06 March 2017

The Problem with New Music


Why do musicians feel the need to apologise about presenting modern music?  In Singapore, where there is clearly an appetite for the music of our time and where mostly young audiences should not be hung up on the prejudices and pallid tastes of the past, it has become embarrassingly common for those putting on such concerts to envelop them within an almost fawning aura of apology and excuse.

Last night, for example, I attended a concert as part of the Esplanade’s excellent Spectrum series.  This is a series of concerts featuring music written within the last 100 years which, at the moment, is exploring minimalism – a musical genre which, perhaps more than any other of recent times, deliberately sets out to be accessible.  Last night’s concert was no exception, and even went further by including some not-really-minimalist pieces by iconic Singaporean composers.  The concert had an almost capacity audience. 

Yet the conductor devoted half of the time to flabbily apologising for the fact that the concert was made up of modern music, earnestly invoking the audience to open their ears to new ideas, not to feel intimidated or put off by “new” music, and to put aside their prejudices about all modern music being ugly and tuneless.  He even tried to show how much fun it could be by getting the audience to be involved in experiments as an appetiser to music by Arvo Pärt (82 this year) and John Tavener (who died over three years ago) – hardly men whose music can now be considered to be at the cutting edge of outrageous innovation.

Why?  Did he seriously believe that the audience had stumbled into the hall by mistake?  That they had bought their tickets believing that they were in for an evening of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven? 

I am sure he did not, but it has become endemic amongst those who perform and present the music of our time to pre-suppose that audiences are unwilling to accept it.  And on what grounds do they base that assumption?  On the evidence of audiences in the West who, having been subjected to the musical experiments and the Cult of the Unlistenable promoted by a group of composers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, set out deliberately to challenge and alienate in the wake of the Second World War, used to look on anything labelled as “modern” with the deepest of suspicion.  Even today, western audiences (which are demographically considerably older than Asian ones) have an ingrained suspicion of the music of the mid-20th century, even if they have no such hang-ups on the music of the early 21st. 

So why does a Singaporean audience (or a Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai or Indonesian one, for that matter) feel the need to ape their western counterparts?  The answer is, they do not, but those who put on concerts do; perhaps because of some poor experience during their studies overseas (which is a good reason why overseas study is not necessarily an entirely beneficial thing) or perhaps because they have heard second or third hand about audience reactions in London, New York and Paris to concerts of modern music put on in the 1970s.

Far from feeling alienated by the music created in our time and born of the society in which we live, we should appreciate it as far more accessible than that of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, whose lives and the societies in which they lived are so alien to our own existence that we cannot begin to comprehend what they were trying to convey in their music.  In fact, so horribly ignorant are many modern-day musicians of musical history, that their complete failure to comprehend the music of the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries results in performances which reveal a complete disregard for its original context and purpose.  Music students in south east Asia have learnt what meagre crumbs of historical knowledge they possess from equally ignorant teachers who, because the ABRSM and other examination boards do not include history in their syllabuses, feel that it is irrelevant.

Sadly it is not, and we live in an age where unthinking interpretations of old music are seen as preferable to considered and intelligent performances of modern music, simply because nobody understands what music is all about.  It does not help that modern music is so often put into a ghetto; performed in isolation of the repertory which forms its very foundations, and usually delivered in an unconventional way in a misguided attempt to detach it from familiar musical expectations.

We need to turn our way of presenting modern music around.  It is the music of earlier generations which needs to be prefaced by an apology and explanation – for all its familiarity, very few are really competent to interpret it properly.  As for the music of our time, it speaks so directly and immediately to audiences, that to try and explain it is, at best patronising and at worst, seriously alienating.

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