Fate of Contemporary Classical Music

There is a lot of discussion on the internet about the demise of Contemporary Classical Music. Eddie Silva talks of the Death of the Death of Classical Music to say it's been pronounced dead so many times we need to move on - and yet, Classical Music isn't something that really ever dies, but just looks to be re-born or re-invested into something new. Anzu says much the same thing (only much shorter - with references to sex, albeit a tenuous connection). Alex Fong attributes the death of Classical Music to the stuffy critics and patrons who feel "classical music is an art to be appreciated like fine wine, with a discerning palette to augur through its complexities."

While all of these are interesting reads, Stefan Kac, on his blog "My Fickle Ears Dig It", gives a fascinating insight into three reasons why he thinks CCM is dying. While I agree with his first and third arguments on Attempting To Use Analysis To Synthesize Experience and Appealing to Novelty in Place of Substance, I don't agree with his middle argument - Arbitrarily Imposing a Narrative on a Piece of Abstract Instrumental Music. His post is in response to Benjamin Zander's lecture at the TED conference.

Perhaps Benjamin Zander is one of those people Alex Fong is talking about; someone who feels CCM is elite and therefore requires more from its audience than "normal" music, although the quest for composers to create something new or novel has resulted in some very unmemorable music. Schoenberg feels music needs to be memorable in order to be likeable and yet so much of CCM is anything but memorable - different yes, but often lacks a quality that our brains can absorb without in-depth analysis. If the music needs analysis to be enjoyed, then there is something wrong with it.

In terms of use of narrative, I find that it can be useful, although not always necessary. Beethoven's 6th Symphony is Pastoral, and with that in mind, the piece easily calls to mind feelings (or scenes) of that sort - so, while not specifically a narrative for the symphony, the association does enhance the listening experience. Yet, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik needs no narrative. Perhaps it could be said Beethoven's 6th Symphony doesn't need one either, but the narrative does (IMHO) enhance it.

I don't feel all music needs a narrative, nor should all music have it. However, that said, it can help in some instances.

Is CCM dying? No. I agree with Eddie Silva in that it just needs to be re-invented by composers who are looking for something new - that is memorable - that speaks to the audience with our without additional narrative and, while it may be interesting if analysed, it can be enjoyed simply by listening to it.

If you'd like to listen to some of my attempts at CCM, click here.


Stefan Kac said…
Hi Chip,

Thanks for reading and referencing my post. I just want to say that I'm most certainly not someone who "thinks contemporary classical music is dying," just someone who endorses John Cage's notion of "letting sounds be themselves," even if we're talking about music that long predates the coining of that particular phrase.

Reading what you wrote here, I realized that the idea of "requiring more from an audience" could mean different things. My criticism of Zander was actually based on the fact that he was requiring less from his audience by spoon-feeding them his programmatic interpretation of the piece rather than challenging them to form their own (which, if they are to become regulars at classical concerts, they would need to do be able to do without him sitting on their shoulder). I see that as potentially insulting because it assumes that there is a "correct" way to listen to music that they are not capable of discovering on their own.

Rather than simply "requiring more from its audience than 'normal' music," Zander implies that classical music requires something specific and universal that must be learned intellectually rather than discovered through self-awareness, and that this works equally well for everyone. I suspect that you and I and most people reading this probably have enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that the diversity of listening styles even among people with similar tastes is sufficiently wide-ranging to blow this assumption out of the water. What you say in your last paragraph about music being appealing with or without narrative or analysis is, I think, a more noble and realistic goal for musicians, and one that most of us would wholeheartedly endorse; yet until our most visible public spokespeople embrace such a notion, that won't be our perceived position on the matter.
anzu said…
Hi Chip,

Thanks for the link to my blog. I didn't actually list the source of the quote (I listed it more for dramatic effect :)), but the actual original article from which I got the quote is in the New Republic. Here is the link. Perhaps I should clarify on my blog as well.

Chip said…
Stefan, I didn't think you thought classical music was dying. I don't either. I'm all in favor of requiring more from an audience (not spoon feeding them) - but also aware that some people can be put off by feeling they didn't "get" the music. Programme notes can as much create this feeling as it can dispel it. If the notes about a piece make it seem too intellectual that can turn some audience members off.

I think some in the CCM world are in the habit of trying to go too far from what our audience's are comfortable with - and then spoon feed them information that only servest to make the audience feel stupid. No one wants to feel stupid - and just because the music has such intellectual depth to it doesn't mean it's good music (or even intelligently written).

If music can not stand on its own, without Programme notes, then I tend to feel it has lost something of what music should be. The notes should be able to enhance the music, but the music should not have to rely on it.

Anzu - Interesting link - makes me want to read the book.

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