A little while ago I was talking for to [ah, typos] a former student of mine, a composer with a sincere commitment to modernism. Readers here know that that isn’t my own favorite musical style of the past 50 years, but I respect it, like some of the music, and also think that it’s due for another look. I’d like to see a retrospective on it in a contemporary  art museum, because I think a museum audience is one place to look for people who’ll actually like modernist music. 

I’d also look — in the future — to the alt-classical world. Right now, as I read things, this community is full of delight at its present state, which I don’t blame it for at all. Someday, when things are more established, and some alt-classical people want to look around at the past, I’d love them to look at modernist music. Their audience may be drawn to other music, but they’re about as open-minded as any music audience we’re going to find. (Plus, I’d love to hear how some alt-classical musicians play modernist scores.)

So this is my point here. Modernist music needs to find its ecological niche, the place where it’s nourished by people who like it, and who get nourished by it in return.

My student and I talked about aspects of this. I brought up my frequent point about the standard classical audience being forced to listen to modernist works, which they hate. My student, very reasonably, said that he felt forced to listen to postmodern (as I think he put it) pieces that he doesn’t like. The catch, though, is that this happens (or so I’d assume) in a context where most of the audience likes the pieces. Or, in other words, in an ecosystem that suits them. When modernist pieces are played for a mainstream orchestra audience, there’s no ecosystem in sight. Unless it’s a curious one, that’s poisonous to most of the beings that  live in it. 

So then my student said something else reasonable. Where else could modernist composers get orchestra pieces played? The orchestra, my student pointed out, is a wonderful canvas for a musician (or words to that effect; I’m sure he put it better). Why should modernist composers not be able to use it?

I sympathize. As a composer, how could I not? 

But the problem here is that my student — like many people in classical music; I don’t mean to single this out — looks at all this as a somewhat abstract proposition. Here are some worthy composers, serious artists. Here’s something they’d like to do. They ought to be able to do it.

In theory — or in the world populated by our ideals — they ought to be. But in the end there has to be some kind of ecosystem that supports the music. Or, to put this in the most basic way, that pays for the music. I’m not being crass. If an orchestra is going to rehearse and play a piece — and above all a complex and difficult piece, as so many modernist scores are — someone has to pay the musicians. Someone has to decide that the performance is important enough to get whatever part of the orchestra’s budget it might take to pay for all those rehearsals. 

So now we can sketch in some details of the ecosystem that’s needed. Somewhere there has to be money. Funders would help — funders who want to support modernist music. But somewhere, the audience plays a role. If they hate the piece, will they be angry? Will they be less likely to buy tickets to future concerts? Will donors be repelled? What sort of relationship can the orchestra build with its community, if it plays music that defies the community’s taste?

Note that the answers to these questions do not have to amount to, “Don’t play the music.” But you have to answer the questions. You have to know what the ecological consequences — so to speak — of the performance will be. You have to know where the money will come from. You have to know how your audience will react. You have to decide if you just want to tough it out with the audience (too bad if they don’t like it), make an approach to the audience (hey, everyone, we know you don’t like music like this, but here’s why we’re playing it), or — the alternative that, in my experience, is by far the least explored — find the audience who’ll like the music. (Least explored for the performance of large modernist orchestral works, I mean.)

Ecosystem. The classical music world, I think, sometimes forgets that it needs one. Instead, we substitute a kind of entitlement. “This is our art. It has to exist.” When funding is plentiful, it might be safe to think that way. But today?

Added later: What I’m saying here isn’t simply about funding, management, or the cultural position of classical music in our wider world. It’s a human thing. If you’ve written a modernist piece — or any piece; or if you run an orchestra  — don’t you want to look out at your audience and see people you care about, people whose thoughts and feelings and needs and loves and hates are a central part of everything you do?

And if not, why do you want to work — and, maybe, live — in such cold artistic isolation?

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  1. Janis says

    Your addition hit it dead center: music is written, but it’s also listened to. It’s not about the composer saying what they want to say and who cares if anyone listens. (Wasn’t that the title of that article that lit a fire a few decades back: Who Cares If You Listen?)

    That’s … sort of hostile in a way. It sets the composer up in opposition to the audience.

    It’s hard to pin it down, really. There’s time when people do have to say unpopular things, and you can’t crush your individual voice to make other people happy. People often tend to enjoy watching others say things of great value to themselves; I’ve been arguing for that sort of thing in music and stating that it matters to watch and listen to someone playing or singing something of importance to that very person. That’s the whole draw of the singer-songwriter.

    But at the same time, rhetorical-you can’t express yourself and expect anyone to want to sit there and pay to hear you when they get the feeling that you’re doing it out of a sense of entitlement. “The composer has to be true to their inner voice” can and often should become “I am compelled to say what I feel I must say. I hope you all get something out of it, because I’ve got to say it whether you approve or not.”

    But that can turn into “I get to say what I want and screw anyone who doesn’t like it.” It’s All About Me. Art’s about meeting people partway. That’s the whole point of it. Ideally, the artist makes what they are saying so compelling that the audience wants to get up out of their seats, fill in the gaps in the work with parts of themselves, and participate in the final act of creation to bring the piece into its whole existence through witnessing it.

    That’s fantastic — that means that every single audience member who hears a piece of music, looks at a painting, enjoys a dance, or whatever is experiencing a different work of art. The best works of art only go about 80% of the way to the audience. The audience has to fill in the other 20% with what comes from within themselves — and we all perform that last act of creation differently.

    I guess I’d wonder (and this goes for ALL forms of communication) WHY are rhetorical-you sharing yourself, then? To connect with the people out there? To overwhelm them? To force them to admit that you’re right? To turn them into little mini-yous? Are rh-you prepared to connect meaningfully with people and yet still accept that they will continue to be themselves after they’re done listening? Not unchanged, but changed versions of themselves.

