Contemporary music

“I want to know more about contemporary music,” a reader has written to the Washington Post music writer Anne Midgette. So Midgette sets out to introduce it, covering minimalism, neo-romanticism, and “alt-classical.”

I hate to nit-pick. Well, if I’m to be strictly truthful, I love to nit-pick, so I don’t feel too bad about complaining that I was irritated at the near-begging tone of the article. I understand why enthusiasts of contemporary music (and I consider myself one) sometimes feel the need to coax and cajole listeners into giving new music a chance. I remember attending a Vinca Quartet concert of one of George Rochberg’s quartets where the woman sitting next to me audibly groaned with disgust every time an atonal cluster or an extended technique came up, oblivious to the killing look I was giving her. Otherwise effusive concert-goers have often flatly told me after concerts that they loved that Beethoven and Schumann, but that I should leave a composer as un-contemporary as Bartók off the programme next time. What hope can there be for the living composer if the works of a man who died 66 years ago seem unpalatably difficult to listen to?

Perhaps Midgette thinks we’ll cajole the tentatively open-minded but unlettered concert-goer into liking music from living composers more if we start with the stuff that’s easiest to listen to. This appears to account for her choices: minimalism (hardly a contemporary movement, but let’s not nit-pick too much), and a selection of the living composers whose stuff is undeniably compelling music but seems to have been picked because it’s easy to listen to.

Is that what we have to do? Only play stuff that doesn’t offend anyone too much? It’s not that I substantially disagreed with Midgette’s list of must-listens, but my quibble is that so much of it was music that isn’t strictly contemporary. I know the grand old men of American composition, George Crumb and Elliott Carter, are still alive, but isn’t Black Angels a bit dated these days? You quite often see concert posters advertising it with slogans like “An anti-war masterpiece, never more relevant than it is today!”, but to me it reeks of the 1960s. I still love it, but it just isn’t contemporary.

And while I’m on this daring outburst of sniping, do we really still have to talk about serialism in hushed tones as if it’s some kind of bugbear or bogeyman, that curmudgeonly tactic dreamed up a hundred years ago by no-fun guys like Arnold Schoenberg to alienate audiences and spoil their fun?

My feeling on the whole vexed question of getting audiences to listen to contemporary music isn’t a revolutionary one. People generally need more than one hearing of a work to start liking it, and this isn’t exclusive to contemporary works. Since they’ll usually only hear a piece once, it’s our job as performers to play it faithfully and competently, and perhaps to introduce it with a short speech before playing it. I don’t programme a whole concert of contemporary music, because then the people I most want to convert to it probably won’t even show up. You just have to bury it before the intermission in the first half, right after your snappy opener. This sounds tired and cynical, but it’s true. You put the piece everyone wants to hear (usually a romantic plum of a piece like the Rachmaninov sonata) after the intermission, and then they won’t go home before the end even if you’ve pulled a sneaky trick and inserted something modern beforehand. There’s nothing new about this, and it probably depresses composers to no end, but I find it a more or less satisfactory compromise to make with the audience, who, after all, are our best friends.

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Authenticity [sic]

I was rather surprised to read Nigel Kennedy’s outspoken criticism of his contemporaries following his recent and well-received Proms performance of solo Bach.

In a broadside at fellow musicians, he said that some were sidelining Bach into “a rarefied and effete ghetto” while others were turning “philosophical masterpieces” into “shallow showpieces”. He despaired at musicians who have “learned the same technical way [and who] all play the same technical way”.

Sweeping statements like this always perplex me. When I was an undergraduate and given, like most undergraduates, to long and bitter debates about social issues, I once found myself arguing with a classmate who claimed “feminists” were ruining society and men’s lives. When he paused for breath, I asked “Which feminists have done this?” He couldn’t name even one, which made him even crosser. And now that I live in small-town Idaho and quite frequently hear people claiming that they live their lives by the Ten Commandments, I always have to suppress that part of me that wants to demand in a loud, ringing voice, “Name them!” By the same token, I suppose I really want to know which celebrated violinists Nigel Kennedy thinks are ruining Bach, because I hadn’t noticed any of today’s top performers playing it in “the same technical way.” Who are these musical monsters?

In the next paragraph, Kennedy lambastes the historically informed performance practice movement:

He is particularly irritated by the soullessness of contemporary Bach interpretations, which he says lack passion, fire and dynamism. He also excoriates “so-called authentic” interpretations that use period instruments to re-create sounds that he claims early composers would think “unbelievably blinkered”. According to Kennedy, “specialists are pushing Bach into … a ghetto, which leaves many people feeling that Bach’s music is merely mathematical and technical. I see it as my job to try to keep Bach in the mainstream and present his music with, rather than without, its emotional core.”

In the programme notes he wrote: “Even the description of oneself as being ‘authentic’ is unbelievably arrogant – and, in the case of so-called ‘period’ performance, misguided. How can music … be authentic if it is stripped of passion and made into an exercise of painfully self-conscious technique?”

