Sunday, November 29, 2009


Music critic Greg Sandow, who writes among other things about the future of classical music,  has just written a thought provoking series of blog posts comparing the history and current state of contemporary classical music with the history and current state of contemporary art. 

Why, Sandow wonders, will lines form for exhibitions of modern art at MOMA but there are no lines forming to hear modern orchestral music at Lincoln Center?  His theory is that “modern” art that is shown in museums is  contemporary – it reflects and builds upon the contemporary culture.  Whereas the “modern” classical music that is played by most orchestras does not reflect contemporary culture.

The impetus for this series of posts was the announcement by The Chicago Symphony Orchestra that it had hired Mason Bates and Anna Clyne to be its composers-in-residence.  Sandow wrote a brief post applauding them for what he said was long overdue.   According to Sandow, neither of them are “standard issue” classical composers.  Mason mingles classical music and pop; Clyne, he says, is less inclined to cross-over but her music has “immediate break-out-of-the-classical-concert hall appeal”.

So let me get contentious here. For years, the BIg Five orchestras -- New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philly, Boston -- featured modernist new music. Boulez, Matthias Pintscher, Birtwistle (a Cleveland favorite), Magnus Lindberg currently in New York, Carter and Babbitt currently in Boston. Along with a welcome dose of John Adams, but the emphasis was modernist. Or, in other words, on music that hardly anyone likes (whatever its virtues might be), music the normal audience can't respond to, and which also has no base (for instance among artists in other fields, or younger people) outside the classical audience. It's music like this, I think, which leads orchestras to conclude that new music doesn't -- no matter what many people might expect -- attract a young audience.

But of course there's another kind of new music that a young audience really does like, and that's what Mason Bates writes, and I'd think also what Anna Clyne writes. I've called that style alt-classical in endless posts here, pointed out that it has an audience (in New York, quite a large one), and challenged mainstream classical music institutions to wake up and start programming it. There are many, many, many composers who write in this style -- and now (in a clear break from the past) they're embraced by the Chicago Symphony. And evidently by Riccardo Muti himself, a music director I wouldn't have guessed would go in this direction. 

(emphasis mine).  The Long Overdue post must have garnered some attention in classical music circles.  Sam Bergman, at the Minnesota Orchestra’s blog, called the post Fightin’ Words.   He explains:

… fans of certain Modernist composers have never really been willing to acknowledge that Modernist music sounds like indecipherable noise to most listeners. (And to be fair, a lot of those who think Modernism was ill-conceived and hurt classical music badly also don't do a very good job of separating that judgment from the clear reality that Carter, Birtwhistle, Boulez, et al are brilliant men who deserve respect.) But if you ask me, Milton Babbitt's notorious screed, "Who Cares If You Listen?" (originally published in 1958,) tells us that Modernist music established itself as contemptuous of the audience at a very early stage, and I really don't think that's a debatable point.

All of Bergman’s analysis is worth a read and he basically seems to agree with Sandow . 

Back at Sandow’s original post, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra left a comment on the post pointing out some of the developments at the CSO in presenting works of contemporary composers.

Make no mistake: I am very enthusiastic about Anna and Mason's appointments. I simply want to point out that our organization's image as terminally old-school and "crusty" in matters such as this is not entirely deserved, and that these appointments don't feel like a complete about-face so much as the next chapter in a new direction begun here years ago.

There followed an interesting discussion in the comments between the CSO member and other commenters and Sandow (who realized that his response probably was worthy of another blog post.)  Sandow says, among other things:

I don't think -- and I know my views here surprise some people -- that orchestras should be playing modernist music or alt-classical new music for their regular audience. I find it amazing, as I've often said before, that orchestras force their regular audience to hear music that audience doesn't like. Where else -- in any presentation where people pay money for tickets -- would we find anything like that? I think it's crazy. I think orchestras should find an audience that likes new music, and play new music for that audience.

