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Offline James

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The five myths about contemporary classical music
« on: April 28, 2012, 07:25:48 AM »
Contemporary classical music is devoid of melody and appeal,
all noise and no fun. At least, that's the cliche. But this is music
that is very much at the heart of our modern world.


Tom Service
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 April 2012 20.00 BST
Article history


A scene from English National Opera's 2009 production of György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian


1. It all sounds like a squeaky gate

There are two sides to this. First, there's the simple fact that much of the music being written now by composers for choirs, opera houses and orchestras has as many, and sometimes more, tunes than anything by Beethoven or Mozart. For sensuous, harmonious reverie, listen to recent music by John Tavener or Arvo Pärt; for sheer, abundant tune-smithery, look no further than those masters of choral, regal and festive vocality Paul Mealor, Eric Whitacre and John Rutter. But none of this is what the "squeaky gate" critics mean. They are thinking of the sort of music that the conductor Thomas Beecham once said he "trod in": the avant garde of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono or Brian Ferneyhough. One of the best answers to this sort of attack comes from "unherd" on my classical music blog: "'Nasty squeaky gate' can actually be amazing to experience if you're not afraid of it." You're right, unherd. As ever, fear, or preconceptions, lead to the dark side. First, one of the signal, culture-changing achievements of contemporary music is that it opens your mind and ears to re-hear the world, to realise the beauty that's around us in sounds we would otherwise call noises. That's part of the genius of John Cage or Helmut Lachenmann, one way in which the world becomes a different place when you listen to their music. But there's something else: the visceral impact of music such as Iannis Xenakis's Jonchaies, Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestral groups or Luciano Berio's Coro is like nothing else music has done before. This music opens up huge reservoirs of feeling and physicality. Listen to any, and have your squeaky gates of perception opened up.

2. It's inaccessible

Balderdash. Rewind a few decades. Have a look again at the menagerie of cultural icons on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Who's that cheeky chappie on the back row, whose big brown eyes and side-parting peer out between Lenny Bruce and WC Fields? Why, it's the furthest-out composer of any of the out-there 60s avant-garde, Stockhausen. A piece of coincidental Beatlemania? Not a bit of it. Without Stockhausen's electronic dreams and experiments the decade before, and his trailblazing example of how you could use the studio itself as a musical instrument, the Beatles would be mired in musical pre-history, and Lennon and McCartney's imaginations – and yours – would be infinitely the poorer. Spooling on through pop culture, in the 70s and 80s, bands "discovered" tape loops, phases and rhythmic complexity. But that's only because Steve Reich, Philip Glass and the minimalists had got there at least a decade before. Sampling? Again, it's the avant garde you've got to thank, everyone from the pioneers of tape-based musique concrète to Alvin Lucier and beyond. Coming bang(ish) up to date: who is Björk's favourite composer? Stockhausen again. Brian Eno would be nowhere without Erik Satie and Cornelius Cardew, Stephen Sondheim owes it all – well, some of it – to lessons with Princeton-based serialist Milton Babbitt, and don't get me started on Jonny Greenwood's love-affair with Krzysztof Penderecki. Without the "classical" avant garde, pop music just could not and would not be the same.

3. You need to have a beard and wear a black polo-neck jumper to appreciate it

This is one of the real things that puts many listeners off, the idea that to be able to understand Harrison Birtwistle or Judith Weir, Pauline Oliveros or Howard Skempton, you need to have a working knowledge, and preferably a PhD, in music history from plainchant to Prokofiev, and/or you need to be part of a club of contemporary music groupies. Neither, I promise you, is true. There's a story told by Gillian Moore, who runs classical music at London's Southbank Centre and who set up the pioneering education work of the London Sinfonietta in the early 80s. One of its first projects introduced a programme of Ravel and early 20th-century visionary and noise-fiend Edgard Varèse to groups of schoolchildren. For many, Ravel's music is sensual, beguiling, "easy", whereas Varèse's sirens, percussion and atavistic modernism make his music beyond the pale, dissonant, and "difficult". What happened was just the reverse: the kids loved Varèse and couldn't get on with Ravel. But that makes perfect sense. So much of the great, radical music of the past 100 years bypasses the world of convention and intellect to go straight to the guts of sonic power, and to shake up your solar plexus. There's a good argument that the less you know about Mozart or Schubert, the more directly you can understand the sounds composers create today.

