ArtsWatch Guest Post: A Tale of Two Conferences

What Classical Music Can Learn from Open Source

Classical Revolution PDX & Electric Opera Company

Classical Revolution PDX & Electric Opera Company

By CHRISTOPHER CORBELL, Classical Revolution PDX

On July 22, the 15th O’Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) will kick off here in Portland with more 3,000 software industry professional in attendance. They come from different angles and with different agendas but one thing they will all have in common: a community-based, inclusive, and non-hierarchical creative culture called “open source.” This is a very broad movement in the software industry that promotes universal access, collaborative development, and redistribution via free license to a product’s design. Open source has revolutionized the tech industry.

On June 22, exactly one month before OSCON, another, much smaller conference will convene in Portland: the second World Classical Revolution conference, attracting a handful of iconoclastic musician/organizers. We too come from a variety of backgrounds and will bring a number of different agendas, but one thing we all have in common is a love of creating and sharing classical music in more open, informal, and inclusive ways.

The Classical Revolution conference agenda is open to attendees to determine. In considering what to bring to the table, I have found myself musing more and more about my day job, which for the past 13 years has been in the software industry. This is an industry of extremely rapid evolution – not just in technology itself, but also in the ever-more-open ways that technologists share knowledge and amplify their productivity. But it is also an industry of rigor and meritocracy – and one that is thriving on paradigms that challenge our assumptions about the relationship between hierarchy and quality.

Portland is a major center of both open source software and of one of the most vital grassroots classical music scenes in the country. Maybe it is time for classical musicians, educators, audience members, and other stakeholders to take a look at open source thinking as a productive cultural model, and question our own assumptions about how excellence and creativity emerge and flourish.

Tradition vs. Openness

The open source movement challenges many traditional ways of thinking that directly contribute to classical music’s struggles today.

  • The classical music tradition assumes that students must be edified by teachers. The open source movement assumes people are peers and that anyone can teach anyone, but that the best argument or solution should win.
  • The classical music tradition posits gatekeepers judging those who would participate by their auditions, credentials, or other achievements. The open source movement welcomes anyone to contribute to a project if their contribution is an improvement.
  • The classical music tradition treats the artistic institution as a wizard behind a curtain, doling out its magic to the “other,” the audience. The open source movement treats the consumer as a crucial stakeholder in the productive process and the ultimate arbiter of what works.
  • And most important to me: The classical music tradition holds there is a global, historical hierarchy of fame and cultural relevance and only those things that reach the top tiers really matter. Open source (much like indie rock) recognizes that a valid and vital community can form and produce great work anywhere, with the most modest of means.

Cathedral-and-the-Bazaar-book-coverCathedral vs. Bazaar

In his well-known essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” open-source pioneer Eric S. Raymond compares the top-down, hierarchical culture of older software development paradigms with the then-emerging culture of the Linux world: open,  heterarchical, bottom-up, opt-in. The cathedral model proceeds with a small curating group of experts controlling a project’s direction and acting as gatekeepers who decide what goes in or out. By contrast, the bazaar model welcomes everyone and lets ideas and solutions emerge from unexpected places.

What Raymond noted, and what decades of open source software development have now proved, is that the bazaar model wins. The bazaar process is more productive, results in higher quality, and facilitates a more fluid and fair meritocracy.

To ask “can this work with classical music” is to ask the wrong question. That assumes a monolithic view, a pedantic-historical perspective, or at the very least a curated-project-focus that this music must “work” according to the goals of a few insular stakeholders. The question implies that cultural success can and should be controlled by a deterministic, proprietary approach. In the software world, it’s like a proprietary webserver maker asking if open source can “work” when most of the internet is already running on Apache.

The bulk of new 20th century musical forms did not arise from the small intellectual circles embedded in classical institutions. They arose in bazaar-like environments from New Orleans to Harlem and Tin Pan Alley, from Appalachia to Memphis to Kingston to Liverpool. Those spending six months trumpeting the anniversary of “The Rite of Spring” can’t be blamed – it’s a vital historical monument without which “Fantasia” would never have included large reptiles. But the unrelenting hero-worship of its centennial has overlooked all of the amazing, burgeoning musical forms that did not exist (or were barely nascent) 100 years ago, which were invented not by a handful of experts but by whole subcultures: Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz, delta blues, hokum blues, piedmont blues, jump blues, stride, bluegrass, western swing, honky-tonk, rockabilly, British-invasion rock, jazz fusion, psychedelic rock, metal, prog rock, soul, funk, punk rock, reggae, hip-hop, techno … and this list doesn’t even begin to tackle central and south American music developments of the past century or the incredible diversity that is concealed in the phrase “world music.” In music, the bazaar has already won.

