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…But I Hate Modern Music

…But I Hate Modern Music

Disclaimer: The opinions that follow are my own. I do not wish to offend or belittle those who feel otherwise. Feel free to file what follows under “Truism: All Art Is Subjective,” and read no further. Just bear in mind—that same file tab could read instead: “Cliché: Art’s Alleged Intrinsic Value Spares It From Criticism.”

So you hate modern music. I hate it sometimes, too. The purpose of this post is to validate the discomfort so many listeners feel towards much new music.

My intent is not to descend into gross overgeneralizations. Nor is it to tell you to swallow new music because it’s good for you—like musical cod liver oil. My hope is that this post will give you a sense of the kind of new music I will (and won’t) present as the co-director of a concert series and how I came to that position.

Salastina will always champion contemporary music. This is vital to our art, and a huge part of what we are about. I am a musician precisely because of my love and respect for composition, and my drive to share its beauty with others.

But I really hate modern music sometimes. I hate it not in spite of, but because of, what makes me love music the rest of the time.


THE PRESENTER’S CHALLENGE: WHOM, OR WHAT, DO WE SERVE?

If, while at a museum, you happen upon an offensive or meaningless piece of art, you can just walk away. A live performance, on the other hand, holds you hostage. You can’t walk away until it’s over.

And that’s to say nothing of a unique quality of hearing itself: we never habituate to jarring sounds. Imagine living next door to the construction of a skyscraper. No amount of time and exposure can render the aural assault of a relentless jackhammer into white noise. Ugly wallpaper, on the other hand, recedes from awareness with relative speed.

If, while at a museum, you happen upon an offensive or meaningless piece of art, you can just walk away. A live performance, on the other hand, holds you hostage.

I can’t tell you how many times concert goers approach me and share their distaste for the modern. Even my own parents have avoided our new music concerts. They’ll give excuses like: “We’re going to pass on this one. That’s just not the sort of music we’re interested in.”

While this kind of categoric dismissal disappoints me, I can’t say I don’t get it. For better and for worse, making generalizations and stereotyping is how human beings navigate the world. Suffer through enough incomprehensible new music, and you very well may dismiss the genre altogether.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an early 20th-century philanthropist, made a case for new music that still carries weight today:

My plan for modern music is not that we should like it, not necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.

This noble sentiment puts taste and comprehension aside out of a sense of duty to the generation of new art. Many of the orchestras and chamber series in which I make my living adhere to this belief. As a result, I’ve played countless “challenging” pieces over the years. They’ve ranged from profound to insufferable.

Posterity is a far better judge than I could ever hope to be. And Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment is self-evident.

But duty calls me in other ways, too. As a presenter, my primary concern is the audience experience. Seeing to it that audiences understand and are moved by music is precisely what Salastina stands for. If we aren’t communicating something most could find beautiful and meaningful, then what’s the point?

Grant money and music critics favor the avant-garde. Most audiences don’t. Salastina’s answer to this musical double-bind is simple. We only play new music we love and believe in. And if we do decide to take a risk, we hope you’ll trust us.


THE KIND OF THING WE’LL NEVER DO

To illustrate, what follows is an experience I had at a recent concert. (Spoiler Alert: it was mind-bendingly aggravating.)

I don’t want to disparage anyone. Whatever I may think of a particular piece, I respect that a human being poured blood, sweat, and tears into its creation. For these reasons, I will not share specifics.

Several months ago, my husband and I left L.A. for a weekend getaway in a major U.S. cultural center. At our hotel, I happened upon a concert advertisement for a performance by a local contemporary music ensemble. It featured the music of a composer whose name I knew, but whose work I did not. We decided to attend.

Being tourists, we underestimated how much time it would take to Uber to the venue. We were a few minutes late. We tip toed into a warehouse—replete with concrete floors, string lights, and artisanal muffins. This Instagram-worthy backdrop had been designed to attract a crowd that never came.

Because we’d arrived late, we weren’t able to read the programs before the concert began. Blank slates, we had no idea what was up next.

A small string chamber orchestra entered the stage. Each musician began to play a distinct musical gesture. Changes in these gestures were so subtle that they were imperceptible. The chord progression, while pleasant, was static.

Meanwhile, an abstract film played on a screen behind the orchestra. It was clear after a few minutes that this was a slow-moving audio-visual meditation. I was curious to see where this primordial ooze of sound and color might evolve. I admit: I felt a bit of a lift for “getting” something avant-garde. It appealed to my intellectual vanity.

