This Is Just The Beginning

The past few weeks have demonstrated that there are discussions—good, meat-on-the-bone discussions—to be had about contemporary concert music and the creative artists whose work is so important to our cultures and aesthetic well being. That the recent conversations about bringing attention to composers with lists both big and small have induced such passionate reactions and dialogues only proves how vital these debates are. I very much appreciate the many varied and disparate viewpoints that have percolated through the comment threads of both columns, and recognize their value in staving off complacency as well as reevaluating one’s own observations and conclusions.

So…where do we go from here? As interesting as the previous exchanges have been, they only scratch the surface of what can be done to gain a better self-knowledge of who we are as a music community and ultimately expand our audiences and their appreciation of our work. While conversations between composers can be both useful and fruitful, we should not forget to address those who are not composers themselves or who are not intimately aware of the new music community. It is my hope, then, that we can find ways to introduce who we are and what we do to others in a way that is simple, educational, and enticing.

One quote from the comments section of my column last week brought me up short:

Being somewhat jaded from decades as a musician and manager, and in no way a great admirer of contemporary music. I was very positively surprised when I listened to Lisa Bielawa’s double violin concerto and Corey Dargel’s piece.

There may be hope for contemporary music yet!

Appearing as it did right in the middle of some pretty energetic debate, this reader’s reaction effectively encapsulated the point of the column—to introduce composers and works to those who were unaware of them with the hope that they would want to learn more. This individual did not like new music and yet was not only reading an article on NewMusicBox but seemed willing to listen to the audio files on the off-chance they were to his liking. Much in the same way that Drew McManus’s Adapstration site promotes “Take a Friend to the Orchestra,” we can find ways to bring those new to our field to the table, make them comfortable with taking risks, and allowing our own enthusiasms to spread in non-traditional ways.

In addition to inviting in new audiences, expanding our own discourses to bring together artists from across the aesthetic and artistic spectrum should be a constant priority. While we can’t expect every project to be all-inclusive, we as a community can strive to make sure our colleagues are aware of who’s out there and what new contributions are being made to our art. A great post by Jennie Gottschalk on her blog Sound Expanse made several cogent points to this end and made me wonder what more can be done to actively and enthusiastically increase our own awareness, knowledge, and appreciation of those artists who may differ from us in their language, process, and aesthetic.

In some ways, new music (however one might define such a thing) has been able to reach much further than before, and as the Internet and social media have evolved, so has the access to live and studio recordings, scores, and in many cases the composers themselves. This increased access is promising, but if it is not paired with education and awareness, its impact will be severely stunted. It would be great to hear about ideas you have as far as what forms this education and awareness, directed both inwards and externally, could take. I look forward to hearing your constructive ideas in the comments section below.

10 thoughts on “This Is Just The Beginning

  1. Woody Sullender

    Can you be explicit in exactly why contemporary concert music is “so important to our cultures and aesthetic well being”? I tend to side with Dave Hickey’s arguments that art isn’t inherently “good for you”.

    Your goal to “ultimately expand our audiences and their appreciation of our work” seems mainly a one-way street. I wonder if the financing of concert music has something to do with this. Contemporary abstract painters aren’t having conversations about how to get more people to appreciate abstract painting. Why might composers be saying this?

    I do completely agree that it should be a priority to expand “our own discourses to bring together artists from across the aesthetic and artistic spectrum”. I often hear complaints from composers and artists working in sound that visual artists and critics don’t speak their language, but these same composers often can’t speak a contemporary art language either.

    I think it is important to look to musicians and composers like John Cage, Henry Flynt, Max Neuhaus, Christian Marclay, etc. who worked within arts contexts. We might not recognize some of their work as “music”, but it should influence our own practices. As visual artists were challenging the context for their work (such as the gallery walls) for much of the 20th century, why are composers so beholden to the concert music model?

    Reply
    1. Clint Needham

      I don’t have an answer for anything… but, visual arts and music have almost nothing to do with each other and the model for visual art will probably not work for music. Visual art can be rejected at an instant by someone in a gallery or wherever it’s presented… contemporary art music is presented in time and the listener must sit through it. Also, no matter how abstract, we can see visual art as a MACRO presentation and relate lines, colors, textures, shadow, etc. to what we are used to. All music is abstract and takes forces to perform (one to hundreds of people)… there is nothing definite like color, line, shape, dimension, etc. in music and a person cannot just buy our orchestral scores and realize them like they can a piece of visual art. Because of these limitations, it often times necessitates we work in the established model that work for dead composers… that’s not to say we cannot make new sounds with this – the orchestra or string quartet is like a canvas and we can be as experimental or tonal as we wish.

