Does new music attract buzz anymore? When is the last time you heard a bunch of people standing around talking about a recent premiere? I’ve witnessed a number of Monday-morning-quarterback-esque discussions of major pieces among composers, but these conversations always seem so clinical and detached—they’ve certainly never been characterized by any semblance of excitement. Nobody seems to get stoked about the new Carter concerto, whereas the merest whiff of a Pavement reunion whips the hipsters into a blogging frenzy. What gives?

Is it the material? I guess we have no Piss Christ in music, to choose an easy example; to my knowledge, no piece in the last ten years has been able to galvanize contrary opinions so powerfully. Since the radical New York School works, we seem to have had a relatively polite scene; most of the “controversies” in new music are quibbles that only seem to exist between warring factions of specialists whose views per se are of no consequence to most normal people.

Is it the press? The mainstream media has all but abandoned contemporary music as a newsworthy topic. Even high-culture periodicals devote much more ink to traditional classical music and pop music than to what we do. The contemporary music world is so bizarre—sometimes almost cartoonishly so—that I bet the sheer weirdness of it would get people interested, if only in the same way that people are interested in strange-looking bugs. It would be a start.

Is it us? My impression is that most of the American new music cognoscenti go to concerts and either like the music or don’t, and can usually hazard guesses about why—too long, poor orchestration, weak concept, etc. I’m as guilty as anybody else on this count; even if we really appreciate a new piece, we tend to jump immediately to thumbnail analysis on the way out of the hall. I think this is generally a healthy instinct, but it probably stifles some of the endorphins. I can’t remember the last time I left a recital with the irrepressible urge to gush rather than to dissect the successes and failures of the program. Maybe our professional weltschmerz is so overpowering that even we can’t really get that giddy about it anymore.

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19 thoughts on “Buzz

  1. sgordon

    Just get used to it: fact is that fewer people are interested in buying some new classical album than in buying Paris Hilton’s new album. What constitutes an embarrassing failure in the pop world would be considered a “smash crossover success” on this side of the fence. This is the life you chose to embrace. You knew it going in, and if you didn’t know you’re completely delusional. Quit complaining about it.

    Is it us?

    Well, duh.

    Maybe our professional weltschmerz is so overpowering that even we can’t really get that giddy about it anymore.

    Anymore? Did you ever?

    And how do you expect normal people to get giddy about anything made by people who go around saying weltschmertz?

    The contemporary music world is so bizarre—sometimes almost cartoonishly so—that I bet the sheer weirdness of it would get people interested

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking that weird is in any way equivalent (or even related) to interesting. The scene you’re talking about isn’t weird in, say, the ugly bug way, or the David Lynch way, or the Outkast way, or any kind of “interesting” weird. No, it’s weird like the A/V Club and the “Mathletes” were in high school.

    You see, classical music does not attract “buzz” because it doesn’t attract anything. It has no charisma. If you’re going to be weird, you have to elicit some human emotion. I mean one besides boredom.

    A bug can elicit fear, disgust, or a sense of natural beauty (like with butterflies and crap…) – point is it triggers something. What the hell does “The New Complexity” elicit? It’s the same reason the literary world doesn’t get excited over the release of a new book of brain teasers.

    If you really want people to start noticing us, here’s my suggestion: One word – heroin. More of us need to do heroin. Not me, I’m too old. But some of you hardy youngsters maybe ought to start in on it. Mötley Crüe, Miles Davis, Eric Clapton… plus heroin = cool / minus heroin = lame. Point being maybe the kids would be more excited for a new Carter piece if, say, he’d died of an overdose at 27. Yes, we’ll need an overdose or two, and it wouldn’t hurt if someone on the cusp of stardom drank themselves into a stupor and wrapped their brains around a telephone pole. Success demands sacrifice.

    It’s either that or the Josh Groban route. I’ll go with the former, the sex is freakier.

    Speaking of which, there’s not enough sex, deviant or otherwise. No one goes to a classical concert to get laid. I’m sorry, you expect me to spend my Friday night dropping $35 to see some new Jennifer Higdon premiere in reverent silence instead of $6 to catch some band in a club where I can buy alcohol for Jennifer Jailbait? Pssh. Classical concerts are for married people.