About five minutes in, I began to feel restless. The more mature part of me gently persuaded me to give it a chance.

Twenty static minutes later, my irritation was mounting. If anything in the piece had evolved, it was imperceptible to me. I was beginning to resent the monotony.

All I was left with was the frustration of being gaslit by institutional arrogance.

Twenty tedious minutes after that, my patience was wearing thinner and thinner. My heart bled for the poor cellists. They’d been playing the same pattern over and over again for over 45 minutes. (“Oppress’d so hard they could not stand…Let my people go!“)

Eyes bulging, I looked at my husband. It was clear he shared my feelings. We got up and left after a few more interminable minutes. Thankfully, we were sitting near enough to the back that no one noticed.

During a considerably more entertaining activity (dinner), we read the composer’s program notes. In them, he’d shared something to the effect of:

Throughout history, human art has focused on the dramatic. In this piece, I intend to convey how my emotions change throughout the course of an hour in a more lifelike way.

To pit one’s work against the entirety of art is as pompous as it is absurd. One need not bother making the claim that it is better for it. The comparison alone betrays an important implication: different is better. No wonder the piece was the sonic equivalent of watching paint dry.

The program notes continued:

In the end, my piece is like life. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to go a very short distance.

This is a thoughtful and sobering sentiment. And to be fair, it was far more beautifully stated by the composer in his original program notes. But did it have to become a tedious hour-long sonic experiment? This was pretentious self-indulgence taking cover behind superficial depth. All I was left with was the frustration of being gaslit by institutionalized arrogance.


AN INFINITE VARIETY OF MUSIC

A few months ago, I listened to a fantastic course on iTunes U: Yale’s Introduction to Psychology. One of my favorite lectures was about language. It gave me a new way to make sense of why so much contemporary music communicates nothing meaningful to me.

Inherent to all languages are three fundamentals: phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes are the most basic differences between sounds. Morphemes are the smallest units of words that have meaning to us. (If you speak English, you know tens of thousands of them.) And syntax is the structure that strings words together. Thanks to syntax, sequences of words become intelligible thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

All languages contain a finite number of phonemes and morphemes. Likewise, languages are bound by the governing rules of syntax. But within these constraints, the possibility for expression and understanding is endless. This is the miracle of language.

I realized that musical language has its own phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes could be timbre, articulation, and dynamic differences. Morphemes could be pitches and chords. Syntax could be the structure that brings meaning to these things. Chord progressions, rhythm, voice leading, counterpoint, form.

Like English, Urdu, and Korean, musical language is limitless. Not in spite of, but because of, the finiteness of its fundamentals.

In An Infinite Variety of Music (1966), Leonard Bernstein writes:

[Music] is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living. The only reality these tones can have is form—that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect… One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form…The moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying them their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.

In other words, abstracting music—which is, by definition, already abstract—castrates it. Like language, music relies on form to mean anything to us at all. When overly distorted, all we hear is gibberish.

I have long rejected the avant-gardist’s implicit credo:

Certain building blocks of music have played themselves out. They are no longer meaningful or relevant. Above all else, each artist must create something original for and of himself. Only this is worthy of respect. It doesn’t matter if people don’t understand it.

There’s a lot right and a lot wrong with this. Every artist must be true to himself. To what he wants to share with others. To take what has come before, and run with it.

But to value rugged individualism above communication is to pervert these noble pursuits. Does an author need to invent a new language to tell an original story? Is the organic evolution of any wide-spoken language ever dictated by one person?

Self-anointed visionaries willing to alienate themselves from the vast majority of other people as a point of ideological pride have, by definition, little of interest to share with anyone else.

I do not mean to discourage the beautiful and inevitable flowering of musical language over time. Nothing is static—not the words we use, the notes we play, nor the world in which each resonate. I am simply not convinced that authentic, rich self-expression depends upon the continual invention of a priori languages. Self-anointed visionaries willing to alienate themselves from the vast majority of other people as a point of ideological pride have, by definition, little of interest to share with anyone else.

For better or for worse, we humans have a few immutable aesthetic preferences. Here’s Bernstein:

It can be no mere coincidence that after half a century of radical experiment the best and best-loved works in atonal or 12-tone or serial idioms are those works which seem to have preserved, against all odds, some backdrop of tonality…

It has occasionally occurred to me that music could conceivably exist, some distant day, ultimately detached from tonality…Perhaps we are some day to be freed from the tyranny of time, the dictatorship of the harmonic series. Perhaps. But meanwhile we are still earth-based, earth-bound, far from any Omega point, caught up in such old-fashioned things as human relationships, ideological, international, and interracial strife…

No, we are still earth creatures, still needful of human warmth and the need to communicate among ourselves. For which the Lord be praised. And as long as there is reaching out of one of us to another, there will be the healing comfort of tonal response.

