Contemporary music

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Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Tue Sep 16, 2008 12:21 am

What sort of responsibility, if any, do people feel towards contemporary 'art' music in terms of its appreciation and patronage? I ask because I often wonder how on the one hand the majority of people in society ignore most forms of culture that came before the colour television, whilst a lot of others seem to do the opposite. Maybe that's a reductionist view though- perhaps I'm not giving people enough credit?

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  hugo on Wed Sep 17, 2008 10:23 pm

I think the main responsibility people should feel towards contemporary music is to approach it with an open mind. However, there are times when programming really doesn't help matters. For example, Turnage's Chicago Remains, as performed by the CSO at the proms, was never really going to make an impression when pitted against Mahler 6 in the first concert and Shostakovich 4 in the second. Nor, to be honest, did it seem as though Haitink, who conducted both concerts, was particularly enamoured of the work - and I have to say, it struck me too little more than a forgettable series of orchestral effects.

Similarly, the Schubert orchestrations featured in the Gurzenich Orchestra's concert - by the brothers Matthews, Glanert and Trojahn - represented a real missed opportunity for these composers to show some of what they can achieve, in terms of instrumentation and exploration of orchestral sonority, without the risk of alienating any of the audience, who would still have the melody of Schubert's song to enjoy. As it was, three out of four of the songs was little more than a basic orchestration in the 19th century manner which sounded especially lame after the Stockhausen in the concert's second part (which, incidentally, was listened to with an attentiveness one might not have expected from at packed Albert Hall).

I think audiences are, on the whole, really willing to give contemporary music a try, but it's up to contemporary composers to work out a way not just to challenge an audience, but also to make them feel that it's been worth the effort. Easier said than done...

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Dominic McHugh on Wed Sep 17, 2008 10:45 pm

Yeah, but come on - so much contemporary music is either loud noisy nonsense or dull unemotional pretentious minimalism. Is it actually possibly to write decent music any more?

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Tue Sep 23, 2008 4:26 am

Yeah I agree about programming; there's no point in lobbing some worthy eight - ten minute, middle-of-the-road contemporary orchestral showpiece in at the start of a subscription concert. Things need to be properly contextualised, and placed in relief against works from the past that will highlight some of the historical concerns, and contemporary advancements, of the new work. Things do seem to be picking up though, both in terms of considered programming and audience's receptivity- we have now got to the stage where things that were new fifty to one hundred years ago, and things that are new but conservative right now, are accepted (albeit with a certain frisson) by the general audience. There was a good debate around this sort of thing on Tom Service's Guardian Blog recently.

It's not fair to say contemporary music falls into an either/or situation between noise and minimalism- that's like saying opera is only about fat Italians, or that musicals can only be made from the greatest hits of particular bands. There's a whole world of music out there to be enjoyed. How on earth could it not be possible for decent music to be made anymore? That would entail the total and complete failure of creativity; historical performance, popular music, theatre and all the rest would have to be abandoned too! Anyway in sixty or seventy years what is current today will seem oh so safe, and people can then proclaim the death knell for music all over again, only nowpace their era's own compositions. No harm in a bit of tribalism I suppose!

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Tue Sep 23, 2008 4:30 am

Yeah regarding the Schubert orchestrations I think that's an awful shame, you're right. Hans Zender's totally updated 'recomposition' of Winterreise, or Berio's Rendering do the job you lament for its absence in the newer orchestrations.

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Dominic McHugh on Wed Sep 24, 2008 2:47 am

Ah, Mr Graham, your defence is spirited but overlooks the way music history has turned.

The point, surely, is not that the music of today is perceive not to be safe and that it will seem safe in fifty years' time, but rather that the period of art music that speaks to people gets further remote by the year. I mean, how many post-Puccini composers are actually popular? And no, I don't count Shostakovich. He doesn't appeal to the man on the street, nor ever will.

