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The Agony of Contemporary Classical Music

Posted on Wednesday, February 15, 2023
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by David Lewis Schaefer
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AMAC Exclusive – By David Lewis Schaefer

Music

As the audience for classical music keeps shrinking, the music that contemporary composers are producing (typically with the support of grants from government or private foundations) is less and less listenable. As is the case with so many other aspects of our lives, the reason why may lie in part with the politicization of what was formerly an autonomous realm of civilized pleasure and spiritual elevation.

In 1975, the justly celebrated, iconoclastic essayist and future novelist Tom Wolfe published a short book titled The Painted Word. The book’s thesis was that works of contemporary, typically abstract “art” posted on museum walls weren’t really art at all. As evidence of this, he pointed to the several paragraphs of explanation composed by curators designed to explain what the artist was trying to “say” through the work.

The core function of art isn’t to express the artist’s opinions about contemporary affairs – for that, we have books and articles that report facts and attempt to analyze or assess them through reasoned argument. Rather it is to convey sensations of beauty, along with other passions including piety, awe, love, and even fear. The mere opinions of the artist as to what facts or phenomena merit such passions are of little interest to the outside observer: if the sheer experience of looking at a painting or sculpture doesn’t express anything to us, why should we care to learn about the artist’s “real” intent?

Fast-forward to 1996, when a young future Pulitzer Prize-winning composer from Philadelphia named Aaron Jay Kernis was having a concert of his work performed at Cornell University by its student chamber group, of which my daughter, a member of the group as well as a keyboard artist and musicology student, was a part. The only memorable highlight of this basically unlistenable series of pieces was one in which my daughter’s role was to shake a Coke can full of sand.

Of course, to anyone trained in the great tradition of classical music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and so on) or even accustomed to listening to melodic popular music, Kernis’s compositions, like much contemporary classical music, lacked any intelligibility or beauty. The key to the work in question was supplied, however, by the program notes distributed to the audience, which explained that the composer wrote the piece to express his outrage at the 1991 Gulf War.

In response, an audience member expecting to hear a concert of “music” in the customary sense might reasonably ask: “ Who cares?” If you are angry (or happy) about an act or policy of government – write an article or book, give a speech, or compose a letter to the editor and defend your views. But why should an audience be expected to sit through a performance of music designed to be intentionally painful and uncomfortable to listen to? In sum, Wolfe’s judgment about visual art that requires a few paragraphs to express its “real” meaning applies even more obviously to works of strictly instrumental (not verbal) music.

These thoughts are occasioned by a classical concert I recently attended by a respectable local orchestra. At the core of the concert – and the reason my wife and I attended – was a performance of one of the greatest works of the Romantic movement, the Tschaikovsky violin concerto, featuring the brilliant young soloist William Hagen.

As the “price” for getting to hear the piece, however, the audience was first compelled to suffer through a perfectly unmelodic and disorderly piece, “Black Iris (#metoo),” composed by a younger woman named Reena Esmail who had graduated from both the Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music. Esmail counted as one of her instructors none other than Aaron Jay Kernis.

Like her mentor’s work, Esmail’s composition was inspired by her reaction to contemporary events – in her case, as the piece’s alternate title signifies, the “Me Too” movement, which (as the composer explains in the program) was created in 2008 “as a way to create safe spaces for young women of color” and “grew into a movement that allowed so many women to speak out, contextualize one another’s experience, and began to heal.” Her piece was composed more precisely, she observed, as “one response – of many hundreds of responses,” to the question she is “always” asked, of “why there aren’t more women composers.”

The work is filled, by the composer’s testimony, with the “rage” that filled her as she contemplated “the injustices that plagued even the strongest, most powerful women among us, the rage of having to relive the worst moments of my own life over and over again, every time I checked Facebook or turned on the words.”

Judging from the numerous professional awards that Esmail has received, including an Artist/Composers in Residence at the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Seattle Symphony, respectively, a Kennedy Citizen Artist Fellowship, and a Walter Hinrichsen Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, it is hard to know what in her life or career occasioned such an expression of rage and despair. It all sounds as if she is more in need of an extended session of feminist group therapy.

The more interesting question is – why would a group of respectable, probably college-educated individuals (judging from the concert venue and their appearance), divided roughly between the sexes, willingly submit to 15 minutes of disharmonious and themeless musical performance, designed only to express the privileged composer’s anger rather please the listeners? More specifically, since the orchestra performing it depends heavily on financial support from wealthy local donors, why aren’t they asking the orchestra’s music director to schedule more inspiring, elevating, audience-pleasing program pieces by the greats of the Western classical tradition rather than having to endure a repellent musical rant?

The answer, I believe, is supplied by another term coined by Tom Wolfe, back in 1968: “Radical Chic.” In the essay bearing that title, Wolfe described a party he’d been invited to attend at the elegant Manhattan apartment belonging to the renowned composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and his wife. (Bernstein’s own music, I should add, while not always conventional, tended far more in the direction of the melodious and ordered than that of Kernis and Esmail.)

Most of the party’s attendees were drawn from New York’s high society. But scattered among them were members of the Black Panthers, the increasingly violent “revolutionary” group who professed the goal of overthrowing “bourgeois” white society – that is, the society whose pinnacle had been reached by most of those present. Yet far from objecting to the Panthers’ program and conduct, as Wolfe recounts, the chic partygoers fawned over them, promising financial support (the Panthers’ motive for attending the affair) and wanting it to be known that theywere far more socially advanced than their conventionally bourgeois (or proletarian) fellow citizens.

