No PhD Required

No PhD Required

Last week I attended a talk where some players and composers were discussing how to get an audience engaged in listening to a new piece of music. While there I heard one colleague remark that in order to understand a new work one first needed to know the classical music repertoire.

I could not disagree more. First off, much of what is termed “new classical music” has no base in the pantheon of the “standard” repertoire. How can a symphony by Haydn help someone understand a piece that is composed of Javanese gamelan rhythms or that uses North Indian classical melodies?

But, more importantly, this type of attitude helps to perpetuate the myth that one cannot appreciate new music unless they have some knowledge of it. If anything, information can get in the way of listening to a new piece. It’s one thing for someone to suggest to listen to the way the music changes its character by the way the trumpets play high and low sounds. It is quite another thing to lecture about the motivic relationships a work has with a symphony of Mahler’s. The latter requires a person to have grasp of the orchestral realm in a fashion outside that of just listening. They are expected to know facts, not sound. These expectations set up the listener to feel they do not have the tools, and thus the ability, to listen to the music and be able to give a valid assessment of it. It sets them up to fail. Thus, they tune out or even stop attending concerts that have new music on the program.

It is not just civilians that have come to feel this way. I come across many top players that also think they are ignorant about new music. One violist recently commented to me how she felt she could not successfully play a certain piece at a festival because she felt so lacking in knowledge of new music and its various styles. I told her that she had to trust her instincts. She should approach the piece as she would approach any other. Get into the music and not worry about the historical context surrounding it. Leave that to the musicologists. Upon pondering my suggestions she left her fears behind and practiced the work with utter concentration and commitment. The result was that she nailed the piece. She used her musicianship to get into the score and realize it to its fullest. In the end both composer and performer were happy with the premiere. The audience was very receptive in large part due to her interpretation and the player felt empowered to attack other new works being written today.

So if even professional musicians feel unable to understand new music what type of attitude will they pass along to their students? Will they seriously explore and use pieces written today as part of their pedagogical approach? And, what will happen to the young players as they mature if they are never exposed to the stuff that we write? Can we honestly expect that we will have performers and audiences that are interested in listening and sharing the experience of hearing a work for the first time?

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “No PhD Required

  1. kpanoff

    Our audiences in Richmond have a huge appetite for world music and are always willing to sample new or different offerings in that area.
    Now that those world cultures and musics are having such a strong influence on new music, I think we have a better chance than ever to develop new audiences in this area. The challenge for presenters like me will be to help audiences make the connection between the two. Our audiences have a very narrow view about new music and it is our job to help dispel those stereotypes.

    Last season we presented Dawn Upshaw to a sold out house. Of course she included some Golijov and our usual new-music naysayers told me it was one of the best pieces on the program. A lot of credit goes to Dawn, who has a special gift in the “selling” of new music, but the experience gives me hope. Just need to find a way to help that connection along.

  2. JKG

    Our job…
    to help dispel a certain stereotype? Hmmm… now wouldn’t it be something if the stereotype happened to be the least bit deserved? Folks like to listen to what they can relate to – most folks can relate to world music because it is the music of the common man, albeit elsewhere. What motivation has ever existed for an audience to accept contrived sound as music? Constantinides at LSU made a good point about that – we are creating music in a vacuum, and then are appalled when it is not accepted by a general audience. Almost every composer of new music has at some point retreated even further into the academic cave, only to produce his/her music in further isolation. And you ask why we cannot generate interest? Hmmm…


    This short article poses a complex–and ultimately un-answerable–set of questions. Of course, music that relies on an audience’s thorough knowledge of the canon to be effective is a thing of the past: it used to be that some composers believed attending a concert to be tantamount to a lecture on particle physics: an insider’s game. I know literally nobody who thinks this way now, save for a few holders-on to the old ways.

    But the whole notion of knowledge as an impediment to understanding is a separate but equally disturbing notion. That ignorance is superior to knowledge is about as offbase a thing as the old way–it preculdes a certain group (this time, those “insincere” people who learned their stuff rather than those more intuitive outsiders).

    I offer this: good is good, period. Knowing about how the good thing works makes our understanding–but not our enjoyment–of it a little deeper, and those who have taken the time to learn a canon might, simply by benefit of their erudition, have a little more insight than those who have not. Of course, everyone is entitled to like or not like on any ground they feel relevant, but everyone’s knowledge is not equal. And sometimes, being unenlightened is simply not enough.


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