Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Appeal Of New Music

Following the announcement of a festival of music based on the best-selling book The Rest Is Noise by New Yorker Alex Ross, The Guardian's Alex Needham has written an article noting the apparently refreshed appeal of new music. It's an absorbing piece. Two things caught my attention.

Firstly there is the idea that audiences might want to go and hear difficult modernist music (I hesitate to use 'contemporary' as a post-war catch-all) as a challenge or even as a purge. 'Contemporary' vocalist Barbara Hannigan (watch her performing Ligeti) suggests that audiences may undertake to attend a concert as
It's almost violent – but you know you're going to come out of it feeling a sense of release... [the audience] come out with a feeling of being changed, of accomplishment
Quite apart from the idea of putting one's self on trial physically, this also tallies with the sense of the event. The article quotes Jurowski
I came out of Pli Selon Pli very deeply fired up and inspired by it, but it only gets played once or twice a decade in the UK. Even more so than film or visual arts, we have to have not only promoters but performers who are willing to pay the extra expense of rehearsing new pieces and of taking a risk and knowing how to conduct these very difficult works
The idea that a piece is sufficiently difficult and rare to demand only the best performers increases the sense that it demands a level of endurance. It also brings me to my second point.

In a world of post-modernity in which aesthetic parameters have been dissolved (see this recent article by Alain de Botton) audiences need a new framework in which to make decisions about the authenticity and worth of art. The paradigm has shifted, and rather radically. In the absence of a majority opinion or mainstream criteria there is the scarcity or uniqueness of an event: think of the difference in commercial worth of an original artwork or one of a set of its print editions. More than this - the digitisation of media and the convenience and quality with which this can now be delivered means that people are once again seeking out the event, not only as a unique phenomenon but also as something removed from the (media-saturated) usual.

Mounting pieces that challenge an audience not to walk out in disgust, self-respect, boredom or protest is one thing. A more difficult - a more constructive proposition requires mounting work that doesn't confront but has its own appeal. It requires good music that has an intrinsic appeal. The issue with so much contemporary music is that the issue of the music doesn't exist at all. Rather the issue that the performance instigates is outside the music.

Take this small list. I'm thinking of
  • disgust - an reaction to atonality in music written using rigorous systems. The self-discipline of the composer may be admired at the same time as (because) the music is aesthetically confrontational
  • self-respect and boredom - works like Cage's 4'33", which are valid, even useful philosophical statements but hardly intrinsically beautiful compositions, and may give the impression of condescention or playing with the audience
  • protest - where the subject matter is overwhelming the focus. The Death Of Klinghoffer at ENO will be scrutinised during the press lead-in not because of Adams' score but because of its still-current political ramifications (the Middle East). Coverage of the Greer/Wallen opera Yes at the Royal Opera's Linbury is another example, in which the press had next to nothing to say about Wallen's score but plenty to say about Greer and the political subject matter of which she was an inextricable part
I like the idea of a festival that suggests a royal line from the established canon of pre-modernity to the very present. It's good to curate a concert that shows the contiguous line of music composed for its own sake. I hope that there will be a chance for Ross to programme a performance of the Liebestod beside Radiohead's Idioteque, for example maybe via Paul Lanksy's electronics. Needham's article identifies a very real concert-going trend and offers some explanation and justification for it. What it doesn't do is explain why - in the words of the quoted Ea-Pekka Salonnen - if
People are interested in what's happening right now.
we aren't being presented with music that's happening right now but music that forms the post-war avant garde - music of reaction rather than pure invention. That's an unresolved problem with which the article ties itself up.


  1. Hello Cheyney, and thanks very much for a thoughtful response to my article. You're right that Esa-Pekka Salonen was, at some points, saying something slightly different to the rest of the people I interviewed (and unfortunately a bit beyond the remit of the piece I wrote).

    After the "right now" bit he said: "We have a new generation of composers who followed the arch modernists of the 50s and 60s and that's when we lost larger audiences, because music became a clubby thing. It was written for the initiated, select, intellectually adept people who were members of a secret society. That was a passing phase in the history of music. Composers today, without compromising the quality are communicating with the audience and managing to create something new and fresh."

    He also said: "I'm not saying masterpieces weren't created in the 50s, 60s and 70s but the feeling among normal music lovers of alienation to some degree, now you hear a piece by Ades or his generation and you think this music speaks to me completely, I get it and I enjoy it" - which I guess speaks to your first point.

    But he did say that music that was previously regarded as avant garde now isn't by modern audiences, hence (he thinks) its growing popularity.

  2. This is very interesting, thanks, an informative codicil. You're right, he does point at the rehabilitation of the 'avant-garde' - and of course this is not least as the contingent political baggage has faded and allows the music within to stand alone.

    Incidentally, there's a nice piece in this month's Areté magazine about Adès at 40 and the problems still facing modern music (as opposed to art and theatre).