Daily Bow: Who’s Afraid of…Contemporary Music?

Daily Bow LogoThis week’s Daily Bow feature has been replete with stories about the newer, shinier side of classical music–the side that sometimes still has fresh ink on the scores and usually doesn’t have a key signature. Despite the growing popularity within the classical music world of contemporary music projects like the ones profiled recently, it’s easy to forget that contemporary classical music can be scary and downright off-putting to the average listener. A lot of young musicians have grown up immersed in “alt-classical” music–music that is essentially contemporary art music that presents much of the same challenges and rewards as contemporary art. And just like contemporary art, this kind of music can almost be a deterrent to people who otherwise love classical music, to say nothing of the crowd that doesn’t like classical music in the first place. As I was going through my musical adolescence and starting to wrap my fingers around such roundly standard works as the Shostakovich Concerto, I noticed that often, the parents at local competitions tended to greet such compositions with gritted teeth. To many of them, all of whom loved classical music and supported their musician children fully, works like those by Shostakovich, or even Britten, sounded a little more like noise and a little less like music, although it’s hard for any lovers of these pieces to see it that way.

Those parents in the audience of those local competitions were hardly alone. These days, contemporary classical music can be zillions of times more aurally challenging than Shostakovich (the notes may seem unfamiliar to listeners used to Beethoven, but there are key signatures, classical forms, and the whole nine yards). The contemporary repertoire gives musicians a welcome chance to stretch their legs, figuratively speaking, and to really sink their teeth into new challenges, and orchestras, chamber groups, and individual performers are programming more and more brand spanking new music. The result can often be a downturn in attendance and enthusiasm for events, particularly when they are all-contemporary. To this end, a recent article in the UK paper “The Guardian” has set out to dispel some commonly held fears about contemporary classical music, arguing that, even without our ever noticing it, this type of music is at the center of our cultural world and our everyday lives.

The first myth that the article addresses is one that even I tend to buy into: “It sounds like a squeaky gate.” We’ve all, even as musically literate and open-minded people, sat through that concert. The one where everything sounds the same, and we leave doing impressions of the music in the car ride home. Guardian music critic Tom Service addresses this one from two angles:

There are two sides to this. First, there’s the simple fact that much of the music being written now by composers for choirs, opera houses and orchestras has as many, and sometimes more, tunes than anything by Beethoven or Mozart. For sensuous, harmonious reverie, listen to recent music by John Tavener or Arvo Pärt; for sheer, abundant tune-smithery, look no further than those masters of choral, regal and festive vocality Paul Mealor, Eric Whitacre and John Rutter. But none of this is what the “squeaky gate” critics mean. They are thinking of the sort of music that the conductor Thomas Beecham once said he “trod in”: the avant garde of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono or Brian Ferneyhough. One of the best answers to this sort of attack comes from “unherd” on my classical music blog: “‘Nasty squeaky gate’ can actually be amazing to experience if you’re not afraid of it.”

Essentially, squeaky-gate-fearing listeners have two choices (neither of which are necessarily mutually exclusive): seek out the myriad contemporary works that are beautiful, lyrical, and categorically  un-squeaky, or go Kubrick on the issue: stop worrying and love the bomb squeak.

Fears of this squeak tie into the next myth that Service addresses: the eternal shroud of inaccessibility that contemporary music seems to be draped in. Service’s response is simple: “Balderdash.” To which he later adds a lengthier explanation that points out just how entwined pop culture and contemporary music really are:

Have a look again at the menagerie of cultural icons on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Who’s that cheeky chappie on the back row, whose big brown eyes and side-parting peer out between Lenny Bruce and WC Fields? Why, it’s the furthest-out composer of any of the out-there 60s avant-garde, Stockhausen. A piece of coincidental Beatlemania? Not a bit of it. Without Stockhausen’s electronic dreams and experiments the decade before, and his trailblazing example of how you could use the studio itself as a musical instrument, the Beatles would be mired in musical pre-history, and Lennon and McCartney’s imaginations – and yours – would be infinitely the poorer. Spooling on through pop culture, in the 70s and 80s, bands “discovered” tape loops, phases and rhythmic complexity. But that’s only because Steve Reich, Philip Glass and the minimalists had got there at least a decade before. Sampling? Again, it’s the avant garde you’ve got to thank, everyone from the pioneers of tape-based musique concrète to Alvin Lucier and beyond. Coming bang(ish) up to date: who is Björk’s favourite composer? Stockhausen again.

