‘Difficult’ Music

There’s a great article in the Guardian today by Alex Needham, entitled ‘Audiences flock to “difficult” contemporary classical music’.

Check it out HERE

It attempts to encapsulate a surge of interest, catered for by the Southbank, Barbican and ENO, in late twentieth-century music. By interviewing a lot of key players in British contemporary music in quite a short space, it races through quite a few important ideas, many of which fit very closely with the opinions of this blog.

Gillian Moore from the Southbank Centre describes putting on the Warp records concerts, ‘to make the connections between Aphex Twin and John Cage, Squarepusher and Stockhausen’, finding that the people who attended ‘had an almost unlimited appetite for music of richness and complexity’. Conductor Baldur Brönnimann ‘confirms that many people arrive at the avant garde of contemporary music via the wilder shores of pop’. He says of a Joanna Newsom audience that those ‘who came are the ones who look at contemporary music. They look for something that goes deeper, to undiscovered worlds – the bottom of the sea’.

Esa Pekka Salonen says:

There’s a trend in our culture to be constantly up to date because we’re connected through the internet, and an art form that would be entirely backward-looking and museum-like would make no sense. People are interested in what’s happening right now.

He must of course be mainly talking about ‘post-Net’ young people, or tech-savvy adults, which could go some way to explain why the backward-looking classical mainstream is still largely followed by older people.

The only contention I have with all this is the idea of ‘difficult’ music. I think this is certainly part of the way trained musicians see this music, because they see all of the history of music at once, and the same goes for regular concert-goers who have a good knowledge and experience of older music. For them, it seems like it is ‘difficulty’ – i.e. non-tonality, complexity – which people are now gradually ‘getting’, as if these audiences are made up of people who would be fine sitting through a Bach Passion or Mozart opera.

This is, of course, not the case – as suggested in the quotes above. What is heard as ‘difficulty’ by musicians and classical fans is actually just heard as ‘interestingness’ by much of this young audience. And I have to say now, I find listening to Schubert and Mendelssohn and Bach and Brahms a LOT more difficult than listening to any of the modern composers discussed, largely because I often find their works devoid of much interest, fulfilling preordained structures, following all-too-familiar rules and expressing banal or unattractive sentiments. Most people who believe they are qualified to have an opinion on these things would say that I am a freak in this respect, that it is not the natural way to react and that I shouldn’t think I’m representative of much of the population, but that is just because they are validated in their judgements by their own beloved institutions.

So to understand this as ‘difficult’ music is missing the point. In many cases, classical symphonies are just as alien to the musical experiences of young people as modernist works, sometimes more so. We imagine tonality and classical forms to be somehow natural and universally comprehensible, and perhaps there was a time when they were (I don’t think we can judge), but – as with the Warp records example – there is more going on in the rest of culture which is comparable to modern music than there is to archaic forms. I would call it ‘interesting’ music instead of ‘difficult’ music and have done.

In this spirit, I disagree with Oliver Coates‘s quoted comment. Apparently, he doesn’t think ‘classical music should be put on in bars and clubs – people shouldn’t drink or talk over it, they need to be immersed in it. It remains quite serious music’. So, I think this is a) patronising, b) narrow-sighted and c) highly uncreative (surprisingly so from this man). He confuses the extant circumstances of the concert hall for something essential – the normalcy of the setting is confused for ‘neutrality’, whereas actually it is far from neutral (like anything). My experience of new music in bars and clubs is not one of people talking, just like most people don’t tend to enjoy in-depth conversations during alternative pop gigs, and I don’t see what drinking has to do with anything. Mainly though, he’s just displaying a deeply reactionary attitude which amounts to: the big institutions know best how you should be listening to this music, they must keep the power, people and music can’t be trusted to understand each other ‘properly’ outside of the correctly-sanctioned environment (and without a correctly-purchased ticket).

God knows what he means by ‘it remains quite serious music’. Why ‘serious’? Why ‘quite’? And why ‘remains’? The problem with these articles is always that they are written by and for people who accept this idea that ‘people naturally hate new things and interesting things and different things, so isn’t it just amazingly exciting when people actually want to go to new music?!’. This is an attitude that needs to be shaken. People shouldn’t have to read how ‘difficult’ or ‘divisive’ a new piece is going to be before they go and hear it. They shouldn’t have to be reminded that ‘you might hate it’ and ‘some people walk out’ etc. If so-called classical fans want to make such a big display about hating new music, why do we care? I’m not interested in football, but I don’t go to football matches just so I can walk out. The same is true for exhibitions of landscape watercolours and CGI-animated movies. They don’t care how much I hate it, even though I’d find any of these things so much more ‘difficult’ to endure than the longest Stockhausen works…

This is actually one of the key arguments to get new music out of the concert halls. Obviously, the reason why classical die-hards think it appropriate to perform their disgust all over new music programming is because they think it is ‘their’ territory. It’s like when the Young British Artists held their Sensation show in the Royal Academy. While we keep focusing on these venues as the nexus for new music, we will keep having to apologise to ourselves and to subscribing audiences for being so ‘adventurous’ as to dare put a piece written in the last 50 years into a blockbuster concert. We need to escape these terms, because it surely isn’t the way composers want their music to be presented to the public – with apologies and the assurance of ‘difficulty’ and the invitation to ‘make an exception and take the plunge and do something crazy and you just might like it’ etc.

The article also threw up a link to another Guardian article which I missed from 2010, by Alex Ross. It is entitled ‘Why do we hate modern classical music?’ and it should be read. Obviously from what I’ve just been saying, I’m not sure the sentiment expressed in the title is particularly intelligent, but he makes some great points and suggestions, and there are some good comments made below, amongst the requisite, boring, self-righteous reactionary grossness.

Read that article   –   HERE <——-

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One Response to ‘Difficult’ Music

  1. Pingback: three press posts: The Ideology of Failure |

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