broadcast outlets, did the establishment seek out brilliant young composers writing daring new stuff, exploiting modern orchestral capacity in vivid and thrilling ways?  Ehh, no. Toscanini and his ilk (and yes, even Leonard Bernstein in his TV shows and other broadcasts) whacked the country over the head repeatedly with the (European) (male) canon, and even when some (male) Americans did break through they turned out to be susceptible to the same cultural clotting as Beethoven and Brahms and the lot.  Opportunity squandered?  Check and check.

My man George Chadwick wasn't canonical enough for those snobs.

2. In both cases the substance of the thing is too easily confused with the institutions that have maintained it over the years.  Is classical music dying?  No.  Are certain classical music institutions -- orchestras, opera houses, recording companies -- dying?  Yep.  While this is tragic for those whose livelihood and security depends on those institutions, propping up the large, unwieldy apparatus of the Grandiose Philharmonic isn't necessarily the answer for sustaining classical music in the twenty-first century any more than bringing back steel mills and blowing up more mountains for coal mining is the best way to sustain the American economy in the twenty-first century.  Likewise, the model of the First (Insert Denomination Here) Church with a program for every party and every party its own program, might just not be the best way to be about the business of doing Christ's work in God's world these days.

2a. Furthermore, maybe a bit of forced adjustment might just unleash a bit of creativity on the part of both institutions.  Maybe an orchestra using Google Glass might just be one way to provoke interest in yet another round of Beethoven's Fifth (if that's such a desirable aim; it is, after all, a pretty strong piece of music despite its massive overplay), if an orchestra is game for it.  Maybe sermons as starting points for extended dialogue via Facebook or Twitter or whatever comes next (even face-to-face!  gasp!) can be a lifeline for the people, if a preacher can get over the presumption that cell phone = distraction.  Maybe the increasing prominence of empty chairs in the concert hall or empty pews in the church prompts both institutions to think outside the walls, going where people are?  Maybe instead of singing "Silent Night" in a darkened sanctuary with candles on Christmas Eve, we throw open the doors and hit the sidewalks to sing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"?  Or maybe we find ways to invite the world into our burdensome buildings so that all people are being served by them, not just us select few?

3. Both get accused of being old and gray, predominated by the elderly pining for the Good Old Days. This is often true.  So what?  You got something against old people?  You age-bigot, you.

At any rate, the confusion factor above is worth repeating.  Classical music is ... well, music.  It isn't the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic or the Emerson String Quartet.  Neither is the church the big building with the tall pointy steeple on the corner of First and Main.  It is people, even if the people themselves forget that sometimes.

Hey, I've got nothing against the Emerson String Quartet.  They're really good.

All that having been said, I am no futurist.  Here I cop C.S. Lewis's line about the future being something we all get to at the rate of twenty-four hours a day, not a place reserved for favored heroes.  Futurists in both classical music and church will no doubt go about making grand pronouncements about What Must Be Done To Save The Church/Classical Music.  They'll generally be wrong.  No one will hold them to account.  And the cycle will repeat itself.  Some churches will go towards a different kind of service, and after an initial boost they'll start sinking even faster than the fussy old "traditional" churches.  Some orchestras will go heavily into "pops" performances, and after an initial boost they'll lose their novelty and keep right on sagging.

Tomorrow I will be attending something called NEXT Church.  A regional gathering, to be precise, mostly because it happens to have landed more or less in my front yard.  I am going mostly to be skeptical, for reasons hinted in the paragraph above.  I will be watching intently for any signs of ageism, urgency to pronounce last rites on the church, panacea prescriptions to Save The Church, or anything that smacks of the above.  Don't go there with me.  I've worked in a dying institution before, and lived to tell about it.

UPDATE, Feb. 4: So I went.  I can wish it well, but I don't see the fit for me there.  Just to clear that up.  As I think I snarked in some past post, my particular talents and interests probably render me more of a PAST Church type.

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