    If you could somehow encourage twentysomethings to dress scantily and dance up a sweat it might be more interesting. Maybe hire strippers. That’d get me “excited” for a premiere. Though how anyone could be sensual with Babbitt (or whatever) blonking away is beyond me.

  2. jbunch

    As you’ve pointed out, most buzzing is really just hissing about particular aesthetic/stylistic choices. But this is important. What made piss christ such a crapshoot was interpreted by some as an affront to a person (perhaps really a symbol) that is extremely important to a particular community of individuals. The Rite pissed people off because the dancers were cramping the classical balletic conception (and I’ve heard that was the greater contention for the majority of audience members – even more so than the music).

    The point I’m getting at, as illustrated by last weeks idle chatter, is that these aesthetic encampments are really creating the same response patterns that were present in many of those historical riot pieces. I get the feeling that Evan Ziporyn or Steve Mackey are trying to make a specific claim about what new music should be when they deal in the ecclectic trade. This is not to say that they reject everything else, but that they advocate the obliteration between so-called high and low art and that is to some extent what their music addresses. Some people find this intriguing, others are much less comfortable with the mix (the artistic anxiety of the market if you will).

    Now if by buzz you don’t mean controversey , then I guess I see your point. There are premieres that I get genuinely excited about – like for instance last summer’s premiere of Ferneyhough’s “Shadowtime.” I was particularly interested in whether or not, and how he would adapt the level of complexity for such a large and intricate situation like an opera company.

    I tend to think of the excitement factor as a personal issue. Probably there is a great deal of us who are part of the grad-student world that are exhausting ourselves and one another with the constant smugness and cynicism of the typical musical diatribes we converge upon – but again, that seems like a personal issue.

  3. pgblu

    Before JKG gets in here and says “It’s the abject freakishness and general meaninglessness of today’s music”, I thought I’d throw in something hopefully more nuanced.

    It’s true that a large part of New Music’s image is tarnished by the fact that there’s a lot of bad composers now, as there always have been and will be. Going to a New Music concert is a risk, as one is just as likely to come home from an evening wasted as to come home feeling enlightened. This is something we can do nothing about and isn’t worth discussing. It’s a problem that belongs to the promoters.

    Composers can, however, think a little about the aura of the concert hall and the consequences of that aura. People predisposed, perhaps, to enjoying contemporary music might also be predisposed to boredom with the ‘full frontal’ nature of the proscenium stage, the black tie and tails, the cough drops, the stench of bourgeoise and conservatism that is associated with going to the symphony.

    As Manos Tsangaris has pointed out (and he’s not the only one), there is a political dimension here, too. New Music either presupposes or trains a kind of sensitivity to perceptual phenomena; at a heightened state, that sensitivity is bound to transfer to other realms. The upshot: those who see and understand the freedom from convention that modern music seems to promise will come to find the convention of sitting there and listening passively to also be irritating. Conversely, those who are happy to sit back and buy into the ‘full frontal’ might not want or might not accept that freedom.

    We live in a short-attention-span society. True, music is valid when it simply rejects that s-a-s and presents something that requires sustained concentration (i.e., Carter’s new concerto), but alternatively, music can try to somehow deal with the s-a-s issue, acknowledge that it is there, and critique it. That’s something that Manos Tsangaris is trying to do, for example, and I wish his music was more accessible to you, Colin and Dear Reader, but it is unfortunately very poorly documented, and difficult because it is theater as well as music, and also neither of these. Try Google, I guess… But on the other hand, he isn’t the only composer trying to address the problem.

    Is ‘short-attention-span’ music possible, which sensitizes the s-a-s sufferer to his or her attention habits? It can be along the lines of minimalism, for all I care, but has anyone else thought about this?

  4. jbunch

    Why are you even a compser? You seem to have such an overwhelming chip on your shoulder for everything new music that it makes me wonder if you are just wasting your time. If you think all of this is so uninteresting, why are you bothering to take part in it?

  5. pgblu

    I for one am glad about sgordon’s comment, because it helps me make mine. Beethoven’s music surely would have gotten him laid, if he didn’t have such body odor. Today, though, it can’t compete with music that has a multimedia element, where the sex is clearly on display and gives the illusion of being available for sale. The short attention span hungers for this kind of product, and surely will leave it behind, in turn, as the technology gets more and more sophisticated. Video bunnies can’t compete with virtual reality bunnies, which can’t compete with ENHANCED virtual reality bunnies. Do we seriously expect music to compete in this market? Does this situation make music obsolete?

