Reconsidering Our Assumptions About New Music

By Ricky O’Bannon

Ask your average classical concertgoer what they think of when they hear the phrase “new music” and after a moment of trepidation, their answers are likely to fall along a few well-worn narratives.

The first is that new music is prickly and unapproachable. It favors an intellectual, academic style that prioritizes progress over popular enjoyment. The second widely held assumption is that audiences just don’t want it.

Reputations often take longer to fade away than they do to build. Call it the long shadow of “Who Cares if You Listen?” — Milton Babbitt’s (in)famous 1958 article that became a symbol of a growing gulf between composers writing difficult, process-driven works and audiences who felt they needed four years of music school before they had any chance of understanding, much less enjoying, the classical music of their time.

If the range of composers at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, who represent varied geographies and styles, suggest anything about the current state of the union of new music, it’s that the old assumptions paint with too broad a brush to accurately reflect what music is actually being written. One piece might be challenging and driven by the types of composing process that make some listeners shudder when they think of “new music,” the next might be inventive but immediately approachable.

Composer Nathaniel Stookey said that variety reflects a change that has really taken hold during the last few decades.

“One of the nice things about working now as opposed to when I was in school years ago is that there’s less a defined [idea of] what contemporary music is,” said Stookey. “It’s much more about individual personalities, which is such a relief for all of us.”

About 25 years ago, Stookey said that the “isms” were still really concrete for students learning how to compose. There was a pressure to adhere to certain stylistic schools of composition, but that began to really fray and fall apart in the 1990s.

“When I was in my 20s and would go to new music concerts, I would have a pretty clear idea of what I was going to hear there. I was ready for it. I would steel myself for it,” he said. “The main reason why I left academia or never entered academia was that I couldn’t live in that world where I could predict what I was going to hear.”

When you have prominent composition schools or “isms,” Stookey said that means that if an audience doesn’t like one piece in that style, they probably won’t like any. Whereas now in his view, audience members should be encouraged because if they don’t like the first piece at a new music concert, the next work might evoke a completely different sound world that might speak to them.

“There are still some common things that crop up in any period because we’re thinking about similar things or we’re trying to get away from similar things,” Stookey said. “It’s not that there aren’t some common threads, but it’s much less limiting and I don’t feel like any of us feel obliged to tow any sort of line.”

One popular criticism of contemporary music is that many new works seem to shy away from that old-fashioned kind of melody that we find ourselves whistling the day after a concert as we go about our business. During a panel discussion at Cabrillo, Marin Alsop talked about that criticism and pointed out that melody isn’t always the thing that makes a piece memorable.

“I wouldn’t say that Beethoven 5 has a very good melody. It’s just two notes. The first one is repeated three times,” said Alsop. “It’s not really a great melody, and yet it’s a great idea. I wish that I had come up with it myself.”

While many new works are driven by melody, she added that melody isn’t the only thing that can become the leading element in great music.

“Some pieces are melodically driven. Some are driven by the other elements: texture, rhythm, harmony, orchestration,” Alsop said. “It depends on the balance or the particular piece, but I think there’s melody in everything.

“Things that are memorable are things that resonate with people. Maybe it’s just a difference in what you’re exposed to. I do find myself humming these pieces. If my 11 year old hears these pieces, that’s what he ends up humming that day.”

Today’s composers, like composers through the ages, are responding to the world around them. And that world reflects the diversity of the globalized Internet age, where ideas from different geographies and musical subcultures are combined in unexpected ways. While we might have once known what to expect at a concert of new music, two back-to-back pieces at a concert today might borrow ideas from both Chinese folk music and dubstep.

There’s an old joke among classic rockers still touring on the success of their early albums that the phrase “here’s one from the new record” might as well mean “now’s a good time to head for the restroom.” While classical audiences tend to be the polite sort, preferring to grumble during intermission rather than taking a bathroom break mid-concert, there’s a similar belief that classical music fans are buying tickets to hear the hits and to hear the music that they’ve bonded with over time.

Ellen Primack has served as executive director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music for 25 years, where she regularly thinks about how to present new music and build an audience with an appetite for it.

Narratives are important, and Primack said that we in the audience construct our own stories and relationships around familiar music that we know from the canon. The challenge for new music makers and audiences is that it is a blank slate, which is why the festival tries to put composers in the public both before a performance and in other events to help build a narrative. Instead of “who cares if you listen,” the composer’s job in part is now to explain, “this is why you should listen, and here’s what to listen to.” And it’s a role a lot of composers have embraced.

“I think that [composers] have to understand their role as storytellers. What the festival tries to do is create the narrative, the story,” said Primack. “When people go to hear Mozart or Beethoven, they come to it with their own narrative in their head. When they come to new music, they don’t necessarily have that. Part of the process of new music is letting people into the storyline, and aren’t we lucky because we have the characters alive.”

Context, Primack said, can change the way we experience new art.

“I didn’t like Balinese music at first. It’s really incessant and hard. You go to Bali, and you sit amidst bamboo, you start to understand the context,” she said. “I felt very differently about the Dutch Masters when I went to Amsterdam because the light is different — because the architecture is different. Suddenly I could see it in a different context.”

Primack said she doesn’t agree with the regular laments — that the symphony is in trouble, or that the public has turned its back on new music — about the future of classical music. She meets young composers who fully expect to make a living in composition and music, and when the festival tries to commission new works, it’s had to start planning further and further out because these composers are getting work and commissions from others.

Primack said the festival’s core audience attends every concert no matter who is programmed because they’ve bought into the experience of hearing something they’ve never heard before.

“There is a particular kind of person who is open to that,” she said. “They know if they go to a museum, they’re not going to like every single painting on the wall. But they’re there to see art, to be challenged and to know when they hit the piece they love, maybe that one piece they love, it will have been worth the journey.”

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