Out with the New

Dan Albertson

[December 2012.]

[Shares in eschatology are on the uptick, but not among the strange herd of aficionados of new music. This article is an attempt to examine the foibles of this savage tribe. I remember Jonathan D. Kramer (1942-2004) on what would have been his 70th birthday this month. I will long cherish his guidance through the wilderness. D.A.]

The drift of this article is to offer criticisms of specific practices of new music observed at a range close enough to please Bronisław Malinowski. The analogy is apt, as I have often felt the sensation of eavesdropping on a world utterly alien to me.

As much as I dread being personal, some of my own narrative must enter into this equation. I had no exposure to classical music of any sort before age 12, as far as I reckon. For an American boy, this experience is the norm. As a naïve adolescent, I thought that all new music was great. Such music was new to the world, new to me and therefore of intrinsic value per se. I was amazed that composers were still alive! The worth of their music resided in its novelty. I held to this belief in the vacuum that my ignorance of earlier répertoire engendered. As I traipsed backward through the centuries, and as my level of maturity increased, discovering more and more music of varying quality, I gradually realized that a high percentage of new music is gaunt, an edifice without a caisson. Alexander Goehr has stated both that “an artist is related to the tradition from which he comes and this bond has little to do with time or progress” and, still better, that “all art is new and all art is conservative.” If I am a musical conservative, even a reactionary, I am so only out of obligation.

At this point, almost no music written by living composers is able to withstand the comparisons that I ineluctably make with the composers of the past. The line of tradition fades with each new generation, with few, yet noteworthy, exceptions. I try and try, listening to hundreds of new and recent pieces in an average year. The truly exceptional is rare; the mediocre, or worse, is the archetype. Is knowledge of the past necessarily a detriment to the appreciation of new music? How much of this perception is the result of my own biases and how much the dearth of good music?

For me, the most distressing element of new music is the self-satisfaction of its practitioners. Anyone who attends a concert of new music will see familiar faces, there to cheer their composers and their musicians. Music is not a sport. This blind loyalty results in a union between auditor and performer that is untenably intimate and, worse, removes the vital component of criticism from the equation. A feeling of intimacy is admittedly difficult to avoid in such a small orbit. However, when almost everyone in the audience is part of the “in” crowd, who would dare to break the conformity by being critical? The upshot is post-concert banality. Every composer is cheered for a “great piece,” every musician praised for his commitment to that piece and all is well in this smug universe, objective criteria be damned. Pay no heed to the fact that what was heard will likely never be heard again — and most of the time could lay no claim to deserving another chance. No one should thus be surprised that no composer, once away from his years of tutelage, ever receives the insight that he deserves in order to develop as an artist. On to the next project, which will be … no better! The best cure for self-satisfaction is a dose of reality, which could only be dispensed in an environment that is less fraught with expectations. Fewer receptions / social events and more opportunities for genuine, impassioned discussion, please. The future of the musical art is at stake here.

Related to the phenomenon of cliques is the phenomenon of musical incest. In Europe, the prevailing winds are toward long-term collaborations with established composers alongside opportunities for younger composers. European organizations, including the Arditti String Quartet, Ensemble Intercontemporain, ensemble recherche, and musikFabrik, understand that having a core of music on which to build a future annex is essential. I concede that public funding and a respect for tradition in Europe makes the comparison less than equitable, but these factors are far from the most telling ones. Europeans are guilty of musical inbreeding, too, but to a lesser extent.

American ensembles, on the contrary, orient themselves toward short-term collaborations with rising composers almost to the exclusion of established composers, except when those older composers have a connection to the younger darlings, soon to be replaced by even-younger darlings. These outfits place a much higher emphasis on being seen as trendy than European groups do, and develop concerts that are as devoid of recent history as they are of substance.

A notorious example is the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in NY, whose model seems to be the championing of “emerging” composers known to its musicians, with safe, older choices sprinkled in. If I have, by chance, missed a work of substance that ICE has nurtured into being and that has entered the répertoire of any other ensemble, kindly remind me, dear readers. Until then, I argue that ICE emperils the future of new music by perpetuating the myth that the primary ailment of new music is a lack of new pieces that hardly anyone wishes to hear.

The real woe here is a lack of repeat performances of deserving pieces and a lack of high-quality commissions. Our society, with the attention span of a gnat, has no hope of appreciating tomorrow if it has forgotten yesterday, let alone last week. A healthy balance of new music and older music is needed in order to provide useful context. For her supposed service to the world of new music, the CEO (!) of ICE, Claire Chase, has been granted a MacArthur Fellowship worth $500,000. No chance that she will change her errant practices any time soon, then! Music is just another commodity.

[A side note here: Many of the hipsters that frequent ICE are of the belief that large corporations are evil and to be shunned. I offer no comment on this pseudo-culture. I merely point out that a quick look at the sources of the funds that gives these hipsters their entertainment, and indeed at the background of Ms. Chase, should give them a crisis of conscience, if they could ever look beyond their solipsism.]

An unholy confluence of incest and money seems to motivate programming decisions. With fierce competition over the meager financing that is available from public sources in the USA, ensembles resort to gimmicks such as cross-cultural or interdisciplinary projects in order to be deemed fresh, inclusive and worthy of institutional support. I observe, with despair, that some Europeans are beginning to catch up in this race to Davy Jones’ Locker; the Donaueschinger Musiktage have been especially prone to cheap theatrics and pandering to lowered standards in the past decade.

Where is space for musical integrity here? What happened to the common standard that endured in musical circles in centuries past? I am as fond of neo-feudalism as I am of slavery. The irony of “cutting-edge,” “indie” composers begging for support from bankers and power brokers would be hilarious were the implications not catastrophic for the art form.

If I could, I would happily impose a moratorium on the creation of more unwanted pieces for at least two years. Overpopulation is a serious threat, whether this abundance is in terms of music or people. Let us cease our omphaloskepsis in order to appreciate collectively what has been created already, informing ourselves of where we have been and reminding ourselves of the transcendental power of the musical art, a power that has been lost in the vain quest for the ephemeral, the new and the trendy. Then, and only then, could our culture have any hope of answering the eternal query, “Where next?”