Old and New Acquaintance

This past week I’ve been taking a “staycation,” which ostensibly means not leaving my home or at least my neighborhood most of the time. I strayed from my regimen on Sunday to ride on an old subway train which seems to now be an annual New York City tradition during the holiday season. Despite always wanting to seek out the new in music, I can’t get enough of old things in almost every other aspect of my life. And truth be told, I like old music, too, as long as it is doesn’t stifle the new.

People showed up in droves to ride the old train because it was such a curiosity, yet it did not really serve the purpose that a subway ride normally does. Most folks, myself included, took the train just to take it, not to get somewhere specific. In fact I had to go out of my way to get it—it was running only on one line that doesn’t stop in my neighborhood—and it took me even further from places I wanted to be that day. In order to get back to where I was heading, I had to take a new train.

I couldn’t help thinking that the old subway ride was a weird role reversal of the way most classical music concerts work. In concerts, the old pieces of music are like the new subway trains, the standard issue; the new pieces, when they occur, are like that old train, taking listeners on journeys that can be far from where they imagined they want to go. All too often including such fare on a program does not result in folks coming out in droves, excited by an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Marketers frequently fear programming new music because regular concert patrons actually seem not to want it.

But maybe that’s because the balance is reversed. If most of what was heard on classical concerts was new music and every now and then an old piece would turn up, new music would not be so disorienting and an old piece, like that old train, would be a fascinating curiosity—a chance to relive history. I’ve heard lots of folks claim that Beethoven’s music is new to people who’ve never heard it before, but I’ve always found such a sentiment somehow disingenuous. To make it really feel new it needs to be less central to the repertoire. Indeed, all of history’s musical offerings can be appreciated as new experiences if newer repertoire was the foundation of all music programming.

Of course, in less than 36 hours the music written in 2008 will become old music, too. Yet even as we enter the final year of the first decade of the 21st century, the sounds of 20th-century music are still new to so many concert-goers. So, a New Year’s gambit: In 2009, try to do something completely new—whether that means listening to something old or new that you’ve never heard before, writing or performing something that is completely different than what you normally do, or simply taking a ride on a train that takes you somewhere you hadn’t planned.

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