New music and meerkats

More thoughts about hearing new music, this time from Nathan Botts, a terrific trumpet player who took my Juilliard course on the future of classical music two years ago. Posted of course with his permission:

I’ve never understood why “new music” is placed within the same taxonomic grouping as “classical music.”  Perhaps they’re of the same family, but certainly not the same genus and heaven forbid the same species.  Just because a whale, meerkat, antelope, and dairy cow are hairy and breastfeed their young, does that make them all very similar?.

Forgive the biology, but I think it applies.  While evolutionally these animals share a similar genetic ancestry, at this point in time their obvious differences are far greater than their similarities.  So with music we can go to great efforts to compare the breastfeeding of Boulez to that of Mozart, or the hair of Schoenburg to that of Haydn, but in the end we’re still trying to compare the bohemith leviathan to a squeaky prairie rat! (I don’t mean these animal designations to in any way reflect on the music of any of these composers… it’s just for poeticism and humor).

Who goes out into nature and sees a herd of cows and thinks about their similarities to human beings?  Who goes to the zoo and sees the meerkats and thinks about their similarities to the antelope down the way?  I certainly don’t.  I chuckle when the cows go “moooooo“, and I laugh at the squeaky little meerkats.

So it is with a concert.  Who needs to go to a concert and listen to Boulez and think about all of its wonderful similarities to Bach?  For those of us whose craft it is to know these things certainly, but how much does an audience really need to know to enjoy the piece?  As a listener I could often care less.  I savor the iciness and clarity.

I revel in the complicated simultaneity.  But more than anything I relish the inventive and uncommon sounds.  The cow goes “mooooo” and I laugh, the meerkat squeaks I and chuckle.

As one who performs a large sampling of music, from a wide variety of places in the world and an even wider variety of periods in history, I’ve never understood the purpose our the taxonomic grouping of “classical” music, except as it applies to the music of composers contemporary with Haydn and Mozart.  But Birtwhistle on the record shelf next to Beethoven?  Cage next to Chopin?  This is all “classical music”?  Give me a $%#$& break!!  In masterclasses I’ve taken to explaining this away as a corporate record store conspiracy — the liitle old lady who’s buying her record of Tony Bennet doesn’t want to have to stand next to that “scary” looking young man with looking through the selection of Boulez — so they segregate everybody into differerent rooms (and search engines… arghh!).

For my own part I’ve had some success going a different route… slightly broader and less discriminatory.  With a bit of laughter, some simple explanation, and a very unassuming air, it’s been my experience that I can perform almost anything for anyone willing to listen, no matter how wild OR relatively conservative it may be.  So what’s in the simple explanation?  Usually a very brief bit of history… just as an author or would do in setting a scene, a bit of benign humor, and then only in the most aurally difficult cases do I bother to “explain the music.”  I would reiterate that I do this no matter how wild OR relatively conservative the piece may be… yes, even Beethoven gets the brief explanation.  I find that with good programming and common sense, the flow of a recital can continue uninterrupted.  And most importantly, the more recently composed pieces on the program aren’t immediately set up for failure by a sudden condescending explanation.

So like a trip to the zoo, you get some giraffe, some water buffalo, some songbirds, a snake or two, and the ever popular monkeys.  Musically, that might mean some Duke Ellington, some Bach, some Corelli, some Haydn, some Carter, some Hoagy Carmichael and even something I may have created (is there a place at the zoo for an animal with the head of a fish and the body of goat?)

(See also my recent  “Hearing New Musicpost, and thecomments on it.)

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  1. John Graham says

    Very interesting comments about contemporary music! It is unfortunate that many modern composers are considered “classic,” but if one were to merely assign the term to the 18th century style, that is a whole different thing. However, it also occurs that non-tonal listeners see their composers as greats, and tonal composers as has-beens, regardless of the fact both are writing for contemporary audiences. The elitism associated with so-called “intellectual” music has everything to do with some folks hedging their own interests, despite the very, very small audiences that music appeals to. Meanwhile, the rest of us are just pathetic beasts at the mercy of our emotions, listening to “classical” items we can understand and appreciate. Where money and popular appeal are concerned, there persists far more interest in music which is accessible to the listener. For the elite, the only “great composers” this day and age are the ones writing non-sensical junk requiring all manner of explanation to the average listener. As we used to say in New Orleans jazz circles, “that music ain’t sayin’ nuthin.”

  2. says

    I agree blue ray is the dogs!!! am waiting for the blue ray player to drop in price before I make a purchase in 2010!!!Planet Earth was my first, and still favorite non-action BD. Particularly when coupled with the BBC version’s audio track and David Attenborough at the mic. The visual of the flock of birds flying across the wetland in what looks like a crane shot that pulls back to 5,000 feet and keeps the birds clearly delineated is just one of a phenomenal number of “How’d They Do That?”, jaw-dropping scenes.