4. It's irrelevant

A simple formulation that sums up an unfortunate commonplace: the sense that this music has nothing to say to today's world. As already said, many of the sounds that we think most define our world today in pop music have the avant garde in their DNA, but there's more. There is sometimes an impression that composers who write music that pushes musicians to their extremes are doing nothing more than fiddling around with meaningless notes in a solipsistic, self-indulgent reverie. Well, there's nothing wrong with beauty, and the extreme, hard-won beauty of hearing a group of great musicians or an orchestra at the limits of what they can do. But contemporary music has things to say, if we have ears to hear it. And thanks to generations of recent composers, contemporary music has tried to change the world. Haven't heard of Cornelius Cardew? Check him out. All his music was composed with social and political consciousness at its heart. And in different ways, that's still happening. John Adams can't resist today's big subjects – politics, terrorism and religious extremism. Younger composers are forming collectives that dissolve the pernicious boundaries between genres and institutions, creating work that speaks to new audiences directly, powerfully – and relevantly.

5. It's written for classical musicians so it must be 'old'

Ah, yes: here's the rub. For some, the very sight of, say, an orchestra, a string quartet or the idea of an opera house automatically gives an illusion of "heritage" rather than "contemporary culture". The implication is that those institutions or lineups can't have anything to contribute to musical thinking, that the musical ideas that composers in the past have dreamed of in their orchestral works, quartets and operas, have filled the repertoire, and our imaginations, to the brim. Try telling that to Jonathan Harvey, whose expansion of the orchestra into the realms of electronics makes music that is definitively contemporary and immeasurably timeless, or to Thomas Adès, whose writing creates visions of musical possibility that are new for today, or for any time. A piece that Adès composed in 1999, on the eve of the millennium, symbolises the new meanings that large-scale music can have. America: A Prophecy is a vision and a warning about the ends of empire. Adès's music could not speak more fervently or fearlessly about the essential truth of the way historical patterns repeat themselves, and how we ignore the warnings of ancient civilisations at our peril. Don't let the veneer of the opera house or the concert hall put you off. This music is speaking to us now: all you need is an open mind and open ears.

* What are the composers' favourites? Mark-Anthony Turnage, Anna
Meredith and more tell us the contemporary work they couldn't live
without.
"Imagination is more important than knowledge." - Albert Einstein

Offline snyprrr

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #1 on: April 28, 2012, 07:40:39 AM »
People are just getting dumber and dumber. The time for civility is over. No one should criticize shit (anything) anymore; they can all go to where they're comfortable, and STFU, and listen to their Strauss, and leave others alone.

If anyone EVER,... if they happened to hear what's coming from the car audio,... if they ever even DARE to give me 'that' look,... wow, just try it buddy,... I have no patience for the 'why do you play something nice?', or the 'that sounds like shit',... you know, why don't you just turn yellow and die?? Trust me, it's 2012, the time for winking at idiots is over. Fuck 'em all,... dingy consumerists. >:D

May ALL have war enough to be able to appreciate the sounds of war in Xenakis, for instance.


'Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all' (Apocalypse Now)


ok, to all you people calm down snyprrr, calm down, it's only Saturday morning, it's only a Classical Music forum, it's only a movie, it's only a movie...


ahhhh,... I neeeed to stay away from the controversy,.... ahhh, soothing balm of Gilead,.... there, there....
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #2 on: April 28, 2012, 07:49:19 AM »
People are just getting dumber and dumber.

I believe we're way past this now, snyprrr. :D Even my Dad likes Contemporary classical music! I introduced him to Takemitsu, Part, and Salonen (the composer, he already knew the conductor :)) and he's loving every minute of it! 8) An open-mind can go a long way. I mean it's one thing to simply say you don't like the music, but to insult the music and the composer is simply uncalled for. This is a lesson I had to learn for myself. Even as much as I dislike Messiaen, for example, I still enjoy a good many of his works. He's not a terrible composer at all. I think people are just looking for instant gratification these days and they're taking the easy way out by listening to what one would consider the classics. There's no exploratory attitude at all and I find this discouraging, but these are just my opinions.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2012, 07:50:56 AM by Mirror Image »
My favorite symphonists (from left to right): Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, and Nielsen


Offline Opus106

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #3 on: April 28, 2012, 08:06:34 AM »
This is a perfectly timed post, James, so thanks. :) Just this afternoon I was wondering about which contemporaries to listen to (explore, rather), given that I don't sport a (Henningesque ;)) beard and don't wear black polo-necked jumpers (and I won't in my right mind, given my location!). I'm going to try some of those composers listed in the first section; even though I'm familiar with their names, I have no idea about their music.
Regards,
Navneeth

Offline TheGSMoeller

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #4 on: April 28, 2012, 08:21:52 AM »
Most of the criticism concerning contemporary classical music I've come across, is from those who really haven't spent much time with this era. It's easy to decipher criticism from those who have precise critical analysis of a piece, and those who describe it with juvenile adjectives.

Offline Sammy

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #5 on: April 28, 2012, 09:12:58 AM »
Most of the criticism concerning contemporary classical music I've come across, is from those who really haven't spent much time with this era. It's easy to decipher criticism from those who have precise critical analysis of a piece, and those who describe it with juvenile adjectives.