I am not advocating that art music plummet to the lowest common denominator. But why should “accessible” remain a bad word as it pertains to art music? When will a natural preference for beauty and heart not merit condescension?


A PROMISE

A few weeks ago, Salastina’s resident violist Meredith Crawford and I discussed this topic before a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. She expressed the discomfort she feels when contemporary music comes up in conversation with other musicians.

When it comes to taking a stand on contemporary music, we have two choices:

  1. Admit to a preference for “intelligible” or—gasp—“pretty” music, and risk silent derision. Accept the possibility that we are shallow and missing an intellectual chip. Live with icky, ungenerous feelings of contempt for self-indulgent composers. Risk the embarrassment of not appreciating something posterity will know to be genius. Judge ourselves for all of the above.
  2. Overstate our belief in Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment. Accept that in so doing, we are distancing ourselves from the audiences we purport to serve. Live with icky feelings of insincerity, elitism, and fraudulence. Risk the embarrassment of failing to realize that the emperor has no clothes. Judge ourselves for all of the above.

Neither choice feels good. The awkward limbo between them isn’t any better. (Even writing this post was difficult thanks to this polarization, and the awkward spot it puts me in.)

As musicians, all we need to do is ask ourselves: do I feel genuinely inspired by this piece, and excited to share it with others?

Happily, there does exist a bulletproof litmus test. One that transcends both over-generalizations.

Like meeting a person or drinking a glass of wine, meaningful opinions are best made on a case-by-case basis. As musicians, all we need to do is ask ourselves: do I feel genuinely inspired by this piece, and excited to share it with others?

Again, Bernstein:

I wish there were a better word for communication; I mean by it the tenderness we feel when we recognize and share with another human being a deep, unnameable, elusive emotional shape or shade. That is really what a composer is saying in his music: has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release? And when you react to (“like”) a piece of music, you are simply replying to the composer, yes…

If we don’t say yes, then no—we won’t make you listen.


Maia Jasper White

Maia Jasper White

Maia Jasper White is a chamber musician, teacher, orchestral and studio musician, and musical entrepreneur. A dedicated teacher, she is on faculty at the Colburn School of Performing Arts and Chapman University. She is a member of the first violin sections of both the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony, and twice served as concertmaster of the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado.

Maia studied English and musicology at Yale, and continued her violin studies at USC and the Paris Conservatory. She is a recent graduate of the Center for Nonprofit Management.

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.

14 thoughts on “…But I Hate Modern Music

  1. Who Cares if You Read

    Or… ‘How to make NewMusicBox feel even less relevant to a large sector of the composers it is meant to represent.’

    Reply
    1. Not to mention the performers!

      Don’t forget to alienate the musicians (who actually do believe in) programming works that innovate and experiment and deliver experiences beyond just “bringing all the feels.”

      Reply
  2. Phil Fried

    “.. But why should “accessible” remain a bad word as it pertains to art music? When will a natural preference for beauty and heart not merit condescension?…”

    The crux of this is how you define beauty? Is it the same for everyone? No.
    A thought: I’m not one for the straw man (or woman) argument, but if you must go there “alienate” is not the right word “insulated” might be better. Sadly, even in pop music not all styles and their fan bases are compatible.
    It’s true that the classical music audience is small compared to pop music. So small that movie soundtracks count as classical music these days. Under these circumstances I would strongly disagree that grants go mostly to the avant-garde, (at least in the USA) rather everyone is falling over themselves to be user friendly. Or perhaps avant-garde in name only.

    On the other hand niche work is fine with me.
    Phil Fried, no sonic prejudice

    Reply
  3. Seth Boustead

    I understand your point and many of us who go to contemporary music concerts have had the experience that you describe. But, I personally have frequently greatly enjoyed myself at concerts like this where I’ve heard new sounds and been exposed to new ideas. Conversely I’ve also sat in the audience and thought that everyone on stage was a jackass. That’s the joy of contemporary music, you have no idea what to expect. And, you can in fact walk out of a concert. No one is holding you hostage, just do it quietly with a minimum of fuss.

