Stretching the Truth

Rubber Bands

Anyone only briefly acquainted with classical concert music of any color has likely had occasion to witness one of the most ubiquitous bluffs in the concert world: presenting one or more works from many years ago as an example of “contemporary” music. I can’t count the number of the times I’ve seen Shostakovich or Copland billed as representing contemporary (or variously, “modern”) music; and I’ve even been to a few so-called “new music” concerts where every piece on the program was from the last century. And don’t get me started about performing competitions that require performance of one “modern or 20th century work” along with the obligatories, as if the 21st century never happened.

The advantages to the perpetrators of these myths are readily evident. Often caught between fulfilling grant and trustee obligations, winning kudos from critics, and the need for programming that fills seats, major music organizations see the programming of truly contemporary works as something worth touting as much as possible and putting into practice hardly at all.

This stretching of the truth goes on both very baldly and implicitly. Most orchestral concerts featuring a lone 20th century work give the impression that the music of Bartók or Bloch or Barber represents the most adventurous flavor worth sampling. Similarly, I’m all for Pierrot Lunaire, but I can’t stomach a composition composed nearly a hundred years ago being billed as part of a contemporary music concert. If we’re not really going to program new music, let’s at least be honest so we can see how precious little new music there really is—all the better to test the assumption that a fresh work written in the listener’s own time would really be any more off-putting to closed ears than one more performance of a 20th-century masterwork.

11 thoughts on “Stretching the Truth

  1. Paul Muller

    Great observation. Contemporary should mean by a living composer or at any rate a work produce by a composer who would be alive under normal actuarial circumstances.

    I think the term ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern’ are a bit harder to pin down and often lead to confusion in the average concert-goer.

    But I think that ‘New Music’ should now be considered as anything written in the current century.

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    Yes, this is infuriating. My not-very-thoroughly-theorized opinion is that “contemporary music” could be either post-’68 or post-’01, depending on the context and the nature of the concert series, ensemble, etc.

    Reply
  3. jh209

    I tend to use ‘modern’ in the colloquial sense (Nico Muhly is a modern composer) and ‘modernist’ for Bartok, Webern, etc. In some cases concert programmers may be taking advantage of the ambiguity of the term ‘modern,’ but more often than not it’s probably simple misrepresentation. I agree with Paul Muller’s definition of ‘contemporary’ and ‘new music’ (well, almost on the latter; I think ‘new music’ [or ‘new art’ generally, excluding ephemeral commercial media] should encompass more like twenty years, so since ~1992).

    Reply
    1. Frank J. Oteri

      I think ‘new music’ [or ‘new art’ generally, excluding ephemeral commercial media] should encompass more like twenty years, so since ~1992

      So that makes John Cage old music! Of course if works like Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912), which Dan mentioned in his post, were embraced as standard repertoire by programmers in the so-called mainstream, there would be no need for “specialist” modern music series devoted to such pieces. Then again if I was in charge of the universe there’d be at least one premiere on every program ;)

      Reply
      1. danvisconti

        Of course if works like Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912), which Dan mentioned in his post, were embraced as standard repertoire by programmers in the so-called mainstream, there would be no need for “specialist” modern music series devoted to such pieces.

        Frank, YES this would be my prescription in a nutshell: we need to get new pieces into “the repetoire” faster, which would obviate the need to pad “new music” concerts with Pierrot and Bartok. (Note that I’m not inveighing againist programming that pairs 20th and 21st century works–just the seeming “inflation” in which more and mroe works of our time become replaced with warhorses of the not-too-distant past). Of course we need more brand-new works especially at the major orchestras; but we also need to solidify the great works of the mid-20th century into the standard rep. An orchestra playing Messiaen should not pass this off as some kind of bold move–much less, a move that somehow satisfies the need for more music of our own time.

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  4. James Smart

    But there are also some works that, while written recently, say nothing new, ask no new questions, and only recycle what has been done before. I would be more apt to call a sixty-year old Cage work “modern” or even “contemporary” over these. I probably wouldn’t call any of the above “new” though.

    Reply
    1. jh209

      The demand that ‘recently-composed’ (to sidestep both of our buzzwords) music ‘ask […] new questions’ is out of place. Music is what it is. I’ve always found the notion silly that artists need to find new paths that reflect their epoch. It’s silly because everything we do as human beings reflects our epoch by definition, or else we couldn’t do it. If a composer today works in strict Palestrinian counterpoint, that reflects a greater awareness of 16th c. music in the 21st c. and the widespread incorporation of its principles into most composition curricula. In other words, the past in the present is still the present.

      Reply
  5. Joseph Holbrooke

    The way this community uses terms like “modern” and “contemporary” and “new” and “American” is very specific and quite different from their ordinary meaning. This intentionally ambiguous language seems very similar to the kind Dan mentions in his post. But is there any hope of getting this house in order?

    Reply
  6. lawrencedillon

    Dennis, of course, is right – “contemporary” is a completely subjective term. “con tempo” = “with the times.” Schumann and Mendelssohn were contemporaries, as are all who post on here, to greater or lesser degrees. If we equate the term with “challenging,” we do ourselves and it a disservice. Nobody would bill a program of Schoenberg and Cage as “challenging,” but that would be more appropriate than “contemporary.” The term “contemporary” doesn’t imply any particular sound-world — it could be modernist, post-modernist, pop, noise, soporific — as long as it came into being during the times of the person using the term.

    Reply

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