Weekend vote: When there is 'new music' on the program, I.....

May 5, 2019, 2:01 PM · What is your reaction, when there is "new music" or a "world premiere" on the program for a symphony orchestra, chamber or recital program?

Over the weekend I took part in a program that involved a new violin concerto, "Orchard in Fog" by Adam Schoenberg, played by Anne Akiko Meyers, who had commissioned the piece. The reaction among both the musicians and the audience was quite positive, and the piece received immediate standing ovations at both performances.

modern music

A warm reception for a new work certainly is not a given. In fact, it's more like a surprise, when it happens. I heard comments like, "I usually can't stand new music, but I'm enjoying this one!" Even "I dread it when there is a new piece on the program, but this one is growing on me."

Why is the default attitude "brace yourself, it's one of those 'modern pieces'...." ? Is it just a natural reaction to something new? Or is it a product of the 20th century, when composers -- and the academic institutions that trained them -- perhaps got a little carried away, "challenging audiences"? Are some composers now swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, returning to a kind of expression that is more widely relatable?

This season the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned 100 new works for its 100th anniversary season, which has meant that nearly every concert has featured the premiere of a new work. Did audiences flock to concerts to hear the new works? Did they come in spite of them? Did they come in larger or lesser numbers? I don't know the answer.

What is your reaction, when you see that a new work is on the program? Are you excited to hear it or play it? Or do you brace yourself for something unpleasant? Is your feeling somewhere in the middle, keeping an open mind, but a little bit on guard? Please participate in the vote, and then in the comments, share your thoughts on why you feel the way you do. How have your experiences with new music shaped your feelings about it? What is your best experience with new music? Your worst? Do you enjoy experimental and atonal music? What makes for a "good" new composition, in terms of the balance of innovation and familiarity?

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May 5, 2019 at 07:17 PM · I generally enjoy listening to contemporary music, but it heavily depends on the style. I love some contemporary pieces and hate others. I like the ones that have a lot of melodic lines that make sense and hate the ones that have no logic and sound like noise to me.

May 5, 2019 at 07:18 PM · The overtone series and scales constructed from it tended to create a sense of direction in music. The composer worked the the framework of nature to create. That got pretty well stretched and finally broken. There are some works of genius that like Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu but much of their appeal comes from the a kind of imitation of tonality.

Modern tonal pieces still can interest and entertain but atonal music is chaos and nonsense. It is a mockery of nature.

May 5, 2019 at 07:32 PM · I'm biased (I write music myself and have also given a lot of premiere performances), but I go into it with positive expectations.

Laurie, I think you hit on something when you mentioned composers challenging the audience too much led to dread on the part of (much of) the audience, but those days are far behind us. Probably some of that reputation still lingers, but based on what I'm hearing these days, I think its days are numbered.

May 5, 2019 at 07:33 PM · I usually love new music, with a caveat: I have to be able to understand the aesthetic or the logic in it. I tend to be very open to finding sense in non-traditional forms and sounds, and there is a lot of atonal music I love. That said, there has also been new music that I've hated and that sounds like noise to me -- either because the texture was too opaque to make out a real logic to it or because it was simply not very well written. (To the point of some of it simply being bad: much of the new music I've disliked has been tonal. One of my friends once observed: the problem with modern music is that we haven't had enough time to forget the bad stuff.) Overall, I end up liking newly composed pieces about 80% of the time.

May 5, 2019 at 08:03 PM · In my opinion all the great music has already been written. Since there are only twelve unique pitches, good melodies have a finite number. From this point further into the future, any music written by anyone will be sub-standard.

May 5, 2019 at 09:09 PM · I try to keep an open mind. Bottom line: Is the piece something I'd want to hear again?

My musical ear is decidedly 18th century, although I enjoy pieces that far pre-date and post-date the 18th century. But, like two previous posters, I hate noise. I'm more open to hearing new pieces via today's media -- e.g., YouTube and radio -- than I would be in live performance, since I can balance and control the volume without having to shield my ears.

May 5, 2019 at 10:18 PM · I recently heard Fred Hersch's composition "Leaves of Grass" which he performed with vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry at the Moss Arts Center on the Virginia Tech campus. I didn't really know what to expect. I was too lazy to do any basic research on it beforehand, and I spent the last few minutes before downbeat chatting with friends I found in the audience instead of reading the program notes. I bought the ticket because it said "Fred Hersch."

But when the ensemble came out and I saw John Hollenbeck taking his place at the drums, I knew it was going to be an experience. And was it ever. I just enjoyed it so much. Whenever something "experimental" or "different" or "modern" comes to town, I wonder how successful it will be. A couple of months ago when John Hollenbeck's "large ensemble" came to town, probably 10% of the audience left after the second number. Perhaps they were expecting his "large ensemble" to be something like Stan Kenton or Maynard Ferguson. Uh, no. And I have to confess that I was fairly well saturated by intermission. But what I also notice is that I learn stuff by listening to music like that. I learn a little more about what music is ... what its boundaries are ... what is possible and what can be (and sometimes what isn't) beautiful. Hollenbeck was interesting -- but honestly I enjoyed Maria Schneider's group more.

