Does new music attract buzz anymore? When is the last time you heard a bunch of people standing around talking about a recent premiere? I’ve witnessed a number of Monday-morning-quarterback-esque discussions of major pieces among composers, but these conversations always seem so clinical and detached—they’ve certainly never been characterized by any semblance of excitement. Nobody seems to get stoked about the new Carter concerto, whereas the merest whiff of a Pavement reunion whips the hipsters into a blogging frenzy. What gives?
Is it the material? I guess we have no Piss Christ in music, to choose an easy example; to my knowledge, no piece in the last ten years has been able to galvanize contrary opinions so powerfully. Since the radical New York School works, we seem to have had a relatively polite scene; most of the “controversies” in new music are quibbles that only seem to exist between warring factions of specialists whose views per se are of no consequence to most normal people.
Is it the press? The mainstream media has all but abandoned contemporary music as a newsworthy topic. Even high-culture periodicals devote much more ink to traditional classical music and pop music than to what we do. The contemporary music world is so bizarre—sometimes almost cartoonishly so—that I bet the sheer weirdness of it would get people interested, if only in the same way that people are interested in strange-looking bugs. It would be a start.
Is it us? My impression is that most of the American new music cognoscenti go to concerts and either like the music or don’t, and can usually hazard guesses about why—too long, poor orchestration, weak concept, etc. I’m as guilty as anybody else on this count; even if we really appreciate a new piece, we tend to jump immediately to thumbnail analysis on the way out of the hall. I think this is generally a healthy instinct, but it probably stifles some of the endorphins. I can’t remember the last time I left a recital with the irrepressible urge to gush rather than to dissect the successes and failures of the program. Maybe our professional weltschmerz is so overpowering that even we can’t really get that giddy about it anymore.