Orchestras, Orchestras Everywhere

Philip Blackburn

Classical musics are comparatively rare; they seem to need for their existence not only a leisured class able to command a quantity of surplus resources but also a situation where that class is to some degree isolated from the majority of the people and possesses the social power to represent its own tastes as superior. Thus classical musics developed not only in Europe but also in India and China, though not, despite the equal richness and sophistication of the culture and the music, in the African kingdoms or in Bali, in both of which the royal courts and their music were accessible to all. (Small, Music of the Common Tongue, p. 9.)

Considering the amount of training, labor, bureaucracy, money, and marketing involved, it is surprising that classical music exists at all. No one ever accused a symphony orchestra of being the most economical means of making music. In fact, if a recent email satire is anything to go by, the orchestra might do well to consider downsizing: Cut out the duplicated effort represented by all those violins playing the same tune and omit all those redundant repeated sections. But maybe the sheer luxury of it all is half the point — a music affordable only by a well-heeled society. And yet, if a culture's art-making reflects the concepts and values of the society it inhabits, how does the phenomenon of western orchestras relate to the societies that employ them? How else can you organize a large group of people (often forty to a hundred or more) in the act of music-making (or any activity for that matter) but avoid the unwholesome specter of anarchy, noise, and chaos? For in one sense, an orchestra is a feat of crowd control. It occupies groups of people for a period of time with a set of predetermined musical instructions and behavioral assumptions. Circumscribed relationships exist between the notes in the composer's work, among the players of those notes, and with the audience that appreciates the result.

But before considering the orchestra any further we need to remind ourselves that music in itself does not exist. Despite evidence to the contrary (scores, analytical charts, music stores, CD shelves, etc.) music exists only in performance, and hence only when at least one person is present. It is therefore a social and political act. Also, the old platitudinous saw that music is a universal language needs to be debunked: it is learned through conditioning. Yes, the text (the acoustic signals) can be heard by people all over the globe (and maybe beyond), but the context and the meaning are wildly different. The “same” symphony meant something different when Beethoven composed it from what it meant when Hitler used it or when it was played in a ruined cathedral in Bosnia or when the cops use it on Minneapolis' Hennepin Avenue to clear out the bars after closing time. Just because there are no sung or spoken words in a piece of music does not mean that we all understand the same message (or even that we are free to free-associate and then claim to have an intrinsic response to the music). Making music can communicate by embodying an ideal society in all its depth and complexity for the duration of the performance, but it is of little help in communicating accurate directions to the train station.

• • •

Now, let us look at the typical western symphony orchestra and see how our cultural values are embedded in every aspect of the activity, from the notes to the players to the audience.

The classical western orchestra (used as a straw man for the purposes of this article) and the institution of the public concert developed in tandem with the rise of the middle class as a result of the eighteenth century industrial and political revolutions. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the musical culture came to reflect the values, practices, and ideas of the emerging society: salvation through industry. A factory produces a product invented by the patent holder and is generally controlled by an individual, the boss, who gives directions to a small number of individuals who, in turn, direct the actions of the workers, thus producing a commodity that is marketed to the greater unknown public, the consumers. This pyramid structure can also be detected in the western musical hierarchy where an individual composer-patent holder (albeit with the aid of an inspiring deity) notates instructions in the form of a score that is interpreted by a conductor-boss who controls the actions of the players-workers (orchestral musicians are the most highly unionized segment of musicians) for the benefit of the audience of consumers (who have the oh-so-creative choice of taking or leaving it). The power structure is top-to-bottom in both factory and orchestra. Although the orchestra pay structure rarely matches that of the factory hierarchy, star performers, rather than composers, are at the top of the musical heap (as in the factory, the machinists earn more than the composer-patent holder).

