The Problem with New

What’s new? Well, nothing and everything, and sometimes a little bit of both. If that sounds like a paradox, it is. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s the point. To continue down this line of thinking for just a tad bit longer—please bear with me here—to distinguish between what’s new and what’s old is ultimately a waste of time, literally, because tomorrow becomes yesterday in only two more days.

I know I’ve written that or something similar to it before. And other folks have written it long before I ever did. I know. And many have said it better than I just did—take the opening of “Burnt Norton,” the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, for example:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

When I was younger, this struck me as pretentious metaphysical fluff. But as the years have gone by, and all those tomorrows became yesterdays in the interim, I’m starting to appreciate his sentiments more and more.

I used to mock people in the music biz who would rebut my accusations about their not playing enough new music and playing too much Beethoven by saying: “Well, to people who have never heard it before, Beethoven is new music.” After all my years of kvetching, maybe they’re right.

Last week, I listened to the first-ever complete recording of Puccini’s Il Trittico with Renata Tebaldi, Robert Merrill, Fernando Corena, and a bunch of other terrific singers released in 1962. Believe it or not, it was the very first time I had ever heard this nearly 90-year-old trilogy of one-act operas and the first time I ever really paid attention to Tebaldi’s singing. So, to me, it was indeed new music, although it was just part of my ongoing self-imposed listening immersion of 19th- and early-20th-century European operas. Other stuff I can’t seem to get enough of these days includes the earliest recordings of Peking Opera and the complete clavichord music of C.P.E. Bach. Go figure. None of this music is new but right now it’s new to me. However, pretty soon it won’t be, and all this music will turn into my personal standard repertoire, which is what music like Elliott Carter, Stockhausen, and Monk (both Thelonious and Meredith) etc. are to me. And, isn’t that ultimately the hope we have for any music we value, new or old?

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