    I would like to add, though, that you can’t conflate one concert experience with all contemporary music concerts anymore than you can say all modern dance performances hue to one particular style. Or film, literature, any other storied art form still being practiced today. I have gone to numerous contemporary music concerts where the music was lyrical and yes, even accessible (a term I have some experience with…)

    It’s a harmful stereotype that the word “contemporary” automatically equals experimental or that all contemporary composers believe only in pushing new boundaries. It’s true that there was a time in the past in which composers were intolerant of music that was not experimental but that time is long gone. It’s also inaccurate and hurtful to say that an interest in pushing new boundaries automatically means the composer is uninterested in communication or that they judge their success by the number of people in the audience.

    Experimental music will always exist. Each generation of composers will want to do something new, that’s just human nature. But contemporary music is a vast field, easily as vast as the common practice period repertoire, and it might take a decent amount of searching before you find composers you like. Please do search for them and please don’t disparage the ones you don’t like.

    With men and women from nearly every country in the world contributing, contemporary music also represents the first time that classical music is truly a global and inclusive art form. Please check out the music of Chen Yi, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gabriela Ortiz, Jennifer Higdon, Per Norgard, just to name a very few great composers from around the world.

    The world of contemporary music is a great joy. I promise if you do more listening you will be rewarded.

    Reply
  4. Solomon Epstein

    There is NO SUCH ENTITY as the abstraction “Modern Music”. A centuries-old European political and social order began to crumble in the late 19th Century, collapsing into the hideous abyss of World War One in 1914, which changed the world order forever. Since music and musicians reflect society, and since as as members of society artists respond to great social and political change, it wasprecisely in this period of growing despair, anger and cynicism that ALL the arts exhibited what has been labeled “Modernism”. What this means for music is that the “common speech” of European music for centuries—- the gravitational tonality perfected by J.S. Bach, and stated theoretically by Rameau—– fragmented in 1,000 directions. Schoenberg and his “free atonality”, which he later codified in his 12-tone system, was only one approach that emerged from this fragmentation. Stravinsky and his major competitor Bartok at first represented a turn to “primitivism”, where rhythm and thrust dominated, replacing the primacy of melody and harmony. Both Bartok and Stravinsky later turned to a kind of formalism or neo-classicism, entirely different from Schoenberg’s approach. Charles Ives experimented with collisions of masses of sound. At first he was rejected, but many people of later generations find Ives immensely exciting. The early 20th-century movement “bruitisme” experimented with combinations of sheer noise as music; some of it is at least interesting, but certainly not “beautiful” in the traditional sense. In America, the transplanted Frenchman Edgard Varese constructed music using only percussion. This music continues to fascinate.

    And there were other currents: the “chance music” of John Cage, and its total opposite, the “total serialization” of Pierre Boulez. I could of course go on and on, but I’m not writing a book. Instead of ignorantly lumping together all music after Brahms as “Modern Music”, muster the energy and the guts to browse through the vast offerings on You Tube. Write down a list of modern works that please or excite you in some ways, and write down a list of modern works that you loathe, or that leave you cold. Then you will at least have SOME meaningful idea of what you mean by “modern” or “contemporary” music. It is literally MEANINGLESS to lump all “modern music” together, as if it were as uniform and featureless as margarine. That way only ignorance lies.

    Reply
  5. Gregory Kyle

    I love every bit of this post. Bravo to NewMusicBox too–it’s a quality publication that runs articles representing totally different perspectives, and leaves it to the readership to reach their own conclusions. This conversation on modern music needs to be had.

    Reply
  6. Jon Corelis

    “La musique,” in Debussy’s famous dictum, “doit humblement chercher à faire plaisir,” and the “humblement” part is as important as the “faire plaisir” part. Music that arrogantly demands, “If you don’t like me then you are some kind of clod,” isn’t going to please.

    Reply
  7. Charlotte Mundy

    I wish this were an essay about whether it’s valid for an ensemble to subject their audience to a work they know people will probably find boring. Or maybe an essay about what exactly makes a piece boring in Maia’s opinion – where the line is between gorgeous simplicity and monotony. Or an essay about whether latecomers should be admitted to concerts in cases like these. But it loses focus and lands on such general ideas and terms that it’s essentially saying nothing. Accessible versus inaccessible, communication versus abstraction,”pretty,” “intelligible,” “pretentious self indulgence”- these all mean very different things to different people, especially if you’re alluding to music but not giving a single specific musical example.

