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On coffee connoisseurs and art music

July 6, 2011

Last week, Maura Lafferty posted a blog discussing how musicians in the pop world with classical training can inadvertently convey a sense of snobbery by discussing their pursuit of perfection. In another part of the Internet, Greg Sandow has been trying to convince folks that we should judge orchestras like sports teams. Both want to grow the classical music audience, but Greg wants to create very open conversations about quality while Maura doesn’t want to alienate people who might not be comfortable making judgements on technical ability.

I think I lean more towards Greg’s proposal, but rather than use baseball as an example, I think a much better analogy would be something that I have a bit of an obsession with: coffee. It’s not much of a secret that coffee quality has been steadily increasing in America for the last number of years, with Starbucks being the gateway for many into a world full of single origin beans, latte art, and Clover brewing systems. On my last trip to Chicago, I was talking to my friend Cory Tiffin about our love for coffee, and he mentioned an article he had read about how Chicago was in its third wave of coffee connoisseurdom, with each wave bringing more complexity and quality to Chicago mugs. (New York is lagging behind, but it also has an awesome knuckle tattoo header image)

Essentially, the story starts with someone discovering a better cup of coffee and then develops a toolbox for understanding what separates drink A from drink B, whether it be the types of beans used, the method used to roast the beans, or the process of extracting the coffee goodness. The difference between the Chicago Symphony brass players and the ones in Philadelphia’s Orchestra is really not much different than comparing light and dark roasted beans. Sure, it’s just coffee. xkcd seems to think a false sense of quality can be derived from anything. That ‘anything’ can even include a very fine tuned ability to notice small differences in music.

The problem would appear to be providing someone with that first “Starbucks” experience and then cultivating it with varied experiences consisting of different positives and negatives to help the audience develop an understanding of music. I’m not sure how this is possible with the loose federation of art music ensembles scattered about not operating in lockstep. Perhaps this should be the job of music venues and concert series promoters, who can weave threads between various events alongside the actual music making.

The other question I have is how the art music world can adjust the stigma it gets when it has conversations suggesting snobbery and instead illicit similar reactions to coffee geekdom in conversation. Maybe Maura is right and musicians shouldn’t be the ones openly talking about it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with critics actively talking about what separates the playing of the Philadelphia brass and Chicago brass. It’s the only way we’ll let anyone in on the secret.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 6:31 pm

    Thanks for the mention, Doug! I was more interested in what makes music good, without using training/pedigree alone to justify quality. The catch of this question/argument is that then we have to ask about the relevance of the classical training/pedigree. My challenge as a publicist is to connect those who may not automatically value training/pedigree with my clients, and that audience can be very difficult to convince and sophisticated in their decision-making process about entertainment options.

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