The Third Estate

If one wishes to contribute to the conversation about how to expand the audience base for American orchestras, then one must talk about what those orchestras are presenting — and right now that’s a taboo subject. The fact is that the discussion about WHAT exactly orchestras are presenting has never taken place. The arbitrary distinction they make between traditional orchestral classical music and popular orchestral forms has warped the priorities of American orchestras, who they hire, and what they present as art to the public.

Already it’s often difficult to know if what one is attending is a new music concert, or something closer to performance art. It’s time for us all to move on from subscribing to the academic notion that good new music will forever grow more complicated, and more meta. The oversized influence of academic composers on American orchestral programming has led the industry to the point where it cannot accurately be said that American orchestras support new music, rather they support a very particular style of new music. Whether they call it modern, modernist, modernistic, post modern, post modernist, post modernistic, etc. — it all means academic music. The truth is that orchestras support a very specific, and small, subset of composers while actively and passionately ignoring popular composers who fall outside the walled garden of academia.

In a recent New York Times review of the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Anthony Tommasini asserted that the lusty booing at the conclusion of the premiere performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’s new work, “dark dreams”, was in fact a good thing. He writes, “In my experience, new pieces are not often booed. I hope Mr. Haas feels that he was doing something right to arouse such a reaction.” Presumably, doing something right means Mr. Haas’s music is challenging the audience, à la the premiere of the Rite of Spring. This line of thought is the standard-issue narrative for new orchestral music: it’s usually framed as how the initial audience doesn’t understand or much like good new music on the first hearing, but over the years the audience and the public will catch up with the composers’ genius, and they will come to embrace the work. This old-fashioned (and wrong) idea allows orchestras, critics, and academics to exclusively present academic anti-audience music as the only serious compositional art. Much of it is music that no one likes, and once it’s created press for its premiere, no one wants to hear it ever again.

The fact is that orchestras, and the classical music industry, need to appeal to a larger demographic of people. By avoiding talking about what orchestras are presenting, they are limiting their appeal to the same dwindling pool of traditional donors. The funny thing is, while orchestras wish to appeal to their conservative base they have no trouble at all upsetting that very same base when the new music in question comes from a composer who writes anti-audience music. Any new music that plainly aspires to things like beauty or joy are embarrassing to these traditionalist proponents of academic music, so when it comes to new music premieres it almost doesn’t matter who is writing, so long as they have not committed the sin of being commercially successful and their music avoids aspirations towards beauty or storytelling that might appeal to large groups of people. Thusly orchestras exclusively program new music from composers who have perhaps a different artistic agenda than the orchestra’s audience, and even their donor base.

Would that the traditionalists’ walled garden were filled with compelling examples of new music that have come from this isolated group, but over forty years of commissions we have, at best, a handful of pieces that anyone still plays. These orchestral commissions, concentrating as they do exclusively on academic compositional styles that were already old news forty years ago, continue to inflict on generations of audience members (and musicians) outdated and limiting ideas of the boundaries of the universe of new orchestral music.

After all, in nearly every industry, even in the arts, the best and the brightest coalesce around the highest paid jobs. There is no reason to suspect that composers take exception to this rule, but in American orchestras popular composers are shunned because they make money. Now, that doesn’t mean that every new symphonic video game score necessarily ought to be included as art, but just because a piece or a composer is successful shouldn’t automatically shut them out either — and right now it does.

It would be so helpful to be able to point to the terra firma of actual ticket sales data. An interesting fact that isn’t often discussed is that ticket sales data are not collected by all orchestras, and some orchestras only collect data from classical concerts, ignoring the numbers from other events such as Pops concerts. Would it not inform the discussion to know which concerts are papered, and which concerts can’t even be papered? National ticket sales data could be broken down and could yield insights into sales and membership trends. It could help us all understand what compels people to show up. Yet, unlike Broadway, individual orchestras do not release this valuable data and the League of American Orchestras does not, as yet, even collect it. It would be to everyone’s benefit if all American orchestras agreed to the collection and sharing of a standard set of ticket sales data points.

As a shorthand, I have a name for symphonic music from games, TV & film, Broadway, and other popular forms: Third Estate Music.

In 18th century France, the First Estate were the clergy, and the Second Estate were the nobility. The Third Estate was everyone else. The 99% — you know, the one’s who should eat cake. In major American orchestras, traditional classical music are the First Estate. The second Estate are the academics, A.K.A. “New York Times approved composers”. That’s artists like Christopher Rouse, Nico Muhly, Thomas Adès, John Luther Adams, etc. These two Estates represent the vast majority of what American orchestras present and support. The Third Estate constitutes everything else composed for the orchestra. Symphonic music from games, TV & film, Broadway — the music that people love. The Art that people love.

