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Q&A: ASU professor invites us to imagine a world without classical music

ASU professor Roger Mantie discusses importance, future of classical music.
April 14, 2017

Future of classical music is 'million-dollar question,' but ASU poised to answer with hundreds of concerts, recitals

headshot of ASU prof Roger Mantie
ASU School of Music Professor Roger Mantie

The future of classical music is anyone’s guess, but Arizona State University professor Roger Mantie invites us to consider a world without it.

“Imagine movies or video games without their classical music backgrounds,” Mantie said. “Star Wars without the John Williams soundtrack? Unthinkable!” 

ASU plays host to around 700 classical recitals in its concert halls each year, with students and visiting musicians delivering performances free and open to the public where they expand their creativity and hone their craft.  

To learn more, ASU Now reached out to Mantie, who teaches in the School of Music in the Herberger Institute of Art and Design and has performed professionally as both a jazz and classical saxophonist

Question: What makes classical music so important in today's society?

A: That’s a really loaded question. Every kind of music is important to those who love their music — i.e., pretty much everyone. In that sense, I don’t think we can say that classical music, or more precisely, Western classical music, is any more or less important than any other kind of music. In some senses, classical music is and always has been a “niche” art form, but to describe it only in terms of its popularity misses the point.

If we try to imagine a world without classical music, I think we can begin to have an idea of just how embedded it is in Western culture. Imagine movies or video games without their classical music backgrounds, for example. Star Wars without the John Williams soundtrack? Unthinkable! What kind of an impoverished world would we be living in without our concert halls, symphony orchestras, opera companies and so on?

Classical music isn't important because it is “better” than other musics, which it isn’t, but because of what it represents: a very special form of human engagement that tests the limits of the human imagination and possibility, both in terms of its performative and aesthetic aspects.

Q: What about those performative and aesthetic aspects do you find so intriguing?

A: There are all sorts of historically-derived norms and practices having to do with enculturation, training, relationships between musicians and audiences, formal reflexivity in the musical material and so on. These are not unique to classical music per se, but classical music’s heritage is vast and rich. I’m personally less interested in “preserving” these things (the “museum of musical works”) than in continuing to innovate and engage in the spirit of community and belonging.

Q: ASU often hosts student recitals at the school's concert hall. Can you explain what exactly those are? 

A: With up to five stages regularly in use, the School of Music presents around 700 concerts and recitals per year. Some of these are by larger ensembles, but the vast majority are by individual students (undergraduate and graduate) as part of their degree program. Most music students typically have to perform at least one solo recital, i.e., a performance of usually 30–90 minutes, made of several musical works they have studied during the year.

As one of many “best kept secrets” at ASU, these are free and open to the public. The quality is very high, often comparable to what you might hear on professional stages — keeping in mind that many School of Music students already perform professionally. Anyone could go to the School of Music almost any night of the week during the academic year and find some sort of performance to attend. 

Q: What do you see the future of classical music looking like? 

A: This is the million-dollar question in the classical music world right now. People with a vested interest in classical music, notably classical musicians themselves, have been asking questions about the future for quite some time. The question has become increasingly pressing due, in part, to the collapse of revenue streams from recorded music in the 21st century, something that has affected all working musicians regardless of genre.

The broader question, however, speaks not to popularity — arguably classical music has never really been “popular” in the broad sense — but to the vitality of any given musical practice. My personal opinion is that classical musicians in the 20th century were caught in a dilemma: what people wanted to hear were things like Schumann piano sonatas, Verdi operas, Beethoven string quartets, or Mozart symphonies, not “new” music. As a result, classical music stopped being a living, breathing art form.

The silver lining, as I see it, is that classical musicians in the 21st century are being more creative than ever. There are so many exciting things going on in the classical music world right now. My prediction is that the musical landscape of the 21st century will be defined by how it reinvented musical engagement of all types.

Q: Have you always been immersed in classical music? What first drew you to the genre? 

A: I learned to play the saxophone through the school band program. I grew up playing all sorts of music and didn’t really privilege one kind over the other. That’s something I try to promote with my own children. We listen to and play every style of music we can.

