Why I not-so-much-hate-so-much-as-don’t-like “modern” classical music

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.).


You can tell he’s talking about classical music because of the monocle!

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!”

Pictured: Composer Gestapo
Pictured: Composer Gestapo

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.

Yeah, I did a lot of marching band…Me in drum corps, age 13. Come at me, bandos!

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?

  18 comments for “Why I not-so-much-hate-so-much-as-don’t-like “modern” classical music

  1. JJ
    05/24/2014 at 8:14 am

    This is a great article, but could you PLEASE use commas when you write out one trillion in decimal notation? (e.i. 1,000,000,000,000 vs 1000000000000) It’s easier to read, and isn’t that what composers of all people should be worried about?

  2. 05/24/2014 at 8:25 am

    Haha! Sorry, JJ. When I’m writing numbers like that, I’m not even counting zeros. I’m just using them for hyperbole’s sake. I’ll definitely think about it more the next time, though.

  3. 05/24/2014 at 4:18 pm

    Thoughtful and astute, especially on the early music/C20th specialists front. One tiny quibble:

    «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.»
    To be fair, the Ross Guardian article dates from 2010, and I suspect was adapted from an earlier piece, possibly for the New Yorker. So of course it sounds like a song you’ve been hearing for years, because it is in fact an older piece. And far from being a “cover”, Ross was one of the earlier voices with any exposure/audience to address the topic with candour.

  4. 05/24/2014 at 4:32 pm

    I hadn’t caught that at the time; thanks for pointing it out! That’s the ol’ Facebook News Feed for ya! The sameness of this song was less a reference to Ross’s article in particular, and more toward the hundreds (maybe thousands!) of articles dealing with the topic, including those referenced by Ross himself. It’s a pretty common subject, and even though this particular article isn’t hot off the press, the “NOBODY LIKES NEW MUSIC” genre of blog post make the rounds fairly often, usually trading off with the always-reliable “ORCHESTRAS ARE DOOMED” blog posts.

  5. Dashon Burton
    05/24/2014 at 8:38 pm

    The classical music troll is hilarious and so very familiar. Great article!

  6. 05/24/2014 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks! …I should get a monocle!

  7. 05/25/2014 at 12:17 am

    I studied composition myself at Eastman. I came in with a voice and left writing nothing but alienating SqueakFarhtMusik. No voice of my own, just a hollow shell of some teacher’s deep desire to keep the 12-tone mystery alive and kicking in his students.

  8. 05/25/2014 at 12:19 am

    Loved this article. At age 50 I am coming back to a basic concept – melody. Gasp! Maybe this is the next New Wave?

  9. joe22
    05/25/2014 at 8:09 am

    What is the point of this article? “I appreciate modernist music but don’t actually like it” is an even older song to sing than what was said in Ross’ article. Nobody in today’s new music community is pressuring you to like mid-century music, and in fact I’d say that most of the pressure lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. At the university I attended, the head of the department would’ve wanted you to dismiss the likes of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Babbitt as “those weird un-musical bleep bloop garbage composers” in favor of a postmodern/minimalist/pop-music-influenced aesthetic.

  10. marius nordal
    05/25/2014 at 8:17 am

    It was all over when Schoenberg digitized the process a century ago. A million campus people with nothing musical to say loved “The Process” where the actual resulting sounds were not seen as important. Unfortunately, being locked into sterile campuses blinded them to the fact that expressionism was from the 1920s and they were still dealing with just the academic residue which was mostly pure pitches ( the archaic European tradition)…in the meantime the entire world of early jazz and rock and John Cage and K. Penderecki et al, moved on to timbres, bending notes, rhythmic complexity, sheets of sound, improv etc. Bitterness and conformity set in as the music was confined pretty much to undergrad comp recitals with a few people in attendance. The applause is usually obligatory and polite…even comp majors have pop and other “real” music in their Ear Buds. It’s embarrassing to have comp. professors walking around in denim shirts and boots going “Hey, this will blow your mind man!” That old music is indeed of its time….er, except it wasn’t! Nobody ever heard it then either. It’s just hobby music. Great art comes from the soil…some of it ends up in the hands of artists and people connect with that…Bach, Beethoven, Copland, Chopin, Wagner, miles Davis. “New Music” is as artificial as a Hostess Twinkie.