Stockhausen, despite having written a piece for string quartet and helicopter, turns out to be no more removed from the average music lover’s life than the Fab Four themselves. I’d add to Service’s argument and speculate that at least 3 out of 5 Americans has seen a movie whose credit music has been either by or inspired by Philip Glass. That cool-sounding loop of music as the names scroll across the screen? That’s contemporary music too.

Myth number three is strongly evocative of pretension in all art forms: “You need to have a beard and wear a black polo-neck jumper [sweater] to appreciate it.” This one speaks for itself, and so does Service’s anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

There’s a story told by Gillian Moore, who runs classical music at London’s Southbank Centre and who set up the pioneering education work of the London Sinfonietta in the early 80s. One of its first projects introduced a programme of Ravel and early 20th-century visionary and noise-fiend Edgard Varèse to groups of schoolchildren. For many, Ravel’s music is sensual, beguiling, “easy”, whereas Varèse’s sirens, percussion and atavistic modernism make his music beyond the pale, dissonant, and “difficult”. What happened was just the reverse: the kids loved Varèse and couldn’t get on with Ravel. But that makes perfect sense. So much of the great, radical music of the past 100 years bypasses the world of convention and intellect to go straight to the guts of sonic power, and to shake up your solar plexus. There’s a good argument that the less you know about Mozart or Schubert, the more directly you can understand the sounds composers create today.

Myth number 4: “It’s irrelevant.” If the previous three arguments haven’t spoken to that, try taking a look around at the various indie-classical projects going on now. Many of them tackle big social issues in the same way that contemporary visual art does. This one takes only a quick scratch beneath the surface to dispel.

The final myth is that contemporary classical music is “written by classical musicians, so it must be ‘old.'” Most musicians my age (or any age) have a half-dozen young composer friends who’d gladly be the person to tackle this myth. The idea is essentially that anything involving a classical instrument group or venue must be a product of “heritage” or preservation rather than contemporary culture. This myth is best dispelled by experience. For those who po0h-pooh classical music’s contemporary side, go find some. Sit down in that concert hall and watch how much life is in the musicians in front of you. Notice how many of them are anything but old. Notice how even the old-timers have life, music, and skill. Music, by its very nature, is never “old,” because it is a timed, ephemeral art, and what you’re getting as you listen is all you’ll ever get–and if you’re not there, you’ll never hear it, because as soon as it happens, it’s gone.  Take it from Tom Service: “Don’t let the veneer of the opera house or the concert hall put you off. This music is speaking to us now: all you need is an open mind and open ears.”


One Response to Daily Bow: Who’s Afraid of…Contemporary Music?

  1. Oliver December 27, 2019 at 5:12 am #

    So youre interested in post-1945 New Music?

    What the hell is this: New Music???

    Is that crappy atonal I-dont-give-a-shit-about-my-audience music?
    Is it the youre-not-smart-enough-to-understand-or-appreciate-my-genius-creation music?
    Is it the Ill-break-with-all-tradition-and-explore-extremes-that-no-one-thought possible music?
    Or maby it is the I-cannot-compose-traditional-music-and-am-glad-I-can-just-bundle-together-some-atonal-notes-and-call-it-legitimate music?

    Or is it the leftist freedom-mistaken-for-arbitrary-whim, everything-goes, everything-is-allowed, there-are-no-rules music?

    Or is it the (almost right-wing like) I-assert-my-superiority-with-ultra-complex-sheetmusic-that-the-performer-will-struggle-to-realize music?

    Or is it the elimination-of-humanity-by-construction music?

    Or is it the elimination-of-humanity-and-the-absolute-as-well,-by-making-a-guessing-game-Aleatoric-out-of-it music?

    But is there some common definition that summarizes it all? Maby: “Music that is just crap”, so that New Music is the collective term form all the various facets of crappiness in music?

    Or is it the reflective mirror of a society that is obsessed with the “outside” of things, as opposed to the inner values and the inner self? i.e. a music that wants to go beyond the human.
    …Beyond the human… (***)
    *** Beware of New Music, that claims it’s interested in the inner values of the performer. You can pretty quickly see it’s a scam… by likening the score to rules for throwing rubbish into a bin. No matter how much feeling and pathos, you as a performer are giving in, alas… you’ll still just be throwing rubbish into a bin.

    And is this New Music “experiment” ended yet? No, to most people not at all. So they’re still busy deluding themselves.
    But for myself, I dare say: yes, and what a failure it is!

    I suppose people living in modern concrete jungles… — thousands of them sticking together, such that they start to dislike and distrust everyone else, trusting only the system… and the supposed freedoms it grants them… , trusting in technology, progression, and advancement … (while their souls continue to rot) — …

    need a fitting music.

    New Music fits the bill. Lovely.

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