    Does the composer realize that they are not making other people feel and see what they are feeling and seeing, but inviting the audience to complete the piece by listening to it? And do they accept that that means that the piece will no longer be what it was in their own heads? It’s hard to do that if you’re functioning from a position of entitlement — “I have the right to write this piece (and make you listen to it)!” Releasing a work of art into the world doesn’t mean making the audience see and hear what you hear; it’s not about taking control over them. It’s about relinquishing control over your work. Once it gets into someone else’s neurons, it’s not yours anymore.

    That was a lot of babble …

  2. Richard Scerbo says

    This brings to mind Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances where, it might be said, he tried to create just such an ecosystem for modernist music. The results were mixed, and often the works were not played in their original scoring – hence a wonderful and strange of library of works like Bruckner 7 for chamber ensemble! But the idea behind founding this group was to gather together those fans of modernist music and create private performances away from the general public who may not be so accepting. Has anything like this been tried since? A performance organization based on membership fees?

    I think it’s a possible model for performances not many people will want to hear. And I want to be very clear about this — I’m not at all against music that appeals only to a few people. Or any other art with a small audience. But if you’re doing something vitally important to you — which is how the arts move forward — and at the moment (or maybe forever) only a few people care, suppose you could get some of them to join an organization that supports you?

    In New York, a generation ago, there was a marvelous small puppet theater, which gave performances only in the living room of the two men who ran it. And sometimes on public TV. They charged, if I remember rightly, several arms and legs for subscriptions, but they did get subscribers, and so their work was financially viable.

    I suggested that model to a wonderful pianist who took one of my Juilliard courses some years ago. She said she only wanted to play for very small audiences, and I suggested that she might find a small audience willing to pay large sums to hear her. Surely should work for new music, too. At least in principle.

  3. Steve Soderberg says

    Oh, jeez, Richard, I can’t leave this one alone. You do know, of course, that for the Society for Private Musical Performances concerts they posted a sign at the door: “Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten!” (No critics allowed!) And evidently it was enforced. Now, who wants to talk about the good old days? Heh, just kidding…. :-)

    But, quite seriously — why not bar critics? Keep the discussion inside the family, among musicians. I don’t see anything wrong with that, if the performance is very small. If you’re the National Symphony, though, and you’re selling thousands of tickets (and soliciting money from all kinds of contributors), then there’s a public interest in your operations, and part of your responsibility to your public is to allow your performances to be publicly evaluated. But for a small, privately funded group, without an aggressive public presence, why not keep the discussion private? I don’t mind that at all.

  4. says


    Sorry, my ignorance is showing. What is “modernist”, what is “alt-classical”, and, maybe a couple of examples of composers in each niche genre.

    Others should pick up the ball here. But, very quickly, modernist composers write (this is all a big oversimplification) in complex, atonal idioms, and typically perform their music in academic or semi-academic settings. Or anyhow in concerts organized as showcases for them, attended largely (at least in my experience) by composers who write in that style and by musicians who play that music.

    Alt-classical is a style or collection of styles, often mixing the sounds and techniques of classical music and pop, which arose outside the classical mainstream in the past couple of decades, typically involving young composers and musicians, and closely linked to new developments in other arts and in indie pop.

    Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter are modernists, Nico Muhly and Nadia Sirota (whom I know you like, Richard) are alt-classical. (Not that Nadia’s a composer, but as a performer and broadcaster she’s at the heart of this development in NYC.)

    Now please, someone jump in and do a better job with this than I just did!

  5. Richard says


    I’m a little confused by what you mean by “alt:classical” and “Modernist. I think of my self as an “alt:classical” composer who uses modernist techniques along with minimalist grooves, hints of rock power chords, diatonicism et al.(in the same piece). The whole world is my “musical oyster”, and a lot of folks are writing like this too.

    These are broad definitions, and have more to do with overall stylistic ambience than any checklist of styles. Alt-classical is very open to sounds of all kinds, and modernist techniques absolutely do show up next to all the things you mentioned. That’s one big reason I said that the alt-classical audience was one place to go for people who’d appreciate pure modernist music.

    But if you turn this around, and go to modernist circles (what’s left of them), you won’t find people using “minimalist grooves, hints of rock power chords, diatonicism et al.” In fact, the student I mentioned felt he was forced to listen to such things, when he didn’t want to. And a few weeks ago, at a party, I talked to someone I’d gone to graduate school with, who’d been a modernist composer then, and is still loyal to that style. He was positively sneering at “retro new music,” as he called it, meaning precisely minimalist grooves, etc.

  6. Matthew Valenti says

    An interesting tidbit:

    When Debussy was beginning to compose his unique opera, ‘Pelleas et Melisande’, in 1894, he wrote the following in a letter to Ernest Chausson:

    “Music really ought to have been a hermetical science, enshrined in texts so difficult and laborious so as to discourage the herd of people who treat it as casually as they do a handkerchief !…”

    Amazing to read this now since ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ is today one of the most beloved and gorgeous works in the whole repertoire.

    Also amusing in light of the immediate success the opera had, especially in artistic circles. Proust, lying home in bed, where he spent so much of his time at that point in his life, had a special telephone hookup installed, so he could listen to Pelleas being performed, without leaving his home. That’s a vivid indication of how important the opera was in aesthetic circles. Not hermetic at all.

  7. Fred Lomenzo says

    When composers start labeling their music it makes me wonder if they are for some reason taking up a cause rather than trying to find their own style. It can take years, and much work to develop the skills necessary to compose a first rate piece and then make further progress. Their are no short cuts. Just look at history. Picking a style (Modernism ,ect.) and trying to conform to that style, especially one that is a novelty at best, just limits the composer. If there is no thought to the audience who has to sit and listen to this music, the person may be in the wrong business to begin with. There are enough composers who are historically important but who’s music will only be a foot notes. As far as having a competent orchestra perform your piece, good luck! Just ask Schubert.

