Maybe it’s the city’s surplus of heritage, maybe it’s autumnal reminiscence, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the start of the season in Boston brought a bumper crop of new music deliberately glancing off older music and/or styles. That’s part and parcel with contemporary music—the past is always present, even if only as something to deliberately ignore—and the new-old juxtaposition is practically orthodox in mainstream classical programming.
There aren’t as many generalizations to make about new music in Boston as one might think—even the old epithet of “academic” starts to fray when you realize that some of the city’s least academic composers are here because of academic appointments—but here’s one that’s not unreasonable: on balance, new music in Boston is institutionally driven. It’s ensembles and schools that curate the repertoire; the scene is parceled out by group and by season more than piece by piece.
The annual Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which started last Wednesday, has long been dominated by what used to be called the new-music mainstream, before new music sprouted so many streams that the title became dilute. Charles Wuorinen, the director of this year’s festival, certainly made his reputation in that mainstream: East Coast, atonal, academic. But, so far, this festival has been comparatively—well, funky might be too strong a word for it, but certainly more loose, more varied, than past festivals.
The Rethink Music conference enjoyed some heavy aegis: Berklee, the music trade fair organization MIDEM, the Harvard Business School, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The nominal ambition was similarly impressive: “To talk about solutions to moving the music industry forward,” according to conference Executive Director Allen Bargfrede; to “foster creativity and a thriving music industry,” according to the conference website. Roger Brown offered as inspiration the British government’s 18th-century Board of Longitude and its competition to solve that problem of marine navigation. Since we now cross the Atlantic 360 times faster than they did in the 18th century, we should be able, Brown said, to solve the problems facing the music industry “360 times faster than it took to solve the problem of longitude.”
As World War II decisively elevated America to superpower status, the cutting edge of European music—atonality—crossed the Atlantic, where it was transformed into a quintessentially American combination of ingenuity, technology, and brash confidence. We’ll delve into American serialism, exploring the work of a host of composers—Babbitt, Wuorinen, Powell, and more—who set out, by the numbers, to make music modern.
The fact that live performance persists in the face of market pressures speaks to a basic human need that even Adam Smith’s invisible hand can’t slap away.