Sunday, March 1, 2009

New Music

Can we talk for a moment about “New Music?” Recently, I was asked to play Jerry Grant’s Tuba Cycles, which, I believe, to be the major contribution to the tuba literature since “Encounters II.” I was please to be placed on a concert of all works that had been composed within the past few years. I was speaking to a few people I knew and invited them to the concert, not to just hear me, but as a show of support for all the living composers who were going to be in attendance. NONE of the people with whom I spoke planned on attending the concert, nor did any of them show up. I asked them why they didn’t plan on attending and their unanimous answer was (and I quote), “I don’t like new music.” Being heavily involved in new music, I don’t get this. I tried to figure out from where this pervading sentiment originated. This came screaming back to me as I VERY recently played a concert of all music by a well-known composer.  The piece I played on was a good piece and fun to play. The orchestra was terrific and the conductor was pleasant and well prepared. The work was not really intended as a symphonic piece, but rather was intended to go along with another live-theater medium. One work that was performed before I walked on to the stage was so bad, that at one point I laughed out loud. Honestly, I have NO compositional skills, but the music I have TRIED to write is better than this stuff. I would not embarrass myself, or make my listeners uncomfortable, by performing my music; it’s garbage! I can write great tuba quartet arrangements, but that’s it. 

So, now I try to trace the history of the anti-new music sentiment. ALL the greats, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner, Stravinsky had their works performed right after they were written. The best I can figure out was back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s there was so much new music written and performed, much of it awful, that the 1970’s - 80’s audiences were bombarded with so much crap, that “I don’t like new music” became an anthem for serious concert goers. You HAVE to blame someone for this as there are WONDERFUL composers writing truly GREAT works. I blame conductors and orchestra managers. Lack of courage and embarrassment is responsible. An orchestra would commission a work by a composer and when the work arrived, since they had paid for the music and had already scheduled it, good or bad, they played it anyway. Subjecting their ticket buyers and supporters to bad music, either KNOWING the music was bad, or not taking the time to truly consider the quality of the music that was being presented. Being right in the middle of that, I have played HOURS of crappy music. On one concert, my colleagues joked about playing the concert with brown bags on our head so no one would know we were playing that garbage. Many people with whom I have spoken opined that they didn’t understand new music, or they didn’t like it. Truth is, many concertgoers can really discern the difference and they don’t dislike NEW music, they dislike BAD music. And since so much BAD contemporary music is scheduled, bought, and played, it has turned their minds off. 

Folks, it is up to US to fix this. We HAVE to play ONLY quality music by living composers. We must purchase, schedule & play excellent new music. We must encourage talented composers to keep writing. BUY their music, invite them to performances, and work with them to promote their work. We must play well-crafted pieces and NOT be intimidated by the name of the composer printed on the upper right hand corner of the title page. There might be a budding Mozart in our midst and it is in our best interest to get his/her music played. 

You are with me on this, right?


  1. I agree...Music will not survive on a steady diet of nostalgic daydreaming. That's why you're the man. see you monday.

  2. I am with you, but how do you account for the fact that "classical music" is no longer "popular music"? That most people would rather go see a rock band or a hip-hop show? And what does it say of the prospects for symphony orchestras that "new music" is likely not being written for that specific instrumentation when the canon is necessarily comprised of pieces with a specific instrumentation?

  3. Why can't you play music with a pre-prescribed instrumentation, say an orchestra, that is popular? That's why marketing people make 6 figures. Get THEM into tho house. THEN once they are IN the house, make damned sure you play great music, well.

  4. Bad music is bad music, regardless of when it was written. Entire concerts that consists entirely of "new music" are often tedious to me. The same is true, say, of an all Bach concert or an all Mozart concert. Part of the art of a successful concert is how it's programmed. Better programming = a more enjoyable concert experience.

  5. I totally agree. I always try to take a 'smorgasbord' approach to programming. It is more enjoyable for ME, and I think the audience likes the variety.

  6. I'm with you. I have played so much outstanding music by contemporary composers at the workshop that I know there must be a growing library to try. I also agree with your statement about "playing new music well". In working up a "new" piece we must guard against being so locked into our favorite type of music that we cannot expand to focus on something new.

  7. I also a agree that our art form cannot survive with out new quality contributions. But I think to only perform new music and forget the old, is a dis-service to our art form!

  8. It was never suggested to ignore the classics. I am suggesting WHEN new music is played, that it be quality literature. And not perform it for political reasons.

  9. I think the anti-new music attitude goes all the way back to the 1950s and 60s, when academic serialism held sway. From what I have been told my composer older than I, the composition culture at that time was so steeped in the belief that serialism was the future (and salvation!) of composition, a university-based composer would have lost his/her job to write anything else. Students were coerced into the mold.

    I have always thought a major contributing factor to the serialism bandwagon was the "publish or perish" policy of state universities. There were all those music theorists working for tenure, and along comes a mathematical style of music that lends itself to number-crunching analysis just at the time that computer main frames are becoming accessible.

    Whatever the cause, I think now we have a situation where a "conventional wisdom" has become entrenched in the culture of the orchestral gate-keepers that audiences do not want to hear new music, based on conditions that might have been true 30 and 40 years ago.

    My experience has been the opposite. Recently I attended two premieres by large-budget orchestras, the Pittsburgh orchestra premiered a work by Jennifer Higdon and the Dayton Philharmonic premiered a piece by Meira Warshauer. At both concerts, I made it my business to talk to strangers after the concert to ask how they liked the new pieces, and ALL, as in 100%, of the responses were positive. People were thrilled to have seen a "real, live" composer on the stage discussing her music.

    I believe that including recently composed music can be used to create excitement about a concert. For ensembles that play almost exclusively 150-250 year old music, what are you performing that I could not go to Border's or the public library and hear via CD? What are you performing that will draw me out of the house on a cold rainy night, pay for parking, and pay for a ticket. Yes, yes, I believe in the value of live concerts over recordings, but on the other hand, I can stay home and hear the Chicago Symphony. What is on your concert that I cannot hear anywhere else.

    And to Tony, thanks for your support of new music and living composers.

    Jesse Ayers

  10. ON March 15, the Ohlone Wind Orchestra - - is playing four works by four living, LOCAL composers. Check out the web site.

  11. For a while there it seems that with modern music, as with visual art, the goal was to write music that was intentionally not accessible to a general audience. The idea was that by pushing the envelope beyond the line of understanding of the audience would create "discussion."

    This is the kind of thing where a kid misbehaves because any attention is good attention.

    I have really lost respect for this kind of mentality: that art should be controversial to foster discussion.

    Mozart, Beethoven, and most of the old-boy crowd people are talking about here were constrained by their audience. While they were very progressive, the worked hard to engage their audience before pushing further.

    I truly feel some of the most creative work I have witnessed has happened when the artist was constrained in some way. How much mathematically atonal work do you remember and enjoy? How many thematic or structured works do you remember?

    I really do think if you disrespect your audience it is an eventual recipe for artistic death.

    That and I don't want to sit in yet another performance where if we blew a phrase or passage, no one would know because it all sounds crappy.

    And just as a to be clear, I like Lollapalooza.