Alex Ross had an interesting piece in The Guardian this week called simply, “Why do we hate modern classical music?” In it, he explores the myriad explanations for why contemporary classical music continues to be unpopular. Contemporary is a bit of a misnomer, as there are references to the Second Viennese School, Britten, Ligeti, etc., but it’s better than saying “the music that no one wants to hear” and I respect that.
What are the reasons? If it’s like anything else in life, there are several and they are complex. I think one of the biggest reasons is one that Ross dismisses, and that is the time commitment. I can look at the Emirates Towers or Disney Hall for 20 seconds and be like “that’s cool” and then move on. I can go to the Museum of Modern Art and stand in front of any number of paintings, sculptures, etc. and say “LOOK AT THE COLORS!” and then bounce. But if I’m going to experience the newest music from Lindberg or Dorman or even Ligeti or Webern or Varese, it’s going to require that I sit and pay attention for longer than 20 seconds.
Ross counters that assertion with the notion that we react positively to modernism in movies, theater, and dance, and that may be true. But we’re also talking about a world in which people like Katy Perry and the Kardashian sisters and Anne Hathaway are at or near the forefront of their fields (music, talentless whoredom, and film). We use our eyes a hell of a lot more than we use our ears. Ross rightly points out that some prominent films have incorporated avant-garde and modern music in their soundtracks, mentioning 2001 and Shutter Island by name (along with the TV show Lost). But these also had DiCaprios and Fat Dudes and Star Children to distract us visually…I’ve seen 2001 and Shutter Island, and the music that stuck out most to me was by Strauss and Mahler respectively.
The hard truth, to me, is that there’s a ceiling as to what you can do with music, and we probably already hit it. Most contemporary music seems desperate to be contemporary, but in essence it’s repackaging things we’ve already heard in combination with other things we’ve already heard. Or it’s so extreme in nature as to be conversation-worthy because it’s a 6-hour string quartet or requires the use of real helicopters. But this is not to suggest that there is no good music being written currently.
But it does say that we are uncomfortable being responsible for vetting what classical music will thrive from our generation. Perhaps history’s long shadow is too much to overcome, but perhaps it is simply a lot to ask audiences with exponentially more stupid shit to keep us occupied to hold that responsibility. There was a time when Edward McDowell was more respected than Gustav Mahler, but history tends to filter out the noise and make room for keepers (occasionally catching some good music in its giant net of destruction, but for the most part it does its job).
Personally, I’m always excited for premiere performances; the chance to hear something brand new is always exciting, because it could always be “the one.” I confess to generally being disappointed, but with the amount of music to have to filter through, there SHOULD be more disappointments than enthusiastic thumbs-up. But there have been some gems: last year I was fortunate enough to hear the world premiere of a new flute concerto by Luca Lombardi with Emmanuel Pahud playing the solo part, and it was bloody fantastic (Pahud is the best musician on the face of the Earth right now, so that helped for sure). I heard the New York Philharmonic broadcast of the world premiere of Avner Dorman’s Spices, Perfumes, Toxins, and it was a marvelous, exciting work. If I had any say, these pieces would be around 100 years from now.
And I think that we will end up discovering that a reasonable amount of music from our era will indeed stand up to time’s great test. But when you’re in the thick of things, it tends to seem darker than it is, because it is us who has to sift through everything to pick out what to use as our foundation. There’s always going to be bad music, and it’s up to us to figure out what’s what for our time and place. Once they put their keys down and stopped fighting, audiences discovered that The Rite of Spring is actually pretty bad ass. Beethoven’s Fifth was regarded as the weak link on the premiere program (premiered along with Pastoral and the 4th Piano Concerto)…people can be wrong in the moment. History tends to correct our mistakes and re-affirm our good judgments as more and more people get a chance to render their verdict.
To paraphrase a composer whose time has indeed come: Their time will come. Some of them, anyway.