Individual members of the production system depart from their assigned roles with difficulty (should it ever occur to them) because the nature of the system is designed to keep everyone in his or her place. Audience members cannot alter the course of a performance, players cannot improvise a better lick, and the conductor cannot disregard the score. Each is trained for the role. Even the architecture of the concert hall reinforces the assumed roles of the various elements. The players are ranked around the conductor, the audience is seated in parallel seats in the dark so as to discourage movement or interaction with neighbors, and the whole auditorium is sealed off from the everyday world to make the distinction between noise and sound perfectly clear. We are in a sacred ritual space, removed from the humdrum world outside.

As audience members, we are here to witness the interior journey of an individual composer, made audible for a period of time. (We are sitting passively in the audience, by the way, probably because some teacher long ago told us we had no musical ability and should not waste our time or embarrass ourselves by trying to be on stage.) We hope the performance will be interesting, emotional, and dramatic. If the composer has done his (all too rarely “her”) job, we will follow the development of the performance and think it worthwhile — a feeling we can then chat about with the assembled strangers, our audience peers. We have hired the performers to do the work for us (what a mark of success!), and we have a right to expect a decent act or demand our money back. This is the end of our participation. The music will have a beginning (where order is established), middle (where order is disrupted), and end (where resolution and closure are achieved and there is nothing more to be said). The work will be heard by the attentive listener in its entirety; we cannot leave to buy popcorn or take a nap and come back expecting to pick up where we left off. As with a symmetrical architectural structure or a novel, we are restricted to one mode of participation — passive appreciation — and must follow the predetermined course of the argument. Few are aware that things could be done in any other way — and why would they be done differently in any case? After all, we are there to have our emotions manipulated and restored, and this system is set up for that purpose.

...the orchestra and its organization are also figures of power in the industrial economy. The musicians — who are anonymous and hierarchically ranked, and in general salaried, productive workers — execute an external algorithm, a “score” [partition in the original French], which does what its name implies: it allocates their parts. Some among them have a certain degree of freedom, a certain number of escape routes from anonymity. They are the image of programmed labor in our society. Each of them produces only a part of the whole having no value in itself. (Attali, p. 66.)

Where this industrial metaphor breaks down, however, is in the economic viability of the orchestra's market. Not enough consumers have enough capital to maintain the whole system without a philanthropic influx of money (which does not necessarily indicate artistic success or failure). Originally this philanthropic need would have been taken care of by the relevant archduke or prelate who kept the musicians as servants and invited the audience as his guests. Although labor is no longer as cheap as it was, the system persists with help from many vested interests, from governments and venerable conservatories to foundations and benevolent bourgeoisie.

Thanks to the commodification of the act known as music and its attendant history of public relations, we have inherited a set of masterpieces that have been advertised by generations of individuals as great examples transcending time, place, occasion, and culture — pieces as immortal as the emotional struggles they embody. Patrons of the orchestra are buying more than an evening's diversion. They are investing in a ritual of social reassurance, bringing together a class of like-minded people who aspire toward noble ideals while seated in luxury.

The classical orchestra's economic system operates in a state of equilibrium that has withstood wars and massive changes in world society, but its imperviousness so far cannot guarantee that its days are not numbered.

• • •

There is more than one way, as the saying goes, to skin a cat. In other parts of the world, the assumptions about music and music making that underlie classical western orchestras do not necessarily hold true. Imagine a society:

  • whose music does not come in pieces (which require training, literacy, and technique) but as heuristic principles known or easily picked up so that anyone can participate;
  • where it is assumed that anyone can provide a creative contribution to the performance (though some might have more of a knack than others);
  • where amateurs and professionals play side by side;
  • where everyone takes turns playing the leader (as in shape-note traditions);
  • where the blend of voice is not valued as highly as an individual timbre that cuts through the texture;
  • where performances may go on all night (as in Indian classical music);
  • where the audience, if any, does not buy a ticket;
  • where music is always associated with dance, stories, costumes, food, lighting, time of day, and season;
  • where concerts do not exist because performance is always tied to ritual, and changing the context would cripple the music (as in the circumcision ritual music of the Be Benzele Central African Pygmies, who convene a special horn ensemble for the occasion and play music never performed otherwise);
  • where the instruments are collected in the bush and hollowed by termites rather than Italian masters (as in the Australian didjeridu);
  • where the performance is open enough to accommodate however many people show up to play;
  • where the score, if any, is a recipe to be developed rather than a prescription to be filled;
  • where you learn your part in the performance by doing it, not through classes or textbooks;
  • where you know and could play any of the parts;
  • where virtuosos are considered unnecessary and ostentatious;
  • where dramatic harmonic and melodic progression does not operate, but rhythmic patterns may be extremely complex (as in Ghanaian drumming);
  • where there is no pulse (as in plainchant, Japanese gagaku, or “alap” sections of Indian music);
  • where there is no shared downbeat (as in Cuban polyrhythmic drumming);
  • where synchronization is determined by feel and the length of a breath (as in Japanese gagaku, the oldest surviving orchestral culture);
  • where there is no need for notation or literacy;
  • where a work may be made for an occasion and forgotten the next day without any sense of loss because you're confident there will be more tunes tomorrow;
  • where the techniques of musical variation and development are obvious, not hidden, and there is no idea that “art should conceal art” (as in minimalism or process music);
  • where the ability to make music is an everyday state of living, as natural as talking, moving, or decorating;
  • where terms like composer, performer, and audience are fluid and interchangeable;
  • where to engage in music can be to manifest the origins of the clan (native American), the landscape (Australian aboriginal songlines), or the divine/universal vibration (Indian and Tibetan).

Musics and cultures such as these are everywhere on this planet but very often have been subjugated by the values of the colonial western educational system. No less sophisticated (but often less marketable), these “alternative” methods of music making keep communities and musical traditions alive, although they rarely have a body of literature that can compete with western musical literature. African drumming, Japanese gagaku, Jewish klezmer bands, shape-note singing, Indian and Persian classical music, Vietnamese court orchestras, Indochinese minority gong orchestras, Latin American mariachi bands, Peruvian pan-pipe, and African Pygmy horn ensembles — all go about their art in a way natural for their culture but alien to ours. If analyzed according to western conventions these forms of music-making frequently do not conform, which is hardly the fault of the music. Only recently has scholarship begun to dignify these musics by endeavoring to find out how they work on their own terms and to develop intrinsic descriptive languages. Students of early music, experimental, and world music share in the attempt to learn appropriate new ways of listening.

In a traditional Indonesian gamelan (an orchestra comprised primarily of tuned-percussion instruments), the only score, if there is one at all, is a skeleton for improvisation. The players may elaborate and extend it in any number of ways to suit the occasion. The composer's name is immaterial because the piece is only a recipe that enables the performance to take place and that gives the performers something agreeable to play. A leader gives aural and visual cues, but he or she is one of the players, neither the focus of attention nor an outside agency. Membership in the band is not restricted. Experienced professionals may play alongside children and beginners who learn through playing. Little distinction is made between rehearsal and performance. Dance, costume, and food are all part of their events, which are most often religious occasions. The audience may show their reactions as the event proceeds, and they come and go as they please. The musical parts are stratified decorations of the basic nuclear melody that everyone shares, and the music forms a heterophonic social web quite different from the hierarchical division of labor known as melody and accompaniment. Because this is a community activity, all expenses are met by the participants without need for an external funding body. If too much money was needed to support it, the gamelan would not have survived as long as it has.

Or consider West African (Ewe) or Japanese (taiko) drum ensembles. In Japan, festivals celebrate village drum groups of many kinds, including ones for women, children, disabled people, and villagers dressed up in Namahage monster outfits. Each drummer's part may be simple but the interaction of each one with the whole group results in tremendous complexity mirroring the interdependence of the village society. Different parts are suitable for various levels of skill, and cues and signals are given by fellow participants who do not micromanage or control the nuance of every phrase played. The performance is as long as it needs to be, with no printed program, intermission, or rehearsal. And the players get a cardiovascular workout as well.

