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.
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.
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?
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 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:
- 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.
- 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.)
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?
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 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.