New music isn’t killing institutions

Following the closure of New York City Opera, the ongoing mess that is the Minnesota Orchestra stalemate, and more, I’m noticing a certain amount of soul-searching in the US for underlying faults. It’s the common ‘classical music is dead/dying – who do we blame?’ trope. And as usual, contemporary repertory stands in the dock. What feels slightly new is the voice of the players involved themselves. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians appears to be leading the attack. Rob Deemer has already broken down a questionnaire sent to union members about what they ‘really feel about 21st century repertoire’, and Local 802’s president, Tino Gagliardi, has told the New York Times that NYCO’s demise is in part due to its abandonment of ‘accessible repertoire’.

But this time some are rallying to new music’s defence. Noting a recent WQXR blogpost in which some players suggest the financial troubles of the Brooklyn Philharmonic may be due to its innovative programming, Marc D. Ostrow asks the following:

[W]hy is it that musicians (particularly union musicians) are so quick to gripe about playing new music and blame contemporary works for an institution’s sour financial situation?

And here’s Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box:

Most of the premiere performances of new works I attended of NYCO productions over the years, including the ones of the most recent seasons (such as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which I attended on September 25), were packed to capacity. If anything, NYCO would have better served American audiences by being even more committed to contemporary American operas. The same is true for every other opera company based in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera included.

There’s an easy media narrative here of course: that new music is ugly and unloveable, and that players like playing it as little as audiences like hearing it. And that’s true in some cases: I’ve certainly overheard players complaining about the physical exhaustion of playing in the pit for a Birtwistle opera, to what they felt was little apparent aesthetic purpose. It wouldn’t be hard to get quotes that supported that narrative. But as Ostrow, Oteri and WQXR all note, there are many other factors at play, and plenty of counterfactuals to consider too.


11 thoughts on “New music isn’t killing institutions

  1. Can’t we please be done with this tired culture war of “new vs. old?” Just as those culture wars in our current politick often reveal themselves as generational, perhaps we should stop framing this issue by constantly trying to push either music — old or new — out of the spotlight of “relevance,” and instead focus the conversation on the nature of the musics themselves. It doesn’t mean that differing opinions over aesthetics or affect don’t exist — everyone is entitled to their taste — but we could at least begin to shift the dialogue to more pertinent features, namely that: new music involves risks and rewards of experience, traditional music offers comfort and timelessness in re-experience…aren’t these features we all look for in music (not to mention the common ground that ALL music shares of being able to affect listeners for better OR worse)? This finger-pointing — undertaken still, after so many decades, by some of the most decorated musicians and writers of our time — is starting to look immature and, frankly, pathetic as our institutions crumble and we squabble in the ruins.

  2. The statistically audience-pleasing music that dominates both performances and broadcasts is the worst outcome of a “democratic” process that purports to cater to audiences’ tastes with the notion, one supposes, that they will then pay to hear that music. But the preponderance of anecdotal reports such as that by Mr. Oteri and yourself are beginning to tell a different story. I believe that by catering to that safe zone of statistically inferred audience taste for music leaves out the factor of audiences’ taste for adventure and excitement. Classical music radio and most concert programs have turned largely to playing the tried and true war-horses of the repertory rather than risk going outside that artificially defined safe zone and that is apparently failing. People are bored and wondering why.
    I too have seen packed houses of varying sizes for new music. The 5 hour, no intermission Einstein on the Beach sold out pretty much everywhere it played worldwide Many new music concerts in the bay area where I live fill the house with adventurous listeners. And I have personally experienced the excitement of discovery over the years having gone to many concerts of new music.
    I still want to hear Mozart and Bach and Beethoven, etc. but a concert which contains works that I know practically by heart fails to attract my economic vote. One of the solutions to such ennui is even more heinous, that of resurrecting music of a lower quality that comes from the same era, “wallpaper music” as one critic dubbed it. While the occasional gem gets discovered it necessitates hours of listening to music that deserves to be in history’s “no longer played” bin. There were hundreds of mediocre and bad composers from every era of music and it’s not a way to encourage an audience to listen actively and partake in the creative experience.
    Increasingly, classical music is becoming a cliche which plays a dull background soundtrack to our lives. I prefer to take some risks in the hope that I might discover something new and interesting. My fantasy is that I might be able to say some day that I was at the premiere of the next ‘Rite of Spring’ or ‘Don Giovanni’. Perhaps I already have. Now that’s exciting.

  3. People keep claiming that classical music needs to attract younger listeners, while at the same time many of these same people also claim that audiences don’t want to hear new music. Yet logically this doesn’t make sense, because this assumes that younger audience members will have the same prejudices as older ones, that they are unfamiliar with classical music, but are somehow familiar enough to know they don’t like contemporary classical music.

    1. I’ve seen a fair number of classical listeners who bemoan the lack of interest from younger audiences, and then pin the blame for that on horrible ugly new music. Young people would like classical music if only modern composers wrote music that was tuneful and beautiful and serious like Brahms or Wagner or Vaughan Williams instead of all that dreadful nonsense from Cage and Xenakis and Berio and Glass (who seem to do significantly better among young audiences than e.g. Brahms or Wagner or Vaughan Williams).

      The other viewpoint is, of course, to recognise that horrible modern music is attracting at least as many listeners as beautiful old music and more than beautiful new music, and to attribute this to the moral bankruptcy and degeneracy of modern society; women wearing pants, men wearing skirts, children eating their parents, school shootings, fluoridated water, dogs and cats living together… general hysteria. Back in the serene, idyllic 19th century, none of this would have ever happened.

  4. For the past decade, I’ve delivered extensive outreach programs to public elementary schools on the South Side of Chicago. These programs last for several weeks and uses music to teach math, history, physics, verbal communication and creative writing.

    My choice in repertoire is extensive, but without question the students are far more interested in the newer music I bring to the program. Certainly, they like the Bach, Brahms and Strauss, but their eyes brighten up with excitement and wonder when I play, Saariaho, Schnittke, Berio, Mobberley, Augusta Read Thomas, Marcos Balter, Narong Prangcharoen, Nico Muhly and Kee Yong Chong.

    They are not yet jaded, not closed minded. It’s beautiful.

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