When Does "New Music" Stop Being New?

Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 12:00 AM

This past weekend, I performed a wonderful 19-year-old piece: Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine, by Aaron Jay Kernis, on a program that also included "Four Seasons" compositions by Antonio Vivaldi and Astor Piazzolla.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the Kernis, and love it, but it was clearly not as immediately accessible as the Piazzolla to audience members hearing them both for the first time (never mind the Vivaldi for the 1,000th). A recent Zankel Hall concert celebrating Yale University’s Oral History of American Music included a piece by Charles Ives that was over 100 years old, but sounded like it was written yesterday. The sleeper hit on that program was Third Construction by John Cage--a swinging number for four percussionists that delighted and amazed anyone who was expecting the musical equivalent of cod liver oil.  

So many works that are now in the standard repertoire were once considered so “out there” that musicians refused to play them and audiences refused to listen. How ready, willing and able are you to accept music you’ve never heard before? What pleasant musical surprises have you had in the concert hall--or on the radio?  

-- from "Modern Music," by William Billings (1746-1800):

We are met for a Concert of modern Invention;
To tickle the Ear is our present Intention.
The Audience are seated
Expecting to be treated
With a piece of the Best,
And now we address you as Friends to the Cause;
Performers are modest and write their own Laws.
Altho’ we are sanguine and clap at the Bars,
’Tis the part of the Hearers to clap their Applause,
With a piece of the Best.

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Comments [10]

alan from NYC

It's interesting that Naomi Lewin mentions hearing a "wonderful 19-year-old piece" by Aaron Jay Kernis on a program with a work by Piazzolla and says that the Kernis was not as "immediately accessible" to audience members hearing both for the first time. Immediately accessible is not the criterion of whether a piece is good. But if the Kernis piece is so good, how is it possible in this age of instantaneous communication that there were audience members (probably the vast majority, maybe all) who were hearing it for the first time? It's worth recalling that Beethoven said that all of his music came from his heart and was sent to the hearts of listeners. No matter what mastery the composer has over the elements of music, if the work produced is arid, an intellectual desert that doesn't reach the heart of the listener, it will never be well-received by the public. This is true of Kernis and just about every other composer today. There is no significant, human, personal emotional content to convey to the listener. Terrance M. whom I think is a very good program host has said it's important to encourage the evolution of music. But one thing about music does not change and is true of all the great music of the past as well as the popular music of the present-music must contain an emotional content that moves the hearts and souls and passions of listeners. It's a rarely occuring talent in the history of classical music and without it, composers and their supporters are just deluding themselves into believing that their work has any value. That seems to be the current state of affairs and that of much of the 20th century.

Apr. 28 2010 08:15 PM

Oops!! The list was for Alan. Sorry, Harry.

Apr. 26 2010 08:28 PM

Hip Hip Hooray for Harry from Brooklyn.

You said it, brother.

Apr. 26 2010 08:26 PM

Here is a list for Harry- Just some high spots since 1950.

Aaron Copland- Piano Quartet, Tender Land, Piano Fantasy

Alan Hovhannes - Janabar, Mysterious Mountain, Shambala,

Elliot Carter - Double Concerto for Harpsichord & Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras

John Adams - Harmonielehre, Grand Pianola Music, Violin Concerto, and the new City Noir

Michael Gordon - Decasia

Robert Moran Stimmen Des Letzten Siegels

Henryk Gorecki - Miserere

Leonard Bernstein - Symphonies 1,2, 3

Mark O'Connor - The Fiddle Concerto

Edgar Meyer - Violin Concerto (For Hilary Hahn)

Ingram Marshall - Orphic Memories

Sonny Rollins - Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra (only available in the DVD "Saxophone Colossus")

Philip Glass -m The Qatsi Trilogy, Symphonies 1-8, Violin Concerto

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians, The Desert Music, Drumming, New York Counterpoint, City Life, Electric Counterpoint

Apr. 26 2010 08:22 PM
alan from NYC

I have been listening to classical music for 35 years and regard myself as a sophisticated listener, but can't think of a single piece of music composed in that time that I wanted to hear again. Nor has much music composed in the past 60 years been heard more than once or even deserve to be performed a second time. A Hindemith symphony was performed by the NY Phil. recently for only the second time in 44 years!

The vast majority of classical music listeners regard the Adams, Reichs, Glass etc. as lacking in any real music talent. Only the lowering of music standards allows them to attain a status they don't deserve. Other forms of music must please their audiences in order to achieve commercial success. Only in the case of serious classical music are works foisted on a public that doesn't want them and won't support them commercially. They are forced on the public by music directors and orchestras that want something new to play, however bad, critics who want something new to criticize and radio stations that want to appear to be enlightened. If any composer today had real musical talent and ability to touch our hearts and souls and give us emotional experiences that the Old Masters gave us, they would be treated like rock stars. If such a music existed, it would be played constantly and all over the world, and would quickly be accepted and not regarded as new for long. What we have today is just novelty and a small minority of supporters who still can't stop this music from ending up in the dust bin of music history. Does anybody really care or get excited that there is a new work by John Adams or Philip Glass? I don't think so. I want to hear the new, but only if it is up to the standards of the Old Masters.

Apr. 26 2010 05:22 PM

I agree with John Christiano, except it was "The Sting" that put Scott Joplin rags, back on the map, not "Butch Cassidy". Actually the Joplin rags were never off the map. You just had to know where to look.

Apr. 23 2010 04:04 PM
Frank Feldman

I don't think Wittgenstein would have approved of this conversation. Everyone is using "new" in their own private way and, hence, the dialogue, such as it is, is fairly meaningless.
Having said that, I heartily agree that John Adams is wearing the Emperor's New Clothes. Not quite as many as Phillip Glass however.

Apr. 23 2010 03:35 PM
Morty Rosner from Teaneck, NJ

It has much to do with what our ears are acclimated to. Noted reviewers called new music such as Beethoven's 9th "monstrous and tasteless," and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto "obscene."
They didn't get it. Now Mahler and Stravinsky are staples. Is the music of John Adams "newer" than late Beethoven quartets? I think not. New music is not always great. Great music is always new.

Apr. 23 2010 12:58 PM
John Christiano from Franklin NJ

Music never gets old. It just steps aside for while. At some point in time it gets resurrected, dusted off, polished and is new again. Just look what "Butch Cassidy....." did with the Scott Joplin rags.

We still listen to Bach and Scarlatti. Will we ever be able to say that Beethoven's 5th, 6th and 9th will ever get "old"? Hardly.

Apr. 22 2010 10:19 AM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

Why oh why must music be limited by labels? I stand with Duke Ellington: "If it sounds good, it is good."

"New music" is just "old music" with an arbitrary label. Bartok and Schoenberg are usually dubbed "New Music," even though Gershwin, Puccini, Copland, and Bernstein wrote popularly received works many years after the work of their predecessors. Originality, vision, and spirit still count.

I admit I came rather late to "serious music" or "concert music" or whatever you call 21st century "classical music," but I'm thrilled by what I find. Some composers are difficult (Nono? No thanks.), others make intercultural explorations a delight -- Lou Harrison, for one. Others are master of the piece d'occasion: I can't wait to hear what Nico Muhly creates for the Metropolitan Opera.

Apr. 22 2010 01:50 AM

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