Most university music programs are based on the Western classical tradition. As a result, I was fully immersed in classical music. I often wonder if I would have loved classical music as much as I do if I were not so thoroughly immersed in it. 


Find upcoming recitals on the ASU Events website at And don't forget to check in at these and other events with Sun Devil Rewards, a free app that connects users to everything ASU. Earn "Pitchforks" for reading ASU news stories, checking in at events, taking polls, playing trivia games and more — and earn prizes that money can't buy (only Pitchforks can!). 

Connor Pelton

Reporter , ASU Now

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How is a star born? ASU astronomers are helping NASA find the answer.
April 18, 2017

An ASU astronomer is helping design and build new balloon-borne observatory to explore how stars and solar systems form

A missing link lies in the chain of astronomers' understanding of how stars and planetary systems are born, but a team of scientists and engineers from Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration is on track to help find it.

"Astronomers have an idea how the Milky Way Galaxy's giant clouds of dust and molecular gas produce stars," SESE astronomer Chris Groppi said. "But we don't have a good idea how these clouds form in the first place."

To discover this is the aim of a newly funded NASA project named GUSTO, which is led by astronomer Christopher Walker of the University of Arizona. The project also involves Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

GUSTO is short for — take a deep breath — Galactic and Extragalactic Ultra-Long-Duration Balloon-Borne Spectroscopic-Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory.

As its full name suggests, this observatory won't be located on Earth. Instead, it'll soar at high altitude in the atmosphere: about 21 miles up, roughly three times higher than passenger jets typically cruise.

At this altitude the balloon-borne observatory will float above 99 percent of Earth's atmosphere. Effectively, the observatory will be out in space where it can view the universe mostly unimpeded.

Building on NASA's experience with balloon flights launched from Antarctica, the GUSTO project combines a new balloon of advanced design, plus a 30-inch-aperture telescope with two dozen detectors. The detectors cover a spectrum of "colors" that range between thermal infrared (heat radiation) and microwaves.

"This part of the spectrum," Groppi said, "is where we can track characteristic interstellar gases — ionized carbon, oxygen and nitrogen — as they cool off and collapse into clouds that will eventually become stars and probably planetary systems."

The project plans to use GUSTO to scan much of the Milky Way galaxy and all of a small nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. Project astronomers expect that this study will serve as a template to help them understand other galaxies.

"For GUSTO, our role at SESE is to design and build the processing electronics that handle the raw signals coming from the telescope and going to the detectors," Groppi said. GUSTO analyzes the sky in three different "colors." But each color uses eight detectors, so the entire instrument package must handle and process signals involving 24 detectors in all.

SESE electrical engineer Hamdi Mani and electronics technician Justin Matthewson are together responsible for designing and building the core of the processor, Groppi said. "Moreover, SESE astrophysics grad student Marko Neric will be working on both the engineering part and, later, the science from GUSTO."

GUSTO is coming at an appropriate time, Groppi said. Advances in detectors and in NASA's long-duration balloon capabilities make such an astronomical survey possible.

"To get data from previous Antarctic balloon experiments," Groppi said, "flights had to end when the winds at high altitude threatened to carry the balloon away from Antarctica. If we didn't halt a flight, we'd lose the instrument package and the data." Typical flights lasted 55 days or less.

"We don't have that problem anymore," he said. "We'll be sending GUSTO on a flight of at least 100 days, and we hope even longer." The key to a long flight is that GUSTO will send back its rough data via satellite links to the ground for processing and analysis.

And no longer confined to Antarctic airspace, the GUSTO balloon could drift away from the continent, over the open sea, as far as Australia. In fact, the project's astronomers would be quite happy if the balloon drifts even farther north, because that would let the telescope observe more of the northern reaches of the Milky Way and its clouds of gas and dust, which are mostly out of view from the southern hemisphere.

"We've been working on proposals to answer this science question since 2003," Groppi said. "We're all thrilled that we finally get to do it."


Top image: A team of researchers from ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration will build a key component for a NASA science mission called GUSTO. The project aims to discover how interstellar material comes together to make clouds of gas and dust — like these in the Milky Way — that give birth to new stars and planetary systems. Image by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration