Are Contemporary Composers Just Spinning Their Musical Wheels?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - 10:32 AM

As I was prepping my radio show this morning, I noticed a quote from Pierre Boulez about Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. He said "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music" citing the creation of the piece as a pivotal moment in the history of music. That pivotal moment in the history of music took place 107 years ago.

One-hundred-seven years aside, I love the sound of Boulez’s words. They speak right to the heart of a question that’s been on my mind recently: Is it important to keep creating new music? After all, there’s a lot of old music out there – centuries and centuries of it, in fact – so why not work on making good with that and forget about creating anything new? Is there really new breath to breathe into the art of music or are today's composers just spinning their musical wheels?   

The subject has been on my mind because 1) New York City Opera has just announced the casting of its 12th Annual VOX Contemporary Opera Lab and 2) I recently hosted the 10th annual From Page to Stage: New American Opera Previews at the Manhattan School of Music.

Each year at Manhattan School – after performances of excerpts from several "operas in progress" – the performers and the creative teams gather on the stage for a panel discussion. We talk about the creative process, the effect on the performers and why it’s important to continue to this challenging work.

This year – more than ever before, perhaps – I was impressed by the passion and commitment that the artists bring to their work. They talked about the importance of keeping the art of music alive by working together to create new listening experiences, nourishing our collective spirit as human beings and the need to bring meaning to the experience we share on earth.

Conductor/pianist Mara Waldman has participated in New American Opera Previews for each of the ten years of its existence. This year I found her comments particularly moving. “We need this art form, as proven by its hundreds of years of existence, to remind us of our humanity,” she explained, “…to heighten our understanding of life, to thrill us, move us and ultimately to enlighten us…We need 'new' opera…. to reveal us to ourselves as our lives and our society evolves. New music is the voice of people, through the gift of the composer, that enables us to sing in ways we never knew we could.”

Mara and the others on stage proved to me that when you consult the artists, the answer is very clear: new music definitely has the power to breathe new life into the art of music in ways that are not possible otherwise. 

But what about the audience?

Listeners continue to have mixed reactions to “new music.” It's a well known fact that it’s extremely difficult to attract an audience for contemporary opera. And, as far as “new music” and WQXR is concerned, there are some who feel that “new music” doesn’t belong on this station – period! To make matters more difficult, these naysayers often include – even though they are far from “new” – many of the most important composers of the 20th century on their lists of “least preferred.” The likes of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg and Poulenc are persona non grata with some of our most loyal classical music consumers.

Igor Stravinsky has been gone for 40 years. The others have been gone much longer. So, when does “new” become “old” in the world of classical music? Is a century a long enough wait? Or -- given the dwindling amount of exposure we are given to classical music these days, is it unrealistic to imagine that the average listener will develop an ear for new sounds in his/her lifetime?

You know where I’m going with this. It’s an important topic and I’d like to know what you think when you have a minute. 

And, thanks!


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Comments [40]

Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

glorii osjky zero! I never thought that my comments on communication and emotional response would be picked up by Michael Meltzer.
I grew up in America's heartland-Kansas and Missouri. Mama was church organist and choir director, so I knew mostly religious music which plays on the emotions and tells a story. With a voice teacher in Kansas City I learned some arias and some opera duets. In Jr. and Sr. High the schools were invited to student programs at the K.C. Philharmonic. Does the NYC Phil. do this today?
In my early 20's I went to NYC, married a B'Way dancer and we raised 4 children in New Jersey.
so my music background is varied but not spectacular. I only know what I like, what speaks to me.

Jun. 01 2011 09:07 PM


While the minimalist guys you mentioned do get a lot of streaming time, they are certainly no longer the leading of New Music. I do think that their success and acceptance is reason enough for their continued presence here.

But, and especially with Q2, there is so much more to New Music, groups like ICE, ACME, yMusic, So Percussion, Ethel, istnotmeitsyou, eighth blackbird, Todd Reynolds' group, Voltaire (Sarah Kirkland Snyder's group), everyone at New Amsterdam Records, Innova, Bang On A Can.

There is plenty to pick from, artists to support by purchasing their music.

And, you know, there is no other venue for this music like Q2.

May. 31 2011 10:15 AM

I cannot get to like the music of John Adams, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich (the sweetest of that group) and the other minimalists.
They should be called the repetitivists. Like they are driving on a highway where the road is moving backwards as fast as they are driving - so, moving no-where.