    If we have to debate the obsolescence of music, isn’t that the point at which great artists get cracking and take us in new directions?

  6. Colin Holter

    Maybe I didn’t make this clear, sgordon: I’m not concerned (at least not in the context of this week’s column) with whether a mass public gets excited about new music but with whether we, constituents of the new music community, get excited about it. There are severe demographic differences between the average American and the average American new music fan. I wouldn’t expect some dude off the street to be jumping up and down over a Murail premiere.

    Maybe your tastes conform exactly to national averages, but if so, I think you’re an atypical composer. It’s also possible that you were being sarcastic – if this is the case, could I ask you to take it down a notch? I’m not even really sure what you were trying to say.

    By the way: “New Complexity” (not a term whose use I sanction, except to describe a specific body of music from a particular moment in the recent past) is only a brain-teaser if you’re a composer. To normal civilians, it looks like somebody flailing around on his instrument, and it can actually be quite moving. The most positive and enthusiastic post-concert reaction I’ve ever received was in response to a piece with complex tuplets, constant tempo changes, parametric staves, and thoroughgoing quarter-tones.


    a few responses
    pgblu: “If we have to debate the obsolescence of music, isn’t that the point at which great artists get cracking and take us in new directions?”

    sgordon: “You see, classical music does not attract ‘buzz’ because it doesn’t attract anything. It has no charisma. If you’re going to be weird, you have to elicit some human emotion. I mean one besides boredom.”

    Colin: “Maybe our professional weltschmerz is so overpowering that even we can’t really get that giddy about it anymore.”

    Just wanted to summarize for a second, and wonder aloud, am I really in the minority of composers because I get irrepressibly excited about new music? Yes, it’s true that because I am a composer I listen with a more critical ear. So I can find cogent reasons why I don’t like something when I don’t like it. But that same critical ear leads me to be absolutely ECSTATIC when I hear a new piece of music that moves me. I practically go into a frenzy of re-hashing the piece, remembering the best moments, pondering how I could riff on them for my own music, and generally buzzing like a live wire. That feeling is why I’m a musician, and nothing else gives me that high, and that full-body-and-mind appreciation is worth everything. My insider’s knowledge of music makes me more critical, but that allows me to appreciate great music at a delightfully deep level that I’d never trade for anything in the world.

    sgordon: I’m just going to hope that you were being sarcastic. And if not, I’ll just note that classical music is, 9 times out of 10, what film-makers choose to elicit extremes of emotion. Opera is usually cited as the height of insane passion, and opera singers mocked because their passions spill over into restaurants sometimes. And I could keep going, but you get the idea.

    And pgblu, you ask “If we have to debate the obsolescence of music, isn’t that the point at which great artists get cracking and take us in new directions?” I’d just like to point out that we don’t have to debate this at all. Opera companies and symphonies are posting increased revenue for the first time in a while. Music schools are busting at the seams with students. New music groups are forming all over the place. Certainly none of these things are as big or splashy as Paris Hilton’s album (!?!) but the fact remains that within its smaller sphere, music is thriving, bursting with energy, and evolving in its own odd ways. Some of us here may be calling it obsolete, but the 400 music students in the university where I make my living would think it was a bizarre thought, especially given the 250 concerts presented here a year, with attendances typically ranging from 40 to 600.

  8. sgordon

    I’m not concerned (at least not in the context of this week’s column) with whether a mass public gets excited about new music but with whether we, constituents of the new music community, get excited about it.

    I was addressing that very question, though extrapolating it outward. After all, are we not human? Do new music fans have some kink in ther DNA that gets off on repressing their sensual instincts? None that I know do. My point was that perhaps the reasons we don’t get excited about any of this are the same reasons no one else does. The “hallowed” presentation of classical music is an affront to human nature – the natural inclination to be moved to the point of physical and vocal expression by art is forcibly subsumed in the name of “ettiquette” or some other such rot. Who cares if your performers are thrashing around onstage? What about the music they’re playing? Will I want to buy the CD? If I want to see people thrash around, I’ll go to a wrestling show or an action movie. Let your audience thrash around. Make them thrash around. Miss freakin’ Manners runs our concert halls. How do you get excited about going to Miss Manners’ house, “new music fan” or not?

