What’s “new,” pussycat? reprint

See below for a repost of an July, 2015 article for the blog signalsforimages. The original site is down (not sure if permanently). I haven’t changed the article, other than to omit references to signalsforimages.

I am asked all the time – what is new music? People love to categorize everything, and art is no exception.

In the enormous world of commercial western music, I view “my” music as highly marginalized. If classical music is small sliver of the western music pie (let’s make it blueberry), contemporary classical music is maybe comparable to a blueberry seed in that pie?

What about nomenclature? New music can refer to any type, really. Contemporary isn’t much better, and can have other connotations; Christian contemporary describes religious themed pop music (decades ago, a So-Cal radio station advertised “soft and contemporary,” but sadly they didn’t mean Feldman). Avant-garde has already happened. Experimental implies that it isn’t fully worked out yet, suggesting it is unfinished, unpolished, or perhaps of poor quality. Recent describes the chronology, but says nothing about style. For me, a useful distinction was suggested by a pianist friend who differentiates between contemporary (“of the time that pushes the art forward; composer might be living or dead”) and recently composed (“recently written but in an older or conservative style; probably the composer is still alive”).

I’ve noticed lately ensembles and series that describe themselves as “new music” specialists, even though they program very little new music. I am not sure why they are doing it – maybe it is good for grants? I compared a season of one such series, one such ensemble, and two professional orchestras in a major metropolitan area. The orchestras programmed 10% contemporary; the self-proclaimed “new music” presenters programmed 20% contemporary. I find this bizarre – at 20%, why not be a classical music series instead? If an orchestra programs 20% (not likely, these days), will they be a new music orchestra? By the way, I’d like to ask precisely when playing music by living composers became the exception, rather than the rule? This is the subject for another article.

The aim of a college ensemble (like my student group Nova) is education – both for the students playing in the group, and also the students who attend the concerts. With that in mind, I often program significant repertoire of the last century – pieces I don’t consider new, but still important for the students’ experience (Pierrot Lunaire is over a century old, after all!). For the purpose of teaching new music, I sometimes include works that students would be unlikely to have the opportunity to study otherwise, because these works are still outside the canon of the typical college studio or ensemble (the contemporary music related field at UNT was created to give the students encouragement in this area, particularly).

This leads me to suspect that many self-proclaimed (faux) presenters of new music view themselves as educators of their audience. Many times, as an audience member, I’ve endured embarrassing and condescending concert banter, even describing new music as medicine (“we know it tastes bad, but trust us, it is good for you!”). As a presenter of new music outside of an academic environment (in my solo and chamber concerts, and my series Sounds Modern  and ACME), my goal is for people to experience the art, and hopefully enjoy it. Learning about art can enhance the experience, of course (this is a good reason to include program notes), but in my opinion knowledge is not essential for enjoyment.

I am also often asked about how I deal with audiences, as if audiences are a problem! I have found it quite the contrary. My goal is to present music I love, and hopefully give great performances. Even playing hyper-technical harsh complex contemporary music in circumstances one might imagine to be unreceptive (a community church concert in a tiny Midwestern town, for example), I have found audiences to be warm and enthusiastic. The only times I had bad reactions from audiences were my graduate recitals at UC San Diego. UCSD  is world – famous for its emphasis on highly intellectual new music, but the local newspaper described our recitals as merely, “student flute recital, free.” Inevitably, I’d have someone storm out during the first piece – I think they expected Chaminade, or something similar, and were thus terribly disappointed! This demonstrates how helpful accurate labeling could be. Imagine if I take my young son to a movie, expecting a nature documentary (his current favorite), and instead we are subjected to a war film. Similarly, if I want to attend a new music concert, I’d be pretty disappointed to hear a concert focusing upon standard classical repertoire.

This is not to say that I don’t like combining old and new repertoire – I actually think it is a great idea! The new music group Ensemble Signal  has been featuring J.S. Bach alongside new works in a special series, and the presenter Da Camera  regularly programs inclusively, with a wide-range of repertoire. In some of my own favorite flute programs, I played Donatoni and Ferneyhough alongside C.P.E. Bach. What is essential is to present a clear programming vision so that the audience won’t be disappointed. A number of new music presenters have explained that they have “dumbed-down” their programs, yet their audience remains small and unenthused. I suspect that the middle ground pleases no one – lovers of traditional classical music might be put off by music labeled as new, whilst lovers of new music won’t be interested in conservative recently composed works.

Hearing something new has always been incredibly exciting to me. When I started performing new music, it never occurred to me that anyone would feel differently about it. As a high school flutist, I regularly went to record stores to shop for classical recordings. In a mall in Indianapolis, I heard a minimalist piece playing, and I was transfixed. I had never heard anything like it, and bought it on the spot. Glassworks  was my gateway to the other minimalists, and later experimental rock and performance art. I stumbled onto the Carter string quartets at the public library- wow! I got season tickets to the local symphony (a gift from my parents) and my favorite concerts invariably included a world premiere (the ISO did quite a few premieres during those years; sadly, orchestral premieres are a rarity now). I found I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Later, when I worked as an usher for that orchestra, at an inner-city outreach concert I saw the kids rave about the contemporary piece (it was by Christopher Rouse).

To fulfill my cravings for new sounds, I changed my shopping strategy. Instead of looking for the usual flute records, I would browse the miscellaneous classical bins at the record store, and look for composers with unfamiliar names. I’d flip the album and check for date of birth. If the composer was living (or only recently dead), I’d buy it. An accurate description of the genre would have saved me a lot of time and money (by the way, I still browse for CDs in the miscellaneous bins at Recycled Books)!

To this day, I love hearing and playing music that is truly new. To me, it is just music, but even more fun! I love collaborating with composers to create new repertoire; I love the challenge, the head scratching (and, I’ll be honest, cursing) that happens when facing new and demanding compositions. I love the electric atmosphere of a first performance; even more than premieres, I love developing and evolving the work with subsequent repeat performances. I love sharing these stimulating, innovative works with audiences, especially in unexpected venues and places. Perhaps, in my search for the new, I have described my search for a musical thrill?

So in the end, what’s new for me is a new experience – whether mine, or a colleague’s or student’s or audience member’s – that takes our imaginations to a new place. Everyone’s old and new will be different, and at this point in my life, my threshold is pretty high! I trust all of you to take the leap and have a great time.

 

 

 

 

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