  11. Colin
    05/25/2014 at 9:36 am

    I neither hate nor dislike modern classical music. I don’t love all of it, of course, but I always looked forward to hearing new pieces when I was studying composition. I didn’t like writing in the modernist style, however, and that cost me the chance to graduate with a composition degree (good thing I was double majoring in performance). I did some alternate notation and extended techniques, but in the end most of them weren’t my style. So when sophomore review came around, I was given a B- for that semester’s composition lessons (after three semesters of A’s) and told I wasn’t welcome anymore. They even cited my style as the reason. I figured 2004 was long enough to wait for an attempt at synthesis (no one listening to what I wrote would have thought it was anything other than contemporary), but clearly I was wrong.

  12. 05/25/2014 at 10:17 am

    That’s an interesting perspective, Joe. I have also felt pressure to be more rock/pop inspired, not directly from my profs, but from how well the music does on critics’ blogs. It feels like a very cool club to be in. Still, the rock/pop thing doesn’t seem to be so ingrained into academia as the mid-century modernist stuff (but who knows what’ll happen in the future? One might supplant the other!).

  13. 05/26/2014 at 11:18 pm

    My few compositions are tonal but new. Synthesis is possible. It is not necessary to bring rock/jazz elements in to make a new piece of classical music. The thing missing from most of it is FORM. Remember, most of the great composers never studied composition (c.f Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninoff). They studied music theory and then they composed. When are composers going to start really composing again, that is, developing organically sophisticated architectonic structures that have all the integrity of a Haydn sonata movement but the language of Rachmaninoff and beyond? There is a huge world out there waiting to be explored and fulfilled. Choral music has offered some great, truly new music – it’s easier there because the words provide the structure… See Colin Mawby for instance…

  14. 05/28/2014 at 10:30 pm

    I reckon a lot of composers (and musicians of every stripe) ARE attempting to “use it all”, limited of course by time and energy. I mean many people seem to be taking techniques, creative processes, collaborative means, meanings and more from all over the place, from gnawa to Trip to bluegrass to bhajan to tarantella to gangsta to 8bit to Nollywood to rembetika to divertimento to tone poem to virelai and more.

  15. 05/29/2014 at 1:19 am

    I’m a composition student myself but perhaps I come from a bit of a ‘spoilt’ musical background in that my head of department is extremely open to pretty much anything and compositional recitals from the university range from lo-fi noise to orchestral film scores to hip hop to contemporary electro-acoustic music.

    I agree that anything called ‘new music’ should be new, I agree that there is no real badge of honour to be worn alongside a taste for the modernist aesthetic, but I also feel the same as an above commenter in that I don’t really understand the point in this article…that we are still talking about whether minimalism or post-minimalism has been ‘played out’ (of course it is…), that we are still advocating that new music composers utilise synthesis in their compositional approach (they are, and theres hundreds of them), and that people are still claiming that over a century of music dealing with dissonance is exclusively lifeless and filled with bitterness makes me feel that everybody seems to be looking in the wrong place. Contemporary classical music, electro-acoustic music and improvised music has, for many years now, been dealing with relevant material in increasingly innovative and unique ways. There is a respect for the past but no clinging to it, and it seems more and more through the increasing listening experience I have with this music that the ‘is there anything left to do in music?’ question deserves an answer of ‘yes’ so resounding that it feels like the question is hardly worth asking at all. Australia in particular is producing some of the most interesting music I have ever heard and it seems every day a new and enormously individual work appears.

    I have theorised that perhaps one reason the music of Berg still causes people to leave the concert hall is perhaps that this music is presented with fear. We’ve backed away from it for years and in a concert program now the tentative addition of one of these works seems like an uneasy, worrisome dipping of the toes into some music that might be considered unwelcoming. Meanwhile, through art galleries and smaller events and venues, improvisers and vibrant small ensembles tour relentlessly, fearlessly procuring incredible and unique concerts to small but consistently enthusiastic audiences. These events don’t have to lean back on the ‘concert hall’ or conservatorium tradition (be that an admiration for Bach and Beethoven, or Boulez and Babbitt), they do not have to take care not to put too much pressure on it so as to break it. They are interesting, exciting, relevant and cool, and any young person interested in art would be thrilled by one if they only knew it was happening. I have taken many a young person along to one of these concerts and almost invariably they don’t dare to miss the next one.

