Why contemporary classical music matters, part one (of who knows how many)
What's the current state of contemporary American classical composition?
Now there's a question guaranteed to quicken the pulse and raise the blood pressure of composers, performers, critics and (ahem) bloggers. But does anyone else care?
They should, at least if they're at all concerned for the present and future state of classical music. By which I mean the whole of classical music, old and new. If they...I mean we want our music to survive and thrive into the future, it's going to have to draw new generations of listeners. And the kind of listeners who would seem to be the most natural candidates to be drawn in haven't shown much interest in the classical status quo lately. You know the type: the well-educated culture mavens who like artsy films, smart TV shows (yes there are some!), "important" novels and indie rock. In other words, NPR fans!
Yet for all their love of the other arts, classical music doesn't do it for them, at least not enough of them. It used to. As recently as 50 years ago, the median age of the classical audience was about 35, a little more than half its present age. One can fill a hundred blog posts discussing why this is no longer the case, and where the young people went, But while the past is there to be learned from, it may not offer many answers about what changes are necessary to get the people back. Everything should be on the table, including -- especially -- the repertoire.
By that, I mostly mean new repertoire, by living composers. But not just any new repertoire. I'm talking about new repertoire that does for classical what the other arts' new works do for their forms: engage their audience by speaking (playing, singing) to their shared sensibilities and life stories. That's smart, up-to-date, and compelling. That addresses the here-and-now rather than shoots for immortality.That makes listeners want to come back for more. That creates a following, maybe not as big as Adele's or Lady Gaga's, but large enough to make the composers feel wanted and supported. That performers and presenters can program with confidence, commitment and excitement --"I can't wait for you to hear this!" And that may (cross fingers, think wishfully) eventually achieve programming parity with the standard repertoire, instead of being the perpetual side dish. For while no serious commenter on this issue would propose throwing the standard repertoire overboard (or "burning down the opera houses", as composer-conductor Pierre Boulez suggested in his impetuous youth), the old-to-new ratio of classical programming may have to be recalibrated. If the same old music isn't getting the job done, maybe new music is the key,
The kind of music I'm writing about already exists, and is being turned out in increasing profusion. We listen for it, and play some of it almost every day on WFCR. We favor it over contemporary music that does not fulfil the above objectives. If composers don't want to engage a broad audience, we feel no compulsion to give them one.
So, were does one find such music? And how will it achieve more prominence? The New York Times presented two viewpoints on the subject in a pair of complementary articles published over the past weekend. First, Times' chief classical critic Anthony Tommasini presented his scorecard on how well (i.e., how often) New York's main classical presenters are serving contemporary composers. By contrast, Allan Kozinn focused in his piece not on Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall or the other establishment classical centers, but on new venues and new paradigms for active composers. Same paper, same music scene, yet quite the difference in viewpoints. Please take a look at the articles; I'll have some follow-up thoughts later in the week.