Recently, a New York City chapter of the American Federation of Musicians published an email newsletter that turned heads within the classical orchestral world. As discussed here, one newsletter headline read, “How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?” and continues, “In many ways, the future of classical music depends on the repertoire. But, as a musician, what do you really think of new work?” The body of the short article encouraged musicians to weigh in with their thoughts in an effort to understand the relationship between composers, performers, and audience members. As pointed out in the above link, the objective of the post may have been noble, but was approached in the wrong way. “With its inclusion of ‘really’ (in italics, no less), it is improbable, at best, to imagine that a healthy discussion is what is intended,” Rob Deemer writes. Reading the entire section of the newsletter, the implication that performers do not (or should not) enjoy contemporary music is apparent.
Why would a professional organization include such a connotation in their newsletter? Is there truth to their implication of the distance between audiences, performers, and musicians? What exactly is the perception of the state of contemporary instrumental music?
To answer the latter two questions, I’ll direct us to this article, written in 2012 but chronicling future concert programs through 2013. The Guardian, one of the UK’s most popular news sources, paints an optimistic picture. The writer describes that “audiences are flocking to work previously regarded as austere and impenetrable,” before listing the conductors and orchestras that are routinely programming avant-garde works. Among the reasons listed for the increase in popularity of contemporary works are campaigns targeting people within other artforms and musical interests, for example performing contemporary classical music alongside bands such as The Aphex Twins or Joanna Newsom.
This optimism seems to be an abrupt change in the contemporary music world, as Alex Ross painted a rather bleak picture in 2010, describing a number of NYC performances where audience members walked out. “A full century after Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern unleashed their harsh chords on the world, modern classical music remains an unattractive proposition for many concertgoers,” he writes.
As performers, how can we combat this trend, if it exists in America? The music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives can provide us with new technical demands that don’t necessarily exist in the great Classical and Romantic repertoire (not to mention the techniques demanded by Crumb, Xenakis, Boulez, or Berio). The modernists make us think and reflect upon why their music is so original. To address both the audience and performer’s perspective, I’ll close by quoting Alex Ross, who makes a great point: “Listeners who become accustomed to Berg and Ligeti will find new dimensions in Mozart and Beethoven. So, too, will performers. For too long, we have placed the classical masters in a gilded cage. It is time to let them out.”