The Bad, the Ugly And (Yes!) The Good

by Colin Eatock

Sheet-music“Contemporary classical music?” To some, the phrase may sound like a contradiction in terms. But, believe it or not, classical music aspires to be a happening, up-to-date art form – laying claim to the place at the cultural table next to contemporary art, film and literature.

Unfortunately, for all its bravado, contemporary classical music is in a bad way, and has been for some time now. Its composers and specialist-performers toil in obscurity, its core-audience is tiny, and its visibility within mainstream culture is just about nil. Like a hospital patient kept alive on a life-support system, contemporary classical music is largely maintained by university music departments. Most symphony orchestras and opera companies – knowing only too well where their bread is buttered – perform it only occasionally.

However, with my use of the word “unfortunately,” I don't mean to suggest there's anything especially unjust about contemporary classical music's marginal status. Cultures have always embraced what they like and rejected what they don't – and no amount of quasi-moralistic hectoring about what people ought to like is likely to change that. Also, on a personal note, I don't feel especially inclined to take the world to task on this issue. I believe I can speak for a great many classical music fans when I say that most of the classical music written in the last fifty years deserves an early death in an unmarked grave. Many concert-goers find most contemporary music a painful experience – and, as a music critic, I feel their pain.

Rather, my “unfortunately” was meant, partly, to express my concern about what the ongoing crisis of newness means for the future of classical music as a whole. The lack of a substantial body of well-known and culturally validated new works is, I believe, an existential threat to the entire art form: an artistic culture that immerses itself entirely in its own past will wither into irrelevance. Yet I've noticed that some people in the “mainstream” classical-music world see nothing to worry about here. They seem to think (if they think about the issue at all) that all they need to do is avoid the new stuff and play more Mozart and the problem will simply evaporate. This is head-in-sand thinking.

That said, my “unfortunately” was also meant as a lament for the few living composers whose works, I believe, are beautiful, compelling, culturally engaging and worthy of appreciation on a broad scale. But finding these precious needles in such a large haystack is an arduous business.

My purpose in writing this article is twofold. First, I want to talk about the problems that beset and bedevil so much contemporary classical music these days, by constructing a taxonomy of woes. (And let's have a little fun with it – because why not?) Finally, to conclude on an optimistic note, I'll extract some needles from the haystack, and say why I think some musical works should and could be heard more widely.

I should perhaps mention that I live in North America – in Toronto, Canada – and my perspective is essentially a North American one. (But I'm not convinced that things are much different elsewhere.) And it should also be noted that because the wheels of the classical music world turn slowly, the words “modern,” “new” and “contemporary” are sometimes applied to music written a century ago. For our purposes here, I'll focus mostly on music written by composers who are still alive.

Music That's Not Much Better Than Waiting For A Bus

A great many contemporary works fall in this category. That's because this is an “umbrella” category, encompassing a wide variety of problems and deficiencies.

Sometimes pieces end up in this category because they are gimmicky. Sometimes they lack substantial ideas, and are “an orchestration in search of a composition.” Sometimes they are long-winded, or unsatisfyingly truncated. And sometimes they were written by some careerist hack trying desperately to finish a commissioned work on schedule. In the end, the music can be lame, clichéd and as dull as dishwater.

There's no need to name names here: these pieces are forgotten as soon as they are performed – and, happily, they are usually only performed once. However, it's perhaps comforting to consider that all eras have produced boring, mediocre music by the ton – and ours is no different. If the classical music of past eras seems like a glorious march of giants, it's because the winds of time have separated the wheat from the chaff.

Music That Isn't So Much “Bad” As “Wrong”

In the inward-looking culture of contemporary classical music, “originality” is a Holy Grail. High value is often accorded to composers who are seen as unique, innovative or groundbreaking in some way – and this value-system can lead to a kind of contrived exoticism. While exoticized musical realms may be a nice place to visit, very few people care to live in them, in the same way that they “live” in the music of Beethoven, the Beatles or Justin Bieber.

So it sometimes happens that I hear a new work that strikes me as quite beautiful, in its own way. But at the same time, my admiration is tempered by frustration, because it's clear to me that the piece stands no chance of winning more than a tiny following. A couple of recent operas spring to mind as examples.

Written On Skin, by the much-respected English composer George Benjamin, is making the rounds of the opera world these days. Since its debut in 2012 at Aix-en-Provence, it has been staged in London, Paris, Vienna, Munich, New York and elsewhere. (I heard it in a concert performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with the composer conducting.) By the rather low standards of the contemporary classical music world, the handful of productions this opera has enjoyed in the last three years has made it a “triumph.” And New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini recently declared the piece “one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century.”

Based on such an enthusiastic embrace, may we expect to see the day when Written On Skin will be a staple of the operatic repertoire, alongside Tosca and La Traviata? Maybe – when hell freezes over. For all the exquisite musical craftmanship that has gone into the piece, it is constructed in an atonal musical language that's alien to the aesthetic affinities of the Western world. (Here, I use the phrase “Western world” in an expanded sense, to include not just Europe and North America, but also Latin America, the Far East and anywhere else that Western classical music is performed.) Written on Skin is what the French call un succès d'estime. (You can hear some of the opera here.)

Another example is The Whisper Opera by the American composer (and Pulitzer Prizewinner) David Lang. Composed in 2013, it has been performed in several North American cities by the Chicago-based ICE ensemble. This isn't really an opera in any conventional sense – it has no plot or dramatic structure – but its extremely soft and sparse musical textures do indeed make it the musical equivalent of whispering. Unlike Written on Skin, The Whisper Opera isn't tonally jarring. Yet so delicate is this music that the composer has specified that no more than about fifty people can be present when it is performed. Furthermore, Lang has decreed that The Whisper Opera can never be recorded, filmed, or amplified.

