Hearing new music

Today I got very thoughtful e-mail about my last post, from someone in the business who’d prefer not to be identified. I have the sender’s permission to reproduce it here:

Your blog got me thinking about how I’ve experienced new music (or NOT experienced it) over the years. I have always found that the people (not including music academia) who get the most out of “new” music are often painters, architects, poets, or simply people with a love of jazz (your mention of Ornette Coleman seemed very apt).

Sadly, even as a composer, I never quite got how to listen to a lot of serial/atonal/new (whatever label you want to give it) — and over time, my lack of comfort became an increasing embarrassment. However, I’m not sure that there is a way to “teach someone” to listen to complex new music? I certainly don’t find all serial music unfathomable; but a lot of it, I do. Do I want Boulez on my computer or IPod (if I had one), probably not. Why, I can’t tell you. There are other (probably much earlier) serial composers whose music I adore. But you are right, those who are able to feel the “out there” aspect of it, do much better with a lot of complex music then those of us with our heads up our “conservatory butts” (or those people who buy tickets to the NY Philharmonic).

The best analogy I can come up with describing my personal frustration with listening and appreciating certain music is rather like the difficulty a lot of people have with vocal training. The art or science of vocal technique –if you will allow me a bit of latitude here — can be rather murky. Some teachers give very specific, physiological instructions as to how to produce a certain sound; other teachers will position your mouth, tongue, and body and tell you to “internalize the feeling”; others tell you to visualize something. Many use a combination of approaches. However, there is no signpost for correctness. It often takes a willingness to try different approaches and teachers in order to come up with a way of singing that works for you. I suspect one has to listen to certain music with that kind of openness as well as a willingness to NOT understand a note of it, but simply take it as face value: either it works for you or it doesn’t.

Oftentimes, I think some neophytes are able to listen to something as “a thing in itself” and not concern themselves with the fact they have no clue (nor do they care) how it is put together. In my case, I become enraged (at myself, mind you) that I do not understand the process. To me, it should be automatic: I should be able to listen to complex music and be able to enjoy it (at least on some level) because there is some audible process that I can identify (a repeated motive, rhythm, etc). When my ears fail me (which sadly seems to be far too often), I become annoyed. Even as just a listener, I want to be able to grasp something aural that stays with me.

Several years back, I attended a Julliard Quartet concert on which they performed one of Elliott Carter’s string quartets (I no longer remember which one). He was there and got up, before the performance, and had each member of the quartet play certain passages. He briefly explained to the audience what they would hear during the course of the work. It was a short explanation, but it really helped. I certainly heard a lot more and I think the rest of the audience did as well.

Perhaps, if someone found a way to help people “listen” to certain music, it would help larger audiences (including your conservative concertgoer) get the “out there” aspect of it. Unfortunately, many “academic composers” do want to exclude and intimidate people (or simply don’t care), at least I think so.

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  1. Richard Guerin says

    Very interesting post. I would have been inclined to agree with the anonymous contributor if it were not my experience of the last ten years.

    I was equally allergic to new music as I had, like most people, a chronological appreciation of how we got to this point in music history.

    As a very particular case, my experience which is relavent to this discussion, came upon being mystified with the serialist movement. Upon further investigation into modern music which was mostly serial(feeling obligated to “challenge” myself), I stumbled upon minimalism. As with John Adams experiece, I felt as if it were a breath of fresh air. However, its benefits were not limited to the novelty and innovation of the music itself; minimalist and post-minimalist gave me, essentially, a refresher course on structure of music and reminded me about the most inherently beautiful qualities of music. With that lesson learned, I approached old music and new difficult music with open ears. I have since discovered that there is much music that is quickly appreciated with the ear retrained. While the writer made a point to basically say that new music should not be this hard to appreciate, I found it nearly impossible to tolerate without retraining. Some of it came from listening to lots of that type of music, some of it came from listening to lots of a certain type of music by one composer (I love Carter’s Sonata for Flute Oboe cello and harpsichord, but only after 20 listens), and some of it comes from listening to different kinds of new music.

    I find not only am I constantly expanding my tonal and rythmnic palate, but I realize now that there are thousands of beautiful microtonal discoveries to be made in whatever “style” new composers choose to write in.

    All in all, I have never been so excited about discovering new music and I find more and more that it is as much a part of the old tradition as any other time in the past 350 years. Example, I enjoyed a wonderfully programmed string quartet concert recently which featured Haydn, Bartok,Glass, then Mozart 428 (dedicated to Haydn). Not only did the program work, but all of the connecting threads from classical to post-modern became clear. I don’t think this would have been possible for me without my experience of the last 10 years.

  2. PM says

    Dear Richard,

    I agree with much of what you say. I spend most of my day listening to new music, and there is a tremendous amount of wonderful new music out there.

    Also, I do not necessarily think it is a composer’s job to make something easy for the listener. I recently wrote a piece about Milton Babbitt in which I quoted William Blake who said: “What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.”

    In short, some art is never going to be for the faint of heart.

    However, this does not mean that we should not examine how we present new music to audiences, particularly works that are so often described as “thorny” by music critics.

    It is wonderful that you have retrained yourself to appreciate many of these works. But you cannot expect the average concert-goer to do the amount of work you did.

    There has to be a better way to make something “obscure” a bit more comprehensible to people.

    It would be wonderful if we could make hearing certain kinds of new music less of a trial, and more of a learning experience—or even, Heaven Forbid an “ah Hah!” moment. It would serve new music, composers, and it would serve the public as well.

  3. Andrew Bales says

    I find this topic very engaging. I was recently relayed of a story told by a young, but accomplished conductor, about his introduction to Verdi’s Requiem. The gist was that though he knew a great deal of music, this piece had been a lapse in his training and he had no way to connect to it on first hearing. As he was involved in its performance he visited it 20 or more times in a short period and found its beauty and richness and became quite eloquent on its strengths.

    His finishing point was that each new musical experience is enhanced by hearing it multiple times. The best work contains a depth that makes a single hearing potentially superficial. That makes the challenge of introducing new work daunting. We can’t accept abandoning new work as the outcome, but it is a message worth noting. A program I was involved with recently presented a short work new to its audience early in the program and, without necessarily the merit of audience response, that same piece was repeated as an ending encore. I received many favorable comments about the value of that second hearing. (In this case it was a work by Jennifer Higdon.)

    I guess my point is that progaming new work can feel invigorating, but the audience doesn’t have the benefit of hearing all the rehearsals leading up to it, so we need to find tools to introduce a style or an approach to give the first time audience a way to reach it.

    No great new insight here, but one that I struggle with in programming seasons.

  4. John Graham says

    Wow, certainly some relevant observations! Its interesting – I by no means prefer to see others agree with my tastes simply because I am a traditionalist and prefer tonal expressions, even extended tonalities. What’s odd about being reactionary is that I know art is always about facing up to tyranny and calling it for what it is. Because I refuse to be bullied into believing serial or atonal work is actually “good” for me, does that make me both pedantic and sentimental? We always seem to become just like those we despise too much, I suppose, and certainly I hope I never take on the trappings of elitism for its own sake (as many academics and others have done). On the other hand, would it be fair to say that many of them have become as doctrinaire as their tonal ancestors? It is for being labeled “common” that I don’t give elitist musicial styles the time of day, and it is for the expressed closed-mindedness of so-called “modern” critics, composers and conductors that leaves me too cold to ever so much as listen to anything they suggest. Whatever happened to meaning in music? And as far as serious style is concerned, if a child or an auto mechanic can’t understand its’ beauty, what was ever the point of its’ expression in the first place?

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