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.

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22 thoughts on “The Inside and Outside of New Music According to the Times

  1. Joseph Holbrooke

    Whenever I hear complaints about attention being unfairly focused on New York I always have to ask: How much time have you spent there?

    I have a hunch that once someone spends a certain number of days either living, visiting, or working in New York they no longer make that complaint and just understand. I’m gonna throw out a number: 1000 days.

    “I hope to see more articles like Tommasini’s and Kozinn’s to further the conversation.”

    You’ll know where to look for them.

    Reply
  2. lawrencedillon

    Joseph’s right, and I’ll add another reason for the focus on NYC. The newspaper is called the New York Times. We’ve come to assume that they will cover the world fairly and equally because they’ve done a remarkable job covering the world fairly and equally for many years, but in the end, they have a focus that’s announced in the masthead every day.

    Reply
  3. Phil Fried

    Certainly a lot of recently composed music is being performed in New York City. Whether this activity fully represents new music is another question. Rather the NYC scene may represent new music yet not include it.

    Reply
  4. Dave MacDonald

    That Tommasini article drove me a little nutso last week. At some point (how ’bout now?), we need to start making the kind of distinction that is made in the visual arts between “modern” and “contemporary.” I love Bartók as much as the next guy, but at what point does he and his beloved music stop being “new”?

    Reply
  5. Sam Merciers

    I would love to live in New York for 1000 days if I could. And I’m sure that I would love the scene there. However Kozinn’s piece asserts that “This world is centered in New York…” when he should have said – “There is a movement centered in New York and I going to hold it up and pretend that it represents something cohesive and let it stand for what is going on with young composers.”

    In cities all over the world (including New York), young composers are toiling away, getting their music played in bars, basements and gymnasiums. And it all sounds very different and is held together as a movement only in the collective desire to find something other than what the traditional classical music machinery is able to give them. The 99% who do not get orchestral performances or who are just plain unwilling to (as my good friend Dave MacDonald puts it) spend 6 (or 9 or 12 or 16) months filling out (composing) the orchestral lottery ticket on the off chance someone might perform it some day.

    YES – In New York, there is a vibrant scene for the new garage band style of new music. But it is not the center. There is no center.

    Reply
    1. Edward

      I agree. Here in the hinterlands of the Central Valley of California there is much new music activity, and much of it as cutting edge and well delivered as can be found in the five boroughs of NY. Sure, there is a lot of looking to, an admiration, for what goes on in NYC, but what gets born here musically has nothing to do with it, and is representative of the lives composers and musicians are living here. So, it would be myopic for New Yorkers and their music critics to say that what happens there represents what is happening out here in any way….

      Reply
  6. Phil Fried

    On second though these two articles seem to restate that old sawhorse uptown/downtown.

    Something like this:

    Composers in group “a” are performed in what composers in group “b” call museums. (Arts institutions). Composers in group “b” prefer to be performed in museums. (Arts institutions).

    Did I miss something?

    Reply
  7. Alexandra Ivanoff

    There is an exciting contemporary music cosmos in the Baltic countries and in Finland, where what they come up with is truly worth investigating. Start with the most well-known Arvo Pärt in Estonia, then move a little north to discover amazing new music.

    I’m a music critic in Istanbul, and I report faithfully on what being created and supported here. And it’s good news for composers and improvised music, especially involving electronics, which, in my opinion, is the future. We lack good nomenclature for all the new music categories being created by fusions of electronics and acoustic performance. But I just call it 21st century music.

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Ivanoff

      I should also mention that there are thriving 21st century music scenes in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Helsinki, and more that give New York City a run for its money. Thanks to the ever-productive Lutoslawski and his active touring orchestra Sinfonia Cracovia, Krakow (Poland) is on the new music map.

      Reply
      1. Alexandra Ivanoff

        Oops, I meant Penderecki. (Lutoslawski left us in 1994.) I guess I was thinking of some of the most prominent Polish composers and got stuck on L. But P, at the age of 78, is still turning out fascinating stuff.

        Reply
  8. Rob Deemer

    To be clear, I wasn’t complaining about the NYC coverage (or at least I didn’t intend to make it seem that way) – of course, one can’t begrudge the NYT for focusing on their home town. One of the tangents mentioned above in the Facebook conversation between myself and Steve Smith (Time Out New York, NYT) was that they don’t get much funding to go explore events outside of the city, so it makes sense that their focus will be rather tight, and rightly so. As Lawrence mentioned, we have grown to think of the Grey Lady as a “national” publication, so that dichotomy must be kept in mind.