This puzzled me even more, since the term “authenticity” hasn’t been commonly in use by HIPPies since the 1980s. These days it’s mostly a philosophical term that doesn’t have anything to do with the early music movement. HIPP is, I suppose, a convenient whipping boy for people who baulk at using period instruments or subscribing to Early Music, but I do take issue with Kennedy’s assumption that it’s stripped of passion. Has he actually listened to any violinists playing on period instruments recently?

I wonder, for example, at anyone who could call Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger’s lively, vigorous interpretation of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043 passionless.

A few years ago, my quartet colleagues and I plucked up the courage to ask Mr. Manze to coach us on Beethoven’s Quartet op. 95 after a concert he gave in Boulder, where we were then based. He generously worked with us from 10 until midnight, despite having conducted a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (which he’d preceded with an infectiously impassioned 45-minute pre-concert talk). And he was still overflowing with energy and enthusiasm, although he must have been exhausted. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was one of the most exciting coachings I’ve ever had. No previous teacher had ever encouraged me to explore such radically colourful, ultra-expressive ways of producing sound on stringed instruments.

In spite of outbursts like Kennedy’s, I don’t think there really is some kind of bitter rift between HIPP and non-HIPP players. To me, the historical research that went into a performance is less important than whether the performance convinces and moves me, but to claim that academic curiosity into the circumstances of a work’s composition and the composer’s expectations is “mathematical” is to impoverish one’s own possibilities as an interpreter. I don’t disagree in the slightest with Kennedy’s veneration of Yehudi Menuhin, and I love Menuhin’s performance of the same Bach concerto alongside David Oistrakh just as much as the Manze-Podger version, just in a different way.

I’d argue that both performances are equally passionate–and equally convincing. It doesn’t matter to me that one set of performers are historically informed performance practitioners and the other set aren’t. Surely there’s room for both ways–and many other ways besides. Including Kennedy’s.

Crossing over

Orlando Gough from the Guardian wonders if opera singers can sing pop songs, and if pop singers can sing opera. A few years ago, I might have said yes to the first question and no to the second. After all, opera singers have to train their voices and ears for years to be able to do what they do, whereas some pop singers are entirely self-taught, not having had a formal music lesson in their lives.

Then again, who hasn’t had the slightly cringe-inducing experience of hearing a famous opera singer “slumming it” with a pop encore? The stereotypically highly vibrated, highly projecting “opera voice” isn’t going to work for that any more than Sting’s well-intentioned but unlistenable renditions of Dowland lute songs worked. (I feel slightly sorry for the wonderful lutenist, Edin Karamazov, whose name barely featured in the publicity when the recording came out a few years ago.)

Like many classically trained musicians, I used to be slightly sniffy about popular musicians, because they hadn’t had to go to university or suffer through years of apprenticeship to practise their art professionally. I even thought jazz was a lesser art form than classical music. But when I had my first experiences of playing jazz and pop music, I revised these opinions in a big hurry. Things that looked and sounded so easy when other people did them were actually terrifyingly difficult. As my husband so flatteringly put it after hearing me perform in William Walton’s jazzy Façade, “Honey, you swing like a white person.” Just because we’re the ones who get the label “serious music” doesn’t mean popular and jazz musicians take their music one bit less seriously than we do, even if jazzers jokingly call classical music gigs “legit.” It’s terribly hard to be good at popular musics, and I don’t think enough people realize this, from people like me to the first-round candidates on American Idol who are certain they’re the next Beyoncé.

I think it’s a rare musician who can convince in more than one wide genre of music-making. One example of a singer who does it superbly is my old schoolfriend from Wellington, the stunning lyric soprano Aivale Cole, who’s equally at home in opera, art song, cabaret, pop and Polynesian music, but she’s a big exception. Most of us are irremediably outside our comfort zone in genres other than the one we play or sing for a living. Perhaps the best we can do is respect and appreciate our colleagues in different forms of music-making, and learn as much as we can from their artistry.

Non-traditional venues

Classical musicians have been seeking new venues and new audiences for a long time now, so it’s no surprise to see the phenomenon of casually-dressed musicians playing in nightclubs, cafes and bars featured in the New York Times.

I’m no exception to this. I’ve played in a lot of smaller alternative venues, partly because, as the article points out, the booking arrangements are easily made and the overheads are low. It’s also nice to play for people who might feel uneasy going to a large concert hall where semi-formal dress and behaviour are expected, and may even encourage them to give the concert hall a chance if they like what they hear in the cafe. (I’ve heard a new concert-goer compare the first-time classical concert-going experience to being up in front of a judge at traffic court: you have only the haziest notion of what’s going on, but you know that you’re in big, big trouble.)

It’s also pleasant for the performers: it’s easier to talk to and interact with the audience in a smaller space where our voices can be heard. What’s more, the polite clink of china and forks at a coffee house seems to take away some of your perfectionistic anxiety that things might go horribly wrong. Some find the distraction of espresso machines and other background noises irritating, but it’s not that different from the performance experiences from Mozart’s day, when aristocrats habitually wandered in and out with food and drinks while the musicians played. Provided you go into it with the right expectations, it can be quite agreeable. We can wear jeans, you can wear jeans, everyone’s happy.