(Fugghetabout Arvo Paart and his ilk - I don't what that music could be called. - Another time -).

Much much very better is Sebastian Currier (violin works for Sophie Mutter), Elliot Carter (dancing on American soil while contemplating European poetry and philosophy). I was at the premier of his 2nd Quartet - sitting right behind Charles Wourinen - It burst forth like a great wind of fresh air (American) and then developed in an unusual Euro-American way. It blew us all some light years back.

Why we accept modern painting sooner than modern music. That's another discussion for another time.

May. 31 2011 01:26 AM
Ken Thompson from NYC

Thank goodness, the day is waning for composers so intellectual that they seem contemptuous of audiences. There is no reason why new music cannot be pleasing to the ear as well as modern. Check out the gorgeous choral works by Jenkins, Whitacre and Lauridsen, and electifying orchestral compositions by Dorman, Kancheli, Bacri and Rautavaara, to name just a very few. I believe we experiencing a new golden age in music, both from composers and from performers. WQXR should add some of this delightful new music to its mix.

May. 25 2011 04:59 PM
Elena Saavedra Buckley


I'm happy that you support new music--but how can you be supporting it if you block it with a preempted opinion that it "is very, very seldom any good"? If we just put up these road blocks that we establish after hearing sections of the modern repertoire (and the "mathematicians" and "engineers" are definitely only just a section) , than it's almost impossible to accept anything that will come out tomorrow. If you think that new music will save classical music for future audiences, which I agree with, I hope that you can see that we need to keep open minds for it to go anywhere.

May. 23 2011 12:50 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Today is May 22nd is Wagner's birthday, and, surprise, surprise, the world has not ended, a la Wagner's Gotterdammereung. Parents and primary schools, from kindergarten on, should inculcate in their young the values of previous cultures and accept and hear the new. Hans Sachs, the original Nuremberg poet exraordinaire, in that role in Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger the historical Hans Sachs, Nuremberg's poet cobbler extraordinaire, in the operatic role of Hans Sachs asserts that respect is due to the old masters and unprejudiced hearings should hear the new, some who might become masters. Franz Liszt, Jan Paderewski, Paganini and Rachmaninoff were outstanding solo performers on the piano or the violin of their own compositions as well as those of other composers. No one should question the Verdi, Donizetti, Puccini, Mozart, Richard Strauss and Beethoven landmark deserved dominance in the world of opera. Yet opera's unquestioned Golden Age of WAGNER Performance was the Melchior, Flagstad, Schorr, Kipnis and Branzell "team."

May. 22 2011 12:02 PM

violinhunter -

That which we today consider "classical" as in older and established is but the very tip of the iceberg of the mountainous pile of music which has been written and - mostly - forgotten. What you say about "New Music" is true but not new.

May. 17 2011 11:58 PM

I am 100% for new music - new music will actually save classical music for future audiences. HOWEVER, new music is very, very seldom any good. How does anyone know when something is good? If you can do without EVER hearing it again, you know it's not good. Composers nowadays are more akin to mathematicians and engineers - certainly not musicians.

May. 17 2011 09:41 PM
james freeman

While there is also always a need for good new music, Old music must be played well to be enjoyable. I just heard Gardiner's rendition of Chabrier's "Habanera", and while it was accurately played, it was also, unfortunately, from my perspective, dead lifeless.(I am aware that that's redundant, but it emphasizes my point.) It merely serves to accent my general idea, old or new, it MUST be well played, with feeling appropriate to the music.

May. 09 2011 06:09 PM

As discussed, I want to share a quote from Elena’s blog. In discussing my post, she posted the following on her site:

‘… know that I am listening to music that has been residing on sheets of paper for hundreds of years makes it seem more special and wise, like owning a home run ball hit by Babe Ruth versus Ichiro or stepping into the house of Elvis versus watching an episode of MTV’s “Cribs.” Modern music is sometimes loved the moment the notes fly off the page and sometimes is met with scrunched faces. Either way, the timeline of music needs to be consistently built, not stopped in its tracks. If we created music that was identical in form and emotion to pieces written centuries ago, that style would lose its intimacy and importance in our archives of art.’

I didn’t want to lose sight of Elena’s thoughts altogether by having them live somewhere else on the web. I enjoyed hearing what she had to say.

I enjoyed hearing what you had to say, too.

Thanks again!


May. 04 2011 05:30 PM
Elena Saavedra Buckley

Richard, I'm glad you liked it!