    There are three main issues that I feel these articles bring to light:

    1) There needs to be more coverage and discussion about new music trends, innovations, and ideas throughout the country, especially in print publications and in the general media. NewMusicBox and Sequenza21 do a very good job at doing this, but they are both online magazines that are focused on the new-music community. Jan Swafford’s article on composers in Slate back in July (“A Grand Tour of Contemporary Music” is a better example of what I’m talking about; the article’s conclusions generated a lot of pushback (including from yours truly), but the fact that such a discussion was happening in a national magazine proves that the subject is viable for such publications. Justin Davidson’s article on the “new New York scene” for the New Yorker was a focused yet well-written example of a writer not only actually reporting on new music concerts but bringing his own thoughts to bear on what he’s seeing – I just wish we could see this happen more often outside of the big city, because it does have the effect of convincing many within and without the music community that the innovations happening in NYC are the ONLY innovations going on in new music today.

    2. Part and parcel with this need for wider coverage in the media is the need for composers and ensembles not only to think conceptually about what they’re doing and how to convey that concept to the outside world. One of the main reasons why so many people are talking about what’s going on in NYC is that the concept is easily digestible – and that is not by accident. From Kronos to BOAC to ICE to New Amsterdam, there are underlying philosophies that help to not only keep these groups afloat, but to explain to the general public (and the media) what they’re doing in simple yet powerful terms.

    3. Finally, there is also the need for composers and ensembles to collaborate. One of the many strengths of the younger New York new music scene is the fact that they all seem to know each other, either from school or from life, and there seems to be a strong sense of support and collaboration in one form or another. The example of New Music Chicago is another model to look at (http://www.newmusicchicago.org/), as they actively work together to make sure their performance schedules don’t conflict. The more we can help each other, the stronger everyone involved will be (and the greater the chance that the media will notice as well).

    Are there examples of all of these out there? Yes, of course there are, but there can and should be more. I started a radio show when I was living in Oklahoma that played examples of new music from around the country. Four grad students from Michigan State have put together a weekly video podcast (http://www.soundnotion.tv/) that discusses new music intelligently and passionately. John Clare interviews every composer he can get his hands on on his NPR show down in San Antonio. And Nadia Sirota has done wonders with her work on Q2 on WQXR in New York City. All good stuff – and proof that it can be done no matter where you are.

    Reply
  9. John Borstlap

    SOME UNDERLYING CONCEPTS

    This is an interesting discussion….. Implicit in the article, and in the articles mentioned in the article, and in the comments, is the historicist model of ‘development’ of music and ‘invention’ of new modes of musical creation. Younger generations are fed-up with the classical museum culture and with the style wars of the recent past within the new music scenes, and move out of the confines of established music-making – but does this mean that ‘new styles’ and ‘new concepts’ are born? An art form does not develop as something that moves along a line from renewal to renewal, progressively as science is progressive (implicit is: ‘better’). Already in the sixties Leonard B. Meyer predicted that musical developments and the fragmentation as a result of increasing information availability would eventually lead to a situation of stasis, in which many different ways of composing and performing would exist next to each other without a ‘main stream’ being visible, so instead of a broad river in a bedding there would be a delta with numerous little streams. Maybe we have reached that situation now in the western world? It would mean that notions like ‘development’ and ‘new trends’ and ‘cutting edge’ and ‘renewal’ and ‘invention of new musical languages’ or ‘forms’ etc. etc., which are concepts from 20C modernism, are no longer appropriate. If this were so, then notions of ‘conservative’ and ‘modern’ (in the sense of ‘progressive’) loose their meaning too. ‘Contemporary’ would merely mean: that which has been created in the present, and would not hold any value assessment.

    Calling the ‘classical music machine’ a museum would then also loose meaning, and the ‘museum culture’ of ‘classical music’ would then merely be the description of a cultural tradition among many other traditions (the streams of the delta). This would also open-up the possibility that creation of new music by contemporary composers would be possible WITHIN the museum culture and that is indeed happening here & there in Europe: Nicolas Bacri and Richard Dubugnon in France, David Matthews in England, Alexander Smelkov in Russia, and probably a number of others, also in the US.

    It may be helpful to consider the artistic norms as established in the classical music world (as a result of many works of powerful musical imagination), as the reason why it has invoked such veneration and drawn so much financial support. It is not easy for contemporary composers to emulate that quality and still remain themselves, i.e. contemporary. A discussion of the fundamentals of the ‘classical music world’ and all compositional activity outside of it, however necessary, would inevitably lead us to reconsider basic assumptions which no longer seem to refer to reality. One of these realities is that the established repertoire of music history is as vivid as ever, and maybe even more so than at the time of its creation due to information and performance levels of our own times. In other words: maybe ‘history of music’ is less ‘historical’ than it seems. This would have profound consequences for contemporary creation and development of talent.

