Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Everybody Hates Modern Classical Music

If there was a golden age for classical music, it certainly wasn't any time during the past fifty years.

In many ways, classical music has lost its way in our current cultural landscape. We've seen the Columbus Symphony close down and the San Antonio Symphony declare bankruptcy (admittedly both have re-emerged, but with truncated seasons and musicians working for lower pay). Thanks to our current economic straits, it's highly plausible that in the next few years we will see a number of other symphony orchestras either close down or significantly reduce their size and scope.

The key to the long-term sustainability of any art form is the quality, dynamism and impact of its new works. Unfortunately, that's where classical music is struggling most of all. Quick, name three classical music composers who published something in the last ten years. Uh, okay, name two? One?

Symphony orchestras all around the world have been subsisting on the crowd favorites like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms because that's what audiences want to hear. But what happens when an orchestra tries to tackle truly modern works? For a particularly savage article on this very subject, read Joe Queenan's exceptionally well-written article in the Guardian. It hurts to read it, but you have to admit he has a point:

Last winter, I attended a performance of Luciano Berio's seminal 1968 composition Sinfonia. Two days later, the New York Times reported that the New York Philharmonic gave an "electrifying and sumptuously colourful" reading of this "all-embracing and ingenious" masterpiece. Maybe they did. But the day I heard it, I gazed down from the balcony at a sea of old men snoring, a bunch of irate, middle-aged women fanning themselves with their programmes, and scores of high-school students poised to garrote their teachers in reprisal for 35 minutes of non-stop torture.

I can only add, as a person who's been to his share of New York Philharmonic concerts, it is disturbing to see a fair percentage of grown adults sleeping during performances that they paid to attend.

But don't let Queenan's harsh condescension stop you from hearing his fundamental thesis, which has significant merit:

The debate about what is wrong with the world of classical music has been going on for at least a half a century. (Meanwhile, jazz, lacking the immense state funding to which classical music has access, is literally dying.) Specious arguments dominate the conversation. Why has the public accepted abstract art but not abstract music? (Discordant visual art does not cause visceral pain, discordant music does.) Why does the public accept atonal music in films, but not in the concert hall? (Jaws wouldn't work if the shark's attacks were synchronised with Carmen. We expect sound effects in the movies, but we're not going to pay to hear them in the concert hall.)

When your audience reaction ranges from polite applause to visceral pain, you have a problem.

Readers, what do you think is the solution? Should our orchestras just stick to the traditional concert repertory and give the people what they want? Should our orchestras really subject their audiences to pain?

Related Links:
Wall Street Journal arts critic Terry Teachout's rebuttal of Queenan's article
Joe Queenan's letter to the WSJ in response (whatever his views, you have to admit this guy can really turn a phrase. Anyone who writes "No one defending modernism would ever use Vaughan Williams as an example. It's like using Jane Austen to defend pornography" deserves to be read, if only for the sheer fun of it).


peskypesky said...

So nobody likes more recent composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman, Arvo Part, John Adams and Henryk Gorecki?

I will say that I do understand why a lot of people are turned off to a lot of the discordant music of the 20th Century. I myself am a lover of melody and texture and have never been able to listen happily to very much music that followed in the discordant footsteps of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. I can't listen to much Berio or Ligeti or composers like that. The music is just "ugly" to my ears.

I think the minimalists were crucial in saving at least a little audience for classical music. What I love about them is that they are extremely modern, yet they are not ashamed of melody and beauty.

To me, classical music took a perhaps necessary, but unfortunate turn to ugliness in the 20th Century. And yes, I realize that this movement towards dischord was paralleled in literature (Joyce, Faulkner) and visual art (Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock) and even film (Godard).

I just think that when composers try to make "ugly" music, they will have just as much success as cooks who try to make awful-tasting food.

I am all for pushing the envelope and for being avant-garde...but I think "ugly" and "discordant" is not the way to go.

Nathan Clark Double Bassist said...

I don't think classical symphonies ever made that much money in the first place. They were funded by royalty and the extremely wealthy. Mozart was more known as an improviser rather than a composer. Even in the early Twentieth Century recording had not developed to where it is today and seeing such music was a huge privilege. Classical music was never meant to be the peoples music from the get go.
There has always been undocumented folk music dancing around classical music, take for example the work of Bartok and Kodaly. Stravinsky's Right of Spring believe it or not has many folk melodies throughout it, possibly one of the reasons for its fame and success. Nowadays when music is commonly believed to be a capitalist venture, musicians who desire to put across their true feelings often get shunned by the masses because a real emotion isn't always that nice to listen to or easy for a large group of people to accept. The experiments in tonality in the 20th century were not made so you can put it on at a party and show your friends. They are written to challenge beliefs and prejudices about what music should be, especially John Cage and Fluxus (who Yoko Ono was involved with). Some people happen to like making things that are great whether or not anyone likes it. Schoenberg was completely happy having only one fan.
As a response to bad tasting food, have you ever heard of an acquired taste? You can sit around and eat pizza and drink coca cola all day but you may not feel so well after a while or eat nasty tasting vegetables and feel great. Many symphonies, chamber music, and solos are not meant to be enjoyed on the first listen. One must have a relationship with the music and really get to know it to enjoy it. This can take years or decades, which explains why so many older folks are in the music halls.
Our society seems to enjoy a simple catchy tune and unfortunately a lot of 20th century music does not have that, though it is starting to come back. Classical music, jazz, and really any art or idea that is elusive and complicated are musics that are trying to dig deep and catch emotions that are hard to describe or understand. Classical music will live on, it is not a fad or trend though it may change.