Last week I attended a talk where some players and composers were discussing how to get an audience engaged in listening to a new piece of music. While there I heard one colleague remark that in order to understand a new work one first needed to know the classical music repertoire.
I could not disagree more. First off, much of what is termed “new classical music” has no base in the pantheon of the “standard” repertoire. How can a symphony by Haydn help someone understand a piece that is composed of Javanese gamelan rhythms or that uses North Indian classical melodies?
But, more importantly, this type of attitude helps to perpetuate the myth that one cannot appreciate new music unless they have some knowledge of it. If anything, information can get in the way of listening to a new piece. It’s one thing for someone to suggest to listen to the way the music changes its character by the way the trumpets play high and low sounds. It is quite another thing to lecture about the motivic relationships a work has with a symphony of Mahler’s. The latter requires a person to have grasp of the orchestral realm in a fashion outside that of just listening. They are expected to know facts, not sound. These expectations set up the listener to feel they do not have the tools, and thus the ability, to listen to the music and be able to give a valid assessment of it. It sets them up to fail. Thus, they tune out or even stop attending concerts that have new music on the program.
It is not just civilians that have come to feel this way. I come across many top players that also think they are ignorant about new music. One violist recently commented to me how she felt she could not successfully play a certain piece at a festival because she felt so lacking in knowledge of new music and its various styles. I told her that she had to trust her instincts. She should approach the piece as she would approach any other. Get into the music and not worry about the historical context surrounding it. Leave that to the musicologists. Upon pondering my suggestions she left her fears behind and practiced the work with utter concentration and commitment. The result was that she nailed the piece. She used her musicianship to get into the score and realize it to its fullest. In the end both composer and performer were happy with the premiere. The audience was very receptive in large part due to her interpretation and the player felt empowered to attack other new works being written today.
So if even professional musicians feel unable to understand new music what type of attitude will they pass along to their students? Will they seriously explore and use pieces written today as part of their pedagogical approach? And, what will happen to the young players as they mature if they are never exposed to the stuff that we write? Can we honestly expect that we will have performers and audiences that are interested in listening and sharing the experience of hearing a work for the first time?