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.
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?