Someone who has problems with authority might like to try shape-note singing — a southern (U.S.) tradition of spiritual hymns written in easy-to-learn notation. There is no audience apart from the performers, who sit in a square. When the spirit moves any participant, that person may nominate a song and conduct its performance. Everyone takes a turn.

Or Indian classical music, which rarely involves more than a handful of performers. A performer trains for years to master an instrument, chooses a raga (melodic modal scale) appropriate to the time of day and season, and spins a melodic line that may never have been played before, all the while playing rhythmic games with the tabla drummer. The performer and composer are the same person, and the audience is able to appreciate the improvisational skills in real time, often responding to particularly adventurous phrases with applause. The class structure in this culture is personified by the poor tambura player who drones on one note the whole time.

• • •

The meaning of a thing is in its use, not in itself, as Wittgenstein said. Music, whether orchestral or otherwise, is more than dots on paper. It is an art of socialization. It connects with a public and creates relations among the participants, making a society as it does. Musical transactions can take many forms and can have many different characteristics:

  • Muzak — music used to drown out or mask environmental noise, as in restaurants or to promote milk yields.
  • Cosmetic — subliminal underscoring, as in films where, if you notice the music, it has lost its purpose.
  • Weapon — music directed at unwilling audiences to encourage them to surrender. Raids in Waco and on Manuel Noriega are but two.
  • Fashion statement — music as a statement about personal or tribal identity, sometimes accompanied by distinctive clothing, dance, tattoos, jewelry, or behavior. Punk and opera followers are thus different only in details.
  • Spatial location — sound used to determine one's place in the environment. Blind people, bats, and cyclists in traffic need this ability.
  • Icon — music as a spiritual focus.
  • As above, so below — the view that vibration is the connective aspect of all universal matter, and the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosmic ordering. Examples are the Harmony of the Spheres and LaMonte Young's Dream House.
  • Mapping — sound used to define physical boundaries. The audible zone of the Japanese taiko drum defines the territory of the village.
  • Pedagogy — the promotion of discipline and moral orderliness — scales, exercises, nationalism.
  • Snakes [Chutes] and Ladders — music used as a means of ranking, comparison, quality control, achievement, or progress, music as competition.
  • Souvenir — music used to trigger memory or sentimental evocations: advertising, nostalgia marketing.
  • Latent — sound that has not yet entered any of these categories and is therefore considered noise by the listener.

In addition, any of these musical transactions can serve contrasting functions. They can be:

  • Static or dynamic — that is, it can confirm or be alien to its current function.
  • Inclusive or exclusive — it can celebrate individual or community values.
  • Escapist or centering — it can be used for distraction or introspection, therapy or exhibitionism.
  • Gift or contract — it can be a labor of love (as in amateur) or a labor for money (as in professional).

• • •

In many respects, the European classical orchestra's way of music-making is more the exception than the rule throughout the world. Its successful adaptation beyond its place of origin may be due to the industrialization of the developing world and a concomitant desire for international standards of cultural improvement. The techniques of composing, reading, and playing are attainable goals for those who have the luxury to study them. A mystique and an extensive literature make the challenge enticing and achievable. Throughout Asia and other developing nations, orchestras proliferate as soon as the economy is settled enough to support such a symbol of opulence. As ice was to missionaries (proof of their advanced culture) so are scores, recordings, and books to fledgling western-style musicians. Countless cultures have sought to improve their native traditions with a little harmony, a standardized twelve-tone equal temperament, and staff notation. And who are we to deny them their pleasure? In a global ecology there is no more “them” and “us.”

James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis suggests that life on earth will continue in some form in the future even if humans are not around to see it. Environment and life forms evolve together. Society has changed since the classical western orchestra was brought together in eighteenth century Mannheim. Before asking where it will go in the future, let's consider how (or whether) this particular orchestra form has adapted so far.

