A Temple for the Familiar

A Temple for the Familiar

Though I’ve lived in New York City all of my life and Newark is only a 20-minute train ride away, I’ve hardly spent any time there. Aside from a workshop performance of a piece of mine there over a decade ago, I have pretty much traveled to Newark only to get on an airplane and go somewhere else. But over the weekend, my wife Trudy and I ventured there to hear one of the East Coast premiere performances of Steven Mackey’s piano concerto Stumble to Grace at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). Although Trudy—who was born and raised in Hong Kong—had been there once before, this was actually the first time I had ever attended a concert at NJPAC which is now in its 16th season.

Acorda de Marisco

Going to Newark this weekend not only was my first experience of NJPAC, it also introduced me to Açorda de Marisco

It’s never too late to rectify a sin of omission, however, and it was a great trip. NJPAC is quite an impressive hall, and it was thrilling to hear a live performance of Mackey’s piece—which received a committed and exciting performance by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (led by Jacques Lacombe) and soloist Orli Shaham—after having studied the score in some depth last year. Equally thrilling was our brief exploration of the nearby Ironbound district before the concert, especially our dinner at one of the neighborhood’s celebrated Portuguese restaurants, Seabras Marisqueira. I’ve yet to visit Portugal and have not eaten Portuguese food in decades. As far as I can remember, it was the first time I had ever tasted two of the most famous national dishes: Carne de Porco à Alentejana, which is cubed pork and clams braised in a garlic, white wine, and fresh coriander sauce; and Açorda de Marisco, a traditional Alentejo “dry soup” consisting of shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, and cubed Portuguese bread crowned with a poached egg.

I’m making a point of all this because I’ve devoted my life to exploring things that are unfamiliar to me. It’s why I am always excited to hear a new piece of music, read a new book, visit a new museum or art gallery, try a new cuisine, or to travel to a place I have never before visited. And every now and again that unfamiliar place is practically right next door. However, I am often made aware—remarkably, at this late date, often much to my surprise—that most people do not share my unbridled enthusiasm for new experiences and derive the greatest pleasure from reacquainting themselves with things they already know.

Case in point: the centerpiece of the concert on Saturday night was not Steven Mackey’s concerto but Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a piece of music that is performed almost every season by virtually every orchestra in the world. The concert was, in fact, titled “Tchaikovsky 5,” and it almost escaped my radar because that was also the subject line in the initial press announcement I received about the concert. Don’t get me wrong here. I actually like much of Tchaikovsky’s music, particularly his operas and songs; however, understandably, a concert advertised as featuring a performance of his Fifth Symphony would not be the event that would finally get me to visit NJPAC for the very first time. However, I have to admit that it was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that most of the people in the audience wanted to hear. Mackey’s piece and its performance deservedly received resounding applause, and the composer was on hand to take several bows. But after the Tchaikovsky, which was on the second half of the program, the audience was ecstatic. Nearly everyone was standing and the cheers did not let up for what felt like five minutes, until Lacombe started to lead the orchestra in an encore: yet more Tchaikovsky—an excerpt from The Nutcracker which the audience seemed to appreciate even more. It was as if I had been transported to the final game of the World Series and the home team had just won.

Now the question is: Do orchestra audiences love Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and the The Nutcracker so much because they are the greatest pieces in the repertoire? Or do they love these pieces so much because they’ve heard them so many times before?

Despite my aforementioned admiration for much of Tchaikovsky’s music, I am always suspicious of something that someone describes as “the greatest,” so I’m more inclined to believe the latter. And I see corroborating evidence to support that view in how the general public responds to most things in our society—e.g. the popularity of everything from “oldies” radio stations (which play songs people already have heard a zillion times over and over again) to the success of fast food restaurants all over the world. (There has been a line at every McDonald’s I have walked past on six continents.)

In such an environment, a Temple for the Familiar if you will, new music—by its nature that which we have not before experienced—is doomed to failure, so the fact that Mackey’s piece, as stunning as it is, got any applause at all is a minor miracle. But what can we do to change that? For years I have harbored the belief that there is nothing more exciting than discovering something new, so it has been difficult for me to come to terms with the reality that few people agree with this particular world view. If most people want to relive experiences, whether in order to get a deeper understanding of what they have previously encountered or simply to enjoy a sure thing, then contemporary music needs to be presented differently. I’ve written about this issue many times before, even once in an essay with a name very similar to this one. But this time I’ll go out on a limb and suggest a possible new paradigm.

The new music community needs to make less of an emphasis on premieres and put more energy into making less familiar repertoire (e.g. recent compositions) more familiar by programming the music tons of times. A new piece should get programmed several times during the course of a season, not just one time or for a single consecutive run of performances. A new piece of music played during a season should be rehearsed throughout the season, not just the week before the gig. This, of course, will entail behavioral changes for all parties involved. The orchestra administration will need to re-allocate budgets to ensure there is ample time to do this. Musicians will need to rid themselves of the belief that they can truly do justice to any piece of music that they’ve only read through a few times. Publishers will need to be more flexible with how they rent materials to orchestras. Composers can’t miss deadlines and in fact should be held to tighter deadlines—if a piece being performed during the course of a concert season is not ready before the start of that season, it will have to be bumped to the following season or cut entirely.

Of course, emphasizing the potential familiarity of a new piece over its newness could have drawbacks as well. Perhaps a new piece won’t seem as fresh somehow if it’s done several times over the course of a season. Then again, no one seems to tire of The Nutcracker and everyone seems to have forgotten that once upon a time, it too was brand new. But of course that was back in the days before we had radio or Big Macs.

