Do you like playing modern music?

June 13, 2023, 7:17 PM · I played in a local orchestra on and off where the focus was on playing or premiering at least one piece per concert. Some of the pieces were beautiful, some were just not.

While some of the pieces I'd have loved to be an audience member, I have to admit that I really didn't enjoy playing any of them as a musician. One piece, for example, the first violin part was whole note A on the G-string, except 3 half notes randomly inserted throughout the piece, so I still had to count. It wasn't fun to play. It hurt physically to hold my arm up that long. Another was a significant number of artificial harmonics and other weird tonal effects, played at ppp, which were very hard to execute. Odd keys, odd time signatures, no connection with what I'm playing to what other sections play. Overly explicit instructions (e.g. softly, as if hesitant about what to play, but not unconfident, with a touch of whimsy totally grounded in life experience) that made me feel overly directed.

I feel like playing new pieces is like sitting on an uncomfortable bench, waiting for the bus to come, and it never does. I never felt connected to the music like I do when I play the more traditional pieces.

Everyone's experiences are their own, and I wonder what are your experiences playing new pieces?

Replies (30)

June 13, 2023, 8:22 PM · I'm a composer by training and profession, and I think you are entirely justified in your issues with contemporary music. Though my colleagues would be loathe to admit it, there is absolutely a conventional modernist agenda in the entire discipline where the boundaries are pushed, and things should be intense and complex, at the expense of nearly anything else. Why can't a composer write something comfortable to play that is satisfying? Of course, you can. I try to do that, but I will never be important in the contemporary music world, and after a few decades of trying to open that door, I gave up. Plenty of other opportunities outside that world. When I once mentioned in a group of composers that I thought that complexity was easy, but simplicity was difficult, they thought I was from another planet. I might be. I like beauty, clarity, connections to music traditions other than post-WW2-international plink-plunk style, and I'm drawn to music that moves sensitive, intelligent people who love music, not necessarily scholars. I try to make work that is satisfying for a musician to play, but honestly... hot shot players in the new music world are all about their fabulous technique, and they aren't so interested in music that doesn't push them. It's great to have intense study, but...

Sometimes I think new music is like a restaurant that specializes in food using petroleum products. It's innovative! No one has done it before! They got a Guggenheim to do it! It tastes awful! But it's so interesting!

Edited: June 14, 2023, 8:38 AM · I have enjoyed very much playing pieces by the following composers:

John Adams
Joan Tower
Jessie Montgomery
Behzad Ranjbaran
Jennifer Higdon

And quite a few others whose names are escaping me right now. I hope to edit to add names later.

These composers don’t resort to gimmicks.

June 13, 2023, 8:59 PM · I guess I'm and "older soul" because I have not enjoyed playing modern music very much (there are exceptions) - even that composed by our late oboe player, a retired research endocrinologist, who also composed music for various ensembles - including ours.

Give me 18th and 19th century music any day - my failing that I acknowledge.

June 14, 2023, 1:15 AM · Not all new music is that awful. About 40 years ago I was playing in a small chamber orchestra (strings only) whose conductor* was a composer. Naturally he had us play some of this music. One piece was called "Bach and I", based on motives from Bach's d-minor piano/harpsichord concerto and conceived as a piece to be played immediately before this concerto. It was essentially neo-baroque and it was fun to play. It also could survive the direct confrontation with the old master's concerto.

* His name is Mario Beretta in case anyone knows him.

June 14, 2023, 1:30 AM · I do like contemporary music, but I like it to be tonal and accessible. I'd really like the opportunity to play more film scores.

I have, for instance, enjoyed the Michael Daugherty works I've played. My orchestra did a Jessie Montgomery work recently, which I can't say that I enjoyed playing, but which I did find interesting.

June 14, 2023, 3:51 AM · No
Edited: June 14, 2023, 3:55 AM · That of course is a foolish generalization but the truth is I've hardly played any music from the 21st century and don't feel drawn to any that I've heard.
June 14, 2023, 7:39 AM · If I were handed that part with the same whole note for the whole piece I would have staged a revolt -- armed with well-rosined violin bows! Seriously my section would never have tolerated that.

A cellist might say "now you know what it's like for us all the time."

My daughter played in "all state" orchestra (cello, Virginia) and they did "Blue Cathedral" by Jennifer Higdon, which I thought was amazing, and the kids enjoyed playing it.