It's clear that the musical substance itself is at issue. Personally, I just feel bored by most contemporary compositions I hear, and it's not because I don't understand them - to me, it's because they are ponsily contrived in a way that for me goes against the idea of expressive art. I realise that all music and art is contrived, and that the fact it's been worked at is what makes it art, but when I listen to a Bach fugue, a Mozart sonata, a Verdian largo concertato or a Tchaikovsky symphony, I, at least, can sense the emotional fervour involved in manipulating those conventions. They're interested in creating something that will move us. It makes them more than a series of technical excercises - they become timeless masterpieces that will always speak to people.

Turnage isn't going to seem 'oh so tame' in fifty years' time - he's just going to seem as dull as he does today. Or I listen to James Macmillan and even though I quite like it in a way, I tend to think it sounds terribly old-fashioned. And I'm sorry, but it's just pretentious to describe 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence as 'music'.

On the whole, for me the contrivance that characterises most contemporary music - or in some cases, the decision not to bother contriving anything - negates the beauty, the lyricism, the soul-searching qualities which guarantee the future of so much earlier music and the absence of which will almost certainly guarantee the condemnation of most music being written today. That's why it's a fringe activity. It wasn't in Mozart's day.

Or for instance, in the Milan of 1893, the premiere of Verdi's Falstaff was a national event. Puccini had to move the premiere of Manon Lescaut to a different time and place because of it. But even the unusual prominence awarded to The Minotaur this year - possibly deservedly so, but it's undeniably a one-off - will have passed the man on the street completely by.

The contemporary music of today is just irrelevant to the vast majority of people, I'm afraid.

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Jngarratt on Wed Sep 24, 2008 4:36 pm

Some comtemporary music is wonderful, think of Thomas Adés' The Tempest. The more I listen to this the more wonderful it becomes. It's beautiful, emotional, complex and tuneful. As far as I can see just about everybody who heard the piece thinks it's amazing and I think in 50 years time it will be seen a as masterpiece.

But there are composers like Tavener, Glass and Reich who send me to sleep or worse, running from the room to escape the excruciating boredom of the pieces. Do you really believe that in 50 years time people will listen to these works and say they are great? Evil or Very Mad

There is also boring classical music. My idea of hell would be being forced to play, or listen to, Ravel's Bolero more than once, ever...

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Thu Sep 25, 2008 2:56 am

Yeah but you can't equate the person on the street's reaction to something with that thing's quality. Also, I think if you played almost any example of 'classical' music, without a famous melody, to that person then they'd probably be hard pressed to stay awake (in my experience recent compositions exercise the non-musician's mind much more than what they perceive as distant, imperial and male classical music). Also, the contemporary music of today is generally all that matters to people; I don't see Verdi knocking Metallica off the top of the album charts anytime soon! I mean we could go into lengthy debate about the shifting nature of music in the last two hundred years from a form at the centre of people's cultural literacy, to a highly esoteric, specialised idea that requires training and extended exposure for its enjoyment, but I think what it comes down to at the end of the day is that the many, many people out there who enjoy and promote contemporary 'art' music do it because they perceive in it the very same qualities of emotion and lyrical meditation you tie to older, more easily understood forms of music. And sorry to say this, but if anyone thinks Glass, Taverner, Macmillan and the rest constitute the heart of new music you're shockingly misinformed!!!! Don't mean to be rude sorry, I do see where you're coming from, I guess it's just a matter of taste at the end of the day.

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Jngarratt on Thu Sep 25, 2008 9:58 am

So inform us Stephen! Very Happy who do you think of as contemporary composers? Give me examples so I can go and listen! I may like them, I may not like them, but I'm prepared to try.

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Dominic McHugh on Thu Sep 25, 2008 1:18 pm

Well indeed, Stephen - it seems that you're not so much in favour of contemporary music but merely the contemporary music you happen to like.

I still don't think you address the issue that the music of the day isn't going to have widespread appeal in 50 years' time, which I made in response to your comment that such music will seem 'oh so tame' at that point, nor even that it seems 'oh so tame' to the majority of people already.

And yes, of course it's not enough to base critical judegements on popularity, and I was being deliberately provocative. But I guess the salient points are, contemporary art music is perceived to be inaccessible to the majority of people, the canon isn't being extended to include many works of the twentieth century or the last few years, and we would love to know exactly what it is about all this extremely weird stuff that appeals to you.