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34 thoughts on “A Temple for the Familiar

  1. John Borstlap

    An old and difficult problem. Maybe it is possible to look at it in this way: at the lower level, audiences like to hear what they already know because modern life is full of surprises which are not welcome. Much new music is as confused, confusing and (seemingly) chaotic as modern life, and audiences often want to enter the concert hall to be liberated for an evening from their worldly and often depressing concerns. Then, so many modern musical languages are not ‘linguistical’ as older tonal music is, with its narratives, its different levels of intensity which make rhetoric possible, the clear-cut harmonic idioms which are immediately accessible, etc. etc. And, last but not least, the ‘tunes’: melodic writing of real expressive quality seems to have died somewhere in the last century.

    Repeating older new works, as Oteri advocates, is pointless if a first hearing does not wet the appetite, so it is important to find-out which works would deserve multiple exposure – and who is going to decide, and on the basis of what? But then, there is the question of culture: the ‘museum culture’ of the concert hall with its old repertoire has become a museum because new music in the last century left the ‘oldfashioned’ tradition. Shostakovich’ eventual entry in the core repertoire, while so much of his music is utterly unpleasant and ‘difficult’ and psychologically unattractive, is due to its artistic quality, originality and in the same time, not going beyond the limits of the tonal tradition – these limits are re-interpreted and ‘made new’. It is the distinction between originality in terms of material and originality at the level of the use of this material: expression.

    The ‘regular concert practice’, i.e. ‘museum culture’, is not conservative, but a certain musical performance culture. If new music would want to be part of that, it should attempt, like Shostakovich, to accept the general premisses of that culture and make a personal version of them.

    Interesting in this context is the work of Reza Vali (www.rezavali.com), an American / Iranian composer, presently working in Pittsburg, who uses folk material from his culture of origin in combination with a traditional western treatment. His song cycle ‘The Being of Love’ is a stunning work and totally convincing in its expression and intensity. Another composer who writes according to the central performance culture is the Frenchman Nicolas Bacri (www.nicolasbacri.net). The English composer David Matthews wrote a fantastic cello concerto, ‘Concerto in Azzurro’, issued by Chandos, perfectly harmonious with the tenets of the ‘museum culture’ but very personal and expressive, authentic and thus, contemporary. Of course, this music IS contemporary by fact – but it sounds much older, as something from the beginning of the 20th century, and that is a great compliment given the high quality of that era. These composers found a way to say their thing in a rather familiar language while in the same time, stamping it with their own personality, but without a forced intention to be original at any cost. And I have, as a composer, discovered that it is perfectly possible to handle an older idiom and give it a personal ‘twist’, make it authentic; one could go to extreme ends in this direction as soon as one is prepared to give-up the prejudices oof the last century concerning ‘modernity’ and ‘progressiveness’ in art – things which, in fact, do not exist in that field.

    So, with this new classical music, audiences hear something unusual and new but said in a language which is accessible because based upon the musical grammar they have learned to understand. So, the question of ‘new’ and ‘familiar’ is more complex, and also more promising, than the text of Oteri suggests. There should be a conference to address these matters….

  2. Alan Fletcher

    Koussevitsky programmed this way (repetitions within a season of a new work). It’s a great idea. Many premieres in different places with different groups: also good; though it doesn’t answer your familiarity issue, it encourages a kind of reassuring ubiquity. In re: Tchaikovsky, it’s not simple repetition – since there has to be a reason for the repetition to begin with. Elsewhere I’ve written that Nutcracker has that cardinal quality of great pop music: it stays the same on each hearing (a hugely difficult result). Swan lake perhaps less so, and the 6th Symphony by contrast has that Protean aspect which I think of the cardinal quality of anything classical.

  3. J. Permo

    “I’m Amazed that Premiered works are not repeated more” said no one ever. If you are going to be a composer, might as well face the fact that your work, if it has lasting value, will acquire this value after you are gone. When I was coming into awareness of 20C music, all the academy and the institutions said was ‘Hindemith, Hindemith’. New American Modernists were the bad boys. Then came the institutional atonality, everyone wanted to be Jacob Druckman or . Then came post-Modernism, first on the Left Coast, then on the Right, now it’s in the backwoods of small town American culture halls while the next wave of Yaleys move to Brooklyn and build on the Can Bangers’ legacy with a slick new approach. When all this was happening, audiences were starting to perk up for Shostakovitch. Why? His music reached into the place where people live and breathe and gave listeners what was needed while the waves of the next trendsetting New Yorkers broke on the shore into the next generation of marketing savvy youngsters enroute to their soon-to-be-discovered next career in academia.

  4. Colin Eatock

    I too noticed the differing receptions in the Mackey and the Tchaikovsky, in Newark, NJ, on that evening.

    And I believe that most North American orchestras program contemporary works in a way that screams, “We don’t really care much about his stuff!” And audiences pick up their lukewarm attitudes.

    I think it would be a fine thing if every conductor adopted a “pet” living composer — someone whose works they truly believed in — whom they programmed whenever and wherever they could. This kind of commitment would send a different message to audiences.

    1. para4

      Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival does this too. They have a handful of “pet” composers who are on practically every season’s programs, and the audience loves them. But then again, that’s an organization devoted exclusively to new music, so the audience is already conditioned NOT to expect Tchaikovsky.

  5. Susan Scheid

    This reminds me of the final Juilliard FOCUS concert this year. For the performance of the New York premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Ceres, conductor Mark Wigglesworth revived an old custom of repeating the piece on the spot. Bruce Hodges writes about it here: http://www.seenandheard-international.com/2013/02/21/recent-british-music-worth-repeating-no-i-mean-right-now/. I agree with Hodges about the impact of the repeat, and I’d love to see this tradition revived, where feasible.