    Why is taking up a cause somehow opposed to developing your own style? Artists throughout history have developed new styles, and then gone out into the world and made their new styles a cause. Monteverdi, Gluck, Wagner. And that’s only in music. And only the start of a long, long list.

  8. Gyan says

    Wouldn’t the common-sense route be to cultivate an audience for the idiom via solo and chamber pieces?

    Well, exactly. And that shows respect for the ecosystem.

    But what developed, among modernists, was a sense of entitlement, I think, combined with a perfectly understandable feeling among those composers that what they were doing was important. So they thought they deserved to have their music performed, regardless of the ecosystem. Which is fine if you can get someone to pay the bills. And don’t offend too many people who’ll then rise up to bite you.

  9. Gyan says

    Wouldn’t the common-sense route be to cultivate an audience for the idiom via solo and chamber pieces?

  10. Gyan says

    Wouldn’t the common-sense route be to cultivate an audience for the idiom via solo and chamber pieces?

  11. Eric L says

    I can attest to the number of composers out there who don’t think about the audience at all…

    I really, really think academia is poisonous; I know too many composers writing things to impress other composers, their professors and their colleagues…rather than For their own ears/themselves (forget about the audience), and often those things that are ‘impressive’ are elements that have nothing to do with actual sounding music…or at least, completely inaudible, even to someone with well-trained ears.

    With that said, I think there are lots of good to great modernist-y works that CAN work on a concert with more standard repertoire…it just needs to be contextualized in the right way, marketed in the right way, target the right audience etc. But…I really can’t think of a single ensemble/orchestra (including new music groups) that are going about this the right way. Or even trying to do it the right way.

  12. Tristan Parker says

    As much as I hate the “people just need to be educated” line of reasoning, here I think it has some weight. I’ve long wanted to like modernist music, I’ve given it a lot of uninformed listens, and I’ve tried to get informed too.

    But it still just sounds like a lot of wankery. I know that the likelihood of that being true is vanishingly small, but every time I try to listen, I hear noise, and every time I try to read some explanation, it always turns into “here’s this abstract structure that seems to have nothing to do with sound whatsoever. Isn’t it clever? Also, the twelfth root of two is a magic number.” The only emotive writing I found amounted to “Modern life is so irredeemably unpleasant that the only proper response is irredeemably unpleasant music.”

    I’m not saying this to insult the music. I know that isn’t the whole story. I’m saying this to express my frustration at how hard it is to find the whole story. Why did these people write this music? An inverted rhythmic row is functionally inaudible, what should I be listening for?

    I think if that were more immediately apparent, the ecosystem would form itself.

  13. jeromelangguth says

    Dear Greg,

    This is an interesting question. I like your intuition that the new, alt-classical, composers and performers might find new and interesting ways to interact with modernism, to revitalize it. I suspect that if the transformation of the classical audience you would like to see (toward the alt-classical) ever occurs, the number of people in the audience who “hate modernism” so vehemently that they feel “forced to listen”, or reject it outright, would be much smaller than currently is the case. What you call alt-classical seems to me to be permeated with modernism of a certain kind, and its audience very open-minded and curious. Such an audience probably would end up rejecting modernism in its most “academically correct” and hermetically sealed forms. But is that such a bad thing?


    We don’t know what that audience would do, and that for me is especially wonderful. I suspect some would love the most hermetically sealed modernism, precisely because it’s so hermetically sealed. After the last winter olympics, four years ago, there was a brief vogue (or maybe it lasted longer; I really don’t know) for curling. One newly minted curling fan, interviewed by the Times, said he liked curling because it was so weird, and because no one (in his world; he obviously wasn’t Canadian) had heard of it.

  14. says

    An interesting discussion to be sure. But at the risk of going a bit off-topic, what is being discussed here is music written for performance, and the ecosystem necessary to sustain that method of realization. Now I bet there are real statistics for this, but I’m guessing millions more people are listening to music on their iPods every day than are attending performances. How might this affect the eco-situation?

    One dynamic worth considering is that those writing new music today have a very small chance to have a piece performed in the traditional way in a traditional venue. But anyone can post MP3 realizations and have their art be heard – if not performed – and appreciated. I believe this will affect the way new musicians write new music. The tools for realization are not yet perfect enough to credibly mimick a live performance – indeed they may never be. But a realization that does not portray itself as a live performance, and yet a realization that nevertheless achieves the artist’s intent – is readily attainable.

    Important things to think about! I think there are overlapping ecosystems, maybe — a live performance one, and another that’s online. The two ideally would support each other. As they do for bands.

    Speaking now myself as a composer, I’m not satisfied with MP3 realizations, even though sometimes I prefer them to a (bad) live performance. But I want my stuff to be played live. That’s what it’s for. The challenge to me, then, is to create the ecosystem I need to support that.

    Which is another way this discussion could branch. People creating their own ecosystems. It’s happening in all areas of life, including pop music. Classical music needs to learn from what’s happening elsewhere. Classical musicians can do it, too.

    One other thought, supporting what Paul says. Composers can move toward creating music that’s designed _not_ for live performance. Like Michael Gordon’s CD “Light is Calling,” which he created in the recording studio, as a pop band would make an album.

    If the current ecosystem cannot sustain new music, then new music may adapt itself to a more hospitable environment.

