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John Schaefer on Contemporary Music

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 - 01:26 PM

As longtime listeners will know, I am a huge fan of new music. My nightly “New Sounds” program here at WNYC has celebrated many types of new music since (gulp) 1982. So when I read Joe Queenan’s article, “Admit It, You’re As Bored As I Am,” my first inclination was to smack him. Instead, we’ve invited him to a Soundcheck Smackdown… where, it occurs to me, he will in fact be within smacking distance. Alas, as the moderator of this little event, I’m supposed to maintain some decorum.

Anyway, Joe is a humorist so part of me wonders whether he’s just having a laugh at contemporary music’s expense, tweaking classical music’s collective nose in a way… But reading it again, he really does seem to genuinely dislike all the many different flavors of new music out there. And you know what? His article, and that provocative title especially, WILL resonate with a lot of listeners. Just because I like this music doesn’t mean I’m naïve about it – I see exactly what Joe writes about: people restlessly waiting for the new crap to finish so they can hear their beloved Mozart serenade, or just sleeping through it. (But I’ve seen people sleep through Mozart too.)

I guess we need to define our terms: contemporary music for many people means the ascetic, cerebral music of Elliott Carter. For others it’s the relentless tonality of Philip Glass. Some would point to a straightforward composer of symphonies and concertos like Ellen Taaffe Zwillich. But what about the long-dead Arnold Schoenberg? Is that still contemporary music? And if so, then what do we call Puccini, Debussy, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff – all from the same time?

So, what do you think about contemporary music – however you define it? Do you like some of it, all of it, or none of it?


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Comments [5]


10 Comments/Opinions on Contemporary Notational Music

1. Any 1 concert can’t be all things to different audience demographics.

2. I believe major orchestras should alternate the months of their season
(Generally Oct – May) between standard
and contemporary repertoire.

3. With focused alternation between the 2 repertoires, the players playing chops
would be stretched and inform each other.

4. You could attract the younger demographic (and potential future audience) with the contemporary sounds they are more familiar with.

5. It would prevent the “spinach” effect with the older demographic.

6. There is the issue of “ghettoizing” the repertoire. You need either 1 conductor or a music director/principal guest conductor that can advocate for each repertoire equally well.
(Esa-Pekka Salonen in this generation, Leopold Stokowski in the past is 2 examples of conductors that could bounce back and forth between standard and contemporary repertoires.)

7. My belief is that if an orchestra wants to combine works on the program it would be better to pair pieces within roughly the same time period. (For example Part’s
Tabula Rasa and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre) Both are pieces composed within the same century, but of widely contrasting sound worlds.

8. As an analogy, in NY there is both the MET museum and MOMA.

9. At a Carnegie Hall John Adams birthday concert a few years ago, there was a 30 and under crowd one doesn’t normally see in Stern auditorium. On the program was: My Father Knew Charles Ives, The Wound Dresser and the Violin Concerto.
The audience politely clapped for “Ives” and “Wound” as if they were more appreciating the reputation of Adams than for the music itself.
Then after Leila Josefowicz finished playing the middle movement of the concerto the audience broke out into spontaneous applause. Both Adams who was conducting, and Josefowicz broke out into a smile.
This moment reminded me of the Maurice Ravel quote, “Music must be emotional 1st and intellectual 2nd.”

10. Here’s a thought experiment. Don’t announce the name of 2 different pieces
to a person who doesn’t normally listen to classical music. Play a song from Peter
Lieberson’s Neruda Songs first. Then play the last movement fugue of Beethoven’s Hammerklaiver piano sonata.
Ask that listener to guess that of the 2 pieces which was written first.
Or to be even more subjective, ask that person which piece “sounds > modern”.