Classical music thrives when people embrace and enjoy it; we already know we can do so without undue restriction and gatekeeping. This isn’t really news. Haydn played street parties; the rowdy galleries loved Mozart. But the revolutionary aspect of Classical Revolution is primarily this: we’re in the bazaar, it’s our natural habitat (not “outreach”), and while we might still admire what the cathedral ekes out, we simply don’t have time for its ceremonial restrictions.

Building the new bazaar

Some relevant questions I expect Saturday’s Classical Revolution conference to tackle include:

  • how do we maintain and extend the classical music bazaar?
  • how do we communicate what we are doing to everyone who wants to know?
  • how do we simultaneously maximize inclusiveness and reward originality and excellence?
  • How do we avoid the temptation to build yet another insular, gatekeeping institution as we begin to succeed?

We’ll also undoubtedly be talking a lot of logistics: how to raise funds to pay musicians decent rates, how to become a 501(c)3 (as CRPDX has done), how to interact with venues, other arts organizations, educational institutions, and so on.

While the O’Reilly conference may be just another milepost along the open source highway, our conference is future-oriented at a very critical stage in the free classical movement. It feels like we are still in start-up mode. We hope to share some of the results of our discussions afterward, and also to start more dialogue about this bazaar model with classical music organizations and champions in the Portland area.

As with the open source world, there is no one right way to do this; others are free to take and use what they like from our discoveries, and we look forward to more experimentation – not in content, but in the ways music, community, local economy, and artistic discourse all intersect.

Classical Revolution PDX executive director Christopher Corbell.

Classical Revolution PDX executive director Christopher Corbell.

Our own newest experiment on the horizon is  a high-profile showcase on Saturday, June 22 at downtown Portland’s Star Theater– traditionally a rock club. A look at the program shows a great variety of chamber music performances spanning several centuries, from French Renaissance secular song to works composed in the past year.

But the program doesn’t tell the whole story, because this is truly a “bazaar”-programmed event. The performers did not audition; they engaged in our community and emerged as having something compelling to offer. Some performers have doctoral degrees in music; others never went to music school. Nearly all of the artists have selected their own material to perform, the main exceptions being this year’s winning string quartet composition and a couple of signature genre-bending treatments of traditional repertoire. The full program details are  online.

Behind the scenes, CRPDX is also taking some important steps to develop the economic aspects of our local classical bazaar with this concert. We have sought the guidance of the local musicians union (AFM99), as we continue to act as a regular vehicle for classical music freelancers. In the past year, CRPDX has provided occasional paid gigs for performers from several local orchestras including the Oregon Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Eugene Symphony, and Columbia Symphony, as well as many members of independent ensembles.

Our aim is to bring opportunities to musicians at a time when arts budgets everywhere are under duress, and on June 22 we are thrilled to do so at a popular alternative venue at an affordable price on a Saturday night downtown. All revenue from ticket sales will be used to pay musicians, and we will supplement that (as other arts group do) with nonprofit fundraising – which in our case is almost all small-donor contributions from our grassroots supporters. As with the open source movement, when we advocate for free classical music we mean “free as in free speech,” not “free as in free beer.” And we are convinced that ultimately the bazaar is a better economic model for the arts than the cathedral.

Christopher Corbell is the volunteer Executive Director of Classical Revolution PDX, and a Senior Software Engineer at Extensis.

2 Responses.

  1. jack Gabel says:

    either-other choice – cathedral / bazaar – why so limiting?

    would join your ‘conference’ – topic is of pressing interest to a composer like myself – – and address my interests as a record label owner – – but currently on location in production – and demonstrably, production that does connect with ‘le peuple’- can’t figure if it’s bazaar or cathedral – whatever, shows are selling well and crowds are loving the artists

    if interested next weekend in Astoria (of all places) ALD’s Oregon Rite of Spring Centenary Tour kicks off in the Liberty Theatre – Sat., June 29 –

    – while Purcell’s ‘Daido and Aeneas’ gets a fully staged treatment with authentic continuo and period choreography – Fri. & Sun. – wise to call for tickets soon – these operas always sell out (and imagine, in Astoria of all places)

  2. bob priest says:

    hola christopher,

    you’ve written a fine article that does well in outlining the significant contributions that c-rev brings to global village pdx – thanx!

    however, are you sure “executive director” is a suitable job/mission description for you? after all, “ED” rings rather cathedral-esque & gatekeepery to me.

    avanti . . .


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