  15. Janis says

    Part of an absolutely tremendous interview with Eddie Van Halen from 1979:

    “U.K. opened for us last year for a few shows. And I never heard of the band U.K. Here we are in an arena, I’m sitting here tuning up, and all of a sudden [in a reverent voice], “Is that Bill Bruford? Whoa!” All of a sudden I got the chills. I was freakin’ out. All of a sudden Allan Holdsworth walks in. I’m going, “My God! These guys are opening for us?” These guys are better…they’ve been through it. And they played before us, and they bombed. People hated ’em, but I’m standing there with tears in my eyes, just getting off, trippin’. It was so good.

    “But they’re artists – “I’m playing my art, and I don’t care if you like it or not” – that type of thing, which I think is a real bad attitude. Music is for people. It’s not for yourself. Or if it is, sit in your room and play it. But if you’re gonna play it for people, you better play something that they’re gonna want to hear instead of walking up there and pretending you’re so good and beyond your audience. That’s what they were doing, playing all this off-beat stuff, which to an average person sounds like mistakes. Even though because I’m a musician, I get off on it and like it and understand what they’re doing. But they bombed, and I couldn’t believe it.”

    These issues are all over the place not just in the classical world … rock just doesn’t have the luxury of sitting in its bedroom and playing for itself since it’s not grant-funded. Like Neal Schon said in another good interview, when Journey’s label told them to get a hit, get a singer, or get the hell off the label after putting out three albums in a row that were full of four guys impressing themselves but went nowhere in terms of sales: “I was gonna have to get a job selling ladies’ shoes or something.”

    Pop and rock’s dependency on money can lead them to dumb themselves down and comes with a raft of its own dangers, but being insulated from those concerns can lead to being insulated from the whole reason music exists: to communicate.

  16. Janis says

    I think Paul’s idea is pointing in the direction that needs to be pursued, even if MP3s aren’t the ideal endpoint.

    Post them online. There’s got to be a general social network of sorts built around modernist composers in schools nowdays; it seems like a specialist thing, so everyone probably knows the right professor to talk about or four or five students in various colleges all over the place. Make a community where people can post even MP3 versions of their stuff done with synth “orchestras.” If it can find fans, it can also find musician-fans who will be eager to help create it.

    Normally, you might go for years without running into more than two violists who’d like to play this stuff as compulsively as a fan would. Online social networking sites can allow the one French horn player in all of Salt Lake City who adores this stuff to find like-minded people online and help facilitate collaboration with the bassoon dude in Billings, Vermont who also likes it and some kid in Glasgow who just wrote something and put it on his Facebook page.

    If you want to use an ecosystem analogy — populations don’t die out linearly. (And they don’t take off linearly, either.) Species don’t go from 100 members to 99 members, to 98 members in a straight line down to zero on their way to extinction.

    They die down slowly to the point where suddenly they have a hard time finding one another to reproduce (maybe 1000 members, maybe 250 depending on how thinly spaced they are), then they crash and die out in one generation.

    And they take off the same way, too. Once most of you have a good shot of running into another animal of your own kind who’s interested in propagating, you’ll ALL explode suddenly and *bam!* one year later, there’s three times as many of you as there once were.

    The problem with this sort of seriously out-there music is that it’s been too hard for makers of it to find one another up until now. Make it easier for other fans of this stuff to find one another (which online social networks do brilliantly), and the problem will solve itself. That WILL be the ecosystem. Just get them together in large numbers and let them talk.

    Even fanfiction and slash fandom was like that — for decades it was a specialist thing that no one talked about consisting of a physical mail circle of friends who passed handwritten stories around. They were called APAs. I know TONS of middle-aged-to-elderly people who were in old APAs. Maybe a few hundred people in the entire country knew about these things — and if you wanted to join, you had to know someone who was already in one or you had no chance. Every single person who wanted in had to practically create the stuff from scratch in her own head (most often a “her”) in order to even find out about APAs and mail zines. In order for a new member of the species to arise, they have to reinvent the stuff for themselves, every single time.

    Then, the Internet comes onto the scene. Wham!

    MILLIONS of people know about fanfiction (and specialist stuff like slash fandom) and write it, and it’s simply an accepted part of modern culture with its own nonprofit advocacy group now (since the technology and visibility also led to that).

    Musicianus modernus is a rare bird. It has to find other members of its species using social networking to create more of itself. Performance venues and performance opportunities will come along for the ride. Once you have a healthy population of the species, good luck trying to keep them from performing it.

  17. says

    Janis states: “There’s got to be a general social network of sorts built around modernist composers…” Well, one example is and it is a site where musicians post their newest MP3 files every weekend and discuss each other’s work. We have participants from Europe, UK, NZ and Australia as well as all over the US. There are less than 100 members – and maybe half contribute pieces regularly – but without the Internet such a community could not exist because of the world-wide dispersion of the participants. But as it is we are becoming like 52nd street in the 1950s – a place for like-minded musicians to collaborate, exchange ideas and post realizations of our work.

    The thing is, I find that in posting a new piece each week I am gradually shifting what I write away from what is performable. Its all about how it sounds, not how likely it is to attract a platform for performance – or even if it is playable at all. In fact, the less it sounds like a performance (which obviously isn’t happening) the better – as suits an on-line venue. There are a number of sound artists posting there and mixes made on the spot of other’s posted pieces. Such are the evolutionary forces at work in an on-line, socially-networked new music world.

  18. Fred Lomenzo says

    Sorry, but I don’t believe you can compare what Gluck, Monteverdi and Wagner did to some modern composer taking up an academic experiment such as “Modernism”. Their music was extremely popular and widely performed. They had many contemporaries who were also pioneers that you can now mainly find by looking in musicological textbooks. The difference is a special talent that these men possessed. The serious music community seems to be good at coming up with fancy labels for what is just bad music by average composers.

