How much new music is too much new music?
The Washington Post 's Anne Midgette has repeatedly distinguished herself among classical music critics by questioning her critical certainties, and by engaging her readers in discussions of important issues affecting the music. How refreshing! And she's just done it again, in a blog entry reflecting back on a premiere-filled weekend in the DC area classical concert scene. As she puts it, "so many premieres, so little time."
One paragraph from her blog jumped out at me for what it says not just about one weekend's concerts, but about the precarious position of new classical music:
With all of this going on, it’s small wonder that presenters seem to be having a harder time selling tickets. Contemporary music lovers are already a subset of the mainstream clasical audience; on Saturday, they had to choose between three different concerts.
Note the assumptions that have to be assumed before that paragraph makes sense: Contemporary music is somehow different from "regular" classical music. It appeals to a particular subset of the classical audience, which implies that it does not appeal as much to the classical audience as a whole. And presenters include contemporary fare on their classical presentations at the risk of selling fewer tickets. I'm not saying that these assumptions are right or wrong. I'm sure they're true in some cases, and I'm just as sure that there are many counter-examples. But one thing these assumptions aren't is exceptional. You hear them all the time.
Meanwhile, in an around our nation's capitol last weekend, there were likely several other musical events where lots of new music, including premieres, was performed for respectably-proportioned and appreciative audiences. In fact, the audiences no doubt expected to hear the latest sounds, and would have thought it odd had they been instead given old music — "old" being measured in these cases in decades, not centuries. These presentations weren't ghettoized as "contemporary," "modern" or some other "other." They were just called music. The difference, of course, is that these weren't classical presentations. They were rock, jazz, folk, country, or another subset of popular music.
Why does classical have to be so different? I'm not referring so much to comparing classical to pop for sound, scope or other musical considerations, though I've done so before and no doubt will again. But why in classical music does the old have to be the standard, and the new the departure from the standard? Can we ever reach the point in classical music where the inclusion of new music is unexceptional, and where the new and old cohabit in concert programs more-or-less equally? This is the way it once was, when the great works by Beethoven and earlier composers were themselves new. Actually, that's not quite right. Back in those days, the new was the norm, and the old the rare exception. Can it be that way again, or anything close to it?
In case you're wondering why you or I should care how this question is answered, I'll tell you that as far as I'm concerned, this is one of the most important questions facing the new generation of classical composers, performers and presenters, as they try to build a new audience to replace the older one that will not be around that much longer. Somewhere along the way, the standard m.o. for classical music stopped working for the younger cohort of smart, curious, well-educated would-be listeners. These listeners have to be won back, with music and presentations that speak a language they understand, and which reach them where they live. Every assumption should be questioned, nothing should be sacred. And new sounds need to be tried out, constantly, routinely, but not because each and every new thing is a masterpiece that will live forever. Few things do, and future listeners will decide which ones those are, not us. No, the new sounds should be tried out for the best reason of all: because it's fun !
Again, I prefer not to lecture future listeners on what music they should value (e.g., "this piece will stand the test of time, and that one will not!"). But for classical music, the future has to start now. And that means that while I still have something to say about it, you'll continue to hear the best new sounds added with a little extra emphasis into the daily classical playlists on WFCR. If you like what you're hearing, tell me. If you think it's too much, or the wrong new music, tell me that too. But it can't remain the same old same old forever. So — are you ready for something different? Stay tuned!