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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: How do you like your new music?

February 6, 2009 at 9:50 PM

This week we heard some really interesting thoughts from both Hilary Hahn and Anne-Sophie Mutter about new music. Mutter is championing a new work that was written for her, and tonight Hahn premieres a new violin concerto by Jennifer Higdon, which was written for Hahn. Both were sincerely passionate about these new works, and also about the importance of allowing composers to push the genre, try new things, find new ways to use our old instrument for human expression.

Do you ever listen to new music? You probably know that I'm not talking about the latest song on the radio, though that's certainly new music, too. But I'm talking about works by modern classical composers, often works that challenge us. I must confess to having wildly polar feelings about this kind of music, and also to being passionate about it in both directions. Love/hate, I suppose. Or maybe it's just resistance/acceptance. I have in my mind the stereotype of a modern work: a beeping, clomping, atonal amalgamation of sound, the musical equivalent of someone poking me with a stick.

It reminds me of an experience I had as a nine-year-old in the fourth grade, when one of those wonderful parent volunteers came to my elementary school to talk to my class about art. "This is called Guernica, by Picasso..." I can remember feeling puzzled, but amused and curious by this work, full of oddly rendered people and creatures, reaching and dragging and grieving. Why did he place eyes all over faces? Why did his heads look like balloons? Did he just not know how to draw? I truly suspected he was impaired in the drawing department. He probably did some of that weird stuff on purpose, but on the whole, the man just probably couldn't even draw as well as I could, poor guy.

Then she showed us some early Picasso, for example, like this work he painted when he was 15. I was completely befuddled. Why paint a woman like this, when you can paint a woman like this? He wasn't drawing or painting like that because he couldn't do better; it was a choice. He'd conquered technique and could do anything he wanted, and this is what he wanted.

I had to respect that, and search for why. There is much to be learned in that search; this is why artists are artists.

Similarly, I don't think we should disregard the voices of our artists in the musical world, even when they push us into places where we don't recognize the faces and we don't like the untethered feeling of being in unfamiliar territory. Hilary Hahn described what she wanted from a composer, "total liberation." Total liberation means not clinging to the familiar, and that can be as uncomfortable as it can be thrilling.

So I ask you this week, how do you like your new music? What makes it easiest for you to make that leap? Do you have an easier time with new music if you are playing it? Or if you can hear it live? Do you like to get to know it with a recording? Or do you prefer to stay away from new music?

Let's use the comments section to share new music that has made an impression, and why.

From Royce Faina
Posted on February 6, 2009 at 10:33 PM

Wether it's classical on the violin(zoe keating and a 5 string violin with C counterpart, with a lap top) or Contemporary like RUSH (Alex, Geddy, Neil! You 3 Stooges :^D on the bass guitar/key boards/foot pedals/lap top/etc ) it boils down to playing it! Playing tells me more about the why than listening alone.


From Anthony Barletta
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 12:07 AM

Like Laurie, I have mixed feelings about much of the new music I encounter, usually weighted toward the negative.  I often feel that I just don't "get" it.  But I'm always looking to expand my horizon.  So can any of you aficionados of new music suggest ways of  learning to appreciate it more, other than to just keep listening so that eventually something might click?

From cindy dinga
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 3:12 AM

For me----it's playing it----"hot off the presses", if I can use that saying. The church orchestra I'm in has two great in-house compossers ---- a lot of our music is copied straight off the manuscript --- so we are the first to see and hear the newly composed pieces durning rehearsal for Sunday service. Keeps us on the edge of our seats-----but it's awesome----(think "Saturday Night Live" Band with a Gospel feel). In the other orchestra I'm in, we just got a new classical piece writen for Trumpet solo with orchestra quartet----we are going to debut it this Spring----has a Latin feel, when I just read throught it---it's going to be interesting to hear the rest of the parts, and how it's going to gel together. (I just hope it swings!) For me it's exciting to do music that hasn't been played before or heard---it's a new frontier into new ideas, emotions, rhythm etc, etc.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 4:21 AM

My teacher often performs new works, and it is a joy to listen to him and others from the OSO and other professional musicians in the area performing these new pieces in an informal setting.  Their obvious enthusiasm to exlpore new music is fascinating to watch and listen to. 