    John Borstlap
    Amsterdam

    Reply
  10. ariel

    This is all whistling while walking past the grave yard . Mr.Tommasini carries so little weight outside of NY never mind NY that if he never wrote another word no one would
    notice .I believe MR. Borstlap misses the point (last paragraph) The three crucial
    touchstones have to be addressed as one – composer ,artists( who bring works to light) and the audience .The “artistic norms ” Mr. Borstlan refers to at one time were
    “contemporary” and either pleased or provoked their audience . Our times are
    different the artists different and what is more important the audience is different .
    That Schubert was shouted over for Bartok only meant that poor Schubert was so
    over played that for a breathe of fresh air most wanted to hear ,( dare I write) a
    contemporary composer no matter how late to arrive . The most stultified of all the
    arts is the world of so called “classical music”.

    Reply
    1. Mark N. Grant

      I have read and reread and rereread your above remarks repeatedly and I’m afraid I still can’t follow what it is you’re trying to say. Maybe I’m obtuse and of low IQ. Or maybe your prose is woolly. A clarification would be most welcome.

      As for Mr. Tommasini and the NYT, I would concur with what Lawrence Dillon wrote at the top of this thread. Times critics indeed cover a substantial amount of on-the-ground arts activities in other communities, both in this county and abroad. They’re required to editorially. To suggest that a Times critic “carries so little weight” beyond NYC is inverse parochialism and just plain misinformed. That NYT critics have influence beyond New York is self-evident and axiomatic. The Times is an international newspaper read by an international audience—always was, but especially in the digital age.

      Reply
  11. ariel

    Mr. Grant that my comments are beyond your comprehension is unfortunate .Perhaps
    if you reread the last paragraph written by Mr. Borstlan my terse response to it will
    fall into place, perhaps not .
    As for the power of the Times, it is it seems what you believe and one cannot argue
    a belief. There was a history of people taking the opinion of “critics” of any major newspaper
    as wisdom from on high but when the readers found out that the” critics” could be as
    stupid ,as prejudiced and as knowledgeable as the reader and opinions expressed
    was just one mans’, the game was up .You are quite correct about the digital age
    but also include the Guardian ,Telegraph , etc. etc . all are read for the curiosity of the
    event and not for profound insights from the reviewer. In my concert travels I have yet to find people who
    buy tickets to a concert based solely on a review by any critic of any newpaper including
    the Times -but then you may have information to which we are not privy .

    Reply
    1. Mark N. Grant

      Yes, I do have information to which you are not privy. I wrote a book that systematically studies the history of music criticism in North America and examines the question of whether critics have had influence beyond mere ephemeral opinion-mongering. The answer was, and remains, undoubtedly yes in many cases.

      No, I don’t see any connection at all between what the previous gentleman wrote in his last paragraph and your comment.

      Reply
      1. ariel

        I am pleased to hear you wrote a book …..and now totally understand your position which you must protect . I am afraid that I am privy to
        the information which is open to all and perhaps more so having worked in the field
        for many decades presenting both musicians and” new composers” to the” classical”
        world while you perhaps, were taking notes for a future book . Dare I admit I
        may have been on bread breaking terms with some names you might have come across while doing research. A great deal of the new music concerts took place
        in NY where supposedly if you make it there you can make it anywhere , well
        it ain’t quite so ….. There was a time when perhaps I say perhaps a great NYTimes
        review could open a door to a hopeful career but that was only if other elements
        came together . To-day you have Lang Lang and for all critical reservations and
        at times scorn he has a career you can’t successfully assail -just one case of” so much for critical influence .

        Reply
  12. Phil Fried

    “..In my concert travels I have yet to find people who
    buy tickets to a concert based solely on a review by any critic…”

    I believe those folks are called snobs.
    I know more than a few.

    Reply
  13. ariel

    Mr. Fried , you may allow other people to think for you but to call people who think for themselves snobs is a misdirected shot -you may know snobs but that is not the
    same thing as knowing people who think for themselves.

    Reply
  14. moderator

    A reminder from NewMusicBox:

    Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.

    Reply
  15. Phil Fried

    “..but to call people who think for themselves snobs is a misdirected shot -..”

    Why yes it is. It seems that you completely misread my post. I was actually referring to the folks who don’t think for themselves.

    Reply

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Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.