Manifesto

The world of new music is broken.

With few exceptions, we inhabit a pretty bleak landscape.  Nobody comes to concerts.  Nobody knows what we do.  For the most part, nobody even knows that we’re doing it.  A depressing number of people aren’t even aware that there are still living composers outside of the film industry (“You mean like Mozart?”  Yeah.  Just like Mozart.)  Most of our music is played a single time in front of an audience of fewer than fifty people in a glorified classroom – even the most successful and popular groups have only the smallest following outside of people who hold degrees in music.  For composers and performers of new music alike, our best hope for employment is to scrabble for a handful of jobs at schools which generally don’t support what we’re doing (and still we should be so lucky) and will, with no hint of irony, declare one hundred year old museum pieces to be “new.”

I think it’s safe to say this isn’t what anybody had in mind.

Pictured: our adoring public

So how did we get here?  When did new music become a closed echo chamber of composers writing coded love notes to one another (or themselves)?  At what point did we lose track of the idea that music is supposed to be heard?  There’s an endless supply of blame to go around and plenty of places to dish it out: changing cultural currents, harsh economic conditions, our predecessors (always a popular target, but let’s dispense right now with the “It’s Schoenberg’s/Babbitt’s/Cage’s/whoever-we-happen-to-disagree-with’s fault!” argument and move on), a poor educational system, a political climate that antagonizes the arts, a university system that drastically oversupplies demand and unrealistically inflates expectations… I could go on.

The reality is that things aren’t great and, as easy (and stress-relieving!) as it is to climb the soapbox and rant for a few minutes, the better use of our time is to start trying to answer the question, “now what?”  Given that we live when we do, given that there is an entrenched and deeply conservative art music establishment, given that new music has become an eclectic and largely irrelevant nano-culture cut off from the mainstream, what can we do?

Chase after the scraps that dying orchestras throw our way?  Carve out increasingly tiny and isolated niches for ourselves?  Cry into our beer?

It isn’t sufficient to survive.  There’s no shame in a day job, but I’ll be damned if I let myself become a hobbyist.  If we believe in the music we write and play, if we think there is real value in having it performed and disseminated, if we really are writing and playing for living, breathing human beings out in the world and not for a tiny cadre of jaded, heavy-lidded peers, then we have a duty to change the system with which we’ve been presented, to do our best to breathe some vitality and purpose into our dessicated little corner of the art world and to make people want to wake up and listen to what we have to say rather than lying down and meekly accepting irrelevance, even if that means drastically reevaluating what we do and why.

We like to imagine ourselves in contemporary music as creative thinkers and problem-solvers, but there are a lot of preconceptions and assumptions we’ve accepted without much question, everything from how our music should sound to where it ought to be performed to who we’d like to have listening.  We didn’t get to choose.  Most of these assumptions have been handed down from our teachers and mentors who got it from theirs who got it from theirs, and at this point they aren’t doing us any favors.

My purpose here is to identify some of the problems in the systems that create, promote, and perform new music and game out, with the help of anyone reading, some possible solutions.  Certainly this will involve pointed criticism of people and institutions which (mostly unintentionally) make the world a more difficult place for new music, but I’ll do my best to focus on constructive changes.  This is not music criticism, nor is it a foil for me to clap my friends and colleagues on the back and tell them what a good job they’re doing – there are already plenty of other venues that serve those needs.  What I hope this can become is a forum for those with a vested interest in the health of new music – conductors, performers, composers, administrators, scholars, members of the public (just kidding, I know they’re not reading) – to discuss how we can change our existing institutions for the better and how we might shape those that come after for a more fruitful, relevant, and vital culture.

I don’t accept that this is the way things have to be, and neither should any of you.  There are real changes we can make in the ways we think about, promote, present, write, perform, and consume music, and if you agree that it’s worth a little time and thought make this happen, then read on and speak your mind.

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3 Comments

  1. David. I would like to be the first to respond to this by saying, that some larger cultural problems are at play here, and I believe, that they begin and end in the up-bringing of our children. If as many fathers watch “Wozzeck” with their sons, as often as they did “The World Series”, perhaps the seats of both super-arenas (the contemporary opera house AND sporting stadium), would be full. No?

    Reply
  2. I agree that those issues are at play, but I don’t think it solves anything to offload our problems onto “the public.” (see an upcoming post on that topic) It takes about ten minutes from never having heard of baseball, or pretty much any sport, to being able to follow a game. Much as I love Wozzeck, I think it took me a little longer to develop a taste for Berg. Even so, what are we supposed to do? Burst into homes and blast Second Viennese school into cribs? Fact is the kiddies don’t like Wozzeck, whatever the cause. And why should we care? Wozzeck is ancient fucking history!

    Reply
  3. Rouse that rabble, sir!

    Reply

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