Getting to Know You

Remember that continuing-ed enrichment class I said I’d be teaching this winter? We’ve had two meetings so far, and I’m very pleased to say that it’s been an absolute joy. My class is engaged, open-minded, and ravenous for new music. We’re having a ball. People seem genuinely curious to hear my opinions about the production and consumption of contemporary music, which as far as I’m concerned is tantamount to administering endorphins intravenously.

Last week, one of my students recounted her experience at a recent performance of the Ligeti Violin Concerto by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; apparently the crowd didn’t receive that notorious turning point as warmly as they might’ve. In response, I shared my story of Matthias Pintscher at Temple Israel, which has taken on a sort of Aesopic significance for me: You can get away with all manner of weird sounds if you talk about love in a charming Mitteleuropäische accent and wear a properly tailored suit. To put it more generally, the sound of a piece of music as such is much less accountable for its first impression than the ideological space in which the audience is prepared to accommodate it. If you provide a listener with a way to think about a piece of new music (a task that dwells partially but by no means completely in “the music itself”) that’s consonant with his or her sociocosmology, you’re in.

At the tail end of class, another one of my students raised his hand to ask whether we (in the broad sense) can learn to like music we’re unfamiliar with. It was my distinct honor to tell him that all we do is learn to like music, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. As a matter of fact, that’s why we were all gathered in that particular room at that particular time. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, just above the pleasure of getting to reassure someone of that fact.

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