Good Music

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to hear nearly 100 pieces live, by over 50 different composers. Most of these works have been new to me, as have many of the composers, and nearly all had something to offer an interested listener.

All of this has me wondering again exactly what constitutes “good music.” Many of the works were absolutely not composed to my tastes but had arresting moments of sonic wonder or beautiful lyricism. Others were perhaps less well constructed but more suited to my particular aesthetic predilections. Objectively, which were the better pieces? Or does that question even matter and should my personal tastes shape my listening habits?

When I attempt to define what constitutes a good composition, I keep returning to the question of what the creator is attempting to express, and whether those aspects are successfully conveyed. A poor piece by someone who wants to depict the suffering of the victims of genocide might be joyous and gorgeous, while the same music might be perfect were the goal a celebration of life. Beyond that, I seek works whose surface presents something other than re-ordered stock gestures. By these standards, nearly all the music I heard lands on the successful side of the good/bad divide. Is this because the music is good, or are my standards lacking?

At times like these, I find myself quite hopeful about the future of music composition. In addition to the quality of the pieces, the two aspects of this concert binge that leave me most sanguine about the state of new music today are these:

1. Performers keep getting better. Each generation of students appears to be rising to the ever-greater challenges of new scores. I heard absolutely convincing performances of works that were highly complex, overtly theatrical, and simply lyrical. Even as the emerging musicians almost blithely throw off technical acrobatics, they also display a keen interest in the underlying musical framework and phrasing of new repertoire. At times, the student performers even outshone their more accomplished professional peers.

2. Aesthetically, the world is wide open and free. I heard music of all types, sometimes presented on the same program. In these settings, pure 1960s-style European Modernism can quite happily co-exist with rock-derived lyricism and all styles in between. With performers that are able to navigate these disparate challenges, each work can be presented in a befitting manner, allowing the individual listeners to respond to those pieces that most please them.

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