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Music Curation and Social Resonance

by Peter Hatch



Adapted from a paper delivered on November 27, 2007 as part of the

International Society for Contemporary Music’s “World Music Days” in Hong Kong.

The notion of ‘curation’ is common in the world of visual art galleries and museums.
A curator is one who is in charge of “selecting, organizing and presenting work to the public”.
We generally think of curators as working in the fine arts, but this simple definition can be applied to other contexts: teachers can be considered as curators of knowledge fields, marketers as curators of commodities. Traditionally, curation has been a rather invisible field – to most of the public, things “just show up”. In the visual arts, curation in the past few decades has become recognized as a much more complex practice/art and awareness to issues such as programming, marketing and presentation – things which surround the works themselves - are beginning to garner attention.

Musical curators act as mediators – they mediate the relationship between the music they feel should be heard in a public performance and a potential group of listeners. Curatorial choices are made by intuition as well as by reason – I try to dig into the same places I do as a composer to make decisions about what works to choose and how to present them. It is creative work and largely inspired by aesthetic decisions, while also tempered by technical, financial and political concerns. Curators act as filters, but also as a tastemakers – works chosen by curators are influenced by, but also influence, the choices of those who experience the filtered results.

For me, one of the great rewards of being a curator is the ability to get works I really believe in into performance, both long time favorites and recent discoveries. “New” composers or works are mixed with “names” that are better known. Including a more familiar name or piece in a programme feels similar to me to including a returning theme in one of my musical compositions as far as what it provides to audiences. Thus as a programmer I both make use canons and help to create them. By programming Ligeti or Adams I help to reaffirm their canonic status in new music. By exposing potential new audiences to a “new” name, and putting their name next to Ligeti’s and Adams’, I add my stamp of approval to their “importance” and potential inclusion in a musical canon as well.

Music Curation through the Ages

The nature of musical curation has evolved over the years responding to different contexts. In his 1993 book Voice of Tyranny, Temples of Silence, Murray Schafer states:

The great revolutions in art history are changes of context rather than style. The first big contextual change in Western art music occurred when music left the outdoors and entered the cathedral; the second occurred with the appearance of the concert hall and opera house; the broadcasting and recording studio is responsible for the third.
(Schafer p. 117-118)

In each of his “revolutions” Schafer talks about interweavings between music and the public that are both acoustic and social. Each stage produces a different acoustic and social resonance. One can look at music history in a very broad way as an increasing of focussed acoustic attention mirrored by a narrowing of the number of curatorial decision makers.

The drums and wind instruments formed originally for large outdoor group musical activity and still commonly used in parades allow for dozens and small hundreds of people to hear music combined with their sounds and other sounds of the environment mixed in.
With the establishment of of city states, cathedrals allowed for many hundreds to gather and be subsumed by diffuse sounds and long reverberation times, listening to devotional works chosen by the church’s priests as a way of evoking God’s presence.

With the European concert hall music became more homophonic, pitting individuals against a larger group as concerto soloists, conductors and operatic soloists, this time playing to audiences of thousands. The addition of admission fees to these events meant a greater need to respond to public taste.

With the invention of the loudspeaker, one amplifier could produce a greater volume than an entire symphony orchestra. Music could travel to places far removed both in time and place from where it originated (what Murray Schafer called “schizophonia”) In concert or over the air waves, tens and hundreds of thousands listened simultaneously (via broadcast or recordings) - the curatorial choices of a few music executives responding to commercial imperatives both reflecting and influencing the tastes of millions.


The western art music canon is just one of many musical canons which emerged during the era of the concert hall and exploded with the growth of the recording and broadcasting industries in the 20th century. For the first time, the possibility of many repeated listenings to specific pieces arose, first with the sheet music that flourished in the 19thc and then, especially, with radio and the recording industry, allowing for the possibility of “hits” or “masterpieces.” In the same way we can describe a lineage of great works and artists from Bach through Mozart and Beethoven to Mahler, we can describe a lineage from Elvis to the Beatles to Pink Floyd or from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane.

Canons both evolve and are localized. In Montreal, Canada, when reading a newspaper’s listing of cultural activities, one comes across the usual musical categories of “classical”, “jazz”, “rock” and “world”, but also “musique actuelle. Not only do the works comprise a canon vary over time but the perception of existing works through relistening many times does as well. In his book 'Musicking', Christopher Small points out how many of the great musical Masterworks of Western art music “have, through familiarity, lost whatever power they once had, when performed in their own time, to upset, to excite, to disturb, to disconcert. If one could state in one word the meaning of performing them in our time, that word would be reassurance.” (119). The very canonization of these works has transformed their meaning into something very different from what the composer intended.

New music and the canon

New music as we know it today was created around the time the Western art music canon was being developed. Smaller “specialized” concerts, relatively free of the commercial pressures of classical and pop music, were the focus of most new music through the twentieth century, aided by composers involved in academia as professors of theory and composition promoting these works through their professorial curation. Larger institutions, the symphony and opera, for the most part ignored new music, instead relying on the “known” quantities of the classical musical canon which had developed and drawing larger audiences seeking the “reassurance” that Small spoke of. 3

Nevertheless the tremendous growth of the pop music industry in the 20tth century aided an alignment of new music with classical music, both sharing an “art for art’s sake” aesthetic, as well as common musical instruments and the relative freedom state support allowed.