May. 03 2011 09:33 PM

Frank Feldman -
There is some very approachable Philip Glass, from "Glass Works' and Glass Pieces". They would do fine at 105.9.

May. 03 2011 03:22 PM

Elena Saavedra Buckley -

I read your post at your blog. Great post!!

May. 03 2011 03:21 PM
Elena Saavedra Buckley


Sure! Thanks for asking, that would be fine.


May. 03 2011 02:36 PM
Michael Meltzer

Before this site disappears, one last thought:
Instead of trying to find a formula for including new music, and if it's really been found that late night is the best time to do that (?), just put the selection in the hands of people we generally trust, namely, reasonably well-known and perhaps retired or semi-retired performers who have been both successful in pleasing audiences and known to be eclectic in their own repertoire.
Historically, the most important example was WQXR's own Abram Chasins, pianist, composer and long-time program director.
That way, we get knowledgable selection by someone who senses what moves an audience. It can be a different former player for each night of the week, to ensure a broad perspective.

May. 03 2011 02:31 PM

Elena -

I enjoyed reading your post very much. Thank you for alerting me to it. May I include an excerpt here on the WQXR blog?


May. 03 2011 10:51 AM
Frank Feldman

I'm all for sneaking in an adventurous piece or two during the overnight. (I love when Nimet says "See what you think!") But no Phillip Glass. Please don't insult us like that. Please, I beg you.

May. 02 2011 11:21 PM
Elena Saavedra Buckley

Hi Midge--I actually wrote a blog post about your piece:

I hope that it encompasses my thoughts without straying from your original idea. Thanks for writing this, even if I don't agree with it.


May. 02 2011 08:11 PM
Richard Hall from Monmouth Cty, NJ

When you have the only full-time classical music station in a market like NY metro area, what to play is certainly a problem. Many of us remember the WNCN of the late 1960s where "classical" basically meant the classical period and we learned to love the sound of that century. Learning to love the sound of the 20th century is not, for us, so easy. Perhaps the solution is to survey the paying customers and play what they like. That's what they've been doing on WNYC since it turned into a "news and information station."

May. 02 2011 11:30 AM

Glad to have the better understanding.

This sort of exchange points up the need for real forums at New York Public Radio in all of its four formats. In real forums, interchanges of ideas can flow so much more freely.

One forum is sufficient, with a section for each:105.9, Q2, The GreeneSpace, WNYC. In each there might be generalized preset topics (e.g., for 105.9 there might be: symphonic music, opera, chamber music, etc.) and members could then start threads in those topics, with reply notification. I was working with Brad Cresswell on this for the WNYC web site, just as an interested listener. But it did not happen and then Brad disappeared back to, what? Ohio?

Right now, the best thing we have to see replies is the RSS feed feature, and hey, this is not chopped liver, it is very valuable.

I know that real forums often need moderation. But NYPR's web depth is so great, I would think it would be little more than incremental, and a vast improvement over what we have.

Apr. 29 2011 12:44 PM

Dear Richard -

Thank you for taking the time to rethink your position regarding my post. All of us here at the station stand behind Q2 -- 100%! Q2 is an extremely important part of what we are today as a station.

My goal with the post was to provoke a thoughtful conversation about new music and to gather some interesting ideas about how to present more of it on WQXR in the most appealing way possible. If I misled you with the title, it is I who should apologize. Bottom line - I still was very pleased with the conversation.

I am impressed by your enthusiasm for Q2 and all things 'new'. Keep listening, for sure!


Apr. 29 2011 09:57 AM

So, Ms Woolsey, maybe I misinterpreted what you were doing? You sounded so sincere. I was pretty strident in my remarks. I went to Seq21, New Am, Innova, looking to start up some replies to your blog post. No on responded. I assumed that many of the artists were intimidated by their need for and reliance on Q2. But, maybe they realized what you were doing and maybe I was way off base.

I am an ardent supporter of New Music, which is evident on my MusicSprings blog. I follow Q2, New Am, Cantaloupe, & Innova along with some Jzz labels and ECM.

If I owe you an apology, I sincerely apologize. But New Music owes no apologies, and these days, it does not fall on deaf ears.

Apr. 28 2011 11:02 PM
Michael Meltzer

Ms. Lewis' expectations are perfectly justifiable, but toward that end, curiosity is much more useful than pre-judgment.

