Friday, October 07, 2011

The Consonant Classical Challenge

I ran across this article the other day, and I finally decided I'd had enough. In Battle of the Curmudgeons: Classical Music vs. Literature, Jonathan Bastian talks about how both genres seem rooted in the late 19th century. I don't have any problems with his premise -- just this:
Orchestras are basically playing the exact same historical music, again and again and again. It’s Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and so on. And because contemporary classical music is both obscure and exceedingly difficult to listen to, it gets left out.
And that's my problem -- the assumption that all classical music post-1920 is an unintelligible jumble of ugly sounds. It's not. But I see that assertion expressed over and over again. Because, you know, Schoenberg ruined it for everyone.

Anne Midgette recently published Contemporary Classical: a primer which outlines all of the current trends in modern music. She writes:
The conventional wisdom is that contemporary music in the 20th century was taken over by serialism... The resulting works are sometimes fascinating, but seem difficult and unappealing to some lay audiences; and (still following the conventional wisdom) a generation of composers shied away from serialist strictures. Minimalism was one reaction; neo-romanticism — a return to the melodic, tonal, timbral values of romantic music — was another.
But neo-romanticism isn’t the only path composers use to access traditional forms with a fresh eye. Some of today’s most successful orchestral composers are writing symphonies and concertos — like Jennifer Higdon, whose Percussion Concerto won a Grammy in 2010, and whose Violin Concerto was recently recorded to great acclaim by Hilary Hahn...

Another acclaimed recent concerto was written by the Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen... His Piano Concerto sounds as if it had been written to reassure those who were worried that, when he stepped down from the post to devote himself entirely to composing, he was going to float off into the world of the avant-garde. Without losing the quirky touch of his earlier compositions, this concerto is rife with references to its virtuosic predecessors in the canon...
Midgette's article is much detailed about all the trends in contemporary music If you're even marginally interested in classical music, I highly recommend it.

So here's the challenge. Each Friday I'll be talking about a composer who's writing music today that traditionalist audiences should relate to (if they were only give it a chance). There will be some criteria: the composer must still be alive (there are plenty of examples from non-living composers from Aaron Copland to Alan Hovhaness). And they have to be composers, so Paul McCartney and Billy Joel don't qualify (and neither does that diamond commercial guy).

This could be quite a long-running series -- as you'll see next Friday. And if you have suggestions for who we should feature, just let me know in the comments field.

"Contemporary classical music is both obscure and exceedingly difficult to listen to?" I don't think so.

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