Why Contemporary Music Is Like My Hairdryer

If the music I heard at the Fifth Annual Switchboard Music Festival can be used as a gauge of the state of contemporary composition today, I would have to say that contemporary music is a lot like my hairdryer.

I don’t have a very good hairdryer; I adopted it from a friend and I rarely use it. It doesn’t bother me that it only has two modes: low and slow, and high and hot.

But that the Switchboard Festival, a one day event in San Francisco showcasing the talents of new composers and the hip, young ensembles and soloists that perform this repertoire, should also basically have only “two settings” — sparse and soft, and compressed and loud — is of far greater concern to me.

Admittedly I was only able to hear a hear 13 of the 30 plus works presented during the day owing to having to rush off to Stanford for a singing rehearsal. Maybe the rest of the day yielded a wider variety of sonic expressivity.

Despite the limited scope of the compositional moods on display, certain parts of the performance left a mark on me.

I was very impressed with the quality of the musicianship. It’t not easy playing music that is this repetitive and black and white in its mode of communication.

I especially loved The Living Earth Show (a duo comprising electric guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson.) The musicians clearly seemed to be enjoying thrashing about making the dirty-aggressive sounds in Repetitive Stress, an homage to heavy metal music by Jonathan Russell. The piece received its world premiere at the Festival and I was happy to be there to witness it.

The talented clarinetist Jeff Anderle’s lyrical take on Nico Muhly’s 2007 piece It Goes Without Saying, accompanied by a whimsical video montage crawling with humanoid and other creatures by Una Lorenzen, was also a highlight of the first two hours of the program. Anderle seemed to crawl inside the hazy contours of Muhly’s musical landscape. I found myself transported into a dreamlike state with the bubbling clarinet and fleeting images on screen.

But despite the musicians’ artistry, I came away from my time at the festival wishing for more emotional nuance. The music on the roster was all so samey. Next year, maybe they could invest in a hairdryer with at least three settings.

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  1. TomV says

    I don’t know why people bother playing “new art music” these days. So much of it is academic drivel which holds no allure to experienced listeners, let alone the average classical music aficionados.

    It is time, I believe, to throw new art music on the trash heap along with Boulez and his disciples. There is so much interesting older repertoire by interesting composers such as Antheil, Schuman, Gould and Still (to just mention American composers) to rediscover.

    We might as well accept the fact that art music should be considered a museum item. Museums don’t hang Pollocks next to Botticellis, so segregate new art music – as festivals already do – to it’s own artistic ghetto, where curious listeners can go slumming.

    Contemporary composers should stick to jingles and movie music composing. Their compositional “systems” are boring, trite and musically irrelevant. I pity future generations if they ever find the “academic” compositional style interesting. It is like scholasticism of the 11th-12th centuries. Abstract illumination of nothing.

    • richard hertz says

      you’re recycling drivel that has been said ad-nauseum during the last 50 years. you’re arguments are laughable in the face of what the music festival is – to put nico alongside boulez in that both are “academic” is one of the dumbest things i have read this year.

      “abstract illumination of nothing” would be a much more appropriate title of your reply to this article than anything that you listed.

      save your pity for your tombstone, no-one else is going to care.

      • TomV says

        Richard, it seems from the highly upset tone of your response that YOU care. Did I step on a sore toe?

        Frankly, I don’t know who Nico is, nor do I care. Obviously he’s not able to disseminate his “music” sufficiently well to become known among a wider audience.

        Or am I wrong in that DG, Hyperion and Naxos are lining up to sign recording contracts with Nico?

        I think not. Nico must be another one of those “academic” composers who only write music which his academic colleagues and their students go to hear (the latter to suck up to their professors).

        Nico’s tombstone will read “composer” and no-one is going to care. I for one won’t pity his oeuvre’s disappearance into oblivion.

  2. richard hertz says

    how can you write about people you don’t admit to knowing?

    nico muhly is nothing that you wrote – your ignorance is astounding.

    • TomV says

      I’ve been involved in “art music” long enough to make a qualified guess at what Nico stands for as a composer. Hence my remark “why have I not heard of him” and “are the CD labels lining up to sign him up for recording contracts?” I didn’t think that my logic was that complex to comprehend.

      DO tell me what Nico is like, Richard. I enjoy the gently flowing pyrrhic meter of your prose. It has a sedative and sleep-inducing quality, which I believe would remain so even if you were shouting dirctly into my ear. Somehow, I get the impression that Nico’s music must sound rather similar.

      • richard hertz says

        a qualified guess? learn to use google. cd labels are lining up for him, pitchfork reviews his cds, his work has been featured on major pop artists cds, and his opera commissions are doing fine as well.

        here’s some more prose for you: you’re a tool.

        a qualified guess… you base arguments off of what you say you don’t know.

  3. says

    Without claiming any expertise when it comes to “new music” and agreeing that so much of it is indeed BAFA (by academics, for academics), when did “it all sounds the same” become critical analysis? I am sure if Ms. Veltman had more room to write she could offer more context and broader critique.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      To clarify: I’m not talking about new music as a whole, much of which is extraordinarily nuanced and full of manifold colors. It’s just the new music I experienced at the Switchboard Festival that only came in two flavors: hot and cold.

  4. Andrew says

    Hey hey!

    I’m the percussionist in The Living Earth Show. First of all, Chloe, thanks so much for the nice comments about our set!

    I was going to just write a thank you comment, but I can’t resist jumping into this comment thread, and I’m sorry I found it so late. TomV, in response to your second question, “are the CD labels lining up to sign [Nico] up for recording contracts?” the answer is a resounding and unequivocal yes. He is signed to Decca Records, the home of such jinglesmiths and academic drivel-makers as Renee Fleming, Andrea Bocelli, and Daniel Barenboim. It’s a subsidiary of Universal, and one of the biggest classical labels in the world. I do agree with your premise that music not released on major labels is unworthy of any critical attention or popular acclaim, though. That seems logical.

    In response to your second question “why have I not heard of him,” I would venture to guess that it is because you seem to have written off decades of incredibly diverse compositions for laughably uninformed reasons. Also, because you seem to be really bad at listening to music.

    You also used the wrong form of “it’s” in your first post, which pisses me off far more than any of your other comments.

    I admire your willingness to talk so confidently about things you readily admit you don’t know. That’s pretty impressive, actually. Certainly takes cajones, if not intelligence.