May 5, 2019 at 11:27 PM · I should note, adding to my earlier post, that my favorite era of music is the first half of the 20th century.

I have a couple thoughts on audience response, based on personal experience.

One of my absolute favorite musical performances I've ever attended was a coffeehouse concert of all contemporary chamber music (probably about half new music) where I heard a very memorable new piece by Omari Tau titled "Did You Get My Text?" for baritone voice, piccolo, bass clarinet, and cellphone. It got a thunderous standing ovation from a packed house.

For orchestras, it seems like more of a mixed bag.

My semipro orchestra's programming decisions for the recently concluded 2018-19 season appear to have been disastrous for ticket sales. In our area, we've long had a reputation for playing a lot of modern music, especially compared to the city's professional orchestra whose programming is almost entirely old warhorses (more than 50% Beethoven for two years in a row). Because of audience surveys in which our subscribers professed to love our modern music programming, we put together a 2018-19 season with at least 10 minutes of music by living composers and at least 15 minutes of atonal music on each program. Our first concert of the season sold out well in advance, but it was the one with a Beethoven piano concerto and a Beethoven symphony on the program. We only played one piece composed before 1930 in the entire rest of the season, and didn't sell any concert over 60% of capacity. In November, we played two atonal pieces (a Marta Lambertini world premiere and a Ginastera piano concerto) in the first half of the concert; the hall was about half-full when the concert started and at least 25% of that audience left at or before intermission. (By comparison, past seasons were somewhat less adventurous and we typically averaged about 90% of capacity, with sellouts whenever we played any especially famous piece.) It really seems like we have a polarized audience: our subscribers love modern music and a substantial core of them will show up to enjoy it, but hardly anyone else will. I've noticed that, as a general rule, the more our subscribers like a program as per our end-of-season surveys, the fewer other people are interested in it. In other words, people here seem to be either enthusiastic new music listeners or completely uninterested, with very little in between.

May 5, 2019 at 11:38 PM · I do wish that - at least sometimes - the music of the concert would be planned for the new music to be at the end rather than at the beginning or middle of a concert as I would like to enjoy the progression through the musical periods or styles. Sometimes comparing places that may be very similar or distinctly different.


May 6, 2019 at 12:04 AM · The director of our regional orchestra, the Roanoke Symphony, is a marketing genius. He creates orchestra concerts around rock musicians who will be well-known to "grown ups" (50+) who might want to check out the symphony. Recent guests have included Boz Scaggs and Fleetwood Mac. Meanwhile the rest of the subscription season is packed with great stuff - concertos, symphonic standards, works with chorus, and the like. I'm so glad we have a music director who doesn't turn up his nose at "pops" because it's probably the reason we have an orchestra.

May 6, 2019 at 12:51 AM · I try to keep an open mind, but really prefer older music. It also has to do with how I listen to music. I rarely have time to just sit and really listen, and give my full attention to the music, which I think that modern music requires. The older, more rhythmic music can be enjoyed anywhere...when I'm driving, doing housework, working on hobbies or on the computer.

I did recently purchase Hilary Hahn's CD "In 27 Pieces", which are contemporary pieces written specifically for her. I look forward to sitting down and listening to that, but then I'm a big Hilary Hahn fan and expect to enjoy the playing!

As for my own playing, I am much more comfortable playing older music, especially from the Baroque era. We do play newer music in my community orchestra, which is often interesting and challenging.

I think it's important for major orchestras to support current composers and not shut them out, so playing some of their pieces is acceptable to me. Some of my favorite composers were considered "out there" in their day.


May 6, 2019 at 01:56 AM · I try to keep an open mind. I often fail. My kludge is to look at the date of composition--that's often a clue as to whether I sit there, arms crossed, expecting the worst, lean back to enjoy the piece, or sit there with a fair degree of anxiety. Programmatic music is more often, these days, pushing towards the tonal (or at least melodic, where atonality is less jarring).

May 6, 2019 at 04:09 PM · I find that I usually don’t like modern classical music on first playing or hearing. However, after repeated exposure it often grows on me.

May 6, 2019 at 08:17 PM · Pretty depressing comments when even most musicians prefer the old and mostly just seem to tolerate the new at best.

May 7, 2019 at 05:46 AM · It depends if we're talking about "music" or noise. Years ago I went to a concert where a piece was performed by a composer who had studied with John Cage (nuff said…). The program notes were enough to get me into a laughing fit that was compounded only when they actually started playing.

