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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