Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Built to last?

The New York Times' Allan Kozinn sounds out performers who specialize in new music, and hears that many or most contemporary works aren't built to last:

As Kozinn observes, this has been true of most compositions in most periods. What's more, audiences have been prone to dote on second-raters: "If the great masterpieces of the canon were determined entirely by the opinions of the musicians and listeners who first played them and heard them, J. C. Bach would be far more beloved than his father, Johann Sebastian. Salieri would be the star and Mozart the footnote, and Hummel would be the great virtuoso of the early 19th century." Today's masterpieces similarly may be misunderstood or underrated by today's musicians and audiences.

Music of the past has been filtered (or, as Kozinn puts it, beta-tested); vast bodies of forgettable music that was introduced alongside the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich has been duly forgotten. The filter is just beginning to separate the worthy from the disposable in music written over the past generation. Even contemporary specialists would be hesitant to predict which works of Elliott Carter or Steve Reich will endure, let alone works of younger fry such as Jennifer Higdon or David Lang. Mason Bates' mating of the orchestra and electronica may be the start of something big, or a passing phenomenon.

Playing and hearing new music works the filter in real time. This is not an experience that much of the traditional classical audience craves, but it can prove more satisfying than the traditionalist expects – if performers bring the same concentration and passion to the new work that they do to the established masterworks.

Younger musicians, and some established ones (Kozinn cites violinists Hilary Hahn and Christian Tetzlaff), are devoting more time to new and unfamiliar works, often delighting audiences on these treks into uncharted terrain. Brilliant technique and insightful musicianship can make a believer out of a listener regardless of the music being performed.

New music also has built a stable of virtuosos keen to collaborate with theatrical and visual artists. In these parts, we get regular exposure to the results of such collaborative multimedia ventures in the performances of eighth blackbird. The 'birds and other contemporary ensembles – the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, Ethel, Brooklyn Rider – are valued as much for the show they put on as for the music they perform.

That's probably the least new characteristic of new music. Audiences of the past were electrified by virtuosos – Paganini, Liszt, Godowsky, Elman, Heifetz – playing music that we would now rate as mediocre, or even as junk. The Tetzlaffs and Hahns of today may be more discerning in their sampling of the new than the virtuosos of the past were.

Theatricality, multiculturism, instrumentation from and allusions to popular culture, have widened the playing field of new music. Listeners are constantly surprised and often find unexpected sensibilties and moods activated by what they see and hear. Much of new music is a show that appeals to more senses than the aural; it has as much in common with visual art as with any concert music of the past.