July 28, 2015 — This seems to have sprung back to life in the past couple of days, so I’ve edited some of the more excruciatingly bad bits.
I came across this article today, by Alex Ross: “Why do we hate modern classical music?” In it, Ross describes the seemingly always-new problem of audiences’ reception to new music:
For decades, critics, historians and even neuroscientists have been pondering the question of why so-called modern music seems to perplex the average listener. After all, adventurous artists in other fields have met with a very different reception. The highest-priced painting in history is Jackson Pollock’s swirlingly abstract No 5, 1948, which sold in 2006 for $140m. Tycoons and emirs covet avant garde architects. James Joyce’s Ulysses inspires worldwide drinking parties every 16 June.
And he’s right. Classical musicians have been scratching our heads at this paradox ever since it became ultra-fashionable to adore abstract expressionism.
The article itself didn’t really do it for me, because it’s a song we’ve heard for a long time, just Alex Ross’s cover. What got me thinking was one of the comments:
…BTW the music of the 1950s Darmstadt generation isn’t “modern” any more. It’s of it’s [sic] time.
“Of its time.” The phrase has stuck with me all afternoon. Even another commenter used the same phrase…y’know, before lapsing into some racist argument about Chinese composers studying in Paris (Whattya want, folks? It’s a comment section. On the Internet.).
I really do think that “of its time” is the best description for the mid-century “modern” music in question. Now, as a composer, I feel that I’m supposed to be advocating for this specific music, and reminding people that it’s important, and that it has meaning, but since you won’t put in the effort, you won’t be able to grasp what that meaning is. Just like, I’m sure, racist commenter’s family has to keep reminding themselves that even though he might let something crazy slip out of his mouth around the Thanksgiving dinner table, we have to tell cousin Bob’s new girlfriend that racist commenter is really a nice guy, you just have to keep listening to him until you stop being offended by what he has to say!
When I was young, I really didn’t like mid-century music. Of course, what few composer colleagues I had assured me that the reason I didn’t like it was because I was some uncultured hick from New Hampshire. But then I went to college, studied it, and listened to a lot of this music, and gained an appreciation for it, but the truth is, I never really liked it, nor have I ever grown to like it. There are parts of it, techniques of it, orchestration ideas of the mid-century that I really like, but the actual musical products themselves simply don’t do it for me.
According to composers of the previous generation, the fact that I can not like this music is evidence of their victory in an ideological war with their forbears: “Back in my day,” they say, “we weren’t allowed to not like modernism. You had to love it, or the composer gestapo would come and take you away in the night!”
Not being wicked into this music still has repercussions today, despite the Great Postmodern Leveling of Taste. Like any “difficult” music, there are people out there who use it as a badge of honor, as if your appreciation of something that not a lot of people like proves that you have superior taste, or makes you smarter or better cultured than other people. I’ve always found this to be stupid. Treating modernist music like a club or an enclave reduces the meaning of music down to some meme, and its admirers to be some sad kids looking to be in on something, like drama club or marching band.
The other thing that gets me is that I find that a lot of “new music” specialists/performers really aren’t interested in new music, so much as they are interested in modernist music. Classical music has moved in 1,000,000,000,000 different directions since the middle of the Twentieth Century, yet some people won’t look at a piece unless it’s got the requisite alternate notation or number of alternate techniques. And there’s nothing wrong with this at all — people should play whatever makes them happy! I just wish that the performers that only want to play this kind of material would call a spade a spade. Just like early music specialists, let’s call those who want to devote themselves to this music twentieth-century music specialists. Save the new part for people who are really working on something new.
I’m not advocating some kind of backward slide into the Romantic or some Stuckist thing for classical music — this is the slippery slope argument I’ve encountered before when discussing this sort of thing with other composers. If anything, I’m advocating for that age-old musical trend of synthesis. We live in a moment of unparalleled access to every bit of music in history. I don’t see why we aren’t using all of it. All the musical signifiers of new music are now, by all accounts, well, old.
Addendum (The Point?)
What I’m trying to say with this blog post is that “New Music,” the great project/woe/care of us living composers, is not a set of traits, but the tradition of composers still writing music, despite all the conditions in the world that would keep us from doing it. Why are we splitting hairs, in this day and age, about style, when we all are so quick to say that style is open/doesn’t matter?