I’d like to share an experience that I’m not particularly proud of, but one that might resonate with more than a few readers. When I was about 12 years old I attended a cello recital where I heard my first-ever “modern” composition, as I would have probably termed it back then. And I absolutely hated it—to my tender, sheltered ears it seemed at once ugly, inhuman, and “overly” cerebral—worst of all willfully so! (For some reason the fact that the composer actually might have meant this mess-terpiece seemed exceptionally damning.) It was my first live encounter with what I surely thought was Contemporary Art Music, and like so many others I felt completely alienated from everything I knew and loved about music; of course, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that there might be even more to know and love about music than my young and untraveled mind had haphazardly assimilated. What was the offending, ultra-modern composition? Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Cello, Opus 25, No. 3.
Sure, the sonata is hardly radical, and never mind that I already listened to more adventurous pop music by that age; most of all, never mind that the composer had died more than 40 years earlier! It’s important for me to recall all of these slightly-embarrassing details, because devotees of contemporary music need to remember what it was like to be without their daily bread. It’s so difficult because our ability to do so often seems inversely proportional to our current level of involvement and experience; I would imagine that those of us currently at or aspiring to Frank Oteri-like levels of musical appreciation might sometimes have a harder time empathizing with exactly the kinds of curmudgeonly concertgoers that we’d like to be able to communicate with.
I am sure there are many people whose first encounters with contemporary music were not difficult at all, but I was not one of them—that kind of wonder and excitement of new sonic possibilities kicked in only gradually for me, and it was not until I was an older teen that I had really developed a taste—and a hunger—for the music of our own time. And along the way I worked through many of the emotions, revelations, and misconceptions that staunch paleo-traditionalists struggle with—many of them the kinds of grumpy audience members who would later boo a few of my own compositions.
One of the reasons I consider the above personal anecdote so characteristic (and humorous) is that the composition in question wasn’t even capital-C Contemporary Music; not by a long shot! But try telling that to my 12-year-old self or to one of the many music lovers who haven’t even come to terms with Mahler or Stravinsky (or Bartok, or Shostakovich). Today I tend to think of all four of these composers as real crowd-pleasers in the best sense of the term; their works ought to appeal to conservative audiences weaned on Beethoven, Brahms, and the occasional Leroy Anderson number. So when I hear kvetching at a performance of The Firebird or Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, it reminds me that many audience members are still getting their ears around universally-acknowledged masterpieces from the early part of last century—much less music by an actual living composer! It’s just another one of many reality-checks to keep in mind when defending contemporary music from its many and vocal detractors. Consider this recent comment posted on the National Symphony Orchestra’s facebook page:
I recall the times (about 30 years ago) when non-melodic pieces were premiered at concerts which were often greeted with lots of applause. Had I been there, I would have booed the composer for creating the work and the orchestra for playing it.
What could I say to someone like this? I could try and convince him of my sincerity as a composer, or I could try to educate him in hopes that this might breed satisfaction. But maybe the best and most honest thing I could do would be simply to tell him that I understand how he feels, have even felt what he feels; that might be a surprising thing to hear, and it might go farther toward shaking up that individual’s understanding of living composers than all the well-meaning persuading in the world.