However, the 20thc composer’s relationship to the western art music canon was largely ambivalent. As Marcia Citron comments in her ¬Gender and the Musical Canon:
In perpetuating music of the past, canons have made conditions that are much more difficult for the creation and acceptance of new music. Yet composers want their music to be performed, and not just at a premiere. But once repeatability becomes a norm the spectre of canonicity looms as possibility (although statistically not a very likely one) and historicism takes hold, thus reinforcing the bias against new works.
(Marcia Citron, Gender and the musical canon, p 23-24)

At the dawn of the 21st century, the alignment of new and classical music seems to be changing quickly. There is no one New Music, but a myriad genres and styles which live together in a pluralist state, a state first prophesied by Leonard Meyer in the 1967 book “Music, the arts and ideas”.2

In Canada, our main funding body, the Canada Council, says that new music includes (but is not limited to) such categories as:
• classical contemporary
• musique actuelle
• improvised
• alternative
• experimental
• electro-acoustic
• acousmatic
• audio art
• sound installation
• turntable art

Even just the category ‘classical contemporary’ implies subcategories like ‘post romanticism’, ‘post-minimalism’ or ‘new complexity’; it may involve a symphony orchestra or electric guitars or Indonesian gamelan orchestra. I’ve put together a little audio montage showing the range of musics considered ‘New Music’ nowadays, at least in Canada.

The Death of Classical Music?

I spoke earlier about the connection between new and classical music. There has been much discussion amongst cultural critics in North America and parts of Europe about the impending (or even recent) death of classical music. Certainly there are a number of classical music organizations in North America struggling to stay alive. This past year saw my own local orchestra, The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, state that they would declare bankruptcy if they were not able to raise $2.5 million within a one month period. Through a desperate, but miraculous S.O.S. campaign (“Save our Symphony”) they were able to do so and are currently working on reinventing themselves, with at least this season secure for funding. One year later the local “Opera Ontario” is in the middle of a similar campaign - their future remains uncertain.

Critics such as Norman Lebrecht4 and Greg Sandow5 point to approaches and attitudes stuck in the 19th century and to the development of classical music as a commodity, as major problems leading to the demise of classical music, as we know it. Most of these doom-saying discussions, however, centre on the larger institutions – symphonies, opera companies and the classical recording industries. Perhaps these difficulties are not about “classical music” per se, but about the large institutions of classical music, difficulties shared by other large cultural institutions.

The fourth great revolution?

Chris Anderson, in his recent book “The Long Tail” sites statistics showing a decline in almost all forms of mass media and entertainment in the United States, including Hollywood films (which has experience a 7% decline in attendance since 2001), newspaper and magazine subscriptions (both at levels not seen for decades) and network TV viewing. (Anderson p. 37)

Anderson talks about how the new diffusion techniques offered by the internet (via iTunes, file sharing and the like) are producing a new business paradigm in entertainment, where the almost exclusive predominance of a narrow number of “hits” is slowly being challenged by a much, much larger group of “near hits”, “of some interest” and “marginal” pieces - the so-called “long tail” of distribution.

Anderson shows how large commercial publication of music is giving way to smaller, self-publishing and large-scale “big label” CD distribution is giving way to smaller “niche” labels. Broadcasting over radio waves is being replaced by narrowcasting over the internet. Says Anderson: “The era of one-size-fits-all is ending and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes.”(Anderson, p. 5)

There is more to this than the business and marketing angle Anderson comes from. The implication suggested in his work is that of large audiences gathering for “hits” giving way to more numerous “niche” audiences. This, to me, suggests the possibility of a fourth great “revolution” in music in Murray Schafer’s sense: after moving from outdoors to cathedrals to concert halls to radio waves, today’s musical context is perhaps best represented by a myriad of individuals, all with earbuds in, listening to their personal choices of music.

The era of a relative few “expert” tastemakers controlling public taste may be waning (Oprah notwithstanding). We are in the era of iTunes, Myspace, Facebook and countless blogs, each providing expertise to anyone wishing to visit their site. Anderson comments: “Peers trust peers. Top down messaging is losing traction while bottom up buzz is gaining power…. The new tastemakers are us” (Anderson p. 98-99). The epitome of this kind of peer creation is perhaps “Wikipedia”, in which encyclopedic knowledge is represented by the work of countless numbers of “peers”.

Listening to the new paradigm

Working in this fourth revolution requires us to consider some paradigm changes. First and foremost is perhaps to let go of the idea of legacy, of creating the next Masterwork, of joining the canon. Another is the idea to reconsider the goal of trying to reach a large number of people at once, but instead to think of a multitude of ear-budded individuals who may want to listen to new work. Most important is to consider our work as part of a two-way dialogue.

