Pretending to like new music

July 9, 2008
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Noted curmudgeon—and very smart and funny writer—Joe Queenan recently threw down the gauntlet at contemporary classical music and those who, in his view, claim to like it.

Some notable quotes from his article “Admit It, You’re as Bored as I am”:

“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.”

“…nothing thrills a classical music crowd more than a new piece of music that doesn't make them physically ill.”

“Why has the public accepted abstract art but not abstract music? (Discordant visual art does not cause visceral pain, discordant music does.) Why does the public accept atonal music in films, but not in the concert hall? (“Jaws” wouldn't work if the shark's attacks were synchronized with “Carmen.” We expect sound effects in the movies, but we're not going to pay to hear them in the concert hall.)”

See the full piece here.

So are audiences only pretending to appreciate new music?

Is there any serious orchestral music of the last thirty years likely to still be played and listened to by willing audiences fifty years from now?

Should orchestras stick to old school, crowd-pleasers?

How do you react when you see an unknown, contemporary piece on the ISO's lineup?

Your thoughts?
  • I once played a CD of one of Philip Glass's symphonies while I was cleaning my apartment. It took me an hour to realize that I had left my CD player on repeat mode and had been listening to the same track over and over.

    And I actually like Philip Glass!

    (I would not, however, believe anyone who claims to be able to listen to the entirety of any of his operas without the assistance of illicit drugs, or perhaps severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
  • About a dozen years ago I wanted to see a an ISO concert and when I went to buy the tickets I was upsold to a four concert package. I enjoyed the performance I originally signed up for, but the other three, all from 20th century composers, I thought awful. All these years I assumed I didn't know enough about music to understand the difference between a good or bad classical performance, this is still probably true, but it is good to know I'm not alone. Your piece has liberated me from this long held shame - thanks Lou.
  • A number of years ago, in Chicago, I saw the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha about Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi got thrown off the train 6 times. I swear he did. The opera was actually eye candy and worth the time even though I still don't enjoy Glass's music.
  • As funny as Queenan can be, it's a pretty catty perspective and downright negative. I am impressed that he continues to make the effort to hear new music. He clearly hears a lot of it, just reading about the references he makes in his piece. However, if he really hates his job that much, I'm sure that a bright and funny man such as himself could find something else to do.

    And, just because some composers have been able to package themselves into something with mass-market appeal (Philip Glass) or accepted in academic/pseudo-intellectual circles (Ralph Shapey, for example) doesn't mean the entire new classical music medium is without merit or lacking in sincere expressive value. I have had true goose-bump moments and felt great uplifting and propulsive energy from several new works (Jennifer Higdon, Avner Dorman, Michael Daugherty, John Adams and even Philip Glass' Violin Concerto...even Glass has written some truth that speaks to people without politics playing a role.) Queenan's condemnation of new music just isn't fair.

    And, BTW, the last time I felt like walking out of a concert hall, Schumann's Violin Concerto was being performed...played very well I might add, but what a dreadful piece of crap. Syphillis had indeed taken it's toll on that creative mind. OY!
  • I think that it is telling that the only 20th/21st century music that really appeals to (and is recognized by) the vast majority of us is film music (Copeland and Karl Jenkins aside). For example, how about the theme from Star Wars? I know that I am not terribly well-versed in modern composers, but that's because I don't like most of them. Anyway, it seems to me that it's the film music from this age that really moves us - not atonal, terribly emotional, and MEMORABLE. I think that the themes from Pirates of the Carribbean and Chronicles of Narnia are so moving, and there are so many more! Really, I think that the reason behind all this atonal modern stuff is because that's what the budding young composers are taught by academics who maybe couldn't compose a decent piece if they tried, but
  • I think the noted curmudgeon does not realize the vast, VAST quantities of 2nd
    rate music that 18th and 19th century audiences and critics had to sit through
    before the results were distilled down to the standard repertoire of today. And
    yet the best composers wrote plenty of lesser works that get regular play and
    fail to get me excited when I go to a classical music concert.

    Even if I consider myself a champion of new music and buy recordings and
    performances any chance I get, I have heard my share of bad stuff--some of
    it written by composers I know and admire. I believe the music that is good is
    not getting repeat performances when they are well received. I do not believe the
    musicians are holding their noses for new works unless they are the bad works.

    Music is not for sound effects unless you want to buy the 20 or so recordings of
    Vivaldi's Four Seasons available at any point in time on iTunes. Would rock
    music be a vital music form if all you could get on the radio or online was All
    Beetles, all the time, or playing you more of the Carpenter's 24/7, or your
    grandparents loved this, so you better like it too!

    I am amazed that music written over 50 years ago is too modern for some
    concertgoers and curmudgeons and it was based on eastern European folk tunes.
    Music isn't sound effects but what is wrong with music that evokes a visceral,
    deep emotional response? Get over if a work is tonal or atonal. Most of the
    purely academic composers have been marginalized by most good music
    programers. Must music always be predictable? Is you say yes, stick with Vivaldi
    and the Carpenters. I believe classical music lost its way while contemporary
    art flourished because programs made bad new music choices, failed to repeat
    the great works of the modern era, and kept dishing up the same old standard
    repertoire as a defense for what is Truth and Beauty.

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