Be Kind to Contemporary Music

For my Introduction to Music Criticism Class:

The New York City chapter of the American Federation of Musicians recently sent out a questionnaire to its members that queried “How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?… How do you think 21st century repertoire speaks (or doesn’t speak!) to audiences?” A more loaded question for musicians is difficult to imagine, especially when posed as such. The tone and word choice clearly suggest that the authors already know what your answer will be: you dislike contemporary music, and so do audiences, because why would anyone enjoy that dissonant, difficult, uninspired noise?

            Unfortunately, this is an incredibly common attitude towards not just music from this century, but even much of what was written after, say, 1918, the year Debussy died. This is not necessarily a wrong-headed opinion. Everyone has a singular taste, and it’s absurd to disdain people for not enjoying every piece of music they hear. 

            I don’t expect everyone to love Thomas Adès or Steve Reich or Sofia Gubaidulina. Rather, the qualm I have with an anti-contemporary music stance is that it is often an uninformed position. I have often found that people who avoid new pieces have a slim amount of experience with music of the past century, and view it as one monolithic genre, in which everything is piercingly atonal or played on a kitchen blender. Yes, there are works like that and no, you don’t have to like them. The point is that there is a kaleidoscopic variety of music beyond that. Just because you ran screaming from the hall when a Boulez piece was performed doesn’t mean you should avoid everything else written during his lifetime.

Like in any other period, there is a multitude of music being written now, and obviously not all of it is touched by genius. What makes listening to contemporary music difficult is that history has yet to decide what pieces are “worthy.” It takes a long time for that process to occur: there have been two centuries for audiences, musicians, critics, and musicologists to sift the Beethovens from the Ferdinand Rieses. As such, a listener of 21st century music has to wade through much that will soon be forgotten. There are still plenty of works being composed today that are worth your time. You just have to work harder to find them, and be willing to continue looking even after encountering music you don’t like.

            If for nothing else, at least try listening to contemporary music with the future in mind. There are numerous examples of composers whom we now consider indispensable being rejected by large swathes of people during their own lifetime: Bach, Beethoven in his late period, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner, Brahms. Do we really want to deprive later audiences of a master on par with Bach by not supporting his in his own lifetime?

            So, to return to the AFM’s question: How does 21st century repertoire speak to audiences? Depends on if the audience gives it a chance in the first place.

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