This Summer's Debate: Boring New Music

Last October the classical blogosphere was rather indignant about Richard Taruskin’s nasty review of three books on the current state of classical music. John discussed it at length and you can read his posts, and the original Taruskin review, right here.

This summer we’re being challenged by The Guardian’s Joe Queenan to fess up to the unlistenability of modern classical music. Since the article has been out for more than week, there’s been time for modern music advocates in the blogosphere to leap to the defense of those young composers in Queenan’s sights, the conductors who program them, and the audience that is indeed willing to give these works a sincere hearing, no matter how small that group might be.

Queenan’s writing is excellent when he reigns in the snark — and he does, sadly, find examples that resonate — not that this makes him right.

In New York, Philadelphia and Boston, concert-goers have learned to stay awake and applaud politely at compositions by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun. But they do this only because these works tend to be short and not terribly atonal; because they know this is the last time in their lives they’ll have to listen to them; and because the orchestra has signed a contract in blood guaranteeing that if everyone holds their nose and eats their vegetables, they’ll be rewarded with a great dollop of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn.

So, it’s the audience’s fault? Maybe:

I no longer believe that fans of classical music are especially knowledgeable - certainly not in the way jazz fans are. American audiences, even those that fancy themselves quite in the know, roll over and drool like trained seals in the presence of charismatic hacks phoning in yet another performance of the Emperor Concerto.

Or not. After more insults to the audience, Queenan reaches his verdict. He, you see, isn’t one of those inattentive boobs. He is also bored, so it must be the music.

I have tried to come to terms with the demands of modern music. I am no lover of Renaissance Muzak, and own tons of records by Berg, Varèse, Webern, Rihm, Schnittke, Adès, Wuorinen, Crumb, Carter, and Babbitt: I consider myself to be the kind of listener contemporary composers would need to reach if they had any hope of achieving a breakthrough. So far, this has not happened, and I doubt that it will.

In response, Tom Service argues that it’s Queenan who’s being smug and picks apart Queenan’s “unvoiced assumptions” — such as his insistence on lumping together every “difficult” 20th-century composer from Berg to Babbitt. Another assumption: that “everyone” finds this music — all of it — as boring (at best) as Queenan does — but some of us refuse to admit it because we want to appear superior.

Let’s pause for a personal anecdote, albeit on a different place along the “listenable music” spectrum. Stopping in the powder room on the way into what I thought of as a  performance of the Schoenberg piano concerto, with some Bach and Beethoven added, I was both amused and saddened to hear several of the ladies whining about “having to sit throught that awful SHOWN-berg” just to get to Beethoven’s Fifth. This was, regrettably, a common theme in Chicago Tribune letters to the editor especially during this time, in which the CSO’s wonderful Beethoven/Schoenberg retrospective happened to coincide with the announcement of Daniel Barenboim’s planned departure from the orchestra. There was some unseemly jubilation, justified by certain letter writers’ conviction that Barenboim and other unnamed co-conspiritors were amusing themselves by trying to come up with the ugliest possible music to make their audiences sit through. In common with Joe “Admit It” Queenan, the idea that someone like me, with advanced musical training but not killer technical chops (this is Bonnie talking, not John), could actually enjoy this stuff, is not part of their worldview. They remind me of the “Intelligent Design” movement - because they personally cannot conceive of something it must not be so.

Remember, though, that my example was Schoenberg’s piano concerto. A 60-year-old piece. I find it disheartening that a piece can stand the test of time for some of us, and still sound like “godawful modern stuff” to so many people. And while Joe Queenan does lump the Second Viennese School into his Canon of Music We Pretend To Like, I personally start having difficulty appreciating music from the 60s and later. I’ve always assumed that this was a combination of genuine problems with modern music and my own insufficient exposure and training. In some cases it’s a genuine taste issue — much of modern music is either too technically simple (minimalism, neoromanticism) or too complex (academicism).

The point, with reference to Queenan, is that it wouldn’t occur to me to assume that those who genuinely love, say, minimalism are just trying to impress their friends. If you know David Ellis, who often comments here, he’s not trying to impress anyone. His passion for that genre is obvious, as is his detailed command of the subject. Tom Service puts it better:

At the Barbican and the South Bank for the last 20 years, Stockhausen concerts have packed the place out. And not just with “brash young urbanites”, either, but with people whose interest in contemporary art, in electronics, in pop, in sound-art, in architecture, makes them want to experience Stockhausen’s soundworld in the flesh.

And you know what? It’s not just Karlheinz: Luigi (Nono), Iannis (Xenakis), Steve (Reich), György (Ligeti), Luciano (Berio), and Pierre (Boulez), to name just a few of the giants of 20th-century music, have all had the same galvanizing effect on getting people into concert halls in London in the last few years. This isn’t because people want to eat their greens and roughage before they go back to Mahler and Brahms, but because of the unique, elemental, and often joyful power of their music: these composers have opened up areas of imagination that no other music, and no other art, has ever done in the past - and in ways that people want to hear.

In fact, the bolder the programming has been, the more people have come. Yes, if you apologetically sandwich a piece of Carter between Mozart and Tchaikovsky, you’re unlikely to give the impression that this is the music that ought to replace the classics in years to come, but that’s also, partly, to bark up the wrong tree. There are people who love Brian Ferneyhough but hate Mozart, who go to concerts of hardcore electronica and John Cage, but don’t give a monkey’s for Haydn or Ravel. Conversely, as the Aldeburgh Festival has proved, especially over the last decade, if you put new music imaginatively in the context of the past, you create connections that audiences understand, appreciate, and you start a love affair with contemporary music. Aldeburgh has, incidentally, probably the oldest audience for new music anywhere in the country.

I DO wonder how much genuine love there can be for academic music among those without doctoral-level chops. But it would be absurd to give academic composers the credit or blame for some grand anti-audience conspiracy.

ENO artistic director John Berry responds by acknowledging the (at least perceived) inaccessibility of modern music and the challenge it presents for audience-building. At ENO they’re doing at least one positive thing — foregoing the supposed cachet of world premieres by giving second hearings to existing modern works. Berry, too, believes the audience is much larger than is apparent and disbelieves the idea that intellectual pressure drives attendence.

Mainly because I’m running out of allotted blog time, I’ll just cite one more response here. Other responses are found on the Related Link below.

The blogger at Le Flaneur de Tacoma (whose name I didn’t rummage around for) places Queenan in a critical subgenre nicely dubbed “X is not as great as it’s supposed to be if you listened to a bunch of snobs.”

Queenan’s piece falls into what I call the ” X is not as great as it’s supposed to be if you listened to a bunch of snobs” genre. The “X” could be “Finnegans Wake”, the paintings of Mark Rothko, modern poetry, or whatever the author deems pretentious. The gist of these pieces is to make the reader feel comfortable with disliking, or even better, totally ignoring, certain works of art.

What I especially dislike in these “the emperor has no clothes” type columns is that they might keep people from encountering art because someone has said that it’s difficult. In that sense, it’s just another form of the “Finnegans Wake Syndrome”. Some art is just too difficult to appreciate, or, as Queenan has it, just too boring.