Disagreeable Remarks

Ethelbert Nevin

[May 2015.]


I recall a composer who once said, “Don’t bore me. I may not like it, but do not bore me.”

I recently endured a concert of new music, all penned this century. I heard little that declared them as new or contemporary. These pieces would have easily passed the ho-hum test in 1985 or 2000. Maybe they would have been more provocative in the 1970s when academic serialism still had some sway.

Am I naïve to think that music of this century ought to sound novel? Let’s put it another way: When I attend a concert I want to be entertained and perhaps even challenged. I want to hear new life brought to something I know well, and if it’s wholly new to me, I want to learn something, hear original colors, or see things in a different way. It’s great to hear fresh combinations of instruments, including electronics. Add some theatre perhaps. Pull in elements from a different culture or country. Change the seating plan. Take some risks. Still photos should make it clear that this couldn’t possibly be a Handel revival.

Bore me and I’ll soon dream of ways to safely dismantle the stage. When the last notes vanished, I was squirming in my seat. I had not been transported anywhere.

I have nothing against a tuneful style or film scores. I have nothing against a composer who wants to sound like Martinů, Poulenc, Glass or Pärt. Nyman and Torke stand like giants compared to today’s offspring. Whatever your thing, by all means hone your craft and organize your material. Perhaps we’re not training composers as we used to; perhaps the teachers aren’t as good. The bottom shelves of libraries across the land are stuffed with wishy-washy music in design and ideas.

One of the pieces was long. While I have nothing against a lengthy composition, the investment required of performers and audience ought to be commensurate. If you’re going to tackle a large time span, then please master working with material across long durations. You might even consider it necessary to educate or make a political statement. If I’m going to spend an hour listening to you, then wouldn’t you want to make sure that after the fifty-ninth minute, I either learned something or had a sense of where you stand on an issue?

I can’t understand why anyone bothers to write music that sounds as if it was written more than a quarter century ago. Some composers embark upon new works by considering a problem they have to solve or delving into the implications of a motif or a group of pitches. I don’t think anyone intentionally says, “I think I’ll revisit 1992!” Are composers afraid to explore? Is there a fear that if they’re too innovative then performance organizations will think they’re too risky to perform? At this point, I don’t think audiences realize they’re being fed hash from last-century’s leftovers.

This concert contained pieces by composers who had won coveted awards. Congratulations on their honors, but if this is the best we have going today, then we are in trouble. After the final applause died away, I wished something by Bruckner or Ravel had been on the program instead, music that would have made fuller use of several dozen musicians. I’ll keep going to concerts of new music, and really hope innovation or craft is around the corner. I’ll be the one in the back row muttering, “Do not bore me.”