Apart from variations in size and manufacture allowing the orchestra to project louder sounds into bigger halls, its essential make-up remains what it was in about 1760, when hunting, military, dance, and household instruments were massed together for concert purposes. Stamitz, Haydn, Mozart, and others began writing for the fledgling ensemble, which offered possibilities of volume and contrast never heard before. The invited audience wandered about as it played, chatting informally. If they liked a movement they might ask for it to be played again. They were there to be surprised by the unpredictable turns in the music, and once a work had become familiar it was already old and was shelved. Hearing would have been informal but attentive since this might be the only chance the audience had to hear a work. Radios, supermarkets, and Walkmans were things of the future.

How different are today's audiences, who generally do not go to symphony concerts or tune in to public radio unless they are already familiar with the music and know what they are in for. Or as a recent ad campaign told would-be purchasers of a classical recording collection: “No unknown or unwanted melody.” This music has lost its original power to provoke, and audiences that want to be stimulated go elsewhere for their kicks. Noting concert goers' attraction to the known, orchestra managers generally seek to convince audiences that any new musical experience will be accessible and non-threatening. Sometime around the First World War the adventure was taken out of the symphony, and orchestral culture became what might be called a “museum culture.” The orchestra became an artifact of reassurance and national identity rather than a medium of exploration and discovery. The latter function has been taken over by popular culture where the market is always hungry for the latest rock album or movie. The few who have tried to reeducate an orchestra audience and entice them to concerts for the unexpected (Kronos Quartet comes to mind) have created an appetite missing from the usual apologetic marketing techniques.

While the symphony orchestra's form has remained stable for a couple of hundred years, composers have made sporadic attempts to deconstruct and experiment with its instruments, pedagogy, and power structure. Given the political Goliath these composers have taken on, however, it is hardly surprising that their efforts have not been taken seriously for the most part and have not prompted adaptations in the basic form in any enduring way. A variety of examples can be cited:

  • The Persimfans Orchestra of Moscow (1922-26), fresh with revolutionary fervor, decided to perform always without a conductor. While their concerts were impeccable they needed so much rehearsal time that they lost money and eventually disbanded.

  • Chinese Socialism was the background for The Yellow River Concerto, the first orchestral work composed entirely by a committee of composers. The ironies of this abound since popular appeal is hardly ensured by such a process and nothing about the hierarchy of the orchestra has been altered. The choice of concerto form, moreover, is interesting because the form itself represents the archetypal story of the struggle of the individual to rise above the masses.
  • Composer Pauline Oliveros was commissioned to write a piece for the Buffalo Philharmonic. As the première date approached, the score was not forthcoming, which worried the librarian and conductor. Delays continued until just before the event when Oliveros worked directly with the players using a verbal instruction score, in the manner of her sound meditation exercises. This work has not entered the standard symphonic repertoire.
  • Kenneth Gaburo was asked to write a work, Antiphony IX, for the Kansas City Community Orchestra. He seated the players in random positions and placed a child with a toy instrument at the foot of each adult player “to keep them [the adults] honest.” Every player had a copy of the full score (no individual had privileged information) and read from the unique microtonal graphic notation (playing the intended pitch is so hard anyway, why write in equal temperament?!). The conductor was relegated to the function of timekeeper with a stopwatch. The form of the work, created through random processes and sensory deprivation exercises, reflected the ordering of the desert environment where the composer lived at the time. Gaburo's work has likewise not entered the standard symphonic repertoire.
  • English composer and political activist Cornelius Cardew, realizing that literacy, habit, and technique dulled a musical life as much as they enhanced it, formed The Scratch Orchestra. This orchestra was devoted to the classics of the repertoire and was open to anyone who wanted to participate. The only proviso was that players must be entirely unfamiliar with their instruments in the belief that by becoming too skilled one lost the ability to respond freshly.
  • John Cage, known as a radical experimentalist in his use of chance composition procedures, nonetheless changed little about the social structure of the concert tradition. In such works as Atlas Eclipticalis or Concert for Piano and Orchestra, the players still follow Cage's precise notation and realize his [non-]intention as accurately as possible.
  • Composers Stephen Montague and Douglas Ewart have choreographed large numbers of people in musical activities in ways that could scarcely be confused with the term “orchestra.” In his annual open-air ritual Crepuscule, Ewart invites anyone to Powderhorn Park, Minneapolis, guides their improvisations, and directs them in processions around the lake in small group sectionals or pods. Montague has composed for taxi cabs and their horns during Friday rush hour on the streets of Manchester (his Horn Concerto), blurring the distinction between the intentional and the everyday.
  • Butch Morris has developed a technique of “conduction” in which the conductor, without the hindrance of a score (or concomitant composer looking over his shoulder) employs a set of hand gestures to control the players' activities, such as who plays, whether they initiate or react to another's phrase, and when they repeat or change dynamics. While this may appear to liberate the players from their music stands and force them to use their ears, they are actually even more dependent on the conductor, whose every whim they must follow, and in whom lies total control.
  • Harry Partch abandoned the tyrannies of the conventional tuning system, the instruments, and the concert culture with its “curse of specialization” in favor of an integrated, corporeal, ritual theater using his spectacular orchestra of hand-made instruments. Partch, thereby, also ensured that his work would not enter the standard symphonic repertoire.

