Modern Classical Music Conundrum

I just read a couple of articles/blogs that have me a bit non-plussed.  Last November, Alex Ross wrote a thoughtful article in the Guardian (UK) entitled “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?” It’s an excellent question and one that evoked a couple of responses indicating  a belief that classical music is more important as entertainment than art.

In his response, “Why Does Contemporary Classical Music Spurn Melody?” , Michael Fedo insists that modern composers need to return to the basic idea of melody to get audiences on their side.  If classical music were intended merely as entertainment, that is, if it is merely intended to evoke a positive response from the audience, then where does that leave the “art” of composition?  Truly, if positive audience response were the point, then where would that leave Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which resulted in a riot upon its premiere because of the wildly divergent opinions about it?

Let’s face it… it isn’t the absence of melody, it’s the absence of familiarity upon which to hang your ear.  If you listen attentively, even the atonalists make melodic statements.  True, they are not easy to decipher, because they are rendered in an unfamiliar way.  Most audience members ears are not conditioned to recognize these combinations of sounds, which, as Frank Zappa said, is really what music is.  It’s the “fault” of the audience only inasmuch as they have an unwillingness to allow the new to become familiar.

Music, especially classical music, is pure expression.  The combination of sound is the “work” of the composer, much like the combination of color is the “work” of the visual artist.  It is, of course, produced in anticipation of being shared.  However, art is not always produced in anticipation of acceptance.

The pentatonic scale is an almost universal musical language.  It is simple, straightforward and avoids dissonance. As the basis for many folk music traditions around the world, it also provides a sense of comfort, of memory, of connection.  However, is it the responsibility of a composer to only hew close to that basic model?   Does melody only have to reflect those positive attributes?  Can’t the idea of melody evolve and expand?  Isn’t that what art is about – expanding the boundaries of what is possible?

Yes, some modern classical music is difficult – both to hear and to play.  Consider George Crumb.  His string quartet “Black Angels” is a prime example of modern classical music that does not rely on melody as a primary structural characteristic.  But, it definitely evokes a response.  I don’t listen to it as often as I listen to Beethoven (which I have listened to since I was a child) and I do not experience the same sense of comfort I feel when I hear Chopin, but I encounter something new about it every time I hear it.  It’s unsettling in its combination of sounds, in its eerie replication of the buzz and whine of insects, but it now has an emotional connection for me because I took the time to listen to and try to understand the music.  And I would gladly attend a concert which lists it among works performed, if for nothing else but to see such a wildly unusual piece come together live.

Does the fact that I personally prefer Beethoven make George Crumb any less a gifted composer or master of sound? Not at all.  We all have preferences.  In fact, one of the most melodic composers of all time, Jules Massenet, generally makes me cringe whenever I listen to his works.   They’re too sugary, too sentimental, for my taste.  Still, his music packs concert halls.

Robert Blumen, in his post, “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?”, decides to paint the problem as a kind of class warfare between managerial elites and the audience.  He claims that advocates for modern classical music fall back upon a “blame the audience” sentiment. As an economist, he paints it as an economic issue… modern classical music has failed because there is no demand for what’s being composed.  He insists it has failed the market test.

Let’s be honest – audiences are not exactly the litmus upon which I care to test whether a piece of music deserves to be performed repeatedly.  Were that the case, we would be left with nothing but sentimentalism.  Music for the sake of memory.  Feel good music.   I rather want a vibrant, mind engaging experience and I think that includes a dose of music that might make you as an audience member uncomfortable.

Audience reactions are knee jerk reactions.  All too often, when a new composer or new piece is premiered, it is met with stern indignation before a note is played.  The audience itself creates a confrontational mindset that is easily reinforced when the piece does not adhere to familiar tonal models.  Understand that I am not talking about individual concert-goers, but rather the audience as mob mentality.  The audience wants and desires the familiar, and new pieces should be relegated to “special” programming so they can be duly avoided.  So, instead of engaging in a shared discovery, the audience devolves into a mass of disdain.

I find it interesting that the line of reasoning used by Fedo and Blumen has a direct corollary in the “older” generation viewing the “younger” generation’s popular music as nothing but noise.  Basically, “it’s not what I am used to, so I don’t like it.”  It’s a tragically myopic view that seems to be self-perpetuating in the classical music world.

Blumen points to the success of modern film composers as an indication of the direction modern composers need to follow.  There is a distinct problem with that – it again relies upon familiarity, of what has come before, in order to restrict the expansion of musical expression.  Film music helps paint a picture within a concrete context.  When you listen to that music in a concert situation, you as an audience member are still making a connection to the original context.  Film music does not exist as an independent entity outside the film, even if it is presented in a concert format.  The modern film music of composers such as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, and Micheal Kamen is excellent, but it is also easily understood.  There may be some interesting ideas and expressions in the music, but do they really expand the artistic boundaries of the repertoire?  I thoroughly enjoy a lot of film music (Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter films is simple and evocative, Hans Zimmer’s music for Inception was outstanding), but it’s easy to understand and doesn’t challenge me.  It’s comfort food – Mac and Cheese.

When I attend a concert, I want the same kind of experience I have when I dine in a fine restaurant.  There have to be points of reference, of familiarity, to draw me in.  But, what really grabs me, what makes the experience transcendent, is the surprise of discovery.  Of eating something that I was sure I would not like, but that I ultimately find to be deliciously good.

Honestly, if as an audience member you want easy and comfortable, then why bother?  Why not sit at home in front of a good sound system and revel in it?  If all you need is affirmation that your taste is shared by others, invite your friends over and listen together.  Why not, as an audience, start embracing the new – or at least leave your ears open to the possibilities of a shared experience?

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About bgm1969

This blog is updated by a guy who’s overweight, silly, Liberal, spiritual rather than religious, infatuated with beauty and grace, musically blessed, and always changing.

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