Haters gonna hate

If you’re a composer in the 21st century, odds are you’ve bumped into the complaint that all new music is like listening to math and “not accessible.”  If you try to stick up for the likes of Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, then you’re part of the problem.  You don’t write for “average” musicians and nobody seems to write “melodies” anymore.  All of contemporary classical music is condensed into one small faction of the 20th century.  But it’s never the musicians’ faults!  It’s not their fault they’ve never been trained to play “that stuff”!  They’ve only played “the greats.”

And people wonder why I stick to Csound these days, unless I’m writing for someone I know.

First, if you’re going to slam several generations’ worth of composers, at least have some familiarity with the people you’re dissing.  One piece you might’ve played from some composer somewhere is not an entire movement.  While a composer might write music you don’t like, that same composer might’ve encouraged and supported another generation entirely.  Milton Babbitt had a teaching career spanning decades, as did Mel Powell and a few others.  In my experience, the modernists I’ve studied with taught me a lot.  Sure, I don’t buy into everything they thought was important, but that’s part of the learning process:  you take what you need, and leave the rest.  And sometimes further down the road, the other stuff becomes important.

Secondly, if you’re going to decry “new music,” have a clue what “new music” is.  Even in the days of minimalism, the new music scene was Balkanized.  Even within minimalism (which I should note is out of fashion these days), Steve Reich didn’t sound like John Adams, who most certainly didn’t sound like Philip Glass or Louis
Andriessen.  Even just within the US, you’ve got factions among factions.  I can guarantee what’s being written and performed on the west coast is nothing like what’s being played on the east.  Hell, try looking at the differences between Boston and New York.  It’s like those who complain about “academic” music:  while there is some music that would fit the bill, there are many other composers in academe who write interesting things and encourage their students to do the same.

Thirdly, yes, you do need to know stuff.  Minimalism started out as process-oriented music.  (Steve Reich’s tape pieces.)  Modernism (like its movements in visual art) is a reaction against what that generation perceived as the excesses of the 19th century that led up to WWII.  You can’t just listen to modern music divorced from its cultural context.

And that’s the larger problem:  people expect music to be something easily consumed, like a special from McDonalds.  We’re so used to the pop model of music that’s easy to understand and doesn’t ever challenge.  (Which, I might add, does a disservice to those working within the pop genre who don’t aspire to be on American Idol.)  An entire generation has grown up with Top 40 charts and sales rankings.

Part of my problem with people who complain about the purported inaccessibility of new music is that they expect composers to spoon-feed them new material.  While I usually provide some information in program notes, it is not my job to make what I write accessible to you.  If you don’t know something,  ask.  Most new music concerts have talks with the composers beforehand.  Many of us are involved in academe and would like nothing more than to answer a simple question asked honestly.  What does piss us off, however, are those who shut down any chance of discussion by ad hominems and project their problems and insecurities on new music composers, as a whole.


~ by Jen on May 18, 2012.

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