Afterwards I went backstage to check out the score, to see how certain parts were annotated, for example banging the bows on the music stands. I loved the end note: "da capo, or maybe not". Another peculiarity was that pages were notated symmetrically and without clefs so that the top and bottom orientation was reversible, allowing for considerable variety in end result.

Conceptual art? Absolutely. Music, as in something you'd like to hear again? Absolutely not.

But I must admit, in hindsight, that was one of the most memorable concerts I ever attended!

May 7, 2019 at 11:31 AM · Some second-tier modern composers do not think about the technical practicalities of playing. I remember our first rehearsal of an orchestral suite by a local composer where the first violins had an impossible passage in the 3rd F-C region on the E string (top end of the piano keyboard) doubling the piccolo. Naturally we played an octave lower. The composer who was there apparently never noticed.

May 7, 2019 at 02:17 PM · It's easy to forget how shocked we ought to be that classical audiences typically understand the language of centuries old music more easily than music written today. It would be as if Chaucer or Skakespeare were easier to understand than Harry Potter. I'm a composer and I mostly blame us. For a good 50+ years in the middle of the 20th century we forgot that music, while potentially being challenging, must also be pleasurable and speak a language the audience can understand. Things are finally changing now, but we've lost the trust of audiences. It will be very difficult to win it back.

May 7, 2019 at 03:18 PM · I call it the "Wrong-Note Era" of music history, of gratuitous dissonance and difficulty. It was amazing how many wrong notes composers could string together without accidently hitting a right note. I had enough of it when I was at UC San Diego. When I lived in LA I did not go to very many LA Phil concerts. I would look at the program, thinking "I like this piece, I don't like that one, this is a modern premiere, it's probably ugly" , think about the ticket price and the drive and the parking, then not go. It's easier to buy a recording of things that I like. The situation is better now. Composers are eclectic, have permission to be anachronistic, tonal, borrow from other genres, even be humorous.

May 7, 2019 at 05:09 PM · I try to be as unbiased as I can be because "new" and "modern" can be good.

Some modern composers write great new material and some don't. I prefer pieces that go somewhere musically and don't try to rebuild the mouse trap.

Composers attempting to make a unique statement that has never been made before and in doing so turn everything upside down. Other composers have excellent material and manage to lift their craft to new heights.

As an amateur composer I mingle with other composers who often ask opinions on their works they eventually submit to orchestras. A lot of it comes from very intelligent people with high concepts. Maybe I'm just to "low" to get much of it. Most of it sounds like pure tripe to me. Music either moves me early or it doesn't.

May 7, 2019 at 06:00 PM · I agree with Dimitri. Any kind of "music" where you have to read the score to see the inside jokes ("da capo or maybe not") is not worth anyone's time. That's what I call an "objet d'fart."

Let those things be academic novelties, or perhaps display the score in a visual presentation of music-related objects, you know, like right next to Picasso's painting of the three musicians. Or in a showing of objects that have asked the question, "What is art?" such as Duchamp's urinal or Warhol's Campbell's Soup can.

By the way Duchamp is often written off as a loony because of his urinal, but his painting "nude descending a staircase" is one of the true highlights in the development of representational painting. The nude form is somewhat unoriginally cubist but the portrayal of motion was groundbreaking. I absolutely love that painting, I find it stunningly beautiful and I have a print of it hanging in my living room.

Let's remember, thought, that Beethoven never intended his latest quartets to be performed. He thought of them as musical art that he wrote to expand the boundaries of composition -- things to be studied, not played.

May 7, 2019 at 10:35 PM · Paul, one of the ensembles I belong to is a non-performing band of about 16 elderly ex-orchestral string players, most of whom prefer now not to play in orchestras (I'm one of four exceptions).

Our conductor is a composer and arranger, and sometimes gives us some of his output to play as a first performance (aka to find out what it sounds like!). One of his best was his arrangement for strings of nearly all of Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations for piano. When we sight-read it, I was struck by how some of the variations reminded me of Beethoven's later quartets.

Beethoven was a performing pianist and intended the Diabelli Variations to be played, although he surely would never have visualised a group of elderly violinists, violists and cellists playing a quartet arrangement some two centuries later!

May 8, 2019 at 06:37 AM · Paul, we're on the same thinking here. I personally consider Duchamp and John Cage to be geniuses, as far as conceptual art is concerned (invented by Duchamp himself in 1917, if I'm not mistaken).

And I agree with you abut the nude on the staircase, I saw a repro of it a couple days ago, and proves beyond doubt that Duchamp actually knew how to paint (an accusation often levelled at conceptual artists - they lack an actual skill). He just wanted to bring things to the next level.

But I digress. If you're curious about who wrote that piece I mentioned above, it was Earle Brown.

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