Modern Classical Music: What is it?

Photo is from the blog on, an interesting blog with lots of tidbits about music.

Robert Knox of the Boston Globe wrote an article about an upcoming concert series by the South Shore Conservatory of Music. The article opens talking about how 'Classical musicians are often reluctant to program contemporary classical music because audiences tend to think that "contemporary" is a synonym for "difficult."' When he says difficult, does he mean difficult to listen to, difficult to perform or just hard to swallow that it is actually music?

Mr Knox goes on to define difficult saying, 'While modern music can be "can be perceived as difficult" - harder on the ears, that is, than the well-loved Romantic music of the 19th century and the classical harmonies of earlier periods.' It's the harder on the ears that stands out. Certainly much of Anton Webern's later 12-tone pieces are a struggle for audiences as the harmonic progression is different that the music of even the late Romantics like Gustav Mahler or Claude Debussy (both who tend to go pretty far afield from standard romantic chord progressions). Cage, Boulez and Babbitt all have music which is fascinating on an intellectual level (from a musicologists point of view) but audiences struggle with listening to them for long periods of time (without having the urge to do bodily harm to themselves or the rest of humanity). Moving forward to current composers like those of the new complexity, Ferneyhough, Cox and Dillon really push the bounds of both the listener and the performer to new understandings in what we think of as music. While my own personal tastes tend to only really enjoy this later group of composrs, all of the above listed are examples of how modern composers have given the modern audience that concept contemporary classical music is difficult.

The problem with contemporary classical music is the desire to please both an intellectual audience, the musicologists who feel if the music isn't complex, unique striving for something that hasn't been said before in new and interesting (angular) ways it isn't challenging enough, and the lay audience who really just attend concerts to relax and enjoy (and aren't fussed about being intellectually challenged). Babbitt didn't care if the masses enjoyed his music. Schoenberg went so far as to dismiss the masses as if to suggest if the masses enjoyed it perhaps the music wasn't challenging enough. Too often composers get lost in this attitude and what results is complex contemporary music that pleases such a small audience it runs of risk of being lost, and never being recognised (and thus has no value).

Beth MacLeod is quoted in Mr Knoxes article suggesting the decision process for the new concert series programme, "We made the decision not to program anything too difficult." The contemporary composer they've opted to go with is Peter Lieberson, a 2008 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his Neruda Songs. Listening to these as performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Mr Lieberson's wife who died from cancer and for whom these songs were written), the music is filled with lyrical love, lush chords and classical sounding harmonic progressions. It is obvious why these songs fall in the category of not too difficult and yet, in yet in terms of performance, there is plenty of room to explore a range of emotions allowing the performer to shine.

So, what makes Mr Lieberson's music Contemporary Classical (other than being recently composed in a classical manner) if it's not difficult to listen to? Well, it is interesting to note Peter studied with Milton Babbit and sites jazz and minimalism as influences. There are elements in his music of sharp-angled atonality, yet with rich romantic melodies. The key to writing contemporary music is to keep enough of the familiar (romantic melodies) and yet bring modern elements to play to engage the modern music critic.

Mr Lieberson was featured in a Composer Portraits concert at the Miller Theater (New York) in September which was reviewed by Allan Kozinn. Mr Kozinn speaking about "Mr. Lieberson’s ideas about style were developed and sharply focused at that early point in his career." In another piece, "the Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments (1973), the four groups — woodwinds; violins and viola; harp and piano; cello and bass — interact in a lively sequence of dialogues, the discussion occurring among the groups rather than within them. Sometimes several groups play at once, though not necessarily with a commonality of purpose. What results is a continuously shifting, entirely engaging stream of timbres and mutating themes." Obviously Mr Lierberson has a sense of what makes beautiful music and yet is able to incorporate modern elements to remain attractive for even the intellectual listener.

I just missed the Composer Portraits concert at the Miller Theater (New York) on Nov. 5. Although it was devoted to Milton Babbit, so maybe I didn't miss it after all.


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