Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why orchestras come and go but music itself keeps growing

A video chat, with physicist Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute, Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster.

West's observed connections between growth rates and the mortality or open-ended growth of an entity, is fascinating and I strongly suspect that it might also apply to music and musical institutions. If we begin to see orchestras, opera houses, and conservatories as corporate in their growth and innovation patterns, then their inherent mortality as individual organisms ought to be better recognized and, indeed, seized upon as a structural opportunity for innovative alternatives to replace them, for the problem is not that the community around an institution can no longer sustain musical institutions or that music itself lacks in attractive, compelling and novel content, but that the institutions themselves are, through lack of innovation (i.e. programming, performance and presentation style) and unsustainable growth (particularly in bricks and mortar and administrative ballast) failing to sustain themselves.

The present classical music landscape is, in many localities, dominated by old institutions which consume resources, and, because we have a tendency to lock in long-term public and private suuport to the older and bigger institutions (i.e. in Europe where opera employees have all the protections of civil service jobs) artificially slowing down paths towards bankruptcy, they may often temporarily crowd out of opportunities for innovative start-up firms.

West: "...most companies start out probably with some of that buzz. But the data indicates that at about 50 employees to a hundred that buzz starts to stop. A company that was more multi dimensional, more evolved, becomes uni dimensional. It closes down. "

That 50-100 number looks an awful lot like an orchestra which, coupled with the archaic nature of 19th century labor relations in an orchestra, says a lot about the ability of those free-lance early music and contemporary music groups to survive without comparable institutional support. Suppose we adopted a model in which the normative orchestras were organized around core memberships of ca. 25 players with core repertoires in 18th or late 20th/21st century repertoires, with 19th and early 20th century repertoire covered by combined groups at strategically opportune moments. Would that be a model sustainable until the next alternative emerges?

1 comment:

Doug said...

I always viewed it from a historical perspective where what we would call chamber music (one voice per line) would be the baseline and larger ensembles to be concatenations of those.

The classic example being the St. Matthew's passion's instructions for Soprano, Alto... as opposed to Sopranos, Altos... in each choir.

This four to seven number is often cited as crucial in human relations for a tight knit group. I suspect it has to do with short term memory space and family size.

Regardless, I hardly think it is a coincidence that the time period which sported some of the most grotesque (with due respect) orchestral sizes is so strongly related to the start of the precipitous decline in serious writing for orchestra and what I view as the death of the classical orchestral tradition*.

* The classical orchestral tradition is for me defined by the frequent composition and performance of new works. Without composition there is no classical music, in the same way that the saga tradition is dead even though people still read and study them.