    But…. the presentation, and the perception – that’s only the half of it. Because people do get excited about concert music now and then. The issue you bring up only half-exists.

    See, you talk about “new music” as if it’s all the same, and it’s clearly, clearly not. It’s a very specific form of “new music” you’re talking about, here – call it “academic” if you will, for lack of a better term – or “uptown” – or whatever. Thing is, other “new music” seems to do all right. There certainly was a lot of buzz around Adams’ Dr. Atomic among the “we” of whom you speak. Transmigration as well, I don’t know anyone without an opinion on it. Everyone had to hear it. I remember lots of chatter on An American Tragedy, too. He may not run in your “circle” but there’s always a good crowd when John Zorn premieres a new work, and there’s that giddiness in the air that you miss so much. The only problem in “new music” is with the kind you want to write – oops – I mean teach

    Which brings something up – I think within your general attitude towards the “new music” you’re worried about is the very answer to your question. Let’s be clear here: you’re concerned that no one’s getting excited about music that you full well admit does not move you emotionally. Well… really, now – why should some particular premiere be any different? Why would any atom in your being be giddy? And when you consider that you are, in fact, not alone in the way you feel, it’s no wonder there’s no “buzz” around anything.

    Speaking of which, jbunch: I’m a composer for a multitude of reasons – reasons much clearer than, say, someone who isn’t moved by the music they write / study. Unlike such a person, I actually make an emotional connection with a lot of this “new” music. Not so much the “uptown” stuff, which elicits little from me but the occasional derisive comment – but to each their own. Still, as a whole, this “new music” means a lot to me. Dare I say, I love it – with a love that is deep and true and powerful and made of shiny golden strings and the feathers of angels. And, like all others I have loved with love so pure, it gets a good slap on the ass now and then.

    Now, if you’ll forgive me… I have to go watch Project Runway.


  9. jbunch

    If one more “down-with-the-man” pop-culture crusader ends their response by storming off to watch Golden Girls, I’m moving to Canada.

  10. jonrussell20

    I think sgordon may be a little abrasive and rub some of you the wrong way, but he brings up a good point: if the concerts you’re going to _don’t_ make you feel excited/giddy/whatever, then maybe you’re not listening to or writing the right music, the music that’s really true to you. When I’ve gone to many of the new music groups here in San Francisco, I usually haven’t felt much excitement at all, and it’s incredibly depressing, so I’ve basically stopped going to see most of them, except for the few that regularly do music that I actually find moving/exciting/stimulating. And you can sense it even in the program notes and the composer talks that groups give to try to reach out; they usually just talk about the technical approach to the music, rarely do I sense much passion or excitement about the music. If the person who wrote the music doesn’t even seem excited about it, why on earth should anyone else be?
    And another poster made a good point: there IS new music that gets plenty of buzz; in addition to the John Adams works, some of Golijov’s recent works, his Passion and opera for example, have generated quite a bit of buzz and excitement. What do these pieces have in common? They address big and important issues – politics, religion, human emotion; they engage with the world and culture in which they exist; since the subject mattter is important and relevant, it actually matters to people whether they succeed or not.

  11. Colin Holter

    I couldn’t agree with you more that music addressing “big and important issues” is the most deserving of attention; I guess my problem is that I consider Golijov’s and Adams’ recent music to be dull, intellectually irresponsible stuff, and even if it’s “about” an issue central to my interest, I just can’t get psyched about it. Similarly, although I might admire the crystalline structure of a Milton Babbitt piece, the fact that it is, in essence, “about” trichordal arrays voids it of excitement for me.

    I remember watching one of those Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts lectures on VHS a few years ago, and I was really struck by his assertion that the William Tell Overture is not about William Tell – or, for that matter, the Lone Ranger – but that it is about “notes.” Who the hell cares about notes? Of course the William Tell overture is about a dude shooting an apple off somebody’s head, and now, in 2006, it’s about the Lone Ranger too. I have no patience for music that’s “about notes.” By the same token, though, I think that to allege that all modern music (in the “uptown” sense) is “about notes” is to evidence a very poor understanding of that literature.