    We can only have a productive conversation about music if we’re willing to talk openly and SPECIFICALLY. If you humbly, honestly tell a professional composer or ensemble that you couldn’t sit through their concert because you found it too boring, they should be mature enough to accept your opinion as valid and have an open conversation about it with you. Having such a discussion in a public forum, rather than publishing vague, unfocused essays, would be a way more effective way to move the conversation forward.

    Reply
  8. Fred Priestly

    (“Oppress’d so hard they could not stand…Let my people go!“)

    To ‘wittily’ use lines from a spiritual dealing with the oppression of a race, to describe one’s discomfort at being forced to sit through music one doesn’t feel is worthy, in warehouse selling artisinal muffins, provides a glimpse into the level of empathy that this person has available to their understanding of art, and of people. New Music is a tiny, insular scene that attracts a certain subset of people who are devoted to one extreme idea of aural beauty or another (I’m even lumping in ‘accessible’ New Music as extreme, to most of mankind). The scene is often also glaringly naive. Let us alone, to enjoy what we like, you should enjoy what you like, and by all means, program your concerts so that more people show up. That’s your job.

    Reply
  9. Mark Nowakowski

    I think that you are spot on in much of your commentary. So many times I have been to hear new music in that traditional venue which generally now distrusts – if not despises – it: the symphony orchestra… and during most of those occasions, when the much vaunted new piece is over (and I’ve considered that it was probably rehearsed for less than 30 minutes), I still can’t help but think: “you picked THAT?” This is not necessarily a blanket rejection of the work in question, but a statement of context: an audience which distrusts new music and which we would subsequently (for the sake of everything from the richness of our culture life to our careers) LOVE to begin to embrace it again will not be brought around by programming mostly new works which they find incomprehensible.

    There is one place where I disagree with you: the intellectual handicap we bear in the arts is relativism: it is what enshrines any expression as equally valid to any other, and dismisses your natural right to make a strong judgment to the contrary. As soon as you use words like “beauty” and “pretty” and even “intelligible”, you are pointing to objective realities. Artists before the intellectual confusion of modern relativism knew this, whether instinctively or directly: they realized that they were reaching for a real ideal, and that in this reaching beauty was potentially uncovered (even if the work itself were challenging for a number of reasons.) Read Reilly’s “Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music,” and you will find the critical language which you are grasping for here. Thank you for a courageous article.

    Reply
  10. Mark Nowakowski

    While I do not agree with every sentiment you have expressed, generally your brave article should be applauded. I can’t tell you how many times I have attended concerts in venues where new music is distrusted or even reviled – such as the symphony orchestra – to hear a much vaunted new commission. In far too many such instances – if not the majority of them – I leave the concert thinking: “they want to bring their audience around to new music, and they just played THAT?” That is not necessarily a dismissal of the value of the work itself, but rather a practical programming question: at what point does a programmer or director get off their intellectual high horse and actually assist their audience into entering the modern era? At what point do they admit that academic modernism is really an aesthetic blip, and that 60 years more of forcing it onto audiences in between safe helpings of Mozart and Beethoven isn’t going to make it go down any easier? May we even consider the aesthetic validity of expecting people to respect (let alone embrace) aural expressions which often ignore the nature of acoustics and how music is perceived in order to be – yes, gasp – intelligible? I’ve long since quit coddling the vague experimentation (and, alas, self-absorbed auto-aestheticism) of many modernists and making excuses for it. Sometimes the audience is right. And when the audience retains its opinion well into posterity, it is only honest to step back and ask what in the hell just happened historically speaking, and whether or not we have *any* responsibility to keep programming this stuff. “Who cares if you listen” is a valid statement for academic work and brave experimentation (which we all benefit from), but it hardly constitutes an effective (or even honest) programming strategy. The Boulez generation burned down the bridges to performer and audience alike, and many of our generation of composers are now striving mightily to rebuild them; intelligent programming certainly helps. Bravo.

    I do think you er without realizing it, however, because you make art an entirely subjective experience. Yet as soon as words like “pretty” or “beautiful” or “intelligible” are used, you’ve entered the realm of objective realities. (In fact, without an objective standard, all criticism becomes merely a personal opinion, at which point it may be dishonest to even express such arguments publicly.) Every artist before the modern intellectual cluster-bubble of relativism knew that they were reaching for an objective reality whose aim was beauty. Read Robert Reilly’s “Surprising by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music,” and you’ll find the language and philosophical underpinnings of the (very valid) opinion you are reaching for.

    Thanks for writing this. Again, bravo.

    Reply

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