I'm really not big into musicals. I tend to like the ones I see, but I'm not exactly a musicals-person. I do happen to love Stephen Sondheim. I'm really not familiar with his shows (except for those for which he didn't actually write the music--West Side Story, Gypsy). Still, I find myself ridiculously drawn to Sondheim. I think we would be good friends, but I'm sure I'll never get the chance to meet him. Terry Gross has had Sondheim on the show a few times, and he always has wonderful things to say. Today, Fresh Air aired a compilation of some of the interviews, and I found myself even more drawn to Sondheim while I listened. We sometimes forget that Sondheim studied musical analysis with Milton Babbitt. Sondheim claims he didn't absorb Babbitt's compositional techniques, but I don't believe him. Sondheim's music certainly doesn't sound like Babbitt's, but it's most definitely out there. Because of his taste for out music, Sondheim claims he has trouble writing "hummable" tunes. One of my favorite parts of Terry's interview with Sondheim was when he reflects on Berg's Violin Concerto, a work that's difficult but a real gem of the literature.
The first time I heard the Berg Violin Concerto, I thought "well, what is this noise?" And the third time I heard it, I thought "well, this is interesting." And the fifth time I heard it, I found myself humming along with it.What does this anecdote say about our relationship with difficult works? Or even not-so-difficult works?
When I was in my last semester of written theory, the class focused on 20th century harmony. I'm one of those weirdos who adored harmony class for the first few semesters, so I had a real crisis when I felt like I hated that last semester. My problem was that I didn't do what Sondheim did when he first heard the Berg concerto; I gave the pieces one listen without trying to figure out what made them special. Once I started giving difficult pieces a second listen, I started noticing what makes them special. Do I like everything I hear? Absolutely not. Do I hum along with Stockhausen? Hell no. But I can appreciate music differently than I could just two years ago. I don't go out of my way to listen to music if I know I don't like it, but I'm absolutely willing to give things a second or fifth chance. Well, maybe not a fifth.
I'm not sure who should be held responsible for this whole "death of classical music" thing. Part of that stems from my disbelief that it exists. Throughout history, genres and styles have grown and died. I don't see why Viennese musical culture has to be so fetishized. I happen to love that musical culture, but I also love plenty of others. I don't quite understand why we're so concerned about preserving something that doesn't seem to want to be preserved. That doesn't mean I think orchestras should instantly disband, but I do think we should consider focusing our energies on music that wants to grow.
(It's moments like this when I would love to have coffee with Adorno. Just once, but still.)
Part of me wants to point and yell at the Second Viennese School. The first two times I was exposed to Schoenberg, I hated his music. I don't know if I would have given it a third chance, but I was required to, for one class or another. While I don't actively seek out serialism for my listening pleasure, I can appreciate what's going on there. [Yes, I played Webern on my senior recital. Playing that kind of thing is a much different experience than listening to it. I retroactively apologize to my audience.] The problem I see is that people still equate "new music" with the Second Viennese School. Heck, it happened today in class. Schoenberg has been dead for over 60 years (longer, if you're Boulez), but his system of serialism is still equated with "new music." A lot has happened and changed and come back since the 19-teens, but not all of it was "good." A lot of mid-century music alienated a lot of people. Once you lose an audience, it's really hard to get it back. I have a lot of respect for contemporary composers, because they're writing some pretty awesome music that not enough people listen to.
(I'm about to embarrass myself here.)
A year or two ago, I went to a New Music Delaware concert. NMD is a concert series coordinated by the theory/comp faculty, sometimes in conjunction with composition students. I used to avoid those concerts because I thought I didn't like "new music." I went to this particular concert probably to get extra credit or something, expecting it to be painful. Instead of hating the concert, I loved it. In particular, I remember hearing a piece by Daniel Dorff, a composer who's now my Facebook friend and a Twitter connection(I can't remember the title, instrumentation, or even what it sounds like), and thinking that it sounded like Dave Matthews. I don't believe that all music should sound like '90s alt-rock, but I remember loving the piece. It didn't sound exactly like Dave Matthews, but there was a certain connecting vibe between the artists.
Now, I know that there's a lot of "accessible" music being written. I've seen a lot of it performed, and I've listened to a lot of recordings. For me, it seems like the problem is that there was so much alienating music written in the early/mid twentieth century that "new music" lost its potential audience. The good news is that the accessible music is making it so that more people can get into new music without having to listen to awkward ultra-Modernism. I think that's a good thing. It'll take some more time, but I'm optimistic about the Future of Music. Eclecticism is in, as is genre/style blending. I approve.