Apr. 28 2011 06:10 PM
Pamela Lewis from Elmhurst, Queens

When their music can move my soul like Mahler's achingly beautiful "Adagietto," can thrill me like Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," touch both my heart and mind as does a Bach fugue, and make me hear America as does Copeland's "Appalachian Spring," then I will stop thinking that contemporary composers are just spinning their wheels.

Apr. 27 2011 10:15 PM

My thanks to all of you who have participated in this conversation thus far. I find that one of the best things about blogging is how much I learn from you - every day!


P.S. Richard - I read the Sequenza21 post. I thought it was terrific!

Apr. 27 2011 02:36 PM

Bravo M.M.!

Apr. 26 2011 10:35 PM
Michael Meltzer

As humans, we seem to be hard-wired both to create and to communicate. The joy of giving birth carries into everything we are, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. We have evolved to share our ingenuity, to transform chaos into a world that reflects and suits us. So, the question posed is academic, creation of the new will never stop, it is as natural to us as breathing.
The recording industry and the modern university have provided us with an unprecedented wealth of good music, over 400 years worth of what history has edited as ostensibly, "the best." To a modern composer, the judgment of the quality his or her work against that huge firmament must be daunting, as must be the logistics of simply attracting some listening attention.
The variety that continues to unfold shouldn't be a threat to anyone, it only demonstrates how broad the compass is of possible human understanding and experience. That's a compliment to us as a race.
Mara Waldman's perspective on relevance to our lives is very wise, and I know Mara long enough to know that her observations come from direct experience, they are not platitudes.
I think Phyllis Sharpe's comment about communication and emotional response is central to any new music's finding it's way into the permanent repertoire. If something really moves us, we want to hear it again. If it's not on the radio every other day, we have to go out and buy it. We play it for our friends, and if it moves them, the steps are repeated and the work multiplies its presence and its influence. There is a great deal of new music that is interesting to hear, but does not draw us back for a second visit. That's always been true, throughout history.
There always has been a part of the public that has no patience with the new, but cumulative audience ignorance, resulting from cutting budgets for music education from the 1970's on, has added to current audience confusion in the face of what should otherwise be a welcome proliferation of healthy variety. Music is a non-verbal language, and language learning needs to begin early to be natural and well-internalized. Education MUST be resumed.

Apr. 24 2011 05:24 AM

Everyone who read here, including Ms Woolsey I hope, should read this post at Sequenza 21:

Apr. 22 2011 11:19 PM

Did you happen to visit the Greene Space during TroutWeek?

Apr. 22 2011 03:42 PM

A few items I forgot:
Kronos Quartet

Prism Quartet

American Music Center with New Music Box blog and Counterstream on

American Composers Forum with Innova Recordings and five streams at

Bedroom Community
John Adams
John Luther Adams
Philip Glass
Steve Reich
Nico Muhly
Steven Mackey
Maya Beiser
Michael Gordon
David Lang
Julia Wolfe
Todd Reynolds
Robert Moran
Ann Millikan
Jacob TV
David Del Tredici
William Britelle
Ted Hearne
Nadia Sirota
Sarah Kirkland Snyder
So Percussion
Tristan Perich
Glenn Branca
Gavin Bryars
Annie Gosfield
Tod Machover
Toby Twining
Evan Ziporyn
Iva Bittova
Paul Lansky

Cantaloupe Records
New Amsterdam Records

John Schaefer's "New Sounds"

Sequenza 21

Alex Ross

Just highlights from my own collection and sources.

Apr. 22 2011 03:28 PM

I forgot- talk to John Schaefer.

Apr. 21 2011 10:56 PM

I cannot believe that you are even asking this question.

Do you follow the incredible vibrancy of Q2? Do you realize that it is only a reflection of what is happening? With Bang On A Can? eighth blackbird? yMusic? ACME? Ethel? Jack Quartet? Victoire?

I mean, come on. It is the Philadelphia Orchestra that is bankrupt. Talk to Alan Gilbert about "Contact!", a contemporary project, one among many. Reflect on what Esa-Pekka Salonen did in L.A.

Geez - just talk to Nadia.

Apr. 21 2011 10:52 PM
Joel Demnitz from Hackettstown, NJ

Many of the earlier classical composers were inspired by the Holy Spirit. That was the fountain of their beauty and meaningfullness. Perhaps there is a correlation between our drifting from this fountain and the quality of our compositions. Perhaps we need to plug in again in order to regain that glory.