From Roy Sonne
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 4:42 AM

My main exposure to new music in recent years has been that of playing new works in the orchestra. I took the attitude that I got to know a new work quite well in the process of practicing my part, playing it in three or four very detailed rehearsals, and then in three or four performances. I must say that I ended up disliking most of the new works we played. But then, later on, when I would listen to those same compositions on the radio, I would like them a lot better. So at this point, I would not pass judgement on a new unfamiliar work until I have heard it as a listener.

From Paul G.
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 4:57 AM

I think I tend to look ahead. (I'll explain later...)

Pretty much the only new work I'm playing is Song from the Tango Song and Dance by Previn. I'm calling it new because the composer is still alive. I think it's a beautiful piece and certainly doesn't fit that stereotype that most people have about "new music". This stereotype is born with pieces similar to this. But I think it can be knocked down with pieces like this and the example of the Previn piece. But out of new music, I think pieces like The Rhapsody from August Rush are so beautiful!!

I don't think that a lot of new music is available to players like me, so I haven't been allowed to experience it yet. Yes, the work for Mutter which was recorded on her last album is available to me, but I just can't listen to Mutter play another piece of music. Not to be rude, her style is just too sweet for me and I've had enough. So I just need more exposure to modern works and I really want to hear what a modern violin concerto sounds like.

When I said I look at this with the view of looking to the future, I mean that out of respect. Look at back when the Tchaikovsky was introduced, the first reviews were horrible and now the concerto is one of the most popular. A work from this time could be the same way and I don't want to regret being the one who said "Oh, well it took the violin to hell and back with that melody".

I've started composing and I'm really enjoying myself. The hardest part is just getting it all down to paper. That process of transferring is so difficult for me and I struggle greatly with it. Not coming up with sounds though... They pour out of me so easily and I have almost no struggle to produce them.

Many factors influence choice, these are just mine.


From Royce Faina
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 12:00 PM

I want to clarify something from my last post- It sounds like Zoe plays the five string violin, she's a Avant Guarde Cellist- i meant Me playing her music.

When I learned how to play a song by George Rochberg when I was in college so many years ago, when I learned a piece by Daniel Pinkam when I was in High School choir, and the music began to make since too me like seeing it from the tecnical view, the artistic view, the therory behind it and why..... to this day, I read, I practice, I listen, I attend concerts in awe of anyone who can write! Some day such ones that I've mentioned, or in likeness of... will be the roots of our nobel craft. With respect too the past, we contemplate where we ourselves are at the pressent, with our nose to the wind, those winds of change with new ports, new spices, new tomorrows, the future. our roots, our pressent is the trunk.... the stalk and the new the branches and that which will come the flowers to give fruit and bare seed for the next.....



From Robert Spear
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 3:05 PM

As a violin maker, I have severely shifting emotions about new music. I make conventional instruments as well as all the instruments of the "new violin family octet," including the basses. These instruments include missing members of the present family such as the soprano (J. S. Bach's "piccolo" violin), and the marvelous tenor violin, among others. If I champion new instruments, I could hardly not champion new music as well, especially if some of it were written to take advantage of these new resources.

As I toil in my workshop, I strive to put everything I know about craftsmanship, acoustics, and geometric design design into my violins. Everything I've learned over the last 35 years gets put into each one. So when I hear composers say they are striving for new sounds, and I hear the players being instructed to hit the instruments with their hands (or, worse, with some part of their bow), or play percussively (we have percussion instruments for that--violins are lyric instruments), or produce measure after measure of chirps and squawks or unremitting dissonances resolving into other unremitting dissonances, I must confess that I become mildly homicidal.

After a concert consisting of all new music, I polled many of the string players about their feelings. I got a lot of comments like "I needed the money," or "I need to go home and play some Bach," or, my favorite and the only one that could be considered positive, "A couple of the pieces had some nice sounds in them."

Nice sounds?!?

When I was in music school, I was taught that music had only three elements-- melody, harmony, and rhythm. Over the course of my life, I have come to the conclusion that these three are essentially useless unless they are used to produce the fourth element of music, which is emotional. Today's composers write well for the intellect, but poorly for the heart. Composers are still trying to cram all sorts of new ideas into what essentially remains Papa Haydn's orchestra. They cry out for new sounds and resources, but when offered some they stampede toward the exits.

