New Music’s Image Problem (Part 2)

Last week I made a post in which I noted that people who are into experimental film, theater, literature and visual art don’t tend to listen to contemporary classical music, and suggested that this might be because the way contemporary classical music is presented to audiences makes it seem “uncool.” Since then I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this issue with other composers, and I’d like to share some of my more recent thoughts. But first, two things I should clarify:

First, I actually really dislike talking about art as “cool” or “uncool.” I’m disturbed by the idea of people deciding what artists to support based on something as superficial as the kind of social image they want to project. But I also recognize that this is something that people do, and that there’s really no way to stop them from doing it. So, from a practical point of view, I figure that if there’s something we can do to make new-music concerts seem as “cool” as black-box theater productions or art gallery shows — whether that means playing in more visually striking venues or ditching archaic concert rituals — we might as well do it.

Second, I’m not saying that composers should change what they write in order to be more audience-friendly. There’s plenty of audience-friendly music already, from Pärt to Corigliano to JacobTV. But I think that even difficult, esoteric music could have a larger following than it currently does. Remember the guy I mentioned in my last post? He reads James Joyce and watches films by Béla Tarr — not exactly easy stuff. He also listens to free jazz, which I personally found it more difficult to learn to appreciate than contemporary classical music. So why wouldn’t he like, say, Lachenmann?

My fellow Northwestern grad student Dave Reminick has made the argument that the work of a composer like Lachenmann actually is more esoteric than that of a free-jazz musician like Albert Ayler, because most people are much more familiar with the traditions that Ayler is playing off of (jazz, blues, gospel, etc.) than with the traditions that Lachenmann is playing off of (the Second Viennese School, mid-century modernism, musique concrète, etc.). Lachenmann also approaches those traditions in a more intellectual way, through the lens of Hegel and Adorno — philosophers that most people have never read. But I wonder: how many people who enjoy Lachenmann actually experience his music as a philosophical critique of conventional modes of listening? I know that when I listen to Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, I’m not thinking that way at all: I’m enjoying the timbres of the sounds, and the drama created by the long pauses and abrupt textural contrasts. Dave is much more into Lachenmann than I am — he once named him as a candidate for his favorite living composer — but he too listens to his music in a basically intuitive way. So again: if someone likes the complex but sensuous prose of Joyce (or William S. Burroughs, or Italo Calvino, etc.), or the cryptic but evocative images of Tarr (or Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Maya Deren, etc.), why shouldn’t they also like the abrasive but intensely dramatic music of Lachenmann (or Olga Neuwirth, or Beat Furrer etc.)?

And of course, not all new music sounds like Lachenmann, Neuwirth and Furrer. There are plenty of composers whose music is both easier to grasp structurally and more closely connected to the pop-cultural landscape that most listeners are immersed in. Lots of people know about Reich and Glass, but there’s also Louis Andriessen, Robert Ashley, JacobTV, Scott Johnson, Steve Mackey, John Zorn, Annie Gosfield, Evan Ziporyn, Paul Dresher, Frederic Rzewski, Julia Wolfe, and plenty more. If the Klangforum Wien folks could have a somewhat larger audience than they currently do, these composers could have a massively larger audience than they currently do, if only fans of contemporary art and experimental jazz and rock were inclined to explore contemporary classical music.

Like I said at the end of my previous post, I do think things are looking up. The other day I was at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and their list of events includes not only film screenings, dance performances and experimental rock concerts, but also performances by ICE and eighth blackbird. One of eighth blackbird’s concerts is described as featuring the “rigorously complex” music of Amy Kirsten and Dan Visconti (neither of whom I’m familiar with), so obviously someone thinks that people going to the MCA want to see not only a new music ensemble, but a new music ensemble playing difficult music. The ICE and eighth blackbird concerts I’ve been to at the MCA in the past have been quite well attended, too. So don’t let me fall into the trap of thinking that the situation is utterly dire. Still, we’re not where we could be. I want to see a world where OKCupid users who list Gravity’s Rainbow among their favorite books and Last Year at Marienbad among their favorite films also list La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura among their favorite music.


  1. Posted February 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve wondered about this for a long time as well. I’ve made many CDs and playlists for culturally literate non-musician friends, and just saying a track is by a “composer” instead of by a “band” causes their eyes to glaze over. I don’t think this is just a coolness issue — it seems for most people words like “composer” indicate a cultural stream of which they aren’t a member. They feel entitled to participate in pop-based music, but not in composer music — so the problem is not that they dislike it, it’s that they feel themselves outside of it, and hence lacking permission to pass judgment one way or the other.

    This is why people at concert receptions say that a piece was “interesting.”

  2. Posted February 15, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    “A cultural stream of which they aren’t a member” — I hadn’t thought of putting it that way, but it’s exactly right. A lot of people are also very intellectually intimidated by the classical music world. I remember one of the first conversations I had with a friend of mine from college: she heard that I was a composer, and immediately told me that she had “bad taste in music.” Of course she didn’t actually think the music she liked was bad; she just assumed that I would think that. Instead, she wound up educating me about hip-hop and contemporary mainstream pop.

    I think there’s another problem, too, which is the assumption that every piece of classical music is trying to make a Very Serious Statement. I think that’s why I’m fine with goofy irreverent song/album titles but find goofy irreverent piece titles annoying. In the latter case, I automatically assume that the composer is making a declaration about goofiness — which is no fun at all! — rather than simply being goofy.

    As for “interesting,” I thought that was just polite-speak for “I didn’t like it.”