|Not everyone wants to do this with their grand piano. From Flickr with a Creative Commons License.|
One of my Facebook friends recently shared an old Alex Ross article from November 2010 called “Why do we hate modern classical music?” I hadn’t read it before, and I think it is still a question that many people are asking. So, I’d like to respond to it here. If you haven't read it, you can find it here.
Ross’s basic argument is that while other avant-garde arts (painting, literature, theater, architecture) from the previous 100 years has become famous and valuable, most classical concert goers would rather hear music from at least 100 years ago. He brings up several theories about why people don’t like avant-garde art music, and then discounts them. Instead, Ross blames the institutions that promote classical music—unlike art museums, orchestras are not willing to be champions of the new. If everyone were exposed to the new stuff more often so they acquire the taste, he argues, it would be different. He uses himself as an example of someone who used to love the music of 100 years ago, but now likes the new stuff, too. Further, audiences need someone to 1) explain the new music and 2) banish the idea that all music is meant to be soothing.
Modern classical music is hard
While I think that Ross undermines his argument by picking specific examples instead of giving a big picture, he is probably right—avant-garde art music from the last 100 years isn’t well understood because it isn’t played enough.
I think Ross fails to mention a major reason about why art music is not performed more, though—not just because musical institutions and critics worship the past, but because new music is much harder. Not only is it harder to listen to and understand, but it is harder to practice and put on, taking more work and more coordination. While avant-garde art, literature, and architecture are also difficult to make, they are pretty much ready to consume after they are made. People can peruse them as much as they like and get used to them. It is easier for non-music art to be seen and become part of the art landscape. The hurdle is higher for new avant-garde art music because you have to practice, produce, and perform it, instead of just exhibit or read it, and practicing, producing, and performing new avant-garde art music is way more difficult than with older art music.
What about recorded music, though? It is consumed as easily as literature and art, right? Well, it still takes time to sit and listen to the music, which is especially hard when there is so much well-known, easily graspable music out there. Also, releasing recording music into the void takes away the control of the tastemakers, and as Ross insinuates, as with visual art, unless the musical institutions program it, people will just listen to something easier, because listening to new music is hard. While it takes time to sit through a book, also, music is inherently more abstract than literature, especially when the music doesn’t have words. When the music has been made less abstract—with a lecture, or added words, or added pictures (as in the case of the movies)—people have something more they can hold on to as they try to make sense of the abstractness. All of these extra needed layers means that the acceptance of the musical avant-garde comes around later the acceptance of the other arts. New music was also hard to put on 100 years ago, for those people—even more so, without recordings—so this explains why people 100 years ago also preferred music of the past.
So, we shouldn’t tell musical institutions simply to preform more new music, because it doesn’t acknowledge a very real challenge in musical programming. Instead, we should take from a different approach—that audiences need to hear new music because it is important, not just new music for new music’s sake.
Because it’s just easier to put on Messiah and Carmina Burana again—everyone knows the parts already and people will come and hum bits to themselves when they leave (see?).
Next week, I’ll propose a way for music institutions to do just that—show new music as part of something bigger and an important part of a whole. Sneak peak: it involves musical institutions like symphony orchestras acting more like museums.