New Music Resolution

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

– Amanda

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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11 Responses to New Music Resolution

  1. Sneakeater says:

    No. 1 sounds like you’re making it too much work. Part of the fun of the “post-classical” scene that scares you so is that it’s actually fun.

    Actually, to me, the best thing about contemporary classical music of ALL stripes is that it communicates to us fairly directly, in that we instinctively understand the idiom. It’s not like 18th and 19th Century music, where the composers’ (and original audience’s) assumptions were so different from ours that we have to work to hear it as anything other than a pleasant milk-bath. So I don’t think you NEED to study up for contemporary classical. Even if it’s “difficult”, you get what they’re trying to do well enough.

    (The great thing about LPR, BTW, is that they program gnarly stuff like Xenakis and Kurtag and also “post-classical.” So I hope to see you there a lot.)

    • What me, have FUN? Why, never! Classical music isn’t supposed to be fun! 😉

      Thanks for the note, but actually, I wonder what you mean by ‘contemporary classical.’ If it’s the pop-influenced music I’ll hear tonight, I’m actually at a loss for ‘instinctively understanding’ it: since I don’t listen to pop music at all, I don’t know the idiom, and I really do have to work to get into it.

      As far as Romantic music being a milk-bath, I’m sure you’re painting with a broad brush. Good music – of any era – stands on its own merits. When I played Beethoven 5 to a 5th grade classroom (they had never heard more than the first four notes) two tough guys declared it ‘awesome.’

      I spend a lot of time at LPR – had enough with their overpriced salads….

      • Sneakeater says:

        I mean all forms of “contemporary classical” — from Elliott Carter on down. I definitely do NOT mean to limit that to the pop-oriented stuff. When you listen to, say, Charles Wuorinen, you don’t get hung on how “beautiful” and “noble” (or even “sublime”) it is — you concentrate on (and get) what he has to say.

        I wonder, when people now listen to Beethoven, if they hear anything remotely close to what the composer intended. Take the “Eroica”. Its contemporary listeners heard what the composer intended: a piece that starts with what were then considered unlistenable dissonances, goes on to a wrong note in the first movement, and then endures for a length then considered unbearably taxing. Now, everybody just sort of experiences this “noble” “beauty” (or “beautiful” “nobility”) that was the LAST thing on Beethoven’s mind. Even moreso with the Ninth.

        I’m not saying that we’re right and they’re wrong — that we now appreciate greatness that Beethoven’s contemporaries couldn’t. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that they, as his contemporaries, GOT what Beethoven was trying to convey. Whereas we just hear “awesome” beauty.

      • Sneakeater says:

        PS — People that order FOOD at LPR deserve what they get. That place is for DRINKING.

      • Sneakeater says:

        Probably would have been better to have namechecked Beat Furrer rather than Charles Wuorinen.

      • Sneakeater says:

        Amanda’s going to perform at LPR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Yes indeed! We couldn’t be more excited. Thanks for noticing, and stay tuned for more. Also, last night’s Philharmonic concert (Mahler and Prokofiev with van Zweden and Wang) reminds us that we still need to write a post on clapping and concert etiquette…there was a lot of inter-movement clapping that night.

      • Sneakeater says:

        That was quite the packed house last night.

        What a great show!

        Amanda was very convincing as an ingrate. I hope it was just acting.

      • Thanks Barry! I’m just seeing this now. Glad you liked it, hope to meet you at the next one. Amanda

  2. pamela says:

    This is something that can’t be said often enough, I think, so thank you for articulating it. One of the reasons I chafe at being in what feels like the boondocks is the lack of opportunities to hear new music. Going to organ recitals, for example — how often do we get to hear new music? Really, organists so often are stuck in the stuffiest of repertoire, and there’s no excuse for this. Sure, perform what you like — but what have you looked for that is new? This is OUR music, OUR time, we have an obligation to at least turn our attention to our peers, our contemporaries. What has surprised and pleased me is so often I love the new music I do hear. Please report on it, and tell me how I can hear it, not being able to get to a major metropolitan area.

  3. Susan says:

    As a novice composer, I have just one question about a detail in your posting: You mention a concern with complicated words set “right in the passaggio.” …but it my experience, there is no uniformity among singers, or even among voice types regarding where the passaggio falls. Unless a composer knows in advance the specific qualities of an individual singer’s voice, how does she or he avoid the passaggio? Can this be a criteria by which we judge a composer, or is it merely the case that some vocal writing doesn’t happen to sit well for certain singers…?

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