  19. Janis says

    Paul — that’s neat to know. I don’t want to act like you can solve any problem by throwing the Internet at it :-) but it’s a great way to get people together who would normally never find one another. We all have to keep in mind that we’re part of our ecosystem as well and as subject to its rules as any other organism. It’s also no surprise that the stuff will change in reply to a wider audience and shorter feedback timescales. Fan culture did as well, and still is — and will continue to do so.

    My own opinion is … that I don’t like that sort of music that is arrogantly unpleasant to listen to. Sorry. :-} You don’t want to get stuck in a rut, but there’s usually a reason why the beaten path is where it is. Go too far off it, and you might find buried treasure, but you might also find poison oak. And if you find buried treasure, there will often be a stampede of interested people behind you that will create a new beaten path in no time.

    If after several decades, this stuff still hasn’t found its niche, I tend to think it’s not likely to. But if the people who do like it can get together to enjoy themselves and make stuff they get off on making and listening to, then hell — more power to them. I hope they have a blast.

  20. Fred Lomenzo says

    A note to paul. There are now ways not to mimick, but to surpass many live performances. The composer can now also be the performer for most small or large works. However there is a lot of time and effort needed initially to achieve this. Not the modern way, and there are no short cuts.

  21. says

    Simulating instrumental music with synthesizer mock-ups is not the only strategy available for composers faced with limited performance opportunities. There also is the long-established tradition of electroacoustic music. Why not make pieces in the studio, created from recorded and/or electronically generated sounds? Modernist and other composers have been exploring this for quite a while.

  22. says

    This may be an unwelcome diversion, but as Greg knows, my life these days(as Executive Director of JazzBoston)is pretty much consumed with building the audience for jazz music, and my personal taste, and concern, is for the more adventurous end of that broad spectrum. I’ve often heard Greg say that classical music and jazz are facing the same challenges for survival. So my question to you, Greg, is, to what extent do some of the ideas discussed here apply to the future of jazz — the need for an ecosystem to nourish the contemporary manifestations of the genre and be nourished by them in turn; a sense of entitlement and superiority among some practitioners versus a desire to communicate with an audience of willing listeners; the choice between living in cold artistic isolation, composing for the initiated, and striving to cultivate a receptive audience, even a niche audience? Is there a chance of transforming the jazz audience following some of the same prescriptions offered here?

    I’ll understand if you choose to ignore these questions and get on with the classical business at hand.

    Well, first — it’s a delight to see an old and dear friend posting here. Hi, Pauline, and welcome.

    I don’t think this is at all a digression from the other things we do here. Classical music and jazz have related problems. I’d say that jazz is in some ways, a few ways, in a better place. “Kind of Blue” probably sells more copies than any classical album, and there must be other jazz artists/recordings that have an iconic status as crucial parts of American culture that classical music can’t match.

    But otherwise, jazz is worse off. You don’t have (apart from Jazz at Lincoln Center) big jazz institutions, the jazz equivalent of big orchestras and opera companies. I don’t think you have big outpourings of younger people for at least a few events, as you have for a few alt-classical things. And it’s surely harder for jazz musicians to make a living. Compared, that is, with classical musicians.

    That’s a very broad, inadequate sketch. The first thing I might do, if I were trying to approach the problems jazz has — building a new audience, above all — would be to find out what’s already happening. I’ve learned a lot simply from seeing what classical music people have done, to create new kinds of concerts. Is anyone in jazz doing that? Has anyone succeeded in bringing new people in?

    Then I might look at the classical innovations. You could go to the website for my Juilliard course — — and look at the third reading assignment for March 31, my compilation of things that have been tried in classical music. See if any of them give you any ideas for jazz.

    You might also look at the piece I assigned for March 17, called “Sex, Drugs, and Updating Your Blog.” It’s about how someone in pop music used the Internet to build a career. Or Google Imogen Heap, and see what she did online to promote her recent album. There are endless tools musicians can use to find an audience directly — for instance, raising money from fans to finance a new album. Some of this, maybe a lot of it, would work for jazz. I think that ‘s something important to look at.

    Hope this helps. It might be a start, anyway. Of course, you and I can talk about this offline, if you’d like.

  23. Fred Lomenzo says

    Note To John. Modern “synthesizers” do not use mock-ups. They use real instruments played by professional musicians and are recorded using 24 or 32 technology.(CD’s use 16 bit technology). In the right hands can sound just as musical as “real” thing. I have also used electronically generated sounds in pieces with very good results and reviews. However I have found this medium to be limited. There is no substitute for modern orchestral instruments. The problem with some contemporary music, aside from being bad to begin with, is also not right for this medium.

  24. says

    Fred & John:

    I agree that realizations using digital samples from top musicians are a big improvement over generic midi and can be convincing. I would also say that when I write for performance I am always pleasantly surprised and impressed at how much the performer adds to the piece – the arc of a phrase, slight changes in tempo and dynamic – all the things good players bring to the final product. So I am convinced that electronic realizations – although getting better – will never replace a live performance.

    That said, I think new music, since it is infrequently performed, will evolve in another direction – one that takes advantage of the improving electonic realizatons and the vast audience/free delivery system provided by the Internet.

    To Pauline Bilsky – there are tools – again, imperfect tools – that allow the collaboration of live performances over the Internet – is one such and it is far from ideal. But it will likely improve as time goes on – or perhaps improvised performaces will adapt to its limitations in order to take advantage of the global possibilities for collaboration.

  25. Fred Lomenzo says

    Note to Paul. Phrasing, slight changes in tempo, dynamics and timbre are all academic and available to the composer for all orchestral instruments. This includes solo instruments ( violin included). The Piano being a percussion instrument is not that difficult a problem. Concert choir is also available. There are other upsides. Although the composer should only compose music that is actually playable, he does not have to be concerned with the ability of the solo performers or the quality of the orchestra. The ballance between orchestra sections and solo instruments can also be completely controlled by the composer. As for sound quality, when using all professional equipment the sound is exceptional. These are only some of the upsides. In essence the composer has a world class orchestra and soloists at his disposal. The downside, this does come with a large initial investment in time to master this.