  6. Walter Simmons

    I strongly agree with Frank Oteri’s main points, as well as many of the comments that follow, especially that of John Borstlap. I just want to emphasize one point: All too frequently I see these dialectics pursuing the “new” vs. “old” argument, as if one is either “for” or “against” the “new.” The important point is that exactly what new or unfamiliar piece is selected makes all the difference in the world. I don’t know how many times I have heard “classical music middle-men” (those who decide what audiences will go for) say things like “Yeah, we tried putting new music on the programs, but the audience didn’t go for it.” My response is always, What did they select to perform, and why? Was it selected with the values and tastes of audiences in mind? If not, why would they expect it to succeed (if indeed they did, or cared whether it did)? As someone who has been following the scene for some 50 years, my notion of “new music” embraces Shostakovich, from the days when he was regarded by the tastemakers as a toady for the Communists and his music was reviled for its “cinematic” qualities. Well, now his works—like many of those by Samuel Barber–are part of the canon. But there is no shortage of other composers whose music would find a place in the hearts of music lovers—especially with repeated exposure, as Oteri suggests. But they must be selected by people who understand and respect the values of the music-loving public. I believe that this ability should be one of the criteria through which conductors are selected and appointed to their positions.

    1. John Borstlap

      Walter Simmons is right to point to the weak spot in the relationship between composer and listener: the role of the audience. But the formulation of this relationship should be carefully considered. Taking the audiences’ tastes into consideration cannot provide the artistic freedom necessary to achieve quality, it smacks of plain commercialism and entertainment. Modernism wrote-off the audience as a partner in the total of the musical paradigm and thereby created the gulf between the central performance culture and the field of contemporary music based upon, or following in the wake of, modernism and/or its watered-down progeny. The best formulation seems to be that composer, performer and audience are part of the same context, so that all three roles are based upon the same fundamental principles which are the basis of the art form, and together create musical practice in terms of composing, performing, and listening, as an interrelated system. This ensures that new works, also difficult works, will find acceptance if they are good enough. In this way, any suggestion of composers writing ‘for’ the audience in a commercial sense is avoided…. If a composer feels the fundament of the art form in the same way as performers and audiences (in the most general sense), a drastic breach as happened with modernism in the last century is not necessary. Alas, it has happened already; bridging the gap means, for composers, to reflect upon the question to which culture one belongs: which circuit, which tradition (modernism has formed its own ‘tradition’ of anti-traditionalism), which performance culture.

      The indifference of conductors towards new music is due to the misunderstanding that music which does not belong to the central performance culture (the ‘museum culture’) is supposed to have some ‘right’ to be heard in that context. But if it is a wrong context, it merely fuels existing indifference or contempt. In other words: if composers want their music be performed by a regular orchestra, they should be able to write within the parameters of the art form as practiced there. If they write quite different music, they should find other circuits, ensembles, soloists, whatever.

      1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

        The indifference of conductors towards new music is due to the misunderstanding that music which does not belong to the central performance culture (the ‘museum culture’) is supposed to have some ‘right’ to be heard in that context. […] If composers want their music be performed by a regular orchestra, they should be able to write within the parameters of the art form as practiced there. If they write quite different music, they should find other circuits, ensembles, soloists, whatever.

        John, I think this is actually true if the so-called “regular orchestra” remains focused on the acknowledged “masterpieces” of the past. But there is a tremendously different response to new music when it is heard in the context of an all-new music concert, even an all contemporary or relatively contemporary orchestra music program such as programs I have heard over the past couple of months done at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall as well as by the New York Philharmonic, all of which I have written about here in previous weeks.

        There are indeed many composers writing today, myself included, who do not have much interest in writing for the “regular orchestra” in the current climate for a variety of reasons. It’s not just the disconnect between the new work and the older work that will surround it on a concert program, although that is certainly part of it. For starters, the current rehearsal paradigm is antithetical to music that is not “within the parameters of the art form as practiced there” plus obtaining a recording from said performance that a composer can use to make more people familiar with his or her piece after that initial single performance (or limited handful of performances) is frequently impossible. Also, in all honesty, there are precious few opportunities for composers to write for orchestra, so it does not seem worth the effort despite the wonderful timbre combinations an orchestra can make.

        Composers of all stylistic persuasions have done and will continue to do remarkably well, however, writing for more malleable ensembles. This is the present and I believe the future of new music.

        1. John Borstlap

          Yes, all that is true – although I have my doubts about the last bit. Is this not cutting new music off from the past, which is ‘enshrined’ in the ‘regular orchestral repertoire’? There, I taste some contempt for ‘the past’, including its masterpieces, why? What is wrong with a great tradition? Isn’t the general indifference in the orchestral world, to a great extent, the result of ‘new music’ which does not live up to artistic standards which are still in place there? I object to the one-sided accusations towards orchestral practice. Yes, there is much not right there, not enough rehearsels which are the result of just not caring about new orchestral pieces (otherwise they would try their very best to get the necessary rehearsel time!), bad marketing, bad programming (the ‘sandwich formula’…), prejudices on all sides….. But where does this carelessness come from? Why were audiences very eagerly awaiting premières by Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky in former times? And also by other, less eminent composers? Because they knew that at least something interesting would be presented, something which fitted into the orchestral performance culture.

          I think it is a great idea to have all-contemporary programms with orchestras. But this merely underlines the distinction: here the past, there the present, and they have no connection. It will attract two different audiences – is this what we would want? Maybe orchestras solely dedicated to contemporary repertoire? Like Ensemble Intercontemporain or Ensemble Modern Frankfurt etc. etc. but then bigger? The difference in musical culture is IMMENSE between the regular orchestral circuit and these kind of ensembles. And then, there is the embarrassing outcome of a research project in Germany somewhere in the eighties which showed that a radio orchestra that exclusively performed contemporary works, I believe it was the Baden Baden Radio Orchestra, had a much higher rate of medical and psychological problems of the players than players in other, ‘normal’ orchestras: migraine, depression, digestive problems (stomach ulcers), impotence, insomnia, mood swings, a whole catalogue of nihilism expressed through body and mind – obviously there was a problem with the effects caused by the music. (Let this be a warning….)