Even more than in 1968, today’s well-to-do patrons of the arts are determined to demonstrate their unconventionality simply to be admired for it (just as sophisticated French aristocrats, in the years leading up to the 1789 Revolution, celebrated literature and attended theatrical performances that mocked them: see the discussion in Simon Schama’s Citizens: A History of the French Revolution).

For that purpose, elites are willing to undergo quite a bit of abuse, whether it be artistic, literary, musical, or political. (Recall Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wearing a gown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2021 gala fundraiser with the slogan “Tax the Rich.”) Most recently, a bevy of tycoons led by ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with Peter Kraus (who received a huge severance package after just 3 months as the executive vice president of Merrill Lynch) financed a musical video installation in New York titled “Euphoria,” devoted to exposing the evils of “capitalism,” the system that so enriched them.

While it is regrettable that the average age of attendees at today’s classical performances continues to rise – a function, in part, of the deficiencies of present-day musical education in our K-12 schools – the future of classical music is certainly not going to be saved by programming anti-musical tirades for audiences to endure. Right now, orchestra and opera companies need donors and attendees with some backbone who will stand up against the latest trends, fearless of being dismissed as stodgy or unenlightened, and restore the performance of great music from the Western tradition to its rightful place. Won’t anyone dare to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes?

As a concluding note, the present author wishes to mention that his daughter, whose first collegiate-level orchestral performance was on a soda can, is now a highly accomplished musicologist and harpsichordist at one of America’s leading universities, and also a feminist whose scholarship currently focuses on the role of female-led musical salons in 18th century France. Neither her performances nor her scholarship, to my knowledge, have included any political or personal rants, despite the fact that she has strongly held opinions about politics that often differ from my own. But she makes the distinction that many of today’s composers fail to recognize between the spheres of serious musical composition and those of incoherent political or personal grievance.

David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross

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Martin Plecki
Martin Plecki
1 year ago

I played trumpet through high school and a couple of years in college. I stopped playing in the college orchestra because there were too many aggressive gays among the members. That was 40 years ago. These days the arts are so full of leftists and gays whose thought patterns are so inbred and twisted that expecting something worthwhile from folks like those mentioned in the article, is expecting too much. I like the music and the pictures my grandchildren produce much better than anything I here and see from the “pros”. The same thing goes for professional sports. It will be decades if ever before any of that swings to something that doesn’t have a leftist agenda attached to it.

Philip Hammersley
Philip Hammersley
1 year ago

Today’s music “experts” don’t know the difference between “symphony” and “cacophony.” Sort of like people who think the meth head is an “artist” when his “works” match those of your average eight-year-old!

Honey
Honey
1 year ago

I always thought classical music became intolerable when twelve tone music began to dominate.

The composer does all in his power to prevent a melody from showing up. If a melody begins, uh oh he says. Mustn’t have that. he twelve tones must all be heard before you can go on . Ugh as in ughly.

Bob L.
Bob L.
1 year ago

“Music” has been on a downhill slid for more than 60 years but with some exceptions once in a while. Every once in a while, a “harsh” piece gets rearranged and turned into a really nice piece with one example being Maurice Jarre’s version of “Unchained Melody” which was included in the movie “Ghost”. You can listen to it on YouTube. Another example of fine music, written in 1977 is “Ballade pour Adeline” and I have the YouTube Andre’ Rieu example bookmarked for when I need to sooth my worldly exhausted mind.

Sue
Sue
1 year ago

Not to mention symphonies and concerts are held at night in downtown areas that aren’t safe.

CoNMTX
CoNMTX
1 year ago

I’m 81 yrs. old. When I was in high school, college and beyond, I attended the symphony in a near by city regularly. Now, although in a large city, they struggle to stay solvent. Attendance is low. I majored in music in college and have been in bands, orchestras, & choirs since I was 12. Much of today’s music would scare the buzzards off a gut truck. Someone once said you can judge a society by it’s music. By looking around us at our government and then listening to our music, that appears to be very true.

NewDay
NewDay
1 year ago

Seems like ‘rage and despair” are current themes in society today. The younger generations have lost their “way” which now shows up in academia, social interactions, and expression such as music, not just classical but all forms. Respect for authority, respect for social norms and manners, and lack of spiritual interest have led them into a self serving and self gratifying existence.

T Smith
T Smith
1 year ago

This sounds like something out of Atlas Shrugged.

Ginene Heberger
Ginene Heberger
1 year ago

As this article arrived in my inbox, I was listening to John Corigliano’s 2nd Symphony. Today, Feb. 16, is his birthday. My husband and I try to listen to the works of composers on their birthdays. Well, this piece fits the article. Mostly noise. Give me Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bernstein. I can take “modern” when it’s music, not noise.

Yo
Yo
1 year ago

I love Bach. I am 63. I don’t care about todays classical music. I’d never even thought about it, until you brought it up.

Scott Hufford
Scott Hufford
9 months ago

I could swear I read this diatribe in 1977. Do I like everything I hear? Of course not, but I love a lot of the contemporary music to which I’m listening: Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Joan Tower, Jennifer Higdon, Eric Whitacre, John Adams, John Luther Adams, Augusta Read Thomas, Osvaldo Golijov, Christopher Tin, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Arvo Pärt, Peter Boyer, etc., etc.
The range of contemporary classical music being written, recorded, and performed today is VAST. I guarantee that there are contemporary composers whose music you would love. If you are not interested in expanding your horizons, that is your choice, but to judge all contemporary music by something you don’t like is as ill informed as saying you don’t like classical music because you think Antonio Salieri is boring.
By the way, I also love Bach–I just purchased and listened to my tenth version of the Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin (Bojan Čičić on a period instrument, and it’s wonderful).

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