The Inside and Outside of New Music According to the Times
This past week saw two articles about contemporary concert music published in the New York Times which intended to shine light on two important evolutions within the music community. It is not often that one gets such a parallax viewpoint on the subject of new music in the mainstream media, and the opportunity allows those of us who are active in the profession not only to digest and react to what is being said but also to gain a better sense of how our world is seen from “outside the beltway,” so to speak.
The first article, “Emboldened Orchestras Are Embracing the New” by chief music critic Anthony Tommasini is written with a perspective from within the confines of the concert hall. In it, the author investigates whether or not, as he puts it, “those who have campaigned for contemporary music [can] declare victory” as audiences and ensembles seem to be gradually becoming more open to new works as well as music from the past century that until recently had been anathema to traditionalist concertgoers. Of course his findings are mixed, as one could expect from such a wide swath of institutions and genres to choose from; Tommasini outlines the sliding scale upon which the acceptance of new music is most easily gauged, with chamber ensembles on the tolerant end and opera weighing down the other, as relatively few examples of full-throated support for new works can be found on the opera stage today.
While the article effectively (albeit lightly) touches on the various aspects of contemporary music in today’s traditional music scene, it also reflects some of that scene’s intransigence when it comes to breaking through the historical and stylistic firewalls that many ensembles and audiences have constructed. That intransigence is most acute when Tommasini brings composers from the early and mid-20th century into the discussion; with examples that include Bartók and Janáček, the article does little to refute the idea that these composers can and should still be thought of as “contemporary.” The fact that very few living composers are mentioned throughout the article does little to strengthen the argument that things are looking up on the contemporary side of things. Recordings by two younger living composers are included in the online version of the article, but as they were both performed by the American Composers Orchestra, an opportunity to prove that established traditional ensembles are adding new music to their repertoires is missed.
The second article focuses on the evolutionary branch of new music that started with the Kronos Quartet, matured under Bang on a Can, and has blossomed with an ever-growing number of composers and chamber ensembles whose music and presenting style represent an intentional shift away from the traditional concert hall and the stylistic traits that are associated with that venue. Written by Allan Kozinn and entitled “Club Kids Are Storming Music Museums,” the article springboards off the museum mentality that is inherent in most traditional music organization by suggesting that this new generation of composers and performers see all of the hubbub mentioned in Tommasini’s article as “beside the point.” Looking at the various aspects of this relatively new movement, Kozinn touches on what the characteristic traits are, the musical establishment’s reaction and recent embrace of the major players, and closes with a prediction that this non-traditional approach may strengthen into its own musical lineage in the same way other popular styles grew apart from their roots rather than affect a wholesale change on concert music itself.
As with Tommasini’s work, I found it too easy to lose the forest for the trees in this article. My gut reaction when I first read it was disbelief that this trend was being presented as being something new, as many of the changes and innovations that were mentioned seemed old hat to those of us who live and breath new music. It also struck me that the overall focus was very NYC-based, which caused me to throw out an open question on Facebook asking if others could give me examples of this new trend that were happening outside of Brooklyn and Manhattan—the ensuing conversation wandered through many issues that the article raised and culminated in Kozinn himself weighing in on my assumptions and nudging me towards his initial intent of the piece, the aforementioned separation into a stand-alone musical style that is both related and distinct from classical music.
I came away from both of these articles with some observations, not about the subject matter at hand, but about myself and my own thoughts on the changes that have been swirling throughout concert music over the past several years. As with several other articles that have come forth over the past year on new music, I found myself bifurcated between elation that the subject was being covered at such a high level and dismay at both the perceived simplification and tight focus on the Big City scene (an admitted bias I have from growing up in the cornfields outside of Chicago).
Upon reflection, I am realizing that it is too easy to discount such introductory explanations. Over time articles like these will help to erode the last vestiges of conservatism that has reigned for too long in the concert hall. Similarly, it is too easy (for me, at least) to cast too wide a net when I make musical associations; I find myself clumping many composers who are associated with the New Amsterdam label, for example, when their style and language couldn’t be more different. I feel that the shift that Kozinn mentions is not based on a school of musical language as previous innovations have been, but rather a social and generational concept that is both a culmination and a rejection of years of reaction against the bitter style squabbles that occurred in the past. To this end, I hope to see more articles like Tommasini’s and Kozinn’s to further the conversation.