          Then there is the distinction between music and sonic art. Much ‘modern music’ over the last half century is, in fact, not music at all, but a new art form, where the placing of the notes is irrelevant and all attention is given to timbre, sound quality, acoustics, electronic means etc. etc., i.e. the material level of music. In sonic art, relationships between notes are no longer determined by the natural overtone connections. Tonal relationships create an ‘inner space’ where energies can flow from one level of intensity to another, thus creating the possibility of narrative and musical expression, which can directly engage with audiences. (Let us not forget that musical expression of any kind is not created by colour or interesting textures, but by the interrelatedness of the tones, to which colour and complexity are additional elements.) Sonic art does not have this inner space, it is ‘flat’, which is OK but it belongs to another performance culture. It is like photography next to painting: related, but fundamentally different. We do not accept photography in the same category as painting, because we expect other things from photography. Thus it is with sonic art, nothing wrong with it, but no wonder that music audiences have difficulty with accepting it as music in a musical context. It is here that the quality question comes-in, and all the confusions on all sides, with the result that also expressive and tonal works bump into the rather low status of ‘contemporary music’ in the orchestral world.

          If ensembles are the present and the future, so be it, but it would be regrettable to leave the orchestral world merely as a museum. And orchestral programmers and conductors are not the only party to be blamed for it.

          1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

            I taste some contempt for ‘the past’, including its masterpieces, why?

            Not at all. I love the music of the past, but that love extends to a great deal more music than the small percentage of it that a handful of arbiters of taste have deemed to be “masterpieces.” Therein lies my personal axe to grind: the notion that only a handful of works by an anointed group of composers (usually dead, male, and European) is the summit of artistic achievement for all time and for all humanity. The world is much larger than that. Others like Christopher Small, whose book Musicking inspired a previous essay posted here, ultimately believe that classical music’s enshrinement of a select group of masterpieces makes it a genre that we should ultimately shun. I refuse to go that far since I love too much of that music and believe that the listening paradigm for classical music is an ideal listening paradigm for all music as well as a fabulous paradigm for learning how to pay attention to other viewpoints in all aspects of life, something that makes us better people and helps us to build a better society. But the notion that only a handful of (dead) people were capable of true greatness and that the rest of us can never climb those Olympian heights is a notion that is destructive to the majority population of composers (which includes me and actually also includes you) as well as to most listeners for whom such lofty music seems unapproachable by mere mortals.

            Much ‘modern music’ over the last half century is, in fact, not music at all

            Now that comes across as contempt to me.

          2. John Borstlap

            Well, much old music is also not very good. But for the rest, I agree that there is so much MORE in repertoire of the past than is regularly presented. But more so than some constructed ‘canon’, the reason behind this rather restricted programming, I think, is that it is so much easier for programmers to stick to the ‘established masterpieces’ since that does not require any thinking and judgement, thus saving time. Running an orchestra has become so complex nowadays, with the managerial and commercial pressures all around, that programmers are VERY happy to be able to fall back upon something ‘ready made’. This also goes for many conductors: everybody knows the symphonies, the concerti, the operas – fine! That’s quickly rehearsed. But taking-on something unfamiliar means: risks and it requires more time. Also: for every position at an orchestra as a conductor, there are 93 and a half people waiting in line to take it over, so ‘playing safe’ is part of survival technique. In former times orchestras were run more slowly, with less performances a week, with more rehearsel time (because players were less good but also because their salaries were relatively low). The gradual transformation into something like an entertainment business has done a lot of damage to the art form.

            Yet, I believe that solutions to the problems of new music cannot be found outside the central performance culture for the obvious reason that THERE is an audience with some musical sophistication (otherwise they would buy a ticket for the cinema). And the idea that these audiences would not want to digest something unfamiliar, because of being conservative, is a myth held-up by the programmers so that they cannot be blamed for the audiences’ indifference. But then, new works have to be programmed carefully and with knowledge and understanding. Many programmers are merely managers trying to get through their daily work load – which is hughe and that is not entirely THEIR fault.

            Again, the rejection of traditional musical and cultural standards by composers after 1945 (in the widest sense of the word) also meant throwing-away quality frameworks, with the result that contemporary bad works are, I’m sure, much worse than bad works in the past, for the simple reason that the minimum required craft was in former times on a much higher level, and defined in a much more narrow way as part of a tradition. If you delve into the history of cultural traditions, you find that quality frameworks developed over long periods, and they had some important consequences for the quality question. The lighthearted rejection by postwar modernism of tradition opened the doors to crowds of people who should never ever enter a territory destined to a musical art form. It is not entirely undeserved that IRCAM is sometimes referred to as the Institute for the Retrograde Conservation of Abominable Musicians.

            And I know of quite some players, active in ‘the modern circuit’, who are – with all their technical virtuosity – simply incapable of playing a Mozart or Beethoven piece, because they have no musical understanding of tonal music. I would say: they are not musical at all, and therefore excellently suited to playing modern music in modern ensembles. In fact, players who fail in their classical career, often end up in modern music ensembles for that very reason. This is one of the many truths of music life which are not spoken openly about.

            So, unfortunately there is a lot which deserves contempt. Sorry for the word! But there is no other word that is appropriate enough.

          3. Walter Simmons

            Again, I heartily agree with Borstlap’s points–especially regarding lazy conductors who think that they are functioning professionals simply by parading the same 50 works around the world; and also, the middle-men who decide what the audiences will accept, and assume it must be the hits of the past. In the U.S., especially, where there is little understanding of the artistic experience, classical music is treated as a combination of entertainment and sporting events (this pianist vs. that pianist, etc.).