Apr. 21 2011 06:35 PM
Frank Feldman

Spinning one's wheels implies one possesses wheels to begin with. A Richard Strauss could spin his wheels when he was bored or uninspired, i.e., crank out reasonable, well-crafted music. Who are we proposing has wheels that large amongst contemporary musicians? There's no coherent language from which composers might draw, and the big talents all migrate to film anyway, where their creativity is put to good use.

Apr. 21 2011 06:24 PM
Paul Gambill from Montpelier, VT

I love Harry's comment. Let's stop building walls around the different styles of music that orchestras perform. When orchestras begin creating programs that lead audiences to celebrate the relationships between new and traditional music, or between classical, pop, world, jazz and folk music, I'm certain that the demand for and perceived value of new music will grow.

Apr. 21 2011 11:57 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I think that some new composers try too hard to make a name for themselves by creating music that is so avant garde and over the top. It's like a child craving attention, so he knocks over your favorite lamp.

Passion and devotion do not necessarily make for good composition. Anyone can be passionate and devoted and still be a talentless boor.

Some of the new pieces I have heard are such an assault to the ears, they should be a sound track for Friday The 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street.

Contrast a work done with bits of metal from a scrap yard against a piece done by a new composer such as Eric Whiteacre.

Granted, they are both very different genres but while one randomly crashes in its "newness", the other flows.

Apr. 21 2011 10:12 AM
Harry Matthews from Brooklyn, NY

I have a serious problem with any effort to separate "new" music from "old" music, on the assumption that some cataclysmic incident suddenly made music unlistenable. There is, frankly, no such dichotomy. I have a friend, a long-time WQXR listener of conservative tastes, who admits to liking Gershwin (1898-1937), Copland (1900-1990), Bernstein (1919-1990), and even many works by John Adams (b. 1947). The Met Opera, which needs to fill nearly 5,000 seats at each performance, has produced two of Adams's operas -- one actually composed in the 21st century -- to great critical and popular success. Readers should follow the Q2 link in your blog to see the amazing diversity of "new music" today.

To be sure, there are some composers who get so involved in their analytic approach that a piece is more involving in its concept than in its performance. (The Museum of Modern Art even collects John Cage scores as visual art.) It's also true (as Justin Davidson recently argued in NEW YORK magazine) than the "anything goes" atmosphere leads to a lot of amorphous music. Like him, I've heard a lot of gorgeous, inventive tone poems that didn't really go anywhere. It seems to be the rock/jazz/theatre/cabaret end of the spectrum that's creating emotionally compelling works. The mad scenes in NEXT TO NORMAL can certainly hold their own with any of the bel canto war horses -- not that I expect to hear Alice Ripley on WQXR anytime soon!

My point is simple: Duke Ellington got it right. "If it sounds good, it is good." Drawing artificial boundaries around music -- or any other art -- simply discourages creativity and deprives us all of the joy of discovery.

Apr. 21 2011 12:16 AM
Phyllis Sharpe

So much new music, at least on WQXR, is too brief to communicate more than one thing. I happen to like music that tells me a story or communicates something leading to an emotional response. And yes I think Ives was before his time, but he communicated his time, with the exception of Variations on America, which is a history lesson from the landing on Plymouth to the Industrial Revolution. But I think it is important right now to expand our acceptance of new music, especially by American composers, and including So. American composers who are not new except to us. I thank WQXR for that.

Apr. 20 2011 06:10 PM
gregg Kreutz from New York City

. Music jumped the tracks around the same time that painting derailed; say 1910. Like painting, music tossed coherence aside in favor of edginess. That had dynamic impact in 1910 because it was exciting to pit such radicalism against the familiar. Now, with traditional composing skill virtually banished, the contrast excitement has faded off and all we're left with is dissonance..

Apr. 20 2011 03:16 PM
Orc Kahn from New York, NY

It's difficult to comment concisely on a blog post that is itself so short-sided, illogical and depressing.

This article is bewildering on many levels, the most basic, of course, being that such its flimsy stab at the value of new music is 1) based mainly on the aesthetic values of a largely passive and certainly conservative WQXR audience, and 2) is contradicted by its own reportage from the New American Opera Preview, which is as good an illustration as any of new music's necessity!

This is to say nothing of the absolutely outrageous questioning of new art's value to contemporary culture, which, to fully express to someone whose concept of "new music" begins and ends with Debussy, would require space and verbal effort far beyond the scope of this comment box.

Perhaps part of the problem for "new music audiences" is that they're confronted with a type of dogmatic skepticism that text like this, instead of counteracting or educating, perpetuates.

Apr. 20 2011 12:58 PM

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