After all, we know you like really traditional stuff, and you even sat through my lecture on My Fair Lady, as I recall? ;-) So it's not like you're diametrically opposed to the rest of us.

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Thu Sep 25, 2008 6:15 pm

The idea that the contemporary music of today will have greater import in fifty years time relates to the comparable expansion of interest that has occured in the last hundred years with Bartok, Schoenberg (relative to the initial standing of his music, the present attitude is remarkably permissive and interested), Ligeti, even Mahler. But perhaps it won't (though I'd say today's plural and culturally involved music, such as that of Ades, John Adams, Brett Dean, Matthias Pintscher, Heiner Goebbels, to take some middling examples, stands a much better chance than the postwar generation of Stockhausen and Boulez, though even their time is starting to come- witness the former's institutionalisation at the Proms recently). As I've said all of this splurge has been an attempt to understand how music that moves, excites, tickles, provokes me, fails to do so with others, even though music that does the same to them also acts upon me in a similar way. As Dom points out I was at his My Fair Lady lecture (and took the musicals course it sat in), and no I didn't 'sit through it', but rather enjoyed it! That is my favourite musical, purely in terms of songs, and as this might hint at yes I absolutely need tonal music-of all and every description, including, centrally, what fans of 'art' music term 'pop' music-as part of my musical diet. I just like a varied diet!

In answer to the other question, there are many, many composers currently carving out the broad field of contemporary art music. Amongst my favourites: Bernhard Gander, Mark Andre, Salvatore Sciarrino, Terry Riley (much more than In C), Olga Neuwirth, Fausto Romitelli, Beat Furrer, Goebbels (see above), Elliot Sharp, Helmut Lachenmann, Jacob TV, Wolfgang Rihm, Robert Ashley, Parmiggiani, Kaiji Saariaho, Gerard Grisey and so on (not to mention many others from slightly different fields, such as John Butcher in improvised music, or Lustmord in death ambient). I would say though that considering, Janet, you found little in Messiaen to interest you, these composers' music might seem wilfully obscure, at best. I mean if it just doesn't suit you, I wouldn't worry, music is of course always about taste. If you like Vaughan Williams you could try Jon Lord, or perhaps some Film Music composers like Snuffy G. Walden, or maybe the lovely choral work of Veljo Tormis or Luckaszewski (I reviewd these latter two very positively on the site in recent months). Robert Simpson does a very good line in twentieth century symphonic writing, and Kenneth Leighton is another decent English composer from the postwar years. Some of those might work!

Also just to retract something from earlier- Philip Glass can indeed by brain-curdlingly boring, but he has it in him to shine- his score for Notes on a Scandal was terrifically lurid and precipitous for example.....

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Jngarratt on Fri Sep 26, 2008 9:49 am

Thanks Stephen, I'll try at least some of these, I was amazed by how few of these names rang any bells with me! by the way, I'm Jane not Janet - although lots of people do get us confused...

Some music requires time for people to become aware of it, but it's also true that some music never becomes popular with more than a small group of enthusiasts. I remember hearing an interview with Michael Berkeley in which he admitted, somewhat ruefully, that he believed there would never be a large audience for his type of music because so many people found it incomprehensible.

I think that is part of the problem, shouldn't music should appeal instinctively to the listener? don't get me wrong, almost all music repays study and I get far more out of pieces that I have worked at and become more actively involved with. But music that actively repels me on first hearing it is NOT music that I am likely to spend time getting to know. And so much contemporary music seems aggressively unpleasant.

Is there a gender gap here? do more women find strident, "masculine" music less inviting? Most of your contemporary composers seem to be male. Why is this?