Edited: June 14, 2023, 12:36 PM · The OP is certainly not alone in finding some contemporary music not enjoyable to play. Julia Buskova has a video in which she addresses composers who want to compose for violin. I wouldn't recommend anyone on this site watch all 20-some minutes of the video because she spends a lot of time describing things we all know (range of pitches; projection of sound on different strings, preferred keys, etc.), but at the beginning she says she is making the video to help composers ensure their music is not so difficult and awkward that it will never become widely-played, which she claims is a problem:
I agree with Lydia about the Jesse Montgomery piece (we are referring to the same work). I didn't like playing it, although I would like to listen to a pro orchestra play it.

June 14, 2023, 9:13 PM · No.
Edited: June 15, 2023, 12:16 AM · If it’s atonal, no thank you!
June 15, 2023, 7:49 AM · Walton, Shostakovich, Tippett, etc are all modern. So is early Webern, which can be really beautiful.
Edited: June 15, 2023, 1:17 PM · Not usually. I had a life-time quota of playing the avant-garde when I was much younger, at UC San Diego. The ratio of technical difficulty/ to music quality is usually too high. For every previous music era the majority of pieces are mediocre, but at least pleasant. For some modern composers, the dissonant styles are an excuse to not master theory.
June 15, 2023, 11:38 AM · It's growing on me. My violin teacher is a member of a new music ensemble based in NYC. This piece was written for her and I was able to meet the composer last weekend. I find this slow movement checks a lot of boxes.

Edited: June 15, 2023, 12:11 PM · Hey Joel Quivey! When were you there at UCSD? I got my MA there 1988-1990, and yeah... they pushed my limit. I remember an "improvisation" course, where all the other grad students were squeaking and squawking in the typical new-music mode. As someone who has learned several improvisational traditions, I began playing in Makam hiçaz, and this famous guy teaching comes over and kinda yelled at me--"Don't do that! BE CREATIVE!!" OK, so I started some blues... He doubles down--"I SAID, BE CREATIVE!!" I just started sawing on my open G string, and he stormed off. They are of course oblivious to the very clear conventions of their own style, thinking that they are "free!" Yeah, right. As a composer who mostly stays with a mode and a tone center (or three) in my work, you can imagine how it went for me, though I sure learned a lot while there. I do disagree with "dissonance = not mastering theory." Most composers I know who write that stuff have serious theory chops. But the problem is that composers who are fundamentally artists by nature, finding their own aesthetic, are pushed to focus on measurable, explainable-with-pretend-sciency/math approaches, and even though I nailed all the theory stuff, it was meaningless (mostly) to my work, except to encourage close attention to detail (I guess). Supposedly it's passé to seek beauty, but screw that--beauty is why I play music. But the people who gravitate towards that sort of faux-complex approach, who network, and schmooze with others like them--they get advanced. There is a lot of eating the recipe instead of the dinner. And very little nourishment.
Edited: June 15, 2023, 12:39 PM · To a first approximation, modern music can be divided into "anti" and "neo" categories. Hindemith imagined himself the reincarnation of Bach. Shostakovitch string quartets seem (to my eyes and ears) closely modeled after Beethoven (can you blame him?)
June 15, 2023, 1:29 PM · @-Paul S. I was at UCSD 1967-69. The Muir college music department was brand new. The emphasis was on electronics and new music. Composers in residence were Harry Partch and Pauline Oliveros. After switching from a Math/Science major to Music major, i wanted to have a more conventional music education, and a violin teacher, so I transferred to UCLA. Back then it was easy to do that. And I remember paying tuition out of my own funds, $250/ quarter!
Edited: June 15, 2023, 3:30 PM · Never thought about it. How do you define modern? Some Stockhausen I like, but I'd probably hate playing one of his scores. As to "free" improvisation, I did some of that on the oboe with the London Musicians Collective with Max Eastley and David Toop among others in 1978. Mneugh. All that stuff sounds the same and always will. I love Lol Coxhill, but when he starts free improv, I turn off. Sun Ra can be more exciting. At the moment on the fiddle Hindemith is modern enough for me. He's OK once you've worked out a fingering that makes the accidentals fall under the fingers. I'd probably fall asleep playing Glass or Paart, but people had the same problem with Pachelbel and Marin Marais. In an orchestra I can use the harmonies to govern my intonation, but when there are none, I'd probably flounder badly.
June 15, 2023, 4:00 PM · When people talk about *modern* music, they often mean *modernist* music. Person X who might complain about Babbitt, Boulez, or Wuorinen might also love Barber, Copland, or Bernstein...and they were all alive and writing music more or less at the same time.
June 15, 2023, 4:06 PM · "Do you like playing modern music?" - it is as easy to answer as "do you like food?"
I have played - and sung - my fair share of contemporary music. I liked some of it and probably a larger fraction of the choir music than the orchestra music.
In my youth I played in an amateur orchestra that always wanted to play with the big name conductors who were chief conductors of one of the professional orchestras in town. One of these conductors was also a composer so a condition for getting him was that we performed one of his works. A lot of it was of the type "play the notes between these brackets in any tempo you want - just not the same tempo as anyone else - as many times you can until I show that it is time to move to the next bracket". And in the meantime the second violins would be tearing newspapers and the cellos clapping the instruments. I thought it was utter nonsence! But I have also played and sung some really wonderful modern music.
June 15, 2023, 9:12 PM · Totally agree with Nate Robinson!
June 16, 2023, 12:17 AM · The word "modern" is open to a great many interpretations. I took the OP's meaning from her third paragraph - "new pieces". Among contemporary composers there seems to be an increasing tendency to adopt a "retro" style, presumably in order to please audiences who may not be hugely knowledgeable but know the "kind of thing" they like. This I regard as a low trick that could be left to AI!
June 16, 2023, 2:11 AM · I forget what I was listening to, but my mother asked me "is that what you call modern music?" and I replied "It was written before you were born"
June 16, 2023, 5:18 AM · 'Modern' music comes in many different flavours, some of them accessible, and others not so accessible,especially if your preference is for tonal music. I joined a learner orchestra in London 30 years ago. The repertoire was mixed - 'Classical', folk, compositions by members of the orchestra, and 'Modern'/'Contemporary' music. As we worked through works by Lutoslawski, Berio, and other modernists, many of us came to appreciate it and even enjoy playing it. It's not all squeaky gates, barbed wire and vinegar.
June 16, 2023, 9:30 AM · Apologies All - I didn't use precise terminology. I should have said contemporary, as in written in the past 10-20 years.
June 16, 2023, 11:15 AM · I play mostly trad fiddle, Irish style, probably not good enough to plaY anything classical to be brutally honest, admire those who can play it, but my intonation forinstance in higher positions especially is iffy at best. Probably would be quite amusing for the audience actually if I was plonked in the first fiddle chair playing some modern piece, very les dawsonish
June 16, 2023, 1:18 PM · New music is really a mixed bag; it's important to remember that we haven't had time to forget the bad stuff yet. I've played new pieces that I've loved (yes, including atonal ones) and new pieces that I've hated. But overall I've enjoyed the experience.

