View from the East: Is New Music Thriving?



Greg Sandow

I’d like to think new music is thriving. Certainly there are reasons for thinking it is. Last year I served on an awards panel for ASCAP; we looked at hundreds of applications from composers all over the country, all of whom were getting performances, many of them from local performing groups. We New Yorkers don’t see much of this, because we focus on high-level events. Our loss. The sheer number of compositions—and of composers getting performed—was staggering. It almost seemed easy to write, let’s say, a woodwind quintet, and then find a group to play it, play it many times, maybe, and even take it on tour. Though I’m sure it happens the opposite way more often. You find the performers first—people active in your area, whom you get to know—and then you write your music specifically for them.

Either way, it works, and I could multiply this example. Last month I was on a panel to commission four pieces for the New York Youth Symphony. The applicants, 46 of them, were student composers, generally capable, who were getting even orchestral works performed. Often at school, granted, but if school orchestras are playing big student pieces, that’s a good sign.

And then in New York, new music events seem to be multiplying (maybe elsewhere, too, but I don’t know; I’d welcome solid information). A couple of years ago, the Great Day in New York series turned new music into a celebration; the “Mavericks” concerts may have done much the same thing in San Francisco; the Kansas City Symphony flooded its town with Stravinsky a while back, which of course isn’t new new music, but is surely remarkable for Kansas City, and gives an example of something that Jane Moss, VP of programming at Lincoln Center, first pointed out to me: Mainstream classical music institutions are starting to stress repertoire rather than performers. Which music they choose, in other words, is starting to matter more than which famous people are playing it.

In a canny refinement of that, Carnegie Hall has been highlighting famous performers who like to play stimulating music; partly as a result, the Schoenberg Piano Concerto has shown up there three times in the past couple of years, which might almost be excessive—couldn’t they try the Violin Concerto once in a while?—but it would have been inconceivable not very long ago. The very fact that I can raise a wry eyebrow shows that something has changed. (And yes, I can see both an explanation for all those Piano Concerto instead of Violin Concerto performances, and even an upside to it. The explanation might be that there are more thoughtful top-name pianists than thoughtful top-name violinists; more Mitsuko Uchidas and Peter Serkins, that is, than Gidon Kremers. The upside is that we can compare performances of an unusual work, something we’d never have the chance to do if the people at Carnegie had changed their programs, after darkly muttering, “What if Greg thinks we do the Piano Concerto too much?”)

All this has to be good for new music. And in fact even mainstream institutions are playing more of it. Last summer I spoke to the director of a major opera company about doing my work; he said they’d already arranged a stack of other commissions. The New York City Opera did a world premiere last fall, and announced two recent operas for next year. Also next year, The New York Philharmonic will play, by my count (made quickly at their press luncheon), 24 works by composers who either are living or flourished after World War II. That’s might be some sort of record, not just for the Philharmonic, but—could it be?—maybe even for all big orchestras.

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So is new music thriving? As I’ve said, I’d like to think so. But who’s listening to it? That might sound like a really dumb question; obviously, if new music is being played, then somebody’s listening. But who are these somebodies? It’s important to ask, because the “new music” I’ve talked about (so casually, as if the words always meant the same thing) is wildly diverse, and different kinds of it have different audiences, which themselves vary. The mainstream classical music audience is very conservative, not because it likes old music better than new, but because it’s culturally conservative. Entwined with this is an elementary observation, that classical concerts don’t feel contemporary. Which in turn means that whatever new music gets played at them isn’t likely to feel very contemporary, either. How could it, without changing the feel of the concerts?

I don’t want to call this a dirty little secret of classical music, but it is a problem we rarely talk about. Lots of us agitate for mainstream groups to play more new music and applaud approvingly when they do (exactly as I did three paragraphs ago), without stopping to ask what happens, exactly, at the performances. And the answer, surely, is nothing much, because nothing is supposed to happen—no real event takes place—at any classical concert. (Fascinating fact: The biggest event at any classical concert this year, the one that raised storms both inside and outside the music world, was one that didn’t happen, the non-performance of John AdamsDeath of Klinghoffer choruses at the Boston Symphony.)

And much of new music…well, how should I put this? I don’t want to say that much of new music doesn’t sound new, because that’s hardly fair. Not everything can be original; life just doesn’t work that way. Nor should we expect all new music to be out on some sharp new edge, or, even worse, think that only music that dances on the point of the cultural knife (wherever that may be, at any given time) can be any good. That would be childish, a complete careless trash of everything we should have learned from history.

But still, there’s something wrong with the newness of new classical music (much of it, anyway, including, I’m afraid, many of those freshly composed wind quintets bouncing around Texas and Nebraska, and, for that matter, very likely the operas I’m starting to write again, after a 20-year hiatus). It all might sound contemporary, as that word gets watered down in the classical music world, because it uses new, or newish, or vaguely modern compositional techniques, or at least not the compositional techniques that Brahms used. Which is how “contemporary,” the word and the concept, gets watered down. If that’s all it means—more advanced than the standard classical repertory—then the real contemporary world, the one we all live in, has no force inside the concert hall (which of course it doesn’t). So new classical pieces might sound modern, by the standards we’re more or less forced to apply, but they feel old. They feel, most of them, like classical concert works—which, after all, is what they are, and what their composers meant them to be. And so in many ways they function like the older music that still dominates the classical concert stage, and which itself tends to get mulched till it all feels alike to everyone but specialists, so that a heaven-storming Beethoven symphony (which made its first audience shake and shudder) has no more force than Handel‘s Water Music, which was high-class entertainment.