So true.  Those who don't know what they are talking about should always shup up and listen.

Offline Polednice

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #6 on: April 28, 2012, 12:36:19 PM »
I would agree that there are many myths surrounding contemporary music, and much of the hatred stems from inexperience or prejudice, but Service's arguments are logically inconsistent - he tends to be a bad writer.

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #7 on: April 28, 2012, 06:03:22 PM »
I find that if I'm listening to rock and pop for awhile, coming back to classical I find 20th century music to be more accessible and I have to work my way back in time.

Offline Jeffrey Smith

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #8 on: April 28, 2012, 06:43:41 PM »
I think part of this is the fact that  modern classical music has evolved over the last three decades or so.  I don't listen to non-tonal music from the middle decades of the 20th century that often because I generally find it ugly: as if the composers involved were attempting to acoustically assault their audiences.  (And sometimes I literally get a headache from listening.)  A couple of days ago,  I gave a first run through of the Pollini 20th century music box DG recently issued;  among the recordings is a CD of works by Nono  (Como una ola de fuerza y luz,  sofferte onde serene) and Manzoni (Masse). Como una ola, for instance,  seemed to consist of sections in which one heard electronically taped sounds,  or in which a soprano sang semi-meaningless phrases,  mixed in with sections in which the piano banged away loudly and atonally,  or the orchestra played loudly and atonally,  but without seeming able to communicate any actual musical idea.  Whatever musical logic  Nono used for that piece remained totally undetected by my ears.

With more recent music, the situation is different.  There still are times when I don't particularly like what I hear,  but I usually can perceive some of the musical thinking involved.  I don't particularly care for Part and Tavener, for instance, but at least I can see what they intended, and I don't get a headache from them, and atonality when used seems to serve a purpose: it's not just there to uglify the music. 
Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind.
---Rossini

Offline Scion7

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #9 on: April 29, 2012, 06:01:39 AM »
This is the part of Sprockets where we dance!



Samuel Barber-the violin concerto-Isaac Stern, Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. 1965

DavidW

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #10 on: April 29, 2012, 06:03:02 AM »
Well said Jeffrey! :)

Offline coffee

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #11 on: April 29, 2012, 06:47:57 AM »
I guess anyone who's been around classical music discussions on the internet realizes that there's simply no arguing with taste. I'm sure a few people who say they don't like"modern" music won't like it no matter what, a few people might love it more if they gave it more time, and everything in between. But you are who you are, and we can all accept each other peacefully, I hope.

I happen to enjoy Nono and Stockhausen and Reich and Tavener and Tan Dun very much, and also the Strauss family waltzes, and Vivaldi, and medieval chant, even when it's accompanied by Jan Garbarek, which generally means that one way or the other I get into trouble in these discussions. But it's ok with me if you don't like some of that, as long as you'll not condescend to me for liking it (which is too rare), and we can discuss together the music that we share rather than the music that we don't share.

Edit: Also, I hope not to be condescended to for not yet knowing some work of music, whether it's Beethoven's 5th or Beetz' great classic "Assoziationen zu...?" I promise to return the respect -

If only, if only, and if only! such non-condescension with respect to taste and experience were something we could assume rather than had to plead for.
« Last Edit: April 29, 2012, 06:55:40 AM by coffee »

Offline TheGSMoeller

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #12 on: April 29, 2012, 07:04:53 AM »
I guess anyone who's been around classical music discussions on the internet realizes that there's simply no arguing with taste. I'm sure a few people who say they don't like"modern" music won't like it no matter what, a few people might love it more if they gave it more time, and everything in between. But you are who you are, and we can all accept each other peacefully, I hope.

I happen to enjoy Nono and Stockhausen and Reich and Tavener and Tan Dun very much, and also the Strauss family waltzes, and Vivaldi, and medieval chant, even when it's accompanied by Jan Garbarek, which generally means that one way or the other I get into trouble in these discussions. But it's ok with me if you don't like some of that, as long as you'll not condescend to me for liking it (which is too rare), and we can discuss together the music that we share rather than the music that we don't share.

Very true, Coffee. I was a horn player back in my school days and really only gave my attention to composers who would composed works featuring 8 horns playing at fortissimo. Nowadays I couldn't truly enjoy a day without hearing a good song or three by John Dowland. So yes, tastes and views change. And I'm with you, the range of my tastes cover pretty much all eras.

My beef is with how those who don't enjoy Contempoary music critique it. For example, the era I listen to the least is Romantic. It doesn't suit my preferred tastes, but I would never dismiss it as anything negative, I still have great admiration and respect for Romantic composers who I choose not to listen to, but it doesn't make that era in my mind dismissible. I feel that some critics of contemporary music are the opposite.