In my opinion, Written on Skin and The Whisper Opera are both brilliant and fascinating works. I like them – and would gladly hear them again, if the opportunity ever arises. Yet each, in its own way, is arcane and rarefied, wilfully standing outside most people's comfort-zones. Works such as these will not convince a broader audience that classical music written nowadays is a cultural force worthy of their sustained attention.

The “Aesthetics of Ingratiation”

The term “asesthetics of ingratiation” was (to the best of my knowledge) first used by the New York Times critic Bernard Holland in 2000, to describe the opera Dead Man Walking by the American composer Jake Heggie. Holland's pretty-clear implication was that Heggie was pandering to his audience.

While I would argue that there's nothing wrong, per se, with striving to write something that audiences will enjoy (it was good enough for Mozart), often composers with a desire to win approval write music that might have been composed a hundred years ago or more. Their music is often backward looking in style, dripping with nostalgia.

I agree with Holland that Dead Man Walking is a fine example of artistic ingratiation – great swathes of the opera are pleasant but unimaginative and culturally redundant. (You can hear an excerpt of it here.) Someone else who is notable for his capacity to play it safe to please audiences is the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. His Palladio is a short piece for string orchestra that sounds like eviscerated Vivaldi (here). And I'll name one more such composer: the American sentimentalist Morten Lauridsen (here).

Music That Should Be “Unheard” (If Such A Thing Were Possible)

Often, it's the most alienating new classical works that seem to make the strongest impression on the listening public – and not in a good way. If contemporary classical music has a bad rap (and it certainly does) it's largely because of the composers and compositions that fall in this category.

This problem has been with us for a while now. It was after the Second World War that the “high modernists” emerged, enthusiastically seizing the baton from the previous generation, and taking the tenets or modernism to extreme lengths. They favoured dissonance, atonality, complex rhythms, disjointed syntax, densely clotted textures, and the absence of any audible structure (although their works were often highly structured on paper). They also laid claim to an “authentic” newness, insisting that their music – like it or not – represented the true voice of their era. For some reason, their arrogance was taken seriously.

Many of the high modernist firebrands from the post-War era have passed away, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbit and (most recently) Pierre Boulez. And today, many classical composers – especially younger composers – have turned away from their iconoclastic tendencies. However, some high modernists are still with us. To name just three, there's Brian Ferneyhough, (here), Charles Wuorinen (here) and Helmut Lachenmann (here). Their music is culturally stillborn – and their compositions merely reinforce the public's impression that all new classical music is hideous, boring and incomprehensible. It would be a fine thing for the general state of classical music if their efforts could somehow be “unheard.”

Music That Has “The Right Stuff”

But all is not lost – at least, not yet. In fact, the last few decades have seen the emergence of composers who aspire to embrace the traditions of Western classical music and the received culture of its audiences, while at the same time writing works that sound refreshingly new. I believe that the classical music world would be a healthier and happier place if these works were championed by more performers, conductors and critics. Allow me to share a few examples with you – some that you may already know, and others that you might not.

The minimalists came busting out of New York in the 1960s. At first, their music could be mind-numbingly simplistic, frantic and obsessively repetitive. (The critic Samuel Lipman dismissed it as “pop music for intellectuals.”) But gradually minimalism became less mechanical and more human. At its best, minimalism can be sophisticated, elegant and even joyful.

Nagoya Marimbas (here) is by Steve Reich, a prominent figure in the American minimalist movement. Composed in 1994 for performance at the Nagoya Conservatory of Music in Japan, it burbles along in a playful way. Less well-known than Reich is the Canadian composer Ann Southam. Between 1979 and 1981 she wrote a massive multi-movement piano work called Rivers. “Series II No. 2” from Rivers (here) is a poised yet haunting composition.

Although Nico Muhly is a full generation removed from the first minimalists, minimalism has had a strong influence on the music of this young American composer. Like many composers of his generation, he's wide ranging in his influences, embracing popular culture as well as highbrow music. His How About Now (here), was written for New York's Now Ensemble, ten year ago. The piece seems charmingly informal and spontaneous, yet it's crafted with care and precision.

A European movement that paralleled New York minimalism in some ways has been nicknamed “holy minimalism,” because of its affinity to religious traditions. Its high priest is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. His sparse-textured music is, at the same time, ancient yet arrestingly contemporary, and emotionally direct yet inscrutably mysterious. Pärt's Summa, from 1978, bursts with rich and poignant harmonies. The piece was originally a choral work, but it's also effective in the composer's own arrangement for string orchestra (here).

Another composer whose music sounds old and new at the same time is Anna Clyne. She is a young British composer who jumped the pond a few years ago to become a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This move surprised me, as the CSO has long been a stronghold of Boulez and his high-modernist ilk – but perhaps the winds of change are blowing through the Windy City. Clyne's music often sounds deeply rooted in some kind of half-forgotten folk music. Her Within Her Arms (here) was written in 2009 in memory of her mother.

Classical Music's Eleventh Hour?

I don't share the alarmist fears of those who believe that classical music is on the verge of extinction. For the foreseeable future, at least, I believe that that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms hold secure positions within Western culture. But what is much more fragile and tenuous is the idea that classical music is a living art form – with a vibrant and engaging present, not just a glorious past. In 2016 that's a dubious notion. Yet as I've tried to show in the examples above, there are culturally viable works by living composers out there. They need to be heard above the din.

I'll conclude on an optimistic note, with another composition that has the “right stuff.” It's called Birds in Warped Time II (here), and it was written in 1980 by the Japanese composer Somei Satoh. It's distinctive, contemporary and breathtakingly beautiful. And it gives me hope.

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Colin Eatock is a composer, teacher and music critic who lives in Toronto.