The curse of the modern composer

Second Viennese School

Just a couple bros. Hanging out. Having a smoke. Ushering in the complete destruction of the tonal system of music.

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.


4 thoughts on “The curse of the modern composer

  1. First of all, the title of the article by Mr. Ross is misplaced — people don’t “hate” modern classical music, they are just INDIFFERENT to so much of it.

    I am very disappointed to see Mr. Ross, like so many others before, him, criticize listeners for not liking the “right” music. The implication that anyone who rejects a dissonant modernist musical work is necessarily under the… “notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls” …is simplistic and INSULTING. Surely, there are many smart, engaged listeners looking for a deep experience — and who just can’t enjoy endless, disorienting dissonance. And the idea that most prefer tonality because it’s all we’re fed from the cradle is laughable. Show me a music anywhere, anytime in the world that does or did not have some kind of tonal center and pitch prioritization, other than a tiny sliver of the western classical tradition, and I promise to listen to the complete works of Boulez in one sitting. Also, the fact that one can occasionally fill halls in large urban areas for something modern tells me NOTHING, other than you can find a few hundred people who like just about anything in big cities.

    I heard a discussion on Radio 3 a few years ago, when Barenboim and others were declaring that audiences had to learn to listen to new music in a new way. Seems to me that an art form that requires its audience to change is on very thin ice — you can despise those bourgeois New Yorkers as much as you like, but ultimately if you’re composing pieces that people don’t want to hear, you can’t blame them for not wanting to hear it. And how long can this state of affairs continue?

    I think the better question is WHY it’s so goddamned important for people to accept it. First it was …”Give the public fifty years”. Well, fifty plus have come and gone, and they still don’t like it. Now it’s “Oh, let’s give seminars and pre-concert talks, just a few more and they’ll get it”.

    Is it entirely impossible that it’s not really all that great ? Think of all the late 19th century Salon artists that went into the dustbin of history. Is it maybe possible that much modern classical music took a detour that didn’t pan out all that well ? If you have a sensitive ear and some patience, I’m sure you can hear some pattern in Xenakis or Cage or whoever. Most people honestly can’t. As for Boulez, Stockhausen etc… they have aged horribly. Their music is incredibly OF ITS TIME. Their institutionalization of the avant garde also does more harm than good for creativity and yet the classical institution seems hellbent on not only still calling them modern, but kind of insisting that this is how classical music is still supposed to sound. No art with such a limited palette can hope to be popular. People like Milton Babbbit used to see this unpopularity as an endorsement of the new music’s complexity and intellectual superiority, as if was string theory or particle physics. But Ross sees it as a failure on the part of the audience to educate ourselves.

    What we really have here is a failure to communicate for which the blame clearly lies squarely at the feet of the would-be communicators–composers.

    It almost seems as if the institution would rather drive the last few people away from classical music for good than admit that a lot of the modern stuff isn’t all that great… Death before dishonor. The audience dislikes most of it and the institutions answer is…. “Tough kiddo”.

    The initiatives Alex Ross mentions are no more than further attempts to stuff contemporary music (or rather a certain facet of it) into peoples faces. Listen dear Alex, it’s been going on for years, and it hasn’t worked.

    Ross overlooks a crucial point, which is that, now perhaps more than ever, classical music does not consist of one overarching style to which all aspire. In fact, there are many different types of modern music, some of which are popular, some aren’t. John Adams plays to packed houses wherever he can be persuaded to go, unlike poor old Schoenberg and Birtwhistle. And yet the powers that be – certainly in the UK – have tried for years to push the serialist and post-Webernist line, as if the hostility it aroused in audiences validated the street-cred of its adherents – you know, Mr and Mrs concert-goer from Frodsham don’t like it, so that just shows how superior I am.

    But one thing is for sure: however much people “acknowledge the force of dissonance or hypercomplexity”, everyone’s a sucker for a good melody, or at least a good chord progression. Even Schoenberg never forgot that, but the Darmstadt lot did.

    In closing, I listen to music because I want to be moved, torn, shattered by its emotional power. No other art form in my experience gives me that cathartic charge. Unfortunately, with a few honourable exceptions, most recent classical music inspires either boredom or rage in me. Should one have to work so hard to appreciate it? Does much of it even merit that much attention? I’m afraid that, for me, classical music has lost its way and often doen’t even seem interested in engaging the audience’s emotions. As I’ve stated there are honourable exceptions but they seem the exception rather than the rule.

  2. That was the most quickly executed awesome rant I think I’ve ever encountered. Many great points raised, but the sheer breadth of the response in such a short time frame was remarkable. Great closing paragraph in particular!

  3. Thanks for your nice comment.

    I’d like to make a few more points:

    I think those in the UK should be careful of patting themselves on the back too much over their supposed greater willingness to embrace challenging new music. What is the evidence ?

    Not liking certain music is simply not done in polite circles. But why ? I have rarely seen an enthusiastic commentary on modern classical music that wouldn’t provide a stone-faced eulogy of the sort …”Doesn’t this exhaust pipe sound divine and whoever disagrees is a reactionary”. Have you ever heard Alex Ross or other enthusiast actually say something like: “I love Stockhausen, but can’t stand Xenakis because I think his music is just senseless noise”? But surely, not all of modern classical music is good ? Surely, they can’t like it all ? I would be equally suspicious of people who like all the canonical composers to the same degree.

  4. Classical music since Stravinsky is boring because it has no sonic structure that can be perceived by the ear. Major 3ds sounds bright, minor 3rd sound more melancholy, some sevenths and chromatic chords sound nuanced in a way comparable to flavour. However, atonal music, by dissolving harmony down to mostly semi-tones, produces a sound equivalent to brown mush. In fact, a massive pile of semi-tones is like a massive pile of crap–you can pick through it, slice it many ways, but it is all the same brown mush.

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