  12. pgblu

    Damage Control
    Don’t get me wrong, I do have faith in music’s staying power; when artists take us in new directions, I am sure some of those directions will remain purely ‘music’, i.e., organized sound. You all don’t have to put down your mouses yet. Also, obsolescence can be determined independently of ticket sales. People might be going to the concert hall for a spectacle, a thrill, that may have nothing to do with purely musical aesthetics.

    Number two, while I applauded sgordon’s comments, I did not mean to implicitly condone statutory rape, the use of heroin, or the use of public forums for being juvenile.

    Three: I also oversimplified Manos Tsangaris’s position, so I’d like to follow up on that, and perhaps get a response. The 19th-century invented the concert hall, at a time when the public sphere was the sphere for politics as well as aesthetics. Because of TV and Internet, both of these aspects of life (it’s a debated point whether they should be linked, politics and aesthetics – I feel they should be, but then I’m German) have become associated, in our minds and habits, with the private sphere. We no longer go into public realms to form our political and aesthetic opinions; we build them in front of the tellyweb, with our family and/or friends, or just by ourselves. By extension, we don’t associate the concert hall (a public realm) with aesthetic experience quite as much anymore, but perhaps with entertainment, socializing, being seen.

    For composers, however, whose ‘mission’ is to transmit aesthetic experiences, a quandary emerges, especially when they depend upon the concert hall or other public realm to disseminate their ideas. As I said, it is valid to reject the ‘aesthetic obsolescence of the proscenium’ and compose straight-ahead music, but I merely wanted to question whether these political/social developments can somehow be reflected in art without the abandonment (or detonation) of the concert hall. That’s what I mean by composing for ‘the short attention span’ — a shorthand for the kind of listener who grows up with media.

  13. jonrussell20

    Colin, I think you bring up an interesting dilemma in music today: much of the music being written today seems to be either academic and aloof or populist and pandering; where is the middle ground? I actually liked Dr. Atomic very much, though I’m not usually a big fan of Adams. Golijov I have very mixed feelings about; I desperately want to like his music because I am so happy to see a composer tackling deep and important subjects and so openly engaging with the culture around him; but on the other hand, I find a sense of deeper structure and abstraction to be missing, making it ofteh seem superficial.
    On the other hand, this is not such a new dilemma; think back to the late 19th century: you had many composers writing big pompous overinflated nationalist crap, and others like Max Reger writing their intricate chromatic fugues which nobody cared about except the intellectual few. Who do we still listen to from that era? Brahms and Mahler, who both, in very different ways, managed to combine emotional sentiment that people could relate to with deep structure and intellectual integrity. Bach to me is the ultimate composer in this regard, because he manages to combine the most intricate and learned structures with music that is also deeply emotional, spiritual, and beautiful.
    This is my beef with the likes of Ferneyhough and Babbitt: why can’t you write highly structured, intricate music using surface materials that actually have the possibility of appealing to people on an emotional/sensuous/visceral/spiritual level? Why does structure have to equal dissonance, angularity, discontinuity?
    Whatever Golijov’s shortcomings, I at least always feel that he is completely sincere, he is writing the music he wants to write, he is being himself. “Himself” may not be as deep and profound as Bach, but so it goes, few get to be that deep and profound. It seems to me that so many composers hide behind technique, procedures, and complexity out of fear, fear of not being able to write music that really is important and significant. This is why the new music concert scene can be so depressing: too many composers playing it safe, trying to write music that can be proven is good intellectually, instead of saying, “here, this is who I am, I can’t necessarily justify every choice, but I believe in it deeply anyway, take it or leave it!” If more composers had that attitude, we might have a more passionate, exciting “buzzing” new music scene.

  14. CM Zimmermann


    Brilliant interventions here. I fully enjoyed your postings. Typically the sharpest blade cuts deeply and unnoticed.



    the notes
    Colin: Funny, Bernstein’s comments about things being “about notes” are some of the reason that I love his writing. The notes are why I fell in love with music. The sound of notes, the drama of juxtaposed notes, the beauty of a lush chord, the angst of a big tone cluster… I love notes!

