Know Your Audience: Similar Modifications to Classical Performance Culture Across Opposite Ends of the Musical Spectrum

Missy Mazzoli, born in 1980 in rural Pennsylvania, grew up with little exposure to the “new” classical music of her day. Rather, she developed a keen affinity for Ludwig van Beethoven, taking it upon herself to learn all she could from his life and music. However, now an established composer on the new classical scene, her music could be described as anything but “classical”, in fact some critics, such as Zoë Madonna for NPR, have even commented that “I’d play [her music] for people who would never go to a classical concert.” Mazzolli career is now tied to her connection to the “typical” life of a classical composer; she is now a composition faculty member at Mannes College at The New School of Music in New York, a classical music conservatory, and her work is regularly commissioned by some of the world’s leading classical symphony orchestras.

Jonny Greenwood, born in 1971 in Oxford, England, also benefited from an early exposure to Great classical music as a violist in numerous youth orchestras. However, his career as the lead guitarist for one of the world’s most famous rock bands, Radiohead, while influenced by his classical upbringing, did not at all follow within the Western classical tradition. Nevertheless, his interest in the unique collaboration between composer and performer, which occurs in the classical world drew him to deepen his work as a “classical” composer, including the creation of numerous award-winning film scores. But in the end, the word “classical” seems to be a similarly unsuitable word to define either Mazzoli’s, or Greenwood’s music.

These two composers, while seemingly existing on opposite ends of the spectrum, in fact share more characteristics in common with each other than differences; most notably, their similar views on performance practice and classical concert hall culture. Exemplified by her creation of a modern “band”, Victoire, as an outlet for her compositions, Mazzoli seeks a different interaction with an audience than most traditional concert hall experiences can provide. At the same time, Greenwood has been outspoken in his views of the “peculiar” nature of the “off-putting” classical concert culture, claiming that they have “lost their original purpose.” However, this does not mean that he believes classical music is tied to this method of presentation. In fact, he described a recent project with the London Contemporary Orchestra as “… all about trying to play classical music in slightly different venues with a slightly less uptight atmosphere than is usually found in concerts.”

Through her activity with Victoire, Missy Mazzoli, who listed Julia Wolfe as one of her main influences, could clearly fall in line with a culture of new classical performance championed by the now famous Bang on a Can – a group created by Wolfe and one of Mazzoli’s main mentors at Yale University, David Lang. This contemporary classical group, who flirt within the blurred lines between the pop and classical worlds, define themselves as “dedicated to making music new”. Their programs, self described as “inventive and aggressive”, share the value of contemporary classical music with a wider age group; no doubt, in response to the “aging” and “white-haired” patrons of the majority of orchestras active today.

In their aim to connect with a wider group of audience members than those present at a typical classical symphony concert, and their goal to create a different kind of musical experience, both Greenwood and Mazzolli speak to a larger issue within the classical world: its relevance to the modern era. They both express concern with how the chosen method of presentation of their music can be more inviting and engaging for their audiences, regardless of genre. However, in direct contrast to these perceived shortcomings of the classical genre, composer Aaron Gervais seems perfectly content with that fact that classical music is meant for older audiences, saying we should “stop apologizing” classical concerts. “You don’t see punk bands trying to attract grandmothers. Stop pretending your concerts are for everyone. Be honest about who you’re programming for, then make a program those people will like.”

Chris Beroes-Haigis


Gervais, Aaron. “Classical Concerts Are Great. Stop Apologizing For Them.”, Aaron Gervais Blog,

Patterson, Colin. “Live Classical ‘off-putting’ says Jonny Greenwood”, BBC, October 10th, 2014.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Interview with CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli”, October 18th, 2018, YouTube,

Madonna, Zoë. “Missy Mazzoli is the 21st Century’s Gatecrasher Of New Classical Music”, NPR, November 16th, 2018,

Bang on a Can, “About Us”, Bang on a Can,

One thought on “Know Your Audience: Similar Modifications to Classical Performance Culture Across Opposite Ends of the Musical Spectrum

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  1. Amidst the gender issue, I find your particular discussion to be quite interesting and well-written. There definitely has become a blurred line between the “classical” and “non-classical” sides of music. Whether the instrumentation is “classical” but the genre/style is rock, or vice-versa, the idea that everything must be in a particular set-up or style does not exactly matter at this point. Composers are not tied down to set limits, unless it is advised or requested within a commission for a certain event or work. The traditional ideals and standards do have an influence and teach classical music techniques (both for the performer and composer), but this style is not always favored by certain audiences as well. In one case, the EPSO will be performing game music this month and several people seem very interested, yet the other classical concerts EPSO have are usually not discussed with the same enthusiasm. While the game concert will be performed with the same symphony orchestra, the music will have a different style than a classical concert because the music was intended to be background music of a video game; game music is often repetitive, but maybe the version EPSO will perform will be a re-written, more entertaining composition. Of course, a composer must not expect everyone to enjoy their creations but hopefully audiences will be more willing to open their ears to something new, rather than only listen to what the favor. You’ll never know what you might like if you never give it a chance.


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