But are we? When you’re a young musician, you’re not only desperate to please, you’re desperate to be heard. You’re willing to play for very little money or none at all. I’ve given many free concerts, and I encourage my students to do the same, since I firmly believe you don’t know a piece intimately until you’ve performed it upwards of seven times. Any opportunity to experience the elevated adrenaline and concentration of the performance atmosphere is good for us. But there comes a point when we can’t do things for peanuts any more. Nowhere is this more obvious than in this paragraph from the article:

Classical Revolution also gives struggling musicians looking to build their careers some vital opportunities to perform, network and even make a little money. According to Mr. Premawardhana, musicians generally split audience donations, which amount to anything from $200 for the average Revolution Cafe session to $750 for playing at the Legion of Honor.

$200, even for one person, is peanuts for a concert, formal or informal, when you consider the amount of time spent performing and preparing for the performance, let alone the player’s level of education and the cost of living. Split between several players, it’ll barely buy a post-concert beer and the taxi fare home. $750 is better, but still doesn’t amount to more than pocket money once you’ve divided it. It might be possible to live on this kind of money plus other freelance earnings from orchestral subbing and private teaching when you’re in your early twenties, but for a thirty- or forty-something with children and a mortgage, there’ll be nothing left over whatsoever once they’ve paid the babysitter, let alone the wherewithal to buy sports equipment and orthodontic braces.

And that’s the perennial problem with being a freelance musician, isn’t it?

Playing in clubs and cafes is, of course, important. We should keep doing it. But I’m uneasy at the idea that it could ever be considered a replacement for the concert hall, where, after all, more people can fit and more dollars can be earned. We’re all singing for our supper, but we have to think about tomorrow night’s supper too.

Extraneous noises

James R. Oestreich of the New York Times has a thought-provoking article about distracting noises from medical equipment during concerts. While sitting in the audience as the reviewer for a Mostly Mozart Festival concert, Mr. Oestreich’s concentration was ruined by the steady ticking sound from an oxygen cart attached to a man behind him, and he found himself unable to write his review as planned.

I’m sympathetic to the complaints of those who don’t like extraneous noises during classical concerts. When I’m in the audience, I have the attention span of a four-year-old, and I find it hard to concentrate on listening to a performance when someone’s making noises nearby. I also have a four-year-old’s self-righteous sense of justice, so I’m not at all shy about turning around and giving killing looks and, sometimes, little sermons on behaviour to talkers, eaters, fidgeters, texters, inappropriate coughers, and, worst of all, the v-e-r-y s-l-o-w unwrappers of cellophane-wrapped cough lozenges. Before anyone thinks I’m the unkindest person in the world for not understanding how horrid it is to have one of those ticklish coughs creep up on you unawares at a time when you least want it to, let me assure you that I have, on many occasions, caused myself to double up in agony, eyes and nose streaming, holding my breath for up to a minute and a half to avoid coughing while sitting in the audience at a concert. And I unwrap all my cough lozenges before the concert starts.

When I’m performing, I’m not impervious to noises either, though I hear fewer of them on account of all the noise I’m making myself. I forgive misplaced applause far more easily than misplaced coughing, since I’m delighted that people who don’t know the secret language of applause etiquette have plucked up the courage to come at all. Newbies at classical concerts are our friends, and we forget that at our peril.  I’ll even forgive the odd crying baby, because if the mother or father has wanted to hear me enough to struggle to a concert carrying a volatile infant and bulky baby equipment, I’m touched and grateful. I’m afraid the people I can’t forgive are the ones who cough and hack constantly without any attempt at suppression, or who only hold coughs in until the split second a heavenly slow movement has ended, spoiling the atmosphere. Or those who plonk themselves down in the front row with a bag of potato chips, crunching and rattling away with no regard to the concentration of the performers or the disrupted enjoyment of the other listeners, while I sit on the podium wondering in anguish if the microphones are going to pick up the noise.

In short, then, appreciation-expressing and non-inconsiderate noise-makers are fine by me, blatantly rude ones aren’t. Noisy medical devices, however, I put in a category of their own. Yes, oxygen carts and malfunctioning hearing aids can be loud, but the people who need them would surely much rather not need them, and it isn’t their fault that they do. Music is a great consolation to many people with illnesses, and I’d rather have them come and experience a little pleasure than stay home or in hospital, even if that means we’ll have a few clicks and whines in the background. Furthermore, most of the people who use these devices are elderly, and we mustn’t forget that the over-65s are, in spite of ubiquitous efforts to attract the young to concert halls, the people most likely to purchase our tickets and to get out their chequebooks when we’re fundraising. Who are we to throw them out of concerts they’ve gone to all their lives because they’ve lost their health or their hearing? I am unable to deny that I’d prefer all concerts to take place in the kind of hallowed silence that would afford Mr. Oestreich the equilibrium to write his reviews more easily, but surely much of the musician’s purpose is to give pleasure to lovers of music, whoever they are and whatever shape they’re in.