          4. Fresison

            All of those thingsas well as your statement below about “the gradual transformation into something like an entertainment business”lead me to think: isn’t it more interesting for a modern composer to write for smaller ensembles? Chamber music, piano music, art songs, works for wind ensemble etc. that could not just be played by professionals, but also by music academy students or interested amateurs. This music seems to have a higher chance of getting heard and performed, like Dubugnon’s chamber music as played by Janine Jansen or Bacri’s piano music on Naxos or Comitas’ oeuvre for wind instruments. Maybe we have just come to the end of the orchestra eralike the end of the Big Band era in jazz music.

          5. John Borstlap

            Yes, it is possible that the orchestra is no longer part of musical developments and is now really merely a museum culture. But in reality, new orchestral works are being performed regularly, often willy-nilly, but some of them are very good. Just a few examples: Bacri’s orchestral pieces (all of them are more than excellent, that is: after his atonal period), David Matthews’ ‘Concerto in Azzurro’ which is a brilliant and gripping cello concerto, Reza Vali’s ‘The Being of Love’ which is a beautiful song cycle for soprano and orchestra, Peter Lieberson’s ‘Neruda Songs’ for the same combination – all proving how a ‘quasi-dead’ tradition (writing tonally and with expressive means for the orchestra) can be woken-up to life, without any association with commerce, kitsch, pastiche, conservatism. It is the practical logistics (expensive rehearsel time) and lack of competence of programmers and the fear of loosing audience attendance (caused by half a century of destruction) that create hughe barriers which are much less prominent with smaller ensembles. Although it is much more difficult to get an orchestra interested in new works, it seems that the orchestra as a medium still may offer space for development. And of course, smaller groups are perfectly suited to ALL musical ideas. You need only a handful of players to say all you want in music, if you have something to say.

          6. Music Lover

            When I want to see new art, I might visit the New Museum in New York or similar places in other cities. When I want to revisit “classical art” I visit the established major museums. So maybe there is a need for an orchestra of “new music.” It might be based in New York and even go on tour to other cities where an audience might be receptive to it.

          7. John Borstlap

            But isn’t that a description of the ‘ensemble circuit’, all those ensembles, smaller than orchestras, who specialize in ‘new music’? Isn’t the distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ music into two different categories something to deplore? When Debussy had a première around 1905, it was ‘new’ music but still fitting within a programme policy which included Beethoven, Franck, Wagner and d’Indy.

            And then, what do we mean with ‘new music’? Is Reza Vali’s ‘The Being of Love’ (written a couple of years ago) which is perfectly suited to the regular orchestral culture and sounds like something exotic written in the twenties by a great talent (Schreker? Toch?), new? By fact: yes, by style: thank God, NO. To many (culturally educated)people, museums of contemporary art simply cannot compete with the traditional collections in terms of quality, as specialized new music ensembles cannot with the regular concert repertoire, and to my feeling that is no reason to blame the ‘old art’ or its institutions but the established norms of ‘new art’…..

      2. Walter Simmons

        When I noted that audience tastes need to be taken into consideration, I was not proposing that performers pander to the lowest common denominator. But the music of Shostakovich and Barber–like the music of Tchaikovsky–has not been accepted into the canon because it panders, but because it makes meaningful artistic statements that can be grasped by listeners who embrace the traditional language of classical music. I was responding to the common practice of featuring new works without considering how they are likely to be received by the public, but instead are foisted upon them like distasteful medicine. Of course, the real questions are: whose judgment is to be used in making the selections, and just whose tastes are to be considered? There are no easy answers to these, but to be thinking in such directions is far preferable to the apparent thoughtlessness and self-indulgence that often seems to govern such decisions.

        1. John Borstlap

          This is a totally convincing statement which EVERYBODY with some concern for the development of musical culture, including as carried by the ‘regular’ orchestras, should applaud.

          It may be opening doors to a better understanding of these problems if we consider existing musical practice, i.e. of serious music making, not in historical terms like old, new, conservative, progressive etc., but in terms of performance culture. The term ‘traditional language of classical music’ may sound conservative, but it is not: there is a fundamental type of grammar underlying ALL serious art music from Gregorian chant untill atonal modernism of the last century. Read Roger Scruton’s monumental ‘The Aesthetics of Music'(Oxford University Press) for particulars. This grammar type is not bound to time or place but the very basis of the art form, like the canvas, oils and brushes are of painting, and stone, cement, iron and mortel of architecture. Where contemporary composers dip into tonality like Tan Dun or John Adams or the recent Wolfgang Rhim (‘Lichtes Spiel’ for violin & orchestra), they inevitably begin to sound more ‘traditional’, but this is not conservative but exploring the mentioned underlying grammar type. (The early renaissance buildings which tried to emulate Roman examples were not conservative but modern in their time, although they looked a bit like buildings from antiquity.) And this grammar type is rooted in tonality, not necessarily the 19C version of it, but a form of interrelatedness in the widest sense of the word. It is this fear of touching the past which inhibit composers from showing a bit more courage….

          What do we mean when we say: ‘a meaningful musical statement’? We metaphorically compare music to language because like language, music EXPRESSES something. And then we are talking in psychological terms, which is lightyears removed from the discussions about ‘contemporary music’ as conducted from the fifties onwards.

          The French composer Nicolas Bacri began his career as the Parisian Wunderkind of high modernism, and wrote a brilliant Boulezbian complexity, more aggressive that Boulez, and with very interesting, sparkling textures and colours. But he had a conversion and returned to tonality, relatively simple colours, and discovered for himself a wealth of personal expression and intensity. It sounds like a more supple and more humane Shostakovich through the lens of Dutilleux and Scriabine, an unique mix. There is an important lesson to learn there.