The orchestral modus operandi has been sufficiently institutionalized that these explorations have not resulted in lasting adaptations. To remain vital, however, the orchestra needs to be responsive to its changing environment, lest it find itself in a Darwinian cul-de-sac, a musical dinosaur.

• • •

What can be gleaned about the future of the symphony orchestra's form from understanding its history and taking a wider perspective on music making throughout the world?

Where does this leave the composer? Understanding music as a social art leaves the composer with a task that is more than putting down the notes. A piece does not end with the double barline. The composer's dilemma now is to compose either a society for the given music or a music for the given society. The opportunity to create the nature of a performance is as much composition as creating the score. Where and how the work happens are as important as the sequence of sounds.

And what about the orchestra's funders? They are as much part of the professional orchestra as the bassoons. The orchestra's economic balancing act means the patrons' money is needed at every stage of the production process: conception, production, manufacture, and consumption. Funding only part of the system does little to help the whole. In a worst case scenario, if money for orchestras dried up tomorrow, would our culture necessarily be impoverished or would something else evolve to take its place?

At any rate, music, even symphonic orchestral music, is about more than the dots on paper and who put them there. Distasteful though it may seem to the purist, it is also about the superstar's appearance fee and who pays it. And it's about who we choose to associate with, how, where, and why the music takes place, and what we wear. By bringing a score from the past into the present we also invoke traces of the politics and economics that caused the music to take that particular form in the first place. As long as the classical orchestra's form continues to resonate sufficiently with current values we will be looking for someone to pay the piper and someone to pipe for the payer. Our society and values continue to evolve. How are our music and forms of music-making linked to that evolution? Where will our global symphony (or symphonies) find a home in the future?

Philip Blackburn is a composer, singer, and builder of Sonic Playgrounds living in Minnesota. He graduated from the universities of Cambridge and Iowa, and is program director of the American Composers Forum.

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music (University of Manchester, 1977)
Small, Christopher. Musicking: the Meanings of Performing and Listening (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)
Small, Christopher. Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music (London, 1987)
Small, Christopher. Music, Society, Education (London, 1977)

Songs and Dances of the Central African Rainforest (including Pygmy horn orchestra) (Harmonia Mundi, HM733)
Gaburo, Kenneth. Antiphony IX (Music and Arts CD-832)
Gagaku: Japanese Traditional Music (King, 1990. KOCH 2001)
Golden Rain: Balinese Gamelan (Elektra Nonesuch Explorer)
Kodo: Heartbeat Drummers of Japan (Sheffield Lab, CD-KODO)
Lawrence “Butch” Morris. Testament: A Conduction Collection. Where Music Goes II (New World Records, 80480-2)
Harry Partch: Enclosure Five (innova 405)
Stamitz, Carl (early symphonic composer of the Mannheim School): Symphonies, Op.24 (1786) (CHAN 9358)
Stilling Time: Traditional Musics of Vietnam, Philip Blackburn, producer (innova 112)