    Aren’t we reinventing the wheel here? There are endless commercial software package that allow all this to be done, and quite a lot of music — scores for TV shows, for instance — is composed and produced using this technology. I think of it every time I go to a movie in an AMC theater. There’s a little musical bit they use in their film clip about how they hope we in the audience will be quiet during the movie. It ends with a cute moment for a solo flute, which I’m sure is digital.

    These techniques haven’t been used in classical music much, but they’re so common elsewhere that maybe we shouldn’t be talking as if they were something wonderful and new. All those software packages wouldn’t exist, after all, if people weren’t using them.

  26. Steve Soderberg says

    Greg is right re increased use of virtual sound. In film & TV especially most people don’t think about whether the sound track they are hearing is from a studio band or computer (or both) — & wouldn’t be able to tell even if they listened closely. I’d go a bit further though and note that the spillover into classical is well under way. Here are some notes (… with a heads-up for critics — I agreed also with Greg’s comment re “closed performance societies” above but this is a bit different):


    Re virtual performances, here’s a little test. Click on the following link and try your luck (don’t worry, no one will see your results):

    Nearly three years ago this test was given to two composers to see if they could nail the “fake.” If anyone had the ear and technology chops to do it, they did. On a first listen, both of them got it wrong. (Similar tests have fooled conductors.) Here is the entire article:

    But that was three years ago. Just recently, Jay Bacal did the complete Rite of Spring using the virtual instruments in the Vienna Symphonic Library. He and Vienna have kindly made this entire “performance” available on line:

    There are numerous other examples out there as well, e.g., the Fauxharmonic Orchestra (composers without the big bucks and time it takes to set up their own high end virtual performance studios need to check this site out), but these examples should suffice.


    If you heard a recording of, say, Beethoven Symphony No. 7 on the radio, and you missed the announcer’s intro, could you tell if what you heard was real or virtual? What if it came packaged as a new release in a jewelcase from a well-known label with a cover that identified a well known conductor and orchestra as performers; could you tell if it was a fake? What if you were a professional critic and were sent this CD for review and you were so impressed with it that you decided to write it up & your review appeared in papers, blogs and reblogs worldwide – and the next day you got an email telling you that it was a virtual performance (not what was identified on the cover and in the notes – no “real” performance in a hall or studio ever happened – you’ve just been had)? You might salvage the situation by writing a follow-up about how the technology had progressed so far that it fooled even you – … but … in the end your reputation depends on your ear and that you are less likely to be fooled than the average concert goer.

    My guess is that not only could this happen, some day it will(or has it already & I missed it?)

    More on music ecosystems later….

    Thanks, Steve! And I’m sorry to say that this invaluable comment was wrongly blocked by the anti-spam software. Nothing I can do about that, but of course I’ve approved it, and let it through.

    There’s much to say on this issue, but I want to give Steve the warmest thanks for pointing out how far this goes. It’s not even remotely a theory anymore.

    One issue raised is about sound enhancement at otherwise acoustic performances. Some people, of course, are passionately against it. But can they actually tell when it’s in force? One huge controversy here was over the sound enhancement (not amplification, but the addition of digital resonance, to compensate for a notoriously dry hall) at the NY City Opera. Critics howled in protest. But would they have known anything changed if they hadn’t been told that the enhancement existed? Or might they actually have liked what they heard?

    I’m listening, as I type this, to the Sacre du Printemps virtual performance, and it’s pretty stunning. Not necessarily as a performance — seems a little tame to me — but a a demonstration of virtual instruments. I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t a real orchestra.

    The first link, by the way, seems to have expired.

  27. David King says

    On MIDI/VST…

    What MIDI/software cannot do is replicate the intangible gradations between the stock articulations they include, and cannot foresee articulations that aren’t discovered yet. In other words, VST cannot invent sounds like I could with a physical instrument right beside me. I have a guitar VST that in no way accomodates the unlimited invention potential of Hendrix, for example. The most inventive part about MIDI interfaces are EQ, FX and controller channels. In the future, VST will have to objectively model the physical instrument – and rather than use recorded .wav samples, it would actually generate sounds. When you buy a VST, you are also accepting a stock version of a timbre, grossly oversimplifying the variations possible. The last frontier of VST is the endless variation of human voice (esp. in the pop realm, where blantantly new timbres arrive every day).

    More than a decade ago, Yamaha marketed a monophonic synth that used physical modeling. I wrote about it for Musician magazine (now defunct), and had it in my apartment for several months. It was astounding for winds and brass, very bad for strings. The downside was that to get the most out of it, you had to know vast amounts about the instruments it modeled, and then use your feet, hands, and breath (it had a breath controller) in an amazing display of multi-limb coordination to make things happen.

    But people who mastered the instrument really did amazing things with it. They sent a tech to my home to demonstrate the brass instruments, and I was tremendously impressed. Among much else, he created a bugle, or in other words a trumpet (roughly speaking) in which you had to change the pitch using only the equivalent of breath and lip pressure. No keyboard, in other words. What impressed me were his failures, when he couldn’t get the pitches out. Sounded to my admittedly non-brass player ear exactly like what happens when buglers fail.

  28. David King says

    Go back and read “Who Cares If You Listen”, or more accurately known as “the Composer As Specialist”. You will see that it is written from the recognition of a legitimate problem, and importantly, from a sincere source. Who are you to doubt the motives of scientific, serial, experimental or systems composers who have accepted the reality that laymen cannot understand their work? Who claims that all music should be understood without any preparation or education? If you do, you are placing a cap on many truth-seekers who have done much to expand the concept and possibilities of music.