I could even argue that, in the classical concert world, new pieces play the same secret role as standard masterworks: They help keep the modern world away. I’m exaggerating, of course, because things do change. A generation ago, when most of the classical music we heard was old, just about any new piece was a shock, even if it was only a “medium is the message” kind of shock, carried more by the composer’s shockingly recent dates, staring out at us from the program book, than by anything in the music itself. And if the music sounded unfamiliar, or even disturbing, to the normal concert audience, that would shake things a little more, and still does.

But the shakes are balanced by comfort, because at the deepest level, things haven’t changed much at all. So when I ask if new music is thriving, I’d give three answers, each tied to a compositional style. High modernist music isn’t doing well, not because it slipped from its peak of prestige and doesn’t dominate funding and teaching jobs the way it used to, but because it mostly feels dead in performance. In part that’s because, no matter how much it may have fallen from its peak of authority 30 years ago, it still has prestige, which isn’t matched by its achievement. Modernist pieces (on the whole; there are obvious exceptions, starting for me with Berio) just aren’t as good as many people say they are.

Even more important, modernist music answered the retreat of classical music from current culture by withdrawing even further, with modernist composers (along with their most vocal courtiers) all talking as if the music wasn’t supposed to have any meaning beyond the way it was composed (descriptions of which—this happens even with 80-year-old 12-tone works—are still blown like smoke into our eyes, blinding us far too often to whatever our own judgment tells us). Or if modernist music does have meaning, that meaning is at least a generation old and irrelevant to the classical music world in any case because neither classical musicians nor the classical music audience have, on the whole, any taste for modernist culture.

Thus (always allowing for any exaggerations I might commit, as I over-generalize in the heat of passion), modernist music, when it’s played at normal classical concerts, can feel pretty sad. It’s obsolete culture, paraded for an audience that wasn’t the right one even when modernist styles were in their prime. Though this audience was also the only audience, since where else but at classical concerts can you play modernist concert works, written for normal classical forces?

This all happened, I think, because of a weird bit of history. Classical music—like any art, and notably, like pop music today—once had both popular appeal and pure artistry, sometimes at war with each other, sometimes (think of Haydn, at least at the end of his life) working together. But as the field retreated to its “we’re art, and don’t you forget it” bunker, the whole notion of popular appeal got disreputable, and modernist music arose that nobody asked if you liked—or, rather, that you were required to like, no matter what you really thought of it. At the same time, and this is really funny, music like Rossini operas and Paganini caprices, which in their time were popular entertainment, now gets labeled high art, maybe not as high as Harrison Birtwistle, but still up there. Which is why you won’t hear Rossini—or for that matter Handel, unless Ewa Podles is singing—done with the wild ornamentation the original singers used. But I digress.

To return to my thread, modernism has now given way in the classical music mainstream to more accessible new works, which shook our field simply because they were accessible, or more precisely because they developed prestige even though they were easy to listen to. That loosened the ban on popular appeal, and smashed cracks in the bunker; for that reason, accessible new music thrives. But at the same time—this is something I might have implied in my piece here on kitsch, some months ago—they tend to be middlebrow. They don’t advance our art; they don’t bring it closer to the world outside. They feel, as I’ve said, like the classical music of the past, and for that reason they don’t thrive, or at least their thriving might not do us much good, unless they prepare the way for some new style that feels less like classical music, and more like life. That might be happening. First came a liberating new thought, that the audience ought to like the new music it hears. Then a new generation comes along, and says, “Yes, but the music we like is much more varied than somebody’s new concerto for orchestra. It sounds like hip-hop, rock, world music, jazz, reggae, techno, John Cage, Beny Moré, lounge, cheap ’50s pop…”

That new generation exists, of course. Call it Ethel, call it the Absolute Ensemble, call it Music at the Anthology, though I don’t mean to exclude all the other composers, musicians, and concert series involved with the same general kind of music (if, that is, you can talk about general kinds of music, when it’s all so varied). But this, of course, is the new music—the classical new music—with the smallest audience. It thrives, but, from the classical music point of view, only as an alternative to new music in the classical music mainstream.

That in itself isn’t awful. Alternative music is tremendously honored right now; it has its own kind of prestige. But what I miss is the moment when an alternative style sweeps the mainstream, as happened when alternative rock swept the pop charts or when Wagner took over the left edge of European culture. We need that in classical music. We need alternative new music to bum-rush the concert hall; or, to put it more boringly, we need new work to become the norm, not the exception, and for much of that new work to be what I’m calling alternative.

Will that ever happen? Standing against it are the conservative classical audience, and, closely related, classical music’s need for money. Large classical-music institutions, like orchestras, opera companies, and performing arts centers, are expensive to maintain, and therefore need big donors and big ticket sales, which bring conservatism with them.

Still, a new generation might bring change—and until that happens, I can’t say that new music thrives.