  7. para4

    It’s a little odd to say the “New Music Community” needs to do this or that. The New Music Community doesn’t run the NJ Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra or the LSO or the BSO or the Mostly Mozart Festival. None of those organizations are particularly invested in promoting new music, per se. I’m sure if it were up to Stuckey, his piece would be done multiple times by multiple orchestras, but he doesn’t have a lot of say in the matter. Who exactly are you talking to?

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Dear para4,

      While you are correct in asserting that we don’t “run the NJ Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra or the LSO or the BSO or the Mostly Mozart Festival” and that “[n]one of those organizations are particularly invested in promoting new music, per se,” our “New Music Community” does seem to put a tremendous amount of emphasis on premieres in its interface with the larger institutional music community. Premieres, in fact, are one of the key ways in which new music is promoted. And it is understandable, since a “premiere” is more sellable to the media plus a new work gets “commissioned” which is more lucrative for its composer than a performance of a work that has already been performed. But as Kevin Ernste (nice to know his real name, just sayin’) pointed out on a different, though not completed unrelated thread herein, if a work has a guarantee of many, many performances, the performance rights fees could ultimately prove to be more lucrative than a commission….

      Personally as a listener, I am drawn to hear something I have never heard before more than something I already know. This is true for many people involved in new music and what fuels the concerts we present outside of our interface with organizations which are “not particularly invested in promoting new music.”

      But what I wrote in the essay above is about rethinking how we handle that interface specifically. (What I wrote after all was the result of having heard an NJSO performance of Steve Mackey’s piano concerto–one of the east coast premiere performances–and a warhorse by Tchaikovsky–his ubiquitous Symphony No. 5–and observing the audience reactions to those two pieces: I was initially baffled that the audience was more enthusiastic about the Tchaikovsky which personally was O.K. but not life changing whereas I loved the Mackey concerto and its performance, but I actually already knew the piece…) If those institutions and the audiences that attend the events they present are in fact more interested in re-hearing what they have already heard than they are in hearing something they have not heard before, a different approach is required one which, as I wrote, “put[s] more energy into making less familiar repertoire (e.g. recent compositions) more familiar” Efforts need to be made to target repertoire and encourage its performance many, many times. I suggested that ways to do this would involve a change in the economics of how this works – a different attitude about rental fees and rehearsal time as well as exclusivity (which doesn’t help audiences at all) and even in deadlines for turning in new work. But these musings are only the beginning of what I hope will be a much larger discussion. (Well, it already is…)

  8. Jeff Harrington

    I really am not buying the familiarity argument generating repeat performances and more familiarity and more repeat performances. Seems like a chicken and an egg thing. ]

    I really think it’s because of how Tchaikovsky’s music effects people and how little music we have these days that does similar things. Sure, we have music that gets loud, but this music we hear performed over and over again, the Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy has a very visceral, very sexual type of climaxing and buildups that we really don’t have very many examples of in the contemporary repertoire. There’s the Takemitsu and Adams and Lutoslawski pieces, but even there in these proto-blockbusters, they lack in the monumental effect that a good Tchaik climaxing orgasm gives you.

    There’s a viscerality that’s missing. You may have noticed that one of the more popular spectacles in the orchestral world these days is the big arena rock group full album performance with orchestra (and a pickup group). We have a burgeoning repeat contemporary music performance masterworks – and they’re Kashmir and Close to the Edge and Dark Side of the Moon.

    I’ll say it again, and I know it pisses people off, but if people don’t like our music and don’t want to play it – perhaps its not their fault.

    1. John Borstlap

      This comment may sound a bit unsophisticated, and the reference to pop music quite besides the point, but Jeff hits the nail on the head, or some nail somewhere, but still on its head.

      If we read for ‘sexual’: sensual, meaning: music directly experienced through the senses and somehow related to other experiences that we feel through the senses, Jeff is observing some quality which so often is missed in new music since the ‘old repertoire’. This sensual quality is directly related to tonality, which is the natural phenomenon of harmonics, on which the Western tonal system is built (an adaptation but making use of the relationships made possible by the harmonic series). The strongest relationships between notes are the octave, fifth, fourth, sixth and third, invervals strongly assiciated with the ‘old’ musical culture and therefore either avoided by contemporary composers or only cautiously used within an environment which denies such associations. But this cautiousness prevents such intervals from being effective and expressive in the ‘old’ way. The ‘old’ style of tonal rhetoric, with its interplay of tension and release, creates the best possible framework for music that is directly expressive in a sensual way: i.e. Tchaikovsky, but also Wagner, Brahms (!), and yes, Debussy.

      If contemporary composers would want to connect with the regular audiences which make-up the central performance culture, which is almost exclusively based upon traditional tonal styles, they can learn from the ‘oldies’ and try to handle older, traditional styles effectively. But the, a whole host of questions and problems, aesthetic, philosophical and musical, will present itself – but they could all be overcome if the prejudices of the last century about ‘modernity’ and ‘progressiveness’ are left behind.

      It may be helpful to mention the strongly sensual inclinations of the great composers of the past, in the sense of relating music to impressions as received through the senses. Beethoven walking through the leafy Viennese surroundings, Chopin florishing in delicate salons, Brahms on his walks through woodlands, Wagner in exile in Switserland making many trips into the Alps (hence the alpine size of his operas and harmonic progressions), Strauss studying art history and visiting all the museums when on tour, Mahler exclusively composing in a hut overlooking mountains, Debussy fascinated by painting, nature and the imagery of poetry, Szymanowski indulging in exotic travels and feasting on non-European art, Stravinsky writing his scores as if they were art works destined for a gallery, Schönberg painting expressionist canvasses (quite badly), Messiaen with his hearing and seeing crosswired so that he heard chords as colours, etc. etc. not to mention the love affairs and relationships these people did have or merely cultivating the emotions these invoked. The direct connection in the imagination of composers of visual and physical stimuli resulted in music which expressed this range of experience, and of course this was only possible with a musical language that was in itself quite physical in nature: tonality.