    Not sure who these questions are addressed to, but I agree with David 100%. The only question is who should support music that not many people want to hear. One of my Juilliard students, a composer, asked me years ago what I thought about composers who wrote “inaccessible” music. (That was his word.)

    I said I thought they should keep on writing it. No one should tell artists what they should or shouldn’t do. But the composers then shouldn’t be surprised if not many people like what they write, and shouldn’t feel aggrieved, or feel some sense of entitlement, as if their music had a right to be widely heard.

    Some of my favorite music — Webern, especially — is never going to have much more than a niche audience.

  29. David King says

    From my experience, getting a layman to truly value modern composition (or art) is a lot like converting someone to atheism, converting an athiest to religion, converting a Repub to a Dem etc. etc.. It must arise from within the person, out of a sincere desire to re-evaluate or expand their “norms”, plus a serendipitous clarity to change for the right reasons. (I’ve noticed that converting for some peripheral reason is far more likely than a true holistic change)

    You have to customize the way you hear for different works. If a person cannot think abstractly enough to modulate between these ways of hearing, they’ll only look for what they already want – normally the overtly sensual, just like they clamor for “meaning” in abstract art. If they don’t find it, they project outward, thinking the art is flawed, rather than questioning their own approach. They don’t realize that music/art is created for millions of reasons and purposes, not just immediate enjoyment. Most, if told to re-wire the way they listen, will balk. I sometimes think education is the answer, but it has to address this aesthetic issue specifically and often. Ultimately I think it’s a quality akin to wisdom, to bend yourself to the art rather than expecting art to bend to you.

    Similarly, you can get someone to appreciate a work – and still have it rejected by the juvenile “I don’t like it” – the question of “liking it” is still their foremost concern. Which is more profound: “liking” or “understanding”? Why is it always a question of like/dislike? The need for “understanding” rather than judgement is so apparent in social relations – why not in art?

    (by the way, the “Who Cares if You Listen” post above wasn’t directed at Greg, but at certain commentors.)

    Hope my reply to that post didn’t sound defensive! I’m sensitive on this subject, though I didn’t think you meant me in what you said.

    Good points above. One of the most interesting experiences in art is feeling you don’t like something, especially if it’s unfamiliar to you. It’s wonderfully worthwhile, then, to examine your feelings, see what you don’t like, and see if you can change your perception. Very interesting, if you read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, to see Gertrude Stein doing that with painters in Paris.

  30. David Gottner says

    Well, this seems like common sense, really.

    In the pop world, I can go to a Pink Floyd concert, and it’s all, gee, Pink Floyd. Generally jazz ensembles also play in a consistent style (bop, big band revival, whatever) It’s only the classical world that insists that its customers must hear music of radically different styles.

    I think modernist music (e.g. atonal) should not be on the program for traditional symphony programs (those subscribers generally don’t like it.) I also think that modern music should generally not be played in the “alt-classical” concerts (assuming you are referring to modern day tonal composers like Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich, John Adams, etc.), for the same reasons, that the modern atonal music is radically different from both contemporary and pre-modern modes. (but some contemporary does go in and out of atonality (thinking of some works by William Bolcom), so modern music could be on some programs, but certainly wouldn’t be welcome on a mimimalist program featuring Reich, Reilly, and Arvo Part for example.)

    And OK, I will be glad to say good riddance to the atonal style. They never could compete in the musical marketplace, since nobody outside academia likes the music anyway (and I wouldn’t be surprised if many academics only pretend to like it.)

    I’m not in academia, and I like it. I was thinking at a concert Sunday, in fact, how much more easily I follow a Schoenberg 12-tone piece than I follow Prokofiev, a composer I never feel I understand — no disrespect meant to him. This is just a glitch of mine, and I make the Schoenberg comparison only to show how easily atonal music goes down with me.

    I do think some fans of atonal music get overheated about it. I once compared a number of Andrew Porter’s reviews of Elliott Carter, whom he loves, and saw that every Carter piece, to him, was an untouchable masterwork, with no distinctions made between one piece and another, except in the specifics of how they achieved their untouchable masterpiecehood.

    That seemed unnatural to me. Even Carter has his ups and downs. No human can create on an equally high level every time out.

  31. Fred Lomenzo says

    To Steve. Very familiar with the Vienna ” Rite of Spring”. Injoyed listening to it. Sounds great, maybe too good , kind of plastic and without soul. Just what many complain about when they hear or speak about orchestral recreations. The trick is to remove the plastic and put in the soul.

    I agree with Fred. The performance is impressive technically, but blah musically, as I think I said. Made me wonder if it could have been more powerful if someone with more powerful music in him/her had been responsible for it.

  32. David King says

    On MIDI post: I think the tech of the future should get around many of MIDI/VST’s current problems. I consider many of East West’s and Chris Hein’s products as the first truly sufficient attempts, and that’s within the last 5 years (imagine in 50). By the way, Steve’s kind-of-right about inability to spot the fake using VST symphonic renderings….but with chamber music like string quartet, jazz, or modern music with extended technique, it’s easy to spot the fake. Live-sounding rock, jazz and any vocal music is almost completely out of the question.

    If you desire to use VST in any more that a preparatory role, the key (now, at least) is to treat MIDI like an instrument in itself (for example, explore ideas that aren’t physically possible), and use VST instruments that don’t imitate real-world counterparts (synths, sound design). Concentrate on recorded formats rather than performance. This justifies its existence with much more integrity.