A good blog invites responses as well as giving opinions. One of the great strengths of MySpace is that it invites others interested in their content to add a link to their own site. This kind of peer to peer sharing of interests, so characteristic of much new music (especially outside of academic circles) involves a reciprocal “call and response” which differs greatly from the idea of adding oneself to a list of Masters.

Curation is perhaps then now not so much a case of filtering as facilitating. The act of mediation moves from between an art object and audiences to between numerous creator-audiences. The goal now, is not achieving resonance between art object and audience, but between individuals with different tastes and personal canons. This is a rather large paradigm shift –both classical and post-classical music are still, for the most part, stuck with programming techniques, concert dress, performances rituals, teaching and marketing approaches that are over a century old. This paradigm shift raises interesting questions:

In an era of polyculturalism and when the barriers of high and low art are breaking down, how are programming choices made to reflect these changes? How does one balance the new with the known?

New music’s relationship to classical music has been difficult from their inception. How can we create and define a new identity and recognition separate from classical music?

How can we use the new distribution channels to reach audiences in a time when reaching broad and large audiences presents a more level playing field than ever before? How can we develop a dialogue with them?

Why has new music never been able to garner the kind of wide public support enjoyed by contemporary visual art, film, dance and theatre? How can we reconfigure what we do to rectify this?


Much of the discussion at this conference have centered on themes of the blending of traditions, cross-culturalism and quotation. The east-meets-west and high-meets-low discussions we are seeing so much of today point not to the future of a single or even small group of canons but to a plethora of new micro-canons. We now have a generation of young composers who increasingly see many or all of our canonic lineages, inherited largely through their Google-ized world, as theirs to draw on. The old is mixed with new, high with low, east with west, acoustic with electroacoustic. Developed in a peer-to-peer fashion, the “micro-canons” intersect and overlap to the point where the word canon hardly applies.

The new technologies offer great difficulties as well as possibilities. You can now find a “Starbucks iTunes” on the iTunes page. The New York Philharmonic has a MySpace. Marketing firms are developing “niche filters” through statistical analysis to be able to push their products better. Despite the promise of musical pluralism the vast majority of teens still fill their iPods with Led Zeppelin and the Beatles.

Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that the context for our music is changing again and that perhaps, as a tradition operating in the margins for over a century, new music is now in a position to claim or reclaim territory as a vital, important part of society. There are new opportunities for diffusing our music but the “earbud” representation is metaphoric – there is still a place and need for outdoor, cathedral, concert hall and large gatherings and a place for individuals to connect on a physical level. What is important is that we, as a field, acknowledge the new context within which we work and engage in dialogue with it.

Adapted from a paper delivered on November 27, 2007 as part of the International Society for Contemporary Music’s “World Music Days” in Hong Kong. No part of this paper may be cited without express permission of the author.

© Peter Hatch 2007


1. Marcia Citron, in her Gender and the Musical Canon, comments:
[I]t is not difficult to see how the decisions of a relatively small group of individuals - anthologizers, textbook authors, and the publishers with whom they work - can shape the behavior and tastes of a large population of listeners, performers, composers, and scholars. (Citron, p. 25)
She might have added “future teachers and purchasers and perpetuators of anthologies”.

2. The pluralistic state of new music was first predicted by Leonard Meyer in his 1967 book ‘Music, the Arts and Ideas’ in which he envisaged

the persistence over a long period of time of a fluctuating stasis - a steady state in which an indefinite number of styles and idioms, techniques and movements, will coexist in each of the arts. Interaction and accommodation among different traditions may from time to time produce hybrid combinations or composites, but the possibility of radical innovation seems very remote. However, the abrupt juxtaposition of markedly unlike styles - perhaps from different epochs and traditions - within a single work, may be common. (Meyer, p.172)

Meyer’s prophecies are being played out at new music events everywhere. Hybrid combinations or composites within programmes and compositions are now common and produce some of the most interesting work going on in our field. The recent phenomena of mp3 downloading and iPod listening has also mainstreamed this idea - we live in an era of ‘shuffle play’.

3. Created with the Internet Tunes Signature Maker:

4. Norman Lebrecht traces the decline of classical music to its development as commodity through the late 19th and 20th centuries. He comments, “An art that once paid its own way had, through ambition and greed, fallen upon the charity of politicians and businessmen. This dependency culture, created by the avarice of millionaire conductors, singers and their agents, reached a point where it was no longer sustainable by public and corporate funds. In the final years of the twentieth century, orchestras and opera houses that upheld the traditions of Bach and Beethoven were facing a daily threat of foreclosure.” (Lebrecht, When the Music Stopped)

5. Greg Sandow points to approaches and attitudes towards music rooted (and “stuck”) in the 19thc, producing work which is out of sync with today’s society. Amongst other things, he suggests the need for reintegration of new music into the classical music world as a way of reinvigorating it.


Anderson, Chris The Long Tail
Citron, Marcia Gender and the Musical Canon
Kyle Gann blog:
Lebrecht, Norman When the Music Stopped
Ross, Alexander The Rest is Noise
Sandow, Greg blog: “The Future of Classical Music?” at
Schafer, Murray Voices of Tyranny, Temples of Silence
Small, Christopher Musicking


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