      1. Jeff Harrington

        Thanks for such a generously rude response to my anti-sophisticated plea to just be able to get OFF.

        Your reply hits a nail on the head, but it’s the wrong nail and the wrong head. The problem isn’t a lack of tonality, the problem is a lack of intensity, a lack of will, a lack of sensual/sexual climaxes. Going back to the past is just idiotic. There is no interest in that. The human demands newness; intense stimulation that has to be as scary and eye-opening as anything in the past.

        The real problem, as I will very unsophisticatedly put it – is that we suck. There’s no point in reviving anything – we are the problem.

        1. John Borstlap

          It gets even more interesting…. I agree that something new is always attractive: to experience something we have not as yet experienced before. But what has that to do with meaning and all the things you ask from (serious) music? Isn’t there a difference between tension in terms of real intensity and the mere gesture of intensity but not the real thing? (Which also goes for sex, by the way.) I was not advocating ‘going back’ but learning from something that worked extremely well in the past. It is simply not possible to achieve the results of a Tchaikovsky with the means that are used today, if they do not somehow incorporate comparable dynamics and processes, and these are bound-up with tonality if they be not merely imitative gestures.

          And then, something may be new but inferior to something we have already, as with shoes, cars, underwear, cutlery and vacuum cleaners. If you go for quality, you may find it with something new, but also with something old.

          Then there is this fact, often overlooked: musical works are never old because they do only exist in performance, so they are always happening in the ‘now’ after which they dispapear in the air – and if they are good, find a corner in our mind and/or heart. Scores are a blueprint but not the work proper. That is why music never ages, it dies before it can ‘age’. Seen this way, the opposite ‘old’ versus ‘new’ does not exist in music.

          We can learn from history so that we do not have to invent the wheel again and again (and again). How new was Brahms in his time, in relation to the examples he had chosen (Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, etc.)? He learned from his examples but made them new, interpreted them by putting the material in a new context, thereby renewing it. And his personal way of transforming examples created newness. Even Wagner, who is considered a musical revolutionary, rehashed existing material, filtering it through his personal taste, and making things new. No artist ever creates something out of thin air…. things have to develop, like evolution in nature. The obsession with ‘new’ is an invention of the last century and basically something immature if applied to art.

          Show me a contemporary composer who does not use ANY of the older devises and YET achieves a musical meaning, intensity, rhetoric, gripping narrative, comparable with the oldies, and not merely the gestures, but the REAL experience which tells us: this is GREAT music. I never came across such music but that may be my own failing.

          1. Jeff Harrington

            I really think you’re analyzing this too much. Of course, pure newness is impossible, but it has to be new enough to satisfy the natural human urge to feel a unique part of this great human journey.

            Who cares about how the great next composer does it. I could really give a hoot if it uses computers to create microtonal monstrosities, as long as it blows us all away; excites the world into fear of going insane (like those folks who tried to forbid Wagner on mental health grounds) or just makes the kids scream. I suspect you’re right, it’ll be informed by the past, but one thing I remember about growing up, is that the really new stuff, that ends up being great often seems like it’s from another planet.

            Nobody knows what to think of it. It’s disturbing, it’s hated. Today, we have none of that… just the sameo, sameo. There’s a story a friend shared with me last month about a Feldman lecture:

            So there’s this story that David Felder used to tell to his new PhD recruits — probably at least partially apocryphal — about a lecture Morton Feldman gave to his own PhD students, in which Morty went to the chalkboard and drew a simple, cartoonish drawing of a pointy-eared mouse on a similarly cartoonish boat and said, in his heavy New York accent, “You know what this is? It’s a rat! You know what this is? It’s a boat! … [to the students:] You’re _all_ rats! You’re rats on a sinking ship. It’s _ovah_.”

            I was arguing with a friend on FB recently about the lack of ‘giant’s now. I said pretty much what I’m saying now, that it is our narcissism and our tiny attention span which keeps reassuring us that there is greatness out there, that things are different now because of the glut of talent (or glut of non-talent gumming up the system).

            I believe that that is fundamentally misanthropic and that if there was greatness out there we’d know it. Just to get back to Frank’s topic, I believe that when somebody writes a truly great orchestra piece – it’ll get played a LOT. But what we have now, is a lot of really good orchestra pieces… and really who cares about good music. Like I said before, there’s too much music now anyways to subject one’s self to just ‘good’.

          2. John Borstlap

            Well…. you like it rough…. this line of thought does not go somewhere. But just one remark: it is not impossible that a really great composer emerging in these days or somewhere in the future would indeed sound as if coming from another planet, and that other planet may just be the past. Such a composer would NOT be performed everywhere, as you state, because it would be so outlandish and ‘crazy’ and contradicting everything taking for granted in our modern culture that programmers simply would not believe it. Since, from the sixties onwards, in new art and new music the uncommon has been established as the norm – with the result that everything has already been done – , in this context the really shockingly abnormal would be the very normal. (This was already predicted by Leonard B. Meyer in the sixties, who also predicted that developments in new music would eventually result in a situation of stasis, i.e. the cancellation of avantgarde positions, which is where we have arrived now.)

            PS: Art is not for screaming, shocking, making people crazy etc. etc., that is the quasi-revolutionary postwar artspeak when artists / composers felt they had to break-down the existing culture. Now that culture has been broken-down thoroughly, there is an end to destruction and shocking and screaming and it may be time to try to build-up something of value again. Modern art everywhere in the West is established erosion, destruction, absurdism etc. etc. and next to all that nihilism, there are the islands of the past (musea and the musical museum culture) cultivating something of beauty, as you yourself admitted with your remark about Tchaikovsky. I think reading a bit of art history would do you good.