  33. David King says

    On “Who Cares If You Listen?” post:

    I think esotericism in composition is underrated – it would have been a mistake for many of these composers (who had mathematics or physics backgrounds, for instance) to truly expect “popular” understanding and acceptance. It was more a (super-optimistic) belief that in the future, people would think in a different way altogether – living on the moon perhaps – before postmodernism revised the notion of “forward progress”. It’s technology that moves forward, but the “majority” of people seem to be cyclical, slow to change, deliberately regressive…or, as I said above, seeing change as a non-issue – as “hearing in a new way” is probably a non-issue for 99%. I’m pretty sure most don’t know that the “non-tonal” category exists – they hear atonal/serial (and even modern tonal) composers as bad tonal composers.

    Most audiences don’t realize the aesthetic problems that preceded non-tonal music, and still don’t – hence esotericism. Any non-tonal method was (and is) a legitimate way to solve musical problems – for instance, how to circumvent the redundancy of tonal strategies. And despite most still seeing a dialectic between tonality and serialism, Xenakis (and many others) created entirely new systems for each piece (esotericism anew). So when someone says “good riddance to atonality”, they are really saying “good riddance to new ways of thinking” (yet, I’m irked by composers using another person’s pre-made system, and if ‘redundant’ 12-tone music is what they dislike, I agree).

    As a side note – some of the above comments present the the idea that 12-tone or modern music “failed” – a compositional possibility, once exposed, can never die. Also, despite the implication in my comments, you can find sensual/conventional beauty in every kind of musical system, without exception (it just may not be the primary aim, or “your kind” of beauty)

    Who funds this music?

    It seems apparent to me that it’s mainly academia’s responsibility – because the “modern music” in question acts on ‘non-pop’ processes and assumptions. Of course it can’t “compete in the musical marketplace” – abstract, conceptual and/or scientific ideas aren’t meant for literal/direct consumption, they’re “objects of consideration”. Even music MEANT for literal consumption is having huge problems – see Bob Lefsetz’s blog. At the overly reductive level = funding comes from people who care and have money! Finding your audience and finding your funding are reconciled at this level – finding people who ‘care’. This unfortunately, implies the piecemeal and scattered, rather than a pre-made group all sitting together waiting for you. (also implies plenty of unheard MIDI renderings…)

    Good points, David. Very rewarding, to think alongside you, so to speak, as I read what you write.

    One aspect of this discussion that I think about sometimes — I have to pinch myself, and ask why we talk about atonality (and all the other compositional strategies/necessities) that come up in this discussion as if they were current issues. Surely they’re not. They’re history. We’re talking about stylistic developments 50 to 100 years old. True, the classical music audience, the mainstream one, hasn’t caught up with much of it, but can anyone imagine a similar discussion in the visual arts? If we were sitting here, earnestly maintaining the validity and importance of abstract expressionism or surrealism or just plain old abstract art, we’d be looked at in the art world (I think) as if we were crazy. That’s all history! It happened! We all accept it! Not many people make art in those ways any more!

    But somehow in music, we talk about what Schoenberg did in the 1920s — invent the 12-tone system — as if it somehow were still a blazing current issue. That in itself, it seems to me, is a sign of trouble.

  34. Fred Lomenzo says

    I actually kind of agree with Greg. To me Schoenberg is one of the Neanderthals of serious music. Let him rest in peace. If music institutions continue to pursue composers that are more interested in pusing the envelope and trying new systems in order to be the next Stavinsky, instead of creating new art that can be injoyed by the people who pay the bills, they may also find themselves in this catagory.As you know there are already signs of it.

  35. David King says

    In regards to ‘modern’ composers, the “more power to ’em” or “if they choose not to compose music that people who pay the bills like…” sound flippant and dismissive. We can’t have a discussion about modern music and funding and then shrug and use ‘survival of the fittest’ arguments. The “make music people want to hear” argument is entertainment-based and belongs there.

    Schoenberg is simply a symbol to use, and 12-tone is also a symbol of misunderstood and publically disliked musical systems. For artists, 50-100 years ago should be considered alongside 500 years ago, alongside today. It’s all musical idea. We debate Socrates today, and Pollack still polarizes us way more than we’d like to think. Just sit by one and hear the crazy stuff people say.

    Of course, that’s not the audience modern music wants anyway. Segmentation means we won’t waste marketing dollars on the totally uninitiated, so I’m all for “raising the level of discourse” past the “do modern composers have the right to exist?” question. That IS still the question through, isn’t it? It’s still there, in both abstract and pragmatic arguments. For every agreement that it should exist, there’s a comment right under that shrugs and says “let ’em die”.

    We can assume it should, but we’re still fighting the battle that art in general matters – and even that needs constant lobbying it seems.

  36. Adam Matthes says

    I’d just like to share one positive experience I had with a performance of avant garde music. Some friends of mine prepared a quartet concert for a luncheon concert at Gensler, an architect firm in Houston; when word got out that I had Embellie, a solo viola piece by Xenakis, in my fingers, my friends asked me to contribute this piece to the concert. After giving an intrduction to who Xenakis was and his dual career as a composer and architect, I was astounded by the enthusiastic response from the audience; they recalled their favorite moments, how it “tickled” them, and a number of people wanted to see the score to the music, asking, “what does that one part where you played behind the bridge look like on the page?” A few months after that, I participated in a “Classical Music Supernova,” where on every street corner, classical music is played for twenty minutes, in hopes of generating buzz for the opening concert of the Chintimini Chamber Music Festival in Corvallis, OR. I was stationed outside a wine bar, and again I played the Xenakis piece as well as selections from the Ligeti Viola Sonata. I was once again pleased to meet people who enjoyed the music, and I was able to hand out brochures for the festival to the curious listeners. So these are just some examples of finding the right ecosystem for the music, as you’ve suggested.

    Thanks, Adam! Great story, and yes, it shows that there really can be an audience for music that the regular classical audience doesn’t care for. I’m going to add this to one of my “solutions” posts. Thanks again!