I could rant on, but instead I would recommend Henry Pleasants' book, "The Agony of Modern Music." It was written half a century ago, so much of what Pleasants wrote is outdated and his arguments are often overstated. But it's a fun read, and I think all musicians will appreciate how valid much of what he contended then remains true today. The book is out of print; I found a copy in paperback at an antiquarian bookseller for one dollar.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 8, 2009 at 2:53 PM

I've played new music in community and university orchestras, and usually I enjoy it.  But I don't think I would have enjoyed just listening to the same pieces, either live or recorded.  

Modern, unfamiliar music usually goes right over my head upon first hearing, no matter what the situation, especially if it is atonal or lacks traditional chord structure, melody, and rhythm.

What has helped a few times when I've played new music is that the composer has been there at rehearsals and s/he has talked about the music and offered suggestions.  Also, just having the opportunity to sit with the work over a period of weeks while practicing and rehearsing seems to lead to a greater appreciation, in my case.  

From Graham Clark
Posted on February 8, 2009 at 5:43 PM

From time to time I get the opportunity to work in free improvisaion. For example, I have a violin/piano duo album about to be released, for which we improvised all the material with no prior discussion or preparation.

On these occasions, I find myself playing in a way that is much closer to contemporary composed music than my jazz background. Because the idea is to create on the spot, whilst avoiding genre-specific vocabulary, we often find ourselves working in tonal areas that are not full of cadences, and using rhythmic  approaches that are not at all restricted to a given number of beats to a bar. Another name for this approach is non-idiomatic improvisation.

It is certainly "new", in all senses of the word

I find these approaches very satisfying both musically, and technically. Very often, when I listen back to recordings I get very moved by these improvisations. This interests me, because it is extremely rare for me to feel such emotions while playing. I am too focused. In fact I don't usually remember what we played in any detail, but I do recognise it from recordings.

In this music, I can explore all manner of musical material; I am only limited by my musical knowledge and curiosity. I often find myself playing technically beyond what I normally believe are my violinistic limits.

I do also like to hear others play this way both live and on record, but I voted that I like my new music best in playing it myself.


From Bonny Buckley
Posted on February 9, 2009 at 9:32 AM

I'm really enjoying this discussion, especially Spear's contribution.  I have a feeling that, as in the past, music that the majority of people love will be the music that endures, not necessarily those pieces written for the intellect at the expense of emotion.  I have had a mixed bag of experiences with new music.  In my mind some of the finest are some of the collage style pieces such as Ginastera's Concerto for Harp.  And I also readily agree that without evoking feelings, it isn't really music.   New music is just that:  the test of time and audience will show whether it makes it. 

Some people who call themselves composers (who have no right to do so without adequate training) seem to enjoy a hint of status by producing what they call music.  One experience I had with one had hired me to transcribe his "piece" into notation for piano.  After agonizing with his work for as long as I could stand, he was still unhappy with my interpretation.  But now I see how futile it was to take on such a proposition -- if a person is composing a complicated, unemotional and atonal piece and can't write it down, only play it, is that really composing?  I know it can be argued that it is composing but this gentleman apparently was not up to his own intellectual challenge.  Given what he had recorded, I had painstakingly reproduced it on paper.  I have the feeling that he was unable in the first place to read on manuscript what he was producing in sound.  It was a good lesson for me for future boundary setting. 

I have also been one of those musicians who needed the check and suffered through uninteresting and unfeeling works in an orchestra.  I seriously doubt those pieces will last.  As for using our instruments as percussive devices, I will try to refrain!  : ) 

From Benjamin K
Posted on February 9, 2009 at 11:42 AM

"As for using our instruments as percussive devices, I will try to refrain!"

I think it is pretty silly to make such a generalised statement. There are many different ways to use stringed instruments in a percussive way and you will probably find that it will not always displease you just because the instruments are used percussively. You might as well make a statement that if the composer's name starts with "s" and ends with "g", then you will stay away from the music.

A famous example of using a string quartet as percussion is the "KGB knocking at the door" movement of Schostakovich's string quartet no.8, it's a highly regarded and rather popular piece and he's been using this and similar technique throughout his quartet writing.

