Going to a festival such as SoundSCAPE leaves me pondering the question of what exactly draws me to new music. In some ways it shouldn’t be a question, but it is. I’ve spent two weeks with a group of highly creative, incredibly engaged composers, performers and teachers. The feeling of being with such like minds is nothing short of electrifying – playing, talking and striving for something new. Yet one of the reasons it is wonderful is that so many don’t seem to get my enthusiasm for classical music, let alone the more contemporary variety. New music is like all other contemporary art in that it is constantly being created, and each work should be considered individually before possibly being written off. Yet more so than with any other art form, audiences just fail to give it a go, to even acknowledge its existence. Worse still, some performers act the same way.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is that music stands somewhat apart form other creative art forms. Firstly, it is a performance art; it must be experienced in real time to make sense, and so there is no time outside of or parallel to the experience to consider it and then return. Very few have the opportunity to hear a work and then return to it the next day, or even after interval, as one could wander round a gallery and then return to consider a particularly striking piece of art. If the music is striking or confronting, it remains so in the ears and aural memory of the listener.
I have been to only one concert where this problem was addressed directly, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2009. Alas, I can no longer remember either the conductor or the name of the large-scale orchestral work that was performed once before and then again directly after the interval. My clearest memory of the work, in fact, is that it made striking use of a wind machine! Poor memory aside, on one level the idea works quite well. The intelligent listener might spend the interval reflecting, discussing, consulting the program for further listening clues to deepen their understanding. On another level, though, there is a saturation of the same thing, and I can see that this tactic could have serious drawbacks with a conservative audience. I’m sure that even in the relatively open-minded concert-going scene of Helsinki, some decided at interval that once was enough. While I remember the concert for its unusual programming, the piece itself has clearly not stuck in my mind particularly well.
There are other self-directed solutions in the same vein. Those that really want to engage with music in the concert hall might listen to a piece before actually attending the concert, in effect doing a bit of aural acclimatisation before the fact. But this requires access to and knowledge of resources, and with newer works might just be downright impossible. Similarly, attending pre-concert talks and reading up on a composer and their style can be a great way into the music, for those that take the time. It is these people, though, that are already on the right track.
The second problem with new music is that the reaction to it is primarily an auditory one. A perception of consonance, dissonance and musical aesthetic is socially engrained in us since childhood, meaning that reactions to highly dissonant or harsh sounds can be almost involuntary. Certain, consonant intervals have more please and comprehensible ratios of vibration than dissonant ones, hence the consonance. While Baroque, Classical and Romantic music increasingly used these dissonant intervals, it was almost always in order to heighten a confirmation of the consonance, an arrival at the point of conclusion or calm. Some new music (and note I say some), screws with this more natural trajectory. Some other new music screws with our sense of comfort about rhythm, timbre, time, or what we actually consider music to be. Some just sounds like Gregorian Chant, or pop music, or jazz. The first mistake, it seems is that new music is compartmentalised into being just one thing, rather than a reflection on and evolution of everything that has come before.
Unfortunately, when audiences (particularly those in Australia, it seems) think of ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ music, it is of some distortion that makes them feel uncomfortable, tense, bored, or a combination of all of them. Some new music is like that, but much is not, and it is because of this variety that it becomes increasingly hard to guess the date of composition for new works. So, for the most part, audiences come with ears closed to the possibilities of new music, which is a pity. It then takes something really remarkable to open their ears, hopefully that the music speaks to them through any pre-conceived opinions or innate bias. Even a moment of aesthetic recognition might prompt them to look or listen further, to seek out more, or even to go to the concert with ears a little more open than before.
Sometimes, this prompt comes from something external to the music, a well-written programme note, a well-phrased introductory remark, a familiar face on stage, a marrying of the aural with some visual or other sensory experience. As a performer of new music, one of the most wonderful compliments I receive is that I have somehow managed to draw a listener into the music through my commitment to a performance. Much more frequently, I am blown away by performers that are utterly engaged on every level with the music they make whether I know they absolutely love it or not. It’s no longer about them, but about their ability to be a conduit for the music they’re making.
