Noise Reduction

While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Texas, a fellow musicology student told me once that if anyone could make sense of the state of contemporary music, it would have to be composers. She was saying that, in effect, most theorists and musicologists didn’t even know where to begin because the field had become too large, too diverse, too diffuse. Since then, I’ve heard fellow academics state similar concerns along with the common disinclination to point to any specific name, work, or musical trend (better known as “let history sort it out”). Anne Midgette illustrates both concepts in her end-of-year Washington Post column “This year’s bounty of CD’s: a reader’s guide“; not only does she colorfully describe the challenge of navigating the onslaught of new recordings as “like trying to drink from a fire hose,” but she decided to forgo making her own “Top 10 (or 15 or 100) Recordings of 2013″ list and instead crowdsourced her readers’ picks.

Of course, how we communicate today—either directly via email, indirectly via social media, or passively through websites—only amplifies this growth and diffusion. Concert announcements, event invitations, and collaboration shout-outs were already commonplace when Kickstarter and Indiegogo ratcheted up the chatter considerably. There is nothing wrong with any of these endeavors in and of themselves, but as more and more composers, performers, presenters, and managers clamor for attention, the overall result becomes as blended and indistinct as Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room.

While the echo chamber that I describe here is not the optimum, neither is an overly selective environment within which a privileged few who have a megaphone, be it through a newspaper, radio, website, or recording label, intentionally or unintentionally serve as tastemakers. Is it possible to find a balance between the two? I hope so.

Some might say that the new music community, even with all of its sub-groups, comprises such a thin slice of the overall “classical music” pie (much less the overall music pie) that there is little worth in trying to improve the situation—that one might as well let those in obscurity remain and work harder to intensify the spotlight on those who already reside in it. They very well may be right. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel the need to explore the possibilities, if for no other reason than to find a solid balance between a focused understanding of today’s new music and a broad accessibility to as many creative artists as possible, irrespective of style, locale, or pedigree.

Where could this exploration lead? I’m not sure yet, but it is what I shall be undertaking in the upcoming year. My weekly columns here at NewMusicBox over the past three years have been one of the richest and most unforeseen treasures of my career to date. I now look forward to delving into important issues within our art form and our community at a much greater depth and breadth than I’ve been able to do so far and to the vigorous and enlightening discussions that might result.

2 thoughts on “Noise Reduction

  1. Will Roseliep

    The signal-to-noise complaint isn’t exclusive to classical music, its composers or its critics. Music in general has never been more plentiful. It’s daunting to sort through it all to arrive at any sort of consensus. The web has had a great “flattening effect” where everybody — for good or ill — has a voice. And all those voices can be overwhelming.

    For perspective: we’ve always tried to “drink from the firehose” whether it be through the hundreds of great concerts on offer in any major metro area, endless streams of music on the radio, or hefty record collections and myriad new recordings put out every year.

    But adding in the web and its great diffusion of new sounds makes those “year-end” lists and friendly recommendations all the more important. The great diversity means an embarrassment of riches for fans, and it also means that critics (Midgette et al.) and tastemakers are even more important. They may be the only ones to lay ears on a given cut of music, and if they don’t hype it up, who will?

    We need to jettison the idea of the standard classical “canon” and embrace the wild unpredictability of the music. We’re spoiled with so many options. We need to be brave, to listen with abandon, promote what we like, tweet about it, make mixtapes for friends, and pay money to see shows.

    Describing it as an “echo chamber” isn’t quite accurate — this “firehose” of web content and social media may represent our first chance to break free from the echo chamber, to finally stop listening to our own voices, to challenge ourselves with scarcely-heard sounds and brilliantly-conceived (yet ignored) projects, to shout about them over the din of Twitter. Never has the “classical world” been weirder and more unpredictable, and this is a good thing. No time or need to assign labels to this “movement.”

    To me, this is all very, very exciting.

    Reply
  2. Troyston Ramos

    What Will Roseliep said! The beauty of the current composer era is that it isn’t really possible to categorize them; at least not like in the past. If this free-wheeling period goes away, we’ll wish it hadn’t.

    Reply

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