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Fri Sep 26, 2008 5:23 pm

Well that's an interesting point about masculine music, though I have to say I find aggressive, violent music (where that violence is misplaced, or facile), quite horrible. Much of the composers on my list write music that is distinctly anti-masculine in fact, in that they emphasize candour, chance and co-operation. The unfortunate fact that only two of the composers on my list were women has to do, i believe, with the fact that the world is still hopelessly skewed in favour of men, for example in my music degree and masters in fact we studied many, many men, and maybe two women (Hildegaard von Bingen and Elizabeth Lutyens). I mean we must have covered three or four hundred men. I obviously am aware of the fact that this is how the world was constituted, largely, until the last hundred years or so, but I believe that there are likely to be much fewer women studying at the moment who could possibly dare to enter what appears on the surface to be such a masculine realm. And that goes for philosophy, science and most other fields of human activity too. And the same could be said of musicologists- I've just started a PhD and was sad to discover, though not surprised, that out of the fifteen or so permanent teaching staff, two are women. The ratio is better than I've previously experienced though- at my previous institution there was only one woman on staff. Quite a dire state of affairs!

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Dominic McHugh on Fri Sep 26, 2008 8:23 pm

The happy news is, though, that King's College Music Dept has just appointed two new female lecturers.

One of them's an ethnomusicologist, just to add to the minority aspect ;-)

The problem I have with contemporary music is that so much of it is instantly dislikeable, or else it seems so tame that I can't be bothered with it. Eg, I didn't find Ades' The Tempest offensive, I just thought it was really dull, bland, constituted mainly of the kind of recitative Monteverdi did much better in the 1600s. It seemed to me that he didn't rise to the lyric moment, except in a few places which were OK (such as the quintet, if I recall correctly) but really not on the level of, say, Peter Grimes, which is one of my favourite operas.

(Ooh, I just said something nice about a mid-twentieth-century piece of music.)

Incidentally, yes Stefano, hurrah to My Fair Lady, which is just so perfect.

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Sat Sep 27, 2008 3:49 pm

That's interesting about King's, I hope they're good!

I don't think anyone could be offended by that recent Tempest- it was so dull and middle of the road it seriously made me consider leaving early, something I never do (the person I was with left at the interval). I do like TA as a composer, but I thought he really missed the point with that one. And as for the rhyming couplets - uuugghhhh! Sorry to anyone who did enjoy it, I don't mean to be sniffy- there's plenty of things I've liked that many haven't....

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  Jngarratt on Sun Sep 28, 2008 1:24 pm

My 15 year old daughter read the last emails over my shoulder (NOT something I encourage) but she spontaneously burst out with "how could anyone say that the Tempest was dull, bland or boring? It was wonderful!" She was doing the play for English GCSE, had been taken to the stage version by the school, which she DID find dull and watched the opera on DVD. It's very much a matter of individual taste I think.

I listened to Adés at the insight evening talking about the rhyming couplets. He made the point that the text did not have enough "shape" for what he wanted from the opera, he wanted something more defined than the rather amorphous original. He did try using the original text but it just didn't gell for him, so he went into the rhyming couplets and immediately found that he was able to set this in the way he imagined. OK, you can say that is because he was thinking "bland" but I don't agree. The basis of the original text and the iconic images are still there in the text he used, but the whole piece moves with a pace that is lacking in the stage play.

If you want "bland" can we discuss 1984? Not a piece that I would call an opera although the staging made it an unusual and fairly emotive piece of theatre, and on that level it worked for me. In 1984 the action is not carried by the music - in the Tempest it is. 1984 is another piece where the libretto was created as verse from the original novel (I think) and it was certainly worse than the libretto used in the Tempest, with some unintentionally crass images. The music was eminently forgettable, except possibly for the children's chorus based on nursery rhymes. The more I listen to the Tempest the more I find in it, I don't listen to 1984 for pleasure because there's nothing in the music.

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  StephenG on Sun Sep 28, 2008 9:33 pm

That's all very interesting about the Tempest- I must get hold of the DVD and have another watch. I think maybe my expectations were very high (as I've said I do like Tom A), so perhaps that might have played a part in my reaction. I did really enjoy the Sibelius/Shakespeare musical play version recently at the Barbican, but in fairness it probably can't be compared to the new Tempest as it treats the source materials in such a different way.

Can't comment on 1984- the shocking critical notices kept me away!

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Re: Contemporary music

Post  crazzycat on Wed Dec 23, 2009 11:33 am

recommend me please some good example of contemperary music

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