With the dawning of a new month (and because I didn’t get my act together to do this for the new year), I’d like to make a promise to myself that I will keep for a while and probably abandon: I’m going to listen to more new music.
This shouldn’t be a big deal. I’ve sung music by living composers and I’m eager to sing more. My new place of work is dedicated to new music, and I feel strongly that the classical canon must grow and expand.
Yet, how come I rarely make it to new music concerts?
In part, it’s because function follows form. I like Baroque music, and there’s not too much new Baroque music being written. I like opera, and new operas are much more infrequently performed than repertoire works. Still, if I really wanted to hang out in the world of new music, I could find ways to do it.
What’s been holding me back? Fear.
Not fear of dissonance, which has long been the stereotype of “modern” music. The more I listen to Schoenberg and Kurtag, the more I speak the language of tonal limits, and the more I want to hear. I can take dissonance. I fear music that does not take into account that atonality happened, music that turns its back on the canon in favor of modern popular influences, music that boasts that it is (shudder) accessible. (How on earth is this a compliment to anything? When a new restaurant opens or a chef is hailed for bold new cuisine, no one says “don’t worry, the flavors are still very accessible and not too spicy.”)
In today’s new music, there is no one dogmatic style that every composer worth his salt is trying to compete in. Unlike other periods in music history, when you were either a Beethoven or a contemporary of, today’s music has no set rules. People compose in the modernist tradition, in the Copland tradition, in the Reich tradition, or add violins to a rock band to brand the “post-classical” trend.
It’s this last one I fear. Post-classical to me sounds like you’re no longer interested in the classical canon. IMHO, the best art stands on the shoulders of giants – building off of tradition while making something startlingly new. Jackson Pollock is not so important just because no one splashed paint on the canvas before, but because he distilled the essence of form in a surprising new way. (Terrible analysis of Pollock, I know. I think about music, I just look at art!)
In other words, I have my doubts about new music that doesn’t dialogue at least a little with atonality.
Still, I have deep respect for any completed work of art. How many works have art have I created? Whatever this blog is, it sure ain’t art. When I’ve performed new works that clearly were not that composer’s greatest successes (singing high Cs through the French horn, no dynamics indicated for most of a piece, complicated words set right in the passaggio, etc.), I’ve still found it a moving experience – a glimpse into another ineffable human being.
So, I hereby resolve to listen to new music with an open ear, heart, and mind. A few ground rules:
- Before a concert, I will listen to the pieces more than once, or listen to the composers work to get a broader sense of their style.
- I will listen to canonical new music too. By this definition of new, I mean works written up to 100 years ago that still sound new to our ears. Conservatory education skims over the more recent works, as students struggle to figure out Schoenberg and focus their energies on the earlier classical canon that makes up most of a working classical musician’s life. As hearing Strauss deepened my understanding of Schoenberg which informed my listening to Babbitt, understanding tonal history should inform my understanding of new music too.
- I will report as objectively as I can. Some critics cheerlead, others disparage. I will try to judge the music on its own terms, neither loving nor hating it just because it is new or the composer has an interesting back story. Serious art calls forth serious emotions. If feel if I am open to being moved by this work, it should be able to do something for me.
- If I feel I don’t get it because I need to have a better understanding of a new idiom, I will say so. If I feel I do get it and there’s not much complexity to get, I’ll say that as well.
(I’m treading on thin ice with #3. I have attended plenty of repertoire concerts – and I mean plenty – that have left me cold. But the fault usually lies with me or the performers, not the composer. The first time I heard Mahler 9 (BSO, Levine) I just didn’t get it. But I could tell there was something to it, a language that I would need to study before I could speak. If the new canon has bones, and I am open to it, I should be able to tell that there is more there than I can receive in the moment.)
First assignment: covering the opening of the Ecstatic Music Festival for Bachtrack. Wish me luck.