    If I had wanted to focus myself on political statements, I would have become a politician. If I had wanted to focus myself on philosophical inquiries, I would have become a philosopher (as much as that’s possible). But I wanted to focus myself on music: all those wonderful, surprising, comforting, lovely, otherwordly, spiritual, profane, exciting, calming, outstandingly fantastic notes. So I’m a musician!

    To go back to your example of the Piss Christ, it’s clearly much simpler to make a polarizing, buzz-inducing statement in the visual art world. So if the reason I write music is to make a polarizing cultural statement, then I’d be in the wrong field. It’d be better to be a fecal painter, or a journalist perhaps. But I love notes more than any of that stuff. Three cheers for notes!

  16. Colin Holter

    I love notes too. . . just like I love aluminum siding.

    Music is made of notes, just like a house is made of various materials, but is it the brick and mortar we love or the people inside the house, the meaning, so to speak, of the house? I love Joji Yuasa’s Cosmos Haptic II, and I might even say that I’m very fond of the piece’s opening sonority, but I have no particular emotional attachment to [012] in the abstract, for instance.

    Sound is the medium, and I think it’s an exceptionally comunicative one, but I hesitate to let it usurp the message.

  17. pgblu

    A final attempt
    I wasn’t trying to encourage artists to make overt political statements. All I was saying is that it might be fruitful for musicians to think about the politics of the concert hall and how it could/oughta/might affect and effect their composing. After all, it is better to take a conscious political position than an inadvertent one. Bernstein’s self-conscious political naivete was a political position, too, and had political consequences.

    I too became a composer because I love notes. That is NOT incompatible with sociopolitical awareness. I see, though, that political talk is a big turnoff to most of us, and I wouldn’t condone it if I didn’t think it could also be an interesting source of inspiration. Anybody got my back here? If not, I am through preaching.

  18. jbunch

    pg, I think you’ve hit on a big reason why most don’t attach to their compositional work a political motivation – even consideration. Political shucking and jiving is difficult because it can be manipulative or insincere. Most of the composers I know personally have a sort of vanilla political involvement – including I would say, myself. On the other hand, if I was to write “I hate Bush” in d minor, I would feel as if I was piggy-backing off of a common sentiment to bolster support for my music. It’s sort of how Stravinsky noted the aura of sanctity that surrounded Britten’s War Requiem. It’s as if you could expected to think “don’t touch this one, it’s an elegy.”

    On the other hand, if you’re talking about waxing political in the manner of Lachenmann and engagement with the “musical apparatus,” I have wondered for a while if there are composers who aren’t “engaging” with it in one way or another. Writing music creates a situation where one is constantly making choices and defining ethical and aesthetic boundaries. I suppose it’s possible that someone could transgress their own ethics – I find the pressure to do so lurking sometimes – but that in itself doesn’t really say anything qualitative about the stylistic or philosophical lanscape of the compositional world. What I do find is the fear – perhaps irrational – that bringing a “market mentality” into the arena of compositional choicemaking such that we criticize music based on its ability to attract mass audiences will create a lopsided artistic community where economic and distibutive power (jobs and performance opportunities) is weighted heavily toward the majority opinion. That is by definition – capitalism (where we live) – but at the risk of sounding like a yapping grad student (guilty as charged) I have to categorically state that we will create an artistic world of servitude and inequality. I’m not entirely sure if that’s what Lachenmann was getting at, but that is certainly what I’m afraid of. To say that music is sterile, unemotional or “poorly written” because it doesn’t yank your heart strings or reference funk drumming or Yugoslavian throat warblers is a PRIME example of the type of propaganda that is creating such a dystopia.

    That being said, I’m a firm believer that everyone should be able to write whatever they want – whatever they like. Does this create a Darwinian survival game? I for one, am not interested in inhabiting so small a musical world. I would give my left testicle to have seen the premiere of Sciarrino’s Lohengrin (There’s some buzz for you). I listened to this piece for the first time a few days ago and I was captivated. Surely this music would not fit neatly into the world being created by the Darwinian “downtowners” that are ceaslessly bashing “the academy” here. I LOVE that there is such a divergence of thinking in the US. Let’s keep it! One way of reacting to the consolidation of our musical biosphere into binary oppositions (like uptown/downtown) is to try as hard as you can to create something that confounds those categories. The other way, sadly often the road most taken, is to fortify your position as a card-carrying fundamentalist of either camp.


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