Offline starrynight

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #13 on: April 29, 2012, 08:19:46 AM »
Why should I care about or be interested in what ignorant people think? 

Offline Polednice

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #14 on: April 29, 2012, 09:20:39 AM »
All music is tonal (using the 12 musical tones of the chromatic scale or series), it just has varying degrees of change in terms of polarity. In the case of music that is improperly referred to as "atonal" (no such thing) or in your case "non-tonal" (again, no such thing) it's tonality changes far more frequently, it's ALWAYS tonal but it changes at every moment, very quick changing tonality .. giving a new aspect of the chromatic Romantic period, from the same exact source (listening to the 12 notes, or tones) .. for novice listeners who haven't opened wide their "squeaky gates of perception" (yet) at first it may seem like disorder, confusing etc. .. but it's not; at it's best it's a very highly focused, disciplined & organized kind-of democratic approach (equality amoungst tones), that is more in tune with the times and is a far more accurate reflection of the highly complex world we live in; which itself is like an organized delirium that we're born into it. Experiencing this music can be like that at first, we drop into a sound-world that is in constant flux all around, but the more we traverse it (with our ears) the more we get to know how it goes, and it opens up these mental barriers and makes us grow. Getting to know this music so well (i.e. the 2nd Viennese School, Stravinsky, Varèse, Stockhausen & Boulez), for me, makes me feel so alive and refreshes & charges my mind like no other. The benefits are great.

This isn't entirely true. A piece for unpitched percussion would be non-tonal, and there is music that uses tones other than the 12 in the chromatic scale for which it is useful to have distinguishing terminology. Anyway, even if we quibble over the definition of these words, the music doesn't change, and nor does the listener's perception. Arguing as though their particular definition of tonality has affected their understanding and appreciation of the work is silly, and it's neither an insult nor a compliment to call a piece tonal or atonal - these are all irrelevant terminological technicalities (and distinguishing between a piece that has no tonality and one that has a tonality that changes with every note is surely dependent on how the listener hears it, so talking as though these are objective measures is disingenuous).

Offline Scion7

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #15 on: April 29, 2012, 10:05:38 AM »
But, one person's growth is another person's fungus.  "Atonal" is an accepted common term that describes what the 2nd Viennese school of music is about.  No biggie, I know what someone means when they use the term.
Samuel Barber-the violin concerto-Isaac Stern, Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. 1965

Offline TheGSMoeller

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The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #16 on: April 29, 2012, 10:26:33 AM »
It's never a fungus my friend .. it's empowering and only deepens one's appreciation & understanding of the art and what is possible. (widening ears, perception; a good thing) With regards to improper descriptions like "atonal" etc. .. you may know what it means; but the fact is most people don't .. it's lazy thinking & inaccurate and is 9 times out of 10 a reflection of inexperience. Schoenberg himself loathed the stupid term.

I was just about to offer the question of, "What did the those who's music was labeled as atonal think of the term?"

Offline drogulus

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #17 on: April 29, 2012, 11:29:12 AM »
It's never a fungus my friend .. it's empowering and only deepens one's appreciation & understanding of the art and what is possible. (widening ears, perception; a good thing) With regards to improper descriptions like "atonal" etc. .. you may know what it means; but the fact is most people don't .. it's lazy thinking & inaccurate and is 9 times out of 10 a reflection of inexperience. Schoenberg himself loathed the stupid term.

     Well, you can shift the debate to terms but the point remains that the fashion for certain types of noisemusic or musicnoise has come and gone without IMO proving very much other than that fashion and art combine in odd ways, and people get very cultish about it. There no real need to invent justifications for sorely unmissed music. If you like it, that ought to be enough.
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Offline Polednice

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #18 on: April 29, 2012, 12:33:06 PM »
We can't be all encompassing in our replies .. but yes, I am fully aware music is much wider in terms of frequencies relative-to etc. For me, when I see folks throwing around words like atonal etc. in an almost irrational way (prejudice) it often reflects that they really haven't looked into things much (inexperience) to get clarity on these myths & misunderstandings. And there is definitely room for perception to grow immensely, one of the key pts. in Service's article .. something I've experienced first-hand myself.

You're certainly right that people use the word "atonal" much too broadly, encompassing not only strict dodecaphonic serialism, but also many other styles - maybe even just anything that they dislike or can't comprehend. The antidote to these misinformed generalisations, however, is probably not an opposite but similarly generalised definition. ;)

Offline Scion7

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Re: The five myths about contemporary classical music
« Reply #19 on: April 29, 2012, 12:39:53 PM »
It's never a fungus my friend ..

That's a viewpoint totally determined by taste.
Samuel Barber-the violin concerto-Isaac Stern, Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. 1965

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