December 1, 2010

Alex Ross: “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?”

New Yorker music critic, Alex Ross, recently pondered the question, "Why Do We Hate Modern Music?" in The Guardian and I think his conclusions are very convincing. Mr. Ross is one