by Scott Lindroth*

The world has changed in ways that are hard for a music professor to understand. On the one hand, it is clear that fewer and fewer students in our classes have any familiarity with classical music. We dropped our “Masterworks of Music” course at Duke last year because no one was signing up for it. Fifteen years ago, that course enrolled 200-300 students. In our new “Introduction to Music” course, students learn to their surprise that it is customary to dress up a bit for a classical music concert and that it is good form to keep quiet during the performance. “Very intimidating, almost like attending church,” they said. They’re right.

And yet, the Duke Symphony Orchestra is enjoying the largest enrollments ever – over 100 students now. Five years ago the enrollment was about 40. And the orchestra is taking on repertory I never thought I would hear Duke students play. It is thrilling.

Okay, so students are passionate about playing music but they are reluctant to take academic classes that study the history and inner-workings of the music from a technical point of view. No surprise there. Many (maybe most) of the student orchestral players are future physicians, lawyers, and scientists who will be life-long music lovers. Of course they are missing something by not taking the classes. Along with the sheer emotional charge that we experience playing music, there is dazzling intellectual achievement lying in the intricacies of harmony and counterpoint, and there are dramatic stories of cultural history and politics that breathe life into the music, giving deeper meanings to the texts we sing and the pieces we play.

It’s easy for me to say this as a university music professor but, as a composer, I can’t escape the fact that music has changed. Classical music has changed, and what is emerging is every bit as exciting, intellectually rich, and culturally significant as classical music of the past. I will even assert that classical music-making today changes the meaning of the works we know and love so well. Beethoven’s music is changing, as is the music of Bach and Verdi. Old meanings are lost and new ones take their place. Now this is exciting! And this is what can save classical music.

Let me relate a few anecdotes. We had the privilege of having a distinguished group of musicians present new pieces by our graduate composition students in an open reading session. Members of the ensemble had prepared the works in advance and were working with the composers for the first time. One piece made extensive use of performance directions in French (the composer was referring to a particular piece by Erik Satie), and the ensemble responded with careful, elegant playing that might be expected from any musician auditioning for the North Carolina Symphony. The composer said, “No! The rhythms and orchestration are meant to evoke electronic dance music!” One of the musicians said, “When I saw those performance directions in French, I immediately started playing like a classical music dork. Why didn’t you say you wanted a drum ‘n’ bass sound?”

Recently the Duke Symphony Orchestra shared the stage with the great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. There I saw the concertmaster stand up and play a beautiful, bluesy, improvised solo over chord changes. It is the moment I remember best from the entire concert.

Last fall a graduate composition student produced a new work for 25 musicians, including six electric guitars, three electric basses, two drummers, a six-piece improvising ensemble, a five-piece classical music ensemble, piano, laptop, and live video. The music ranged from raucous (and thrilling) “math” rock to crazed (and inspired) improvisation to precise (and captivating) ensemble work from the classical musicians. Don’t even ask what the laptop musician did! It was fantastic.

What am I’m getting at? I think it has to do with boundaries. There was a time when classical music and the musicians who played it existed in a self-contained world with well-known landmarks and stories. We learned about the great historical progression in which Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms figure so prominently (Yes, there were French and Italians, too.). Now, the classical music world includes many more landmarks and stories, landmarks from rock, jazz, and experimental music, and stories of Coltrane, Björk, Frisell, and Ligeti – not to mention the Germans and Austrians mentioned above.

Who’s writing this music? Just about every composer under the age of forty. One of our composition applicants submitted a concerto for trumpet, orchestra, and turntable. It is terrific! Another is an electric guitar virtuoso who combines the precision and musicianship of the best classical musicians with a visceral punch that is unique to rock. And then there’s the composer who had a new orchestral work played in the afternoon before doing a gig as a DJ that night!

This kind of musical activity used to be distributed across mutually-exclusive sets of artists who performed for different populations. The boundaries that separated those musicians are disappearing. Thirty years ago, composers Gunther Schuller and George Rochberg called for a new eclecticism in American music, a call that did not sound so different from the advice Dvorák offered American composers in the late 19th century. The first attempts were clumsy (actually, “inept” is the better word). The composers had the right idea but lacked the musical experience in the genres from which they were borrowing to pull it off and make their music work. And the classically trained musicians trying to play this music were helpless in the “borrowed” styles. This has changed today. Now musicians are equally fluent in classical music and jazz/rock/improvisation/bluegrass/electronica/hip hop (take your picks). What could be more natural than to bring all of these musical experiences to bear on the work they do as composers and performers?

So where does this leave the university music professor? It is time to wake up, colleagues and friends! Classical music is alive and well, but we have to pay attention to where it has gone as well as where it has been. If we teach what classical music is actually doing today, I bet the classrooms will fill up again.

*We are pleased to welcome Scott Lindroth as a guest columnist in our ongoing series of features by leading regional artists and teachers. His music has often been covered in CVNC. Dr. Lindroth is Chair of the Department of Music at Duke University. His bio, works list and c.v. are available at

Note: The first article in this series, composer J. Mark Scearce’s The Matching Game, remains available in our archives.