I've seen two trends in new music I've played, both of which I think contribute to Steve's sense that composers are adopting a "retro" style.

One has been eclecticism: I'm not aware of any big new movements in contemporary music since New Complexity in the 80s and 90s, but what we're seeing instead is composers taking whatever elements they need out of existing styles. That's a good thing, I think. The big complaint I've had about a lot of 20th century avant-garde music is that it can be gimmicky, doing unconventional stuff for its own sake. When a composer is actually treating modernist techniques as a toolbox for musical expression rather than as a demonstration of concept, it makes more sense to me.

The other trend has been the resurgence of something like musical nationalism, but with more non-European countries and indigenous cultures represented, and more personal in character rather than attempts to create any kind of national style of music. What we see more of is composers with multicultural backgrounds drawing from all of the cultures that have shaped them.

Edited: June 16, 2023, 7:47 PM · @Gordon I had a lab-tech job in the summer of 85 in Detroit. I worked with one other guy (Sam) in a QC lab testing water-based metalworking compounds before they went into drums. They needed me because their regular technician went on maternity leave. The boss (Matt) was the kind of guy who thought "Danke Schoen" sung by Wayne Newton was the pinnacle of Western culture.

One day we had one of the public radio stations (WDET or WEMU) playing jazz in the lab, and Matt strolls in, and the result was a conversation I'll never forget.

Matt: What's that? It sounds like Japanese music.
Sam: That's modern jazz!
Matt: It's ruining America.

And then he went over and changed the radio to an AM news station. Fortunately Matt did not come into the lab very often. The company site is now a wasteland of abandoned concrete slabs and other industrial decrepitude. The land had Superfund status for a while.

June 20, 2023, 9:12 AM · It’s 1994, and the Emerson Quartet has just finished a concert featuring the Ravel and Debussy quartets in the tent at the Aspen music festival. An older couple are seated behind me; they are wearing matching white jumpsuits. Shaking his head, one says, “I don’t get this modern music.”
June 20, 2023, 4:44 PM · I wonder what they’d have to say about today’s move away from ‘Eurocentric’ programming.

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