And that's true even if modernist music isn't heard at smaller orchestras. The big orchestras even so should find the audience that wants to hear it, and play the modernist music for that audience. And if there isn't such an audience, or not enough of one to make concerts of large modernist orchestra pieces financially reasonable, then we have a problem. But that problem isn't the fault of the audience.

I had mixed feelings when I read this.   I wholeheartedly agree that paying audiences shouldn’t be forced to sit through music that they don’t like.   On the other hand, it isn’t as if the orchestra doesn’t publish the program in advance.  The people buying tickets know what they are buying tickets to hear.  Where the problem arises, of course, is that orchestras “package” the modern works with other traditional popular work so that in order to hear, for instance, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony the audience must first sit through something they don’t really know and might not like.  But, then, Bruce Springsteen does that – often opening a concert with something from a new album that the crowd doesn’t really know and may not like.   The difference is, though, that the Springsteen audience is prepared to eventually like that new Springsteen song (or at least hear it again) whereas the audience often hears the new orchestral work and thinks “well, I never want to hear THAT again.”

My first thought was that, looking at my own experience,  Sandow was basically wrong.  I’ve learned to appreciate modern orchestral classical works (although not necessarily enjoy them) by having them forced on me.  I certainly wouldn’t have gone out of my way to hear them otherwise. So  I could see where this “sneaky” marketing might be thought necessary to build an audience for modern works.    But the more I thought about it, the more I began to change my mind and agree with Sandow. 

I think that Sandow’s point is that this approach isn’t really building an audience.  If I am the example, despite this constant force feeding of modern orchestral works and despite my ability to now appreciate them, it has never once occurred to me (and I can’t imagine it ever occurring to me) to go out of my way to buy a ticket to a program made up solely of modern classical orchestral music.   There has to be a carrot at the end of the program to tempt me.

Let’s compare this, though, with my opera experience.   Opera Theatre of St. Louis always packages four operas into a subscription series and one is always some sort of modern opera.  There is no reason I have to sit through the modern opera.  I can always leave, and sometimes  I do.  For instance, last season I was not forced to sit through the Corigliano opera in order to “get to” the Puccini.  And yet I LOVED the Corigliano and hated the Puccini (although the Puccini hate was not based on the music but on the production).   I have never bought tickets solely for a modern opera but I can imagine myself doing that if I were, for instance, to travel to another city and wanted to go to their opera and a modern opera were one of my choices.  So if I am representative, Opera Theatre of St. Louis has built an audience for modern opera by the simple act of exposing me to modern opera. 

But how much credit should OTSL get for this and how much blame should the SLSO get for not building an audience for modern orchestral music?   It appears to me that opera has moved beyond the atonal music phenomena and is back to melodic.  I actually enjoy some of the more recent modern operas and there have been some I wouldn’t mind seeing again.  The Anna Karenina by David Carlson of a few years ago is an example.   Whereas,  I would never buy a ticket for an atonal modern opera if it wasn’t part of a subscription series.  

Is my exposure to these pleasurable modern operas the result of OTSL weeding through all the available modern operas and choosing operas that will build an audience for modern opera?  Or is it just that modern opera is moving in this direction and the audience is going to start finding modern operas pleasurable if opera companies just bother to put them on the schedule?    Likewise is the SLSO not weeding through all the available modern orchestral works to find works that will build an audience for modern music – are they stuck in a rut of performing only modern works of a type that people don’t like?   Or is it that modern orchestral works simply haven’t evolved in a direction that audiences will find pleasurable?

Sandow seems to be saying that modern orchestral music of a type that contemporary audiences would find pleasurable and exciting does exist, that there is a ready made audience for them and symphonies are at fault for not choosing to perform those works but instead choosing to perform the “old standard” modern works that average audiences just don’t like (even if they have been educated to appreciate them).

In any event, Sandow followed up his above comments with an “impulsive three-part series” called Left Behind, Left Behind (2), and Left Behind (3),  on “how/why contemporary classical music -- as presented by mainstream classical music institutions -- isn't really part of current culture”.   I highly recommend the whole series.