Modern Music, as in the rap against

I keep hearing that people don't like modern music with lots of  reasons why. You get this from performers, composers and songwriters, conductors, the listening public, from educators and amateur musicians and highly trained classical performers. In response, let me quote from a famous military reply: Nuts.

Okay, I admit it. I'm a composer, I write in the modern style and I'm passionate about atonal music. At the same time I have a great deal of very strong criticisms for modern music. And there's a lot to be critical of. But I am critical simply because I believe so strongly in the value and expressive power ot the atonal style.

This will undoubtedly be a recurring topic of this blog. It's a complicated but vitally important discussion to have. It bears on everything from history to education to performance techniques to aesthetics to economics to contemporary culture in all its flavors, in short on everything. And every aspect of present musical culture, training, the profession and "industry" are each affected. And these effects should be examined at both the macro and micro levels, as they bear on musicians in general and as exhibited by specific musicians.

I make no claims that this will be an ordered series of topics. It will more likely be a series of shortish essays on specifics, some very casual in tone while others may be more formal and complex. And personal experiences will have a part as well.

So to begin.

Something to consider: What if we were to assemble a copy of every composition written during the Classical era, everything in manuscript and printed, every work by every composer - good and bad, trained and untrained, amateur and professional, "popular" and "classical", sacred and secular- and then were to at random chose one score? What are the chances we would choose a Beethoven, or Haydn or Mozart? What chance that we would be so lucky as to choose one of their greatest works?

More likely we would have chosen a work by an undistinguished composer, maybe some poorly written popular song or a piece that was awkward to perform. Those works were, as they are now, produced in vastly greater quantities than the masterworks of a style.

If we were to judge the style itself on the basis of this random choice, or even a group of random choices we might come to the conclusion that the classical style is awkward, amateurish, unskilled, unlistenable.

Luckily, history has removed many of those choices for us. We have retained only those works that continue to bring value. And of those, many versions exist ranging from first sketches to numerous revisions of the complete work. Those are removed for us as well. We have the final version of Don Giovanni and the 9th Symphony. Often a work was revised after each subsequent performance. Subsequent performances are not as available as they once were. Today, a work must be in its most perfect form on first hearing.

The random choice of an unknown score is exactly the situation facing us today. History has not made that choice for us. When we are faced with a new work we have no way of knowing whether it will be a masterwork or a monumental bore.

Even reading through the work may be no help. Every performer has had the experience of not liking or understanding a work at first, but coming to love the work as it reveals itself. The same is true for listeners. A friend once read to me from a book of concert reviews, all by well known critics, journalists and composers. The book compared reviews of the premiere of a work with a review done years later, same work and same critic. They were diametically opposed. Works praised on premiere were panned later. Works dismissed, often with great hostility on first hearing were praised as masterpieces later. (I'll try to get the name of the book and post it later.)

Admittedly, this opens a lot of topics for speculation. Leaving those unsaid, the point is that our first impressions can be misleading. And a great deal hinges on the performer. My first hearing of the Shostakovich preludes and fugues convinced me they were mere mechanical, textbook exercises, uninpiring and uninspired. I was urged to listen to them played by a different performer and now they were magnificent works. I've had the experience of receiving two reviews of the same work, one performed in the mid-West and one in Europe. The US review called the work cold and intellectual. The European found it an emotionally thrilling work.

It's not purely technical facility. It's also understanding. This is perhaps more vital to the performer than the listener. I believe that a well written work will express itself to the audience clearly and directly, providing of course that the performer understands the work well enough to play what's on the page. But if the performer doesn't understand the grammar and language of the work he can do a great deal of damage. As an example, imagine trying to teach yourself to read Russian and then perform a monologue from Dostoevsky. What are the chances your phrasing and pronunciation would be accurate, that you would parse out the cultural references and subtext, understand those special uses of language and unique thoughts contained in the work?

There are many more topics to consider. For now, I'll end on bias.

I teach a class in Western music for beginning students at a performing arts high school (more on this another time.) When I ask if they like or listen to classical music they moslty say no. I can see most of the students not knowing how to listen or avoiding getting involved in listening to the first works. But then you can see some starting to hear the music rather than tuning it out. And when I play them some of the classical works they hear either directly quoted in film or borrowed by film composers - Bartok, Ligeti, Penderecki, Stravinsky - the game changes.

Yes, there is a great deal of disappointing modern music out there, perhaps most of it. But the same is true of all fields. And it has been true in all eras. The great works being created now will not live on if we turn our back on the new. We keep music alive by finding these new works. But someone has to play them to find them. It might as well be you.