Unfortunately orchestras and many of the artists on their staff do not yet consider Third Estate music in the context of their institution’s core mission, and so these worthy popular artists are ignored by the only organizations who can actually perform their music live.

Naturally, the free market has found a way — the Pops concert. However, one important artistic distinction between how orchestras program Pops concerts from classical concerts is that they largely do not curate popular music programs themselves, they rent them. The back of this month’s Symphony Magazine is filled with Pops Concert packages, many of them include not only sheet music, lighting, and film, but often even a conductor.

So long as Third Estate music is ghettoized as simply a profit vehicle, separate from the “art”, it remains invisible to major orchestras and unable to help them. Here in New York, the market for Third Estate music covers a vast cross-section of the population, exactly the sorts of people that orchestras espouse to want to bring into their halls. Yet, major American orchestras still avoid this music as much as they dare. This season, for example, Third Estate music will be found in only ten concerts at the New York Philharmonic, and that’s including their summer Pops concerts. It’s no surprise then that they passed on the idea of performing video game music for New York Comic Con.

Still, others are more than happy to have that audience. The Wordless Music Orchestra backing Johnny Greenwood recently performed There Will Be Bloodlive-to-projection at the 3300 seat United Palace Theater, twice. They will play there again in January, this time presenting The Godfather. Next spring, another group will bring the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy to be performed here in New York City. Perhaps the New York Philharmonic passed on this music too, instead a 250-piece orchestra and choir will be flown in from Switzerland to play the six concerts at the Koch Theater, directly across Lincoln Center Plaza from the Philharmonic.

Many in the new music establishment will hasten to point out that there has been progress towards more universally appreciated musical structures and harmonic worlds in new academic music. Good for them. The fact that they are moving towards sounds that are closer to popular forms only serves to illustrate the outrageous discrimination that faces composers who’s music was always popular outside of the castle walls.

The really tricky issue facing popular composers is that classical artists and reviewers will avoid this discussion about expanding what orchestras are programming at all costs. When they can, they will ignore it, and when they cannot ignore it, they dismiss it out of hand. Despite the ink spilled calling for music to “challenge” the audience, most classical critics have for decades avoided this Third Estate music which challenges their own fundamental preconceptions about symphonic music. They only want other people to be challenged.

The most recent example comes from Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton. Let us compare how these two popular artists’ works are treated by traditional arts institutions. Tim Burton, the successful filmmaker and artist, was presented by MoMA here in New York City in an exhibit of his works from both films and drawings. His exhibit was the third most well attended exhibit in the history of the museum, after Picasso and Matisse, and it continues to be presented by modern art museums all over the world. The exhibit got a number of reviews, including one from the New York Times.

Contrast that to how Danny Elfman’s music is treated by American orchestras. The only difference between his symphonic new music concert, and a “new music” concert, is that Mr. Elfman has had success with a broad section of the population. Here we have a living composer who is playing sold-out evenings of his music for orchestra, and arts critics across the country can’t even be bothered to notice. Why should they? The composer in question is popular and the concert makes money, therefor it cannot possibly be worthy of their time. Classical critics would prefer to support concerts that have the traditional sorts of anti-audience music that allows them to sell the notion of classical exceptionalism, because after all, academic music is worth considering. It’s worth reviewing.

Danny Elfman’s concert has never been reviewed by a classical critic, anywhere. Mr. Elfman’s music, apparently, is not worthy of critical consideration simply because it’s popular.

This is an example of the conversation that’s not taking place. The subject of art, and the exclusion of these serious artists and why, is a non starter in the classical music terrarium. If Alex Ross didn’t mention it, then it’s not an artistic issue that orchestras are prepared to discuss. Too many classical critics do not engage in this debate because their artistic world-view depends on their not understanding the validity of the question. They avoid talking about the art they are choosing to present because even acknowledging that the debate is about art, even more so than commerce, leads to fundamental changes in the industry that traditionalists are not prepared to stomach.

Yet we need to have this debate, and we need the leaders of the classical industry to engage with a broader community of artists. Orchestras have been out of the new music game for decades. It’s time for them to shake off the shackles of the academics who have robbed them of their vitality and their relevance. Orchestras have a beautiful and authentic experience to offer, and that experience will resonate with a much broader range of people if the art they present routinely celebrates the entire range of symphonic music — including the Third Estate.


(Originally published on