Jul. 25 2008 02:55 PM
Hurd Hutchins

Joe Queenan interview on WNYC's John Schaefer Soundcheck: Q. claimed that he's sick of going to concerts and having to listen to the likes of Glass, Adams, and arid academic pieces that put audiences to sleep. He much prefers Bruckner to Adams, whom he both thinks somewhat similar [??]. He says he attends many concerts a year and really sick of those pieces which are usually commissioned by the orchestra and usually last only a few minutes and that the audience in general abhors. Well if I may put in my opinion, I would tell Joe that I have seldom heard a funnier and more informative person on the radio than Joe Q. when interviewed by Don Imus, but then when I got his books out of library I found them disappointing bec. no yuks, which I'm sure he thought he put in--and very little enlightenment too. This a matter of taste? I would also say that altho I like Mahler a lot, and the German school of classical music ditto (my favorite in music--of all art as a matter of fact), I can't stand Bruckner. His music sounds unfinished, awkward, immature, overwrought, altogether an embarrassment. Also can't stand Q. favorites that he mentioned during interview like Berg, Webern, Stravinsky after his famous ballets, much of Bartok, etc. But I do like Glass and Adams. So isn't much of what he's desparitying just a matter of taste? No one disputes most of the music produced in any era is bad--particularly arid academic or arid anything music--after all only one out of many thousand of pieces is good enough to last. But how do tell which ones, bec. the greatest--i.e. see criticism of the Beethoven symphonies in his day--are the most controversial? If you're not on the same wavelength that composer's on, you are guaranteed not to like him, which I would say is Joe's problem w/ Adams and Glass (and probably Steve Reich too). And my problem w/ Berg, Webern, late Stravinsky, etc.

Jul. 25 2008 02:15 AM
Richard Mitnick

I came too late to the program to call or be seen on line, but I did leave a long comment, which in summary is, you all talked about the concert hall. The concert hall is not all there is. There is great activity on the internet, especially with the streams at Live365, which I enumerated there, and, even on FM, what with wnyc2, its influence on Evening Music, people like Marvin Rosen at WPRB who has a four hour gig on Fridays of nothing but new music, and even Alan Chapman out at KUSC with his Modern Masterpieces.

The goal should be for us to financially support the arts. We should be moved to spend money. My choice is always living composers. How I get the music, learn the music is almost irrelevant, as long as I get it and support it.

And, this is an important topic, and again a lesson as to why WNYC need a proper forum structure so that this kind of debate can go beyond the day. We do not even know if anyone else responds to any comments.


Jul. 22 2008 05:07 PM
Reuven Lewis

For a small city, we in Cincinnati have a nice music tradition. We take great pride in our symphony orchestra and our College Conservatory of Music.
Certainly new music meets with great criticisms and indifference by concert goers but I would like to draw this parallel to a comment by Picasso. someone mentioned to Picasso, that he did not understand what he was doing with his artwork and Picasso replied that if he spoke Russian, that he wouldn't understand either what Picasso was saying but its not his (Picasso's) responsability to teach him Russian. The arts have always required for folks to invest in an understanding and an appreciation. If people are going to see a concert and they don't reralize what they are going to hear, then is it really the fault of the orchestra' or the composer? if you don't want to hear a piece of music, then either don't go to that concert or else, step out into the lobby for the performance. I like some new music and I like some ancient music. To think that programs are going to appeal everyone is silly and remember, that this legitimate contemporary music has never fit within a traditional definition as being Popular Music.

Jul. 22 2008 02:29 PM
Tom Brennan

This is something I struggle with a lot and I'm glad you wrote about it. Obviously, contemporary music is just music happening now. But convention has it that a composer like Schoenberg is somehow included in the same realm, though not included in the 'contemporary' denotation—that seems to assert that people generally think of contemporary music as being akin to modernism or something that grew out of it, having less to do with the likes of Puccini, et al. My personal opinion is that Debussy and Ravel were both modernists, too, which probably makes my definition of modernism slightly more broad than most. But I think their music defied enough conventions to set them irrevocably apart from the common practice. That people call them impressionists is kind of dumb. I think of them as more like Van Gogh or the Fauves, who were figurative painters with a penchant for unconventional color schemes.

Anyway, I think that what separates the old "common practice" stuff with the "modernism and beyond" stuff is a matter of patronage.

Jul. 22 2008 02:27 PM

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