New Music and the Audiences

January 1, 2001

In my inaugural statement as the CMS Board Member for Composition, I raised a concern regarding the split of the common concert-goers from music produced by our composers in our times and throughout most of the twentieth century. This is a situation that is not shared with the other arts of drama, art, sculpture, poetry, and dance. It seems, on the contrary, that the other arts have a good relationship with their patrons. This is something we composers should discuss in order to find possible solutions with the opening of our new millennium. I would like to share with my fellow composers some of my thoughts regarding this matter.

I believe a major reason for the above mentioned split is due to some of the attitudes of modern composers towards the audience. I would like to mention the following:

The expansion of the education curricula limits the amount of study and therefore the understanding and love of the great composers of the past. Thus, their music is becoming foreign to the young composers and generally unappreciated. Many believe that they can contribute to the cause of music in our times by disregarding completely what was contributed in the past. In fact, a shortcut in their study is becoming necessary and encouraged by many of our important institutions. The flux of new demands to cover world music in curricula makes cuts unavoidable in traditional music courses, including composition. This, along with the lack of many classical programs in the media, makes this music not a big part of the background of our young composers.

Audiences as a whole do not adhere to this state of affairs. In fact, they begin their interest and love for good music through the classics, and eventually, acquiring more familiarity and sophistication, they move to the realms of new music. Thus, the audiences and the young composers have different basic music experiences, so the split begins here.

It seems to me that the music of the world idea means to many the expulsion of music that flourished and was nourished in Europe. Why? Europe is a part of the world, too. This music is not just loved by the Europeans. It is loved by the entire world. Do the violin geniuses from China or Japan spend years and years of hard work on their instruments only to perform music of the world, excluding the European violin concertos of Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Beethoven? It would be ludicrous for them to do this just because their country is not in Europe.

As I recall, there has been and probably still is a notion that the American production in composition is of lesser importance if it includes some of the components prominent in European works. Connections of this kind are not looked on favorably, but the idea of connections is very obscure to begin with. Connections such as scales or harmonic patterns, instrumentation, or familiar forms? What does it matter? Personality can cut through all this. For instance, I can distinguish, as many can, the works of Copland, and I can see how American they are and how uniquely beautiful they are. In spite of the European connections mentioned above, they are definitely not inferior to the works of European composers.

Music created today that has some relationships with traditions is considered by young composers to be conservative and therefore not good and not worthy. This problem is even encouraged by senior composers at important institutions whose works themselves are co nected with the past-a paradox indeed. I gently point out to my own students that the most successful composers of the 20th century, both American and European, are also connected with the past.

Returning to the subject of composition education, it seems to me that a great many young students of composition do not know and are not eager to know the quartets of Beethoven, the operas of Mozart, and the songs of Schubert. I hear many times from the teachers themselves: Dont worry about it. There is a new way of teaching and learning composition. Do present-day artists not study Leonardo da Vinci? Do present-day drama students not study Shakespeare?

In summary, some teachers in colleges and universities have cut out the basics in their approach to creating and understanding new music, but the audiences have not, so we lose them. I sincerely hope in this new century that composers will reach out to the audiences againthe good audiencesthose that should and could be our patrons. I am certainly tired of hearing some of these good people say. Oh, this is going to a contemporary music concert. I cant go; I have something else to do.

2018 Last modified on May 1, 2013
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