          3. Jeff Harrington

            You just don’t see what I’m getting at… I’m saying that this new music will be incredibly popular AND seem like it’s from another planet. That’s why we’re lying to ourselves.

            Our faith that doing this or doing that, returning to the past, mimicking formula, discontinuing the modernist tradition, re-engaging audiences, whatever, belies our fundamental inability to have faith in our human talents.

            To have faith that we will eventually produce a great talent who we all will mimic and voila… back in business. The reason that there are no pieces from the past 50 years that have really become pot-boilers is because there are just no great pieces. We are stuck…

            FWIW, my screaming shocking comments were just to make a point. Art history… ouch! I’m married to an artist who revived the classical tradition in painting. I live 1/2 a block from the chapel where Petrarch first saw Laura. I myself have written in the styles of the past. It just goes nowhere – because – nobody wants the stuff from the past revived.

            They want new art and music. And they don’t want it to sound – at all – like Wagner or Beethoven or Strauss.

            It’s not going to take scheming or coercing music directors or decrying programmers or innovation in programming to get out of this mess.

            It’ll take great orchestra pieces that just cannot be ignored and that audiences will clamor; insist be performed. Until we get that… yawn!

          4. John Borstlap

            “They want new art and music. And they don’t want it to sound – at all – like Wagner or Beethoven or Strauss.” Who are ‘they’? Programmers? Audiences? Performers? In my experience, audiences and performers DO want to hear / play new things in a language that is more or less familiar, which does not mean: new things which are merely imitation.

            You sound quite bitter. To which culture do you belong? The Western? Imagine the Indians wanted to cut-off from their culture… because of ‘yawn’. The Chinese turn away from their own culture and what do they do? They copy Western culture. Their concert life consists of indulging in the European past. Why don’t they love their own culture? And why don’t you love Western culture? THERE is something nagging. I see your point quite vlearly, but just don’t agree with it. Reviving is not imitating, and ‘new’ without a past is impossible.

          5. Walter Simmons

            Just a brief comment: It is a self-reassuring myth that if there were a great new orchestral piece, it would get “out there.” This is simply not true. It isn’t as though there is some central source of profound wisdom that is reviewing all contenders. No. It is all random. There is too much new and recent music, and too few people motivated to or able to evaluate it. The only works that really “get out” are those by composers who already have gained attention and publicity–often for some non-artistic reason–or have big money behind them, or who have some personal connection to people with influence.

          6. John Borstlap

            ………… or have the persistence, time, patience, and infinite unscrupulous optimism, to try to contact ‘famous’ conductors to interest them in their score, on the (right) assumption that this could make some impact. However, the entourage of the Great Conductor is instructed to keep, especially, composers at bay, and immediately throw away unsollicited scores and recordings sent to them. ALL of them are considered a waste of time. And if, finally, a conductor has been seduced to sit down and open a new score, and in the extremely rare event that he would want to perform it, the orchestral programmers or committees will strongly advise against such unwelcome initiative, if necessary under threat of the conductor’s contract. Conductors are no longer the decisive factor in programming, and the ‘official’ programmer is, of course, not a musician but a manager type or flipped musicologist with an ax to grind. Just one example of my own experiences: it took me 2 years to get a world famous conductor sit down and listen to a recording, after various meetings after concerts where I had given him a CD, to which he never listened. By sheer persistence I got him to agree to see him in his hotel in the town where he was performing at the time and LISTEN. There and then he heard the music, played on the hotel’s ‘service’ mini CD player, after which he expressed approval and interest, and we had a wide-ranging discussion about new music which was really nice. Obviously he took the meeting and the music seriously. He promised to propose the music to one of the main London orchestras of which he had just been appointed principal conductor. Never heard of it again and after my contacting the orchestra to inquire, I understood that the management must have discouraged him. Another conductor – who had led his orchestra (in another city) to a temporary high flying career – had seen a couple of scores and enthusiastically told me that he wanted to ‘do them all’. He proposed them to the orchestra’s programmer, who objected because the music, which sounds ‘too oldfashioned’, could not be incorporated in a ‘modern music concert’ or ‘new music series’ because it was not ‘modern’, and also not in a regular traditional programme because it was new, so there was no box in his mind in which the music fitted. I happened to know another employee of the orchestra management who informed me that there had been a big quarrel between the principal conductor and the programmer, in which his contract came under pressure – so, the conductor dropped the idea. (Later-on I met him by chance on a London party where he apologized… stressing the unwillingness of the management at the time.) Sometimes I got it the other way round: I could convince the programmer but then, the conductor objected. But on other occasions I have been able to get through, with some performances as a result. All this demonstrates that the power in the orchestra circuit is often with the wrong people, who have considerations on their mind fundamentally different from the content of the art form: the music. And in case of a quite independent-minded star conductor, like Barenboim, who has his own sofa ensemble, you get the absurdity that at the rare occasion he performs a new piece, he chooses late Schönberg and Boulez, both composers who made a point of destroying orchestral performance culture (which is based upon the harmonic series: only then the 60 / 90 men/women play as an organic musical body).

            But has it not always been like this? Read Berlioz’ memoirs, and you see different barriers to new music, but as unsurmountable as the present ones.

    2. Walter Simmons

      This comment illustrates my point that the recent (it’s no longer new, but it certainly isn’t known) music that supplies those qualities doesn’t get heard. Listen to Peter Mennin’s Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 and tell me that this music isn’t visceral. Listen to Nicolas Flagello’s Symphony No. 1 and tell me that this music doesn’t have climaxes to rival–even exceed–Tchaikovsky’s. There is lots of music–especially from American composers writing during the middle years of the 20th century–that provides all the strengths and virtues that general concertgoers are looking for–but they don’t get to hear it. FM radio stations don’t play it either. So how is anyone to know that it’s there?

  9. Pingback: Beethoven’s my BFF | CJ Eller

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