But see in this last paragraph how the focus has shifted. Stunning performances are utterly wonderful, and as performers this is always what we strive for. The fact remains, however, that for so many in modern audiences, the onus is not on the performer to merely heighten the musical experience, but to convince a listener of its worth in the first place. If audiences come with ears closed, and fail to have them blown open by an exceptional performance coupled with good programme notes, and insightful pre-concert talk and complementary visuals, is it the performer’s error for not trying hard enough, or the audience’s for not trying at all?
In writing this, I don’t know of a clear solution, though promoting open-minded thinking through early education is certainly a good start! In the meantime, maybe a step towards the personal musical experience might clarify my point a little more.
So far, I have not mentioned the part of composers in this equation, nor done more than touch on my own experience as a performer of new music. To set the record straight, I play new music, and I love it. Solo, chamber (particularly chamber), orchestral, give me excess of it for there isn’t time in one life to sample it all. This is not, I hasten to add, at the expense of other music at all. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Verdi, Fauré, Shostakovich… the list goes on and on. Give me all of it and I am happy, happy and musically fulfilled. Yet two things draw me to new music that I feel, are of particular importance to me and the way I operate as a musician.
The first, and most wonderful, is the joy of working with composers alongside my fellow performers. There is an incredible buzz to playing something that is totally new, to working with it and its creator to realise their artistic vision. I love talking about musical and aesthetic ideas, and trying to carry those ideas through into my playing. I crave the burst of energy that comes with feeling that I’ve got some or all of that idea, and I love the smiles of my fellow artists that tells me they thought we did too. Sometimes audience feedback is also important for me in this situation, but often it is not. More often, it is intrinsically linked – if the composer and performers feel like something went well, chances are the audience got a lot out of it too.
The second is the notion of a challenge, of being asked to confront the difficult, the abstract and the unusual in order to create something really stunning and unique. This challenge is to some degree present in all music, and is one of the reasons I keep choosing to pursue it. However, I feel it most keenly when there is little or no tradition between me and the score. When approaching Mozart or Bach, I can go and read up on how to perform a work, on how to execute the articulation, the dynamics, the rhythm, the style. Often there are multiple different options. I’m not denying that such resources are stimulating and useful, pushing me to play good music and question my own interpretations. Yet when they’re not there, when I’m confronted with a score alone, it gives me a real tingling of discovery and excitement. These are the pieces on which I need to meditate, letting them gestate and breathe. I need to live, eat and sleep them, mulling over and over in order to work out both what they mean to me and why I need to give them to an audience.
When I say I’m into new music, I have often received responses along the lines of: “All new music? But such and such is really awful,” or “Well I can’t stand anything minimalist!” So again let me clarify: I don’t automatically like every piece of new music, just as I don’t automatically like every piece of Baroque, Classical or Romantic music that comes my way. Rather, I enjoy engaging with new music both as a listener and a performer – giving every piece and every composer a go so that I can find the gems among them. After all, the reason we have such a wonderful canon of classical music today is that composers in past years were given the benefit of the doubt and found to be wonderful.
Our task today is the same: to listen and make up our own minds. Some of it will be crap, and some more will be ok but nothing stunning. This isn’t just part of modern listening, it was always there – it’s just that that music and those composers have fallen by the wayside. As performers and listeners, we need to me prepared for the reality that not every piece will be wonderful or a revelation, and to be honest if that is the case. But still we must learn to come to this music in the first place with ears and minds open, expecting something wonderful (wonderfully beautiful, wonderfully striking or wonderfully unusual as the case may be) so that the truly worthy work of composers today is recognised and celebrated.
At SoundSCAPE, I heard maybe four works (works mind you, there were many more performances) that utterly blew me away. They made me want to jump up and down in my seat, or cry, or simply sit, replaying the music in my head for the next hour. For a two-week festival, I recon four mind-blowing works is pretty good. Too many more, I think, and I’d wonder whether I was searching too hard. So much of what I heard and played at the festival will stay with me for a long time, and these works in particular. Most importantly, it invigorates me to seek out still more wonderful musical experiences, always searching for the sublime.