Misunderstanding pop

From a music review in The New York Times:

The program, part of the Cooper Arts series, offered exactly the kind of cerebral contemporary music that is supposed to be frightening off potential new concertgoers. Yet the audience at the Great Hall was noticeable for the number of enthusiastic young people, shaggy-haired listeners in jeans who responded to the charismatic Alan Feinberg’s electrifying performance of Charles Wuorinen’s Third Piano Sonata, an uncompromising 12-tone work by one of the brainiest composers around, with shouts of “Whoa!” instead of “Bravo!”

What was going on? This is my take: young people new to classical music have no vested interest in the standard repertory and a natural curiosity for new and intense experiences. Such listeners can often be more open to challenging contemporary works that your typical symphony orchestra subscriber.

In comparison with the slickly commercial music that pervades pop, something like Francesco Guerrero’s “Opus 1 Manual” (1976), 25 minutes of arm-blurring, keyboard-sprawling, dissonance-saturated mania, must seem far out and authentic to these young listeners…

“The slickly commerical music that pervades pop.” When will classical music people learn that not all pop is “slickly commerical”? And that the younger audience that gets turned on by new classical music listens to pop that’s brainy, trenchant, noisy, and dissonant. New classical music, in other words, doesn’t come to this crowd as a welcome relief from Britney Spears, an amazed discovery that music doesn’t have to be bland and empty. Instead, it comes to them as something closely related to music they already know and like.

Besides, were those “shaggy-haired listeners in jeans” really new to classical music? They sound to me like the normal new music audience in New York, which I’ve seen at concert after concert after concert. Many of them are trained musicians — instrumentalists, composers, and composition students. They don’t look anything like the mainstream classical music crowd, and fit this reviewer’s description perfectly. (Or, anyway, the men do. Weren’t there any women at this concert?)

Why this matters: If we want to find a new audience, we have to know who they are. We can’t deceive ourselves — we can’t pretend we mean more to them than we really do.

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