Other examples of using strings as percussion can be found in many works by Stravinsky, in particular the Rite of Spring. It's breathtaking and ingenious.

Piazzolla and other composers of tango have used strings as percussion instruments in yet different ways. Tapping the body of the instrument with your fingers as well as bowing behind the bridge are common techniques in this genre of music. Nothing wrong with that.

At the end of the day you should judge a piece on its own merit, not based on whether or not the strings are used in a percussive fashion.

From Robert Spear
Posted on February 9, 2009 at 11:55 PM

I think we need to be a little more precise in defining some confusing terminology. Percussive playing is nothing new, of course, but what I meant to convey was not percussive playing on the violin, but using the violin as a percussion instrument, i.e., something to be struck with the hands, mallets, sticks, or whatever else might lie at hand. Benjamin K. was kind enough to provide some examples of what he meant; I probably should have done the same (and will do so now with a true tale).

I was a member of an orchestra, back in my younger days when dirt was still new and exciting, that was preparing a contemporary work for its first performance. All the string sections balked when they came upon the composer's instructions to strike the lower wing of the treble f-hole with the screw cap of the bow held at an angle. You see, this particular composer knew exactly what he wanted. A "new " sound! :-)

He evidently did not know that what he proposed to do was to strike the violin at a very delicate point. At the least it would chip the varnish, at worst it could cause a wing crack, which is often difficult to repair. He dug his heels in, and the orchestra did the same. We rehearsed other things for a couple of days while the orchestra management tried to show the composer what was concerning the players. The composer said he would devise something new, and so he did. He cheerfully instructed us to tap the wing with the head of the bow instead of the screw cap! Then he dug his heels in again. Now we were faced with the possibility of not only damaging our instruments, but our bows as well.

The story ends with an amusing and interesting compromise. The orchestra members played  that particular piece on fiddles borrowed from their beginning students, and they tapped using fiberglass bows.

From Benjamin K
Posted on February 10, 2009 at 9:27 AM

Well, if a piece requires you to harm your instrument, that is a different matter of course, but that wasn't clear from your post, especially since Laurie appears to be asking about musical tastes and everybody appears to have given opinions on musical tastes.

I personally think if a composer wants a never heard before sound in his piece, especially if it is a destructive kind of sound, then there is a perfect instrument for that: a synthesizer ;-)

Then again, such composers may simply lack the skills to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve without having to resort to harmful treatment of instruments. They should take a lesson or two from Shostakovich and Stravinsky et al. I remember a performance of Shosty's piano trio no.2 by a young trio group from Belgium here in Tokyo last autumn. They really immersed themselves in the piece and played with such tremendous dynamic, such immense force that it put any heavy metal band to shame and they probably needed a bow rehair and a new set of strings after only a few such performances. It was absolutely breathtaking, but I don't think it was harmful to the instruments. Anyway, it would certainly be sufficient to demonstrate to any composer that you can do just fine without harmful technique even if you happen to have a fetish for the noisy, disturbing, painful kind of sound.

From Mayra Calvani
Posted on February 10, 2009 at 12:59 PM

I have to admit I don't listen to new composers. I stick to Baroque and Classical. Once I listened to a new composer's piece during the Queen Elizabeth Violin Competition and it was so 'unmelodic' it kind of turned me against modern composers. I just didn't 'get' it. It was weird, like the score for a Halloween slasher film.

From Benjamin K
Posted on February 10, 2009 at 2:58 PM

For most of the second half of the 20th century most composers succumbed to a tidal wave of atonal music which is difficult to appreciate for many people. This had become such a major trend that it was very difficult to find anybody doing anything else and consequently, if you can't appreciate atonal music, you would have had serious difficulties finding anything that you might like. Well, with the exception of film music perhaps.

However, this trend seems to have already passed its zenith and many composers have been moving away from atonal music, also perhaps newer arrivals who never went atonal in the first place. There is far more variety out there now. Among that re-emerging variety there should be something interesting for most folks, even those who don't like atonal music. It is still difficult to find though, takes a bit of an effort. But when you do find something you like it is usually worth having made the effort to go looking for it.

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