Compose for now, or compose for later?
"For me, the piece gave away its secrets on first hearing. There were few moments in which something extraordinary and strange happened, something that made me want to hear it again to learn more."
That's the New York Times' chief classical critic Anthony Tommasini, writing this morning of Pierre Jalbert's Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, as premiered at Alice Tully Hall by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Of course, I haven't heard the piece, so can't compare notes with the Times' critic. But I have heard other pieces by Jalbert (pictured above; I'd recommend Icefield Sonnets on the Ying Quartet's Life music III CD), and can assure you that he's no panderer. And I have read Anthony Tommasini enough over the years to know where he's coming from.
Tommasini comes from the place where music is best when it shuns immediate pleasures for more subtle, elusive qualities. Where if a piece is easy to grasp on first hearing, it probably isn't a very good piece. Where if a dissonant, complex work befuddles the listener on first hearing, it's not the composer's problem, it's the listener's, and it's up to the listener to work harder to understand the piece. I admit that these are broad generalizations, but I could, if I had time, go back and find many examples where Tommasini expresses his personal preference for modernist complexity over audience pleasure.
So, Tommasini thinks Jalbert's piece would be better if it made him want to hear it again to learn more. OK then, let's do a little arithmetic. Let's say that Tully Hall was almost full for the concert, with maybe 1,000 or so in attendance. How many of that thousand will ever hear Jalbert's Trio again? Maybe the Chamber Music Society will repeat the Trio in a future season, in which case some subscribers might catch it a second time. Maybe, although this is less likely, the Chamber Music Society or some other group will record it, in which case, a few of its original audience members might buy the recording. Or maybe other groups take up the Jalbert, in which case a couple more attendees could conceivably bump into it again.
Now let's say, hypothetically, that all of those things happen. If even then, 10% of the original audience got a second hearing of Jalbert's Trio, I would be flabbergasted. So, under any conceivable circumstances, over 90% of the people attending the premiere were hearing it for only time in their lives. As will probably be the case with those who attend subsequent performances of it on the Chamber Music Society's upcoming tour. And with those who hear other groups perform the work, should any others take it up. Under those circumstances, can you blame a composer for wanting his piece to be easily grasped and enjoyed upon its first hearing?
Look, I know that audiences share at least some of the blame for the bad reputation contemporary classical music has had over the past century or so. But, as we make our way through the second decade of a new century, can't our critical establishment please rethink its outmoded 20th-century attitudes about what makes music good? All right, maybe the audience can get stuck in the past. And yeah, the critics still seem obsessed with posterity, even though yesterday's posterity (i.e., today's audience) doesn't seem to have gotten the memo from past critics on what they should be liking by now. So, I propose a compromise: let's meet in the middle. Meaning, the present. Any takers?