    I feel it’s through realising that classical music is not a fearful old withering giant and that it has branches that are truly the music of our time that we can introduce a whole new audience of people to a myriad of different art forms old and new. This is why this article doesn’t really speak to me – it doesn’t seem to acknowledge that in this age we do have an enormous range of artists exploring everything, transmitting a unique musical voice inflected by an acknowledgement of the past but a fierce commitment to the present and the future. When it is seen that Schoenberg, Cage, etc. were not failures and that they did spearhead something that continues to carry cultural significance to this day, then perhaps they might feel as though it is worth appreciating. As to the argument that it can be appreciated but still not liked, so can the music of any era, and it is about finding what appeals to you (I know that I’d rather listen to Pergolesi’s operas than Mozarts). But perhaps we’ve lost so many opportunities to do that as we are still trying to show 1910 to people 104 years beyond it.

    This is a little bit unfocused but I just thought I would share some thoughts and would be interested in receiving a comment in return. I will reiterate that I don’t think this article is pointless as it has engendered discussion! But I do think we ought to be discussing something else.

  16. Tiffany M. Skidmore
    06/06/2014 at 6:20 am

    Studying (and performing/listening to/advocating for) modernist music does not hold music back.

    It’s also really disheartening that some are so dismissive of and even sometimes hostile toward giant swaths of music. They pass judgment based on knee-jerk reactions instead of critical assessment. This music takes time. Not everyone will like it and that’s okay. I don’t like grown-up beer. Maybe I will someday. Maybe I won’t. There is an audience for every “style” of music and within each period, there are composers and specific pieces that some people enjoy and others that some people don’t. Regardless, I think it’s completely irresponsible to completely ignore modernist music, which is currently happening in some schools of music. I remember being told by a composition instructor once that “no one likes to listen to Modernist music at all, because it’s completely irrelevant.” The most frustrating thing about hearing that is that I like to listen to this music. It’s not irrelevant to me and I know I’m not the only person on the planet for whom that’s true. There are people graduating with advanced degrees in music who have little or, in extreme cases, no understanding of this music or the way it works because of this attitude. Regardless of whether these instructors and students feel aesthetically drawn to Modernist music, I see that as a major problem.

  17. Ryan
    06/07/2014 at 4:57 am

    I must disagree with the commenter above. Most music schools nowadays ONLY focus on modernist music and nothing else, at least in the composition departments. All the instrumental performance departments, however, tend to focus on compositions written before 1940.

    I completely sympathize with the writer’s point about extended techniques. I was lucky enough to only minor (not major) in composition at my university, where “modern music” was the expected norm from the composition department. I took many classes along side of composition majors and was so glad I wasn’t being graded like them. I too tried the modern music style and it wasn’t for me, which made me feel very alienated from my peers. My senior orchestration project, I was required to use at least 4 extended techniques for orchestra. Just because. I wanted to study Strauss, Ravel, some of the great orchestrators of the past to see why their techniques worked, yet all we studied was music written after 1965. I’m not saying I didn’t learn a lot from it, but I wondered why we completely ignored the techniques of the past. It seemed like my only outlet was film scoring, and my composition teacher indulged me but only to study Goldsmith’s avant-garde score for Planet of the Apes. So I ended up going to USC for grad school to study film scoring, and fell in love. And yet that sort of writing is looked down upon by many in the “academic” composition field. Boggles my mind.

  18. Arthur Maisel
    06/28/2014 at 4:34 am

    One problem with this perennial discussion is the use of the term “modern,” which now takes in more than a century’s worth of music.

    Another problem is that people tend to forget Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crud”).

    Also, whenever this discussion takes place, it is rare that the economic aspects are considered, such as, does the existence of a huge industry devoted to marketing popular music have some impact on “modern classical music”? If so, then a comparison with modern painting may not be so apt (no such competition in that realm). A better comparison might be, say, with the way television has displaced reading, for example.

    Finally, there’s this question (which might be explained under the rubric of the previous point or not): Is there something specifically about music that makes us expect to be able to appreciate it without preparation (as opposed to, say, a glass of wine)?

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