      Reply
  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    The good thing about websites is that can be visited from anyplace in the world, or by anybody. I’m not a composer and have commented your columns, as anybody interested in the music of today, even those who are very far from NYC like me.

    I’m glad that those two columns were so succesful. Waiting for the next one!

    Reply
  3. chris sahar

    Write music for the most prevalent chamber instrument around – electric guitar, bass guitar keyboards drums vocalist and mic.

    Reply
  4. Brighton

    The best way to increase awareness of new music is to write better music. Reggae was not very popular until Bob Marley started recording really good reggae albums. Nobody had to be begged to
    Ike it. It is easier for a great song to go viral today than ever before.

    Too much of our music is written for each other to show how clever we all are. I’m not saying dumb down your music, just do what you do in a manner that communicates real feelings and ideas to real people. That’s why people like Beethoven, Gershwin, and Björk. It’s not about style or syntax. Our music is unpopular largely because it lacks heart.

    Reply
    1. Jon

      First of all, are you really arguing that something that’s more popular is automatically better? There are too many counterexamples for that to even start listing them.

      I also have some problems with your reggae comment. Bob Marley making reggae popular to white American audiences does not entail him making reggae popular period. It was already popular in Jamaica for a decade before Marley started getting popular internationally. And also, it’s not that he was simply better that made him popular among white Americans, Marley was very consciously trying to make his music more appealing to white audiences by including things that would play well with them (like more prominent guitar solos and downplaying the use of Patois)

      My point is, don’t equate good marketing decisions with something just being better.

      Reply
    2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      Jon’s right that what makes a certain music or musician popular cannot always be traced directly to the quality of the music. Cultural phenomena are popularized ironically (throwback styles), through aggressive marketing (Bieber), or simply because they contain elements which appeal to previously unreached audiences (Marley).

      That said, it is foolish for us to pretend that we are powerless to influence audience reactions to our music.

      Reply
  5. Colin Holter

    Our music is unpopular largely because it lacks heart.

    That’s extremely cynical. I think my friends and colleagues produce music with tremendous “heart” – music in which they give, in which they invest the best of themselves.

    Beethoven’s music is understood to “communicate real feelings and ideas to real people” because Western societies have had hundreds of years to recognize that it’s supposed to convey feelings and ideas and to get used to the work that it takes to read those feelings and ideas in it. Reggae may not have been “very popular” until Bob Marley came along, but that doesn’t argue against the merits of Toots and the Maytals – whose music must have seemed quite magical to anyone in the early 60s with the cultural apparatus to find its “real feelings and ideas.”

    Reply
  6. Phil Fried

    “..There may be hope for contemporary music yet!..”
    “…Our music is unpopular largely because it lacks heart….”

    Until we stop jockeying for position and fighting among ourselves we will continue to be irrelevant to the world at large. Recent trends, like past trends, are only the tip of the icebergs of “new music”. To dismiss one style to advance another is to dismiss us all.

    Reply
  7. ARG

    I hate to sound so cynical, and I hate to be pejorative. With that sad, I feel as though the biggest contributors to the declining interest in “New Music” are prudishness, lack of education, and time. I want to expound on this, but I am sure to step on plenty of toes. Therefore, I will emphasize that our art does not NEED improving because it already IS improving constantly. The trouble is our audiences (not all of them) are unwilling to understand what we’re composing or simply not capable of understanding it. Clint Needham stated that “all music is abstract”. If this is true, then all visual art is abstract as well. My argument is that familiarities in any form are not abstract, which may be why Pollack’s work has become very popular, similar to Ligeti. The tendency to associate “New Music” with “horror films” is EXTREMELY dangerous (oh, the countless times I’ve heard intelligent musicians exclaim that they play “Pierrot Lunaire” on Halloween to scare children makes me cringe every time), and this MUST be diminished. The simple fact is that we live in a fast, overwhelming, overstimulating world, where it is impossible to know/hear/see everything. Visual art is immediate and quick (even though it probably shouldn’t be) in ways that a 6-hour string quartet will never be (and should never be). I was told that, in order to win certain composition competitions, one should submit a piece of music that begins FFF, because it’s attention-grabbing. Horrible, eh? But more often than not it’s an unfortunate truth. My point is that immediacy is preferred these days over craft/intellect. I’m NOT in no way saying that the two cannot meld, but the mere fact that immediacy MUST be present is rather unfortunate. There is also so much to say about the need to “have an image” or a “brand”, and the necessity to follow marketing trends, which turns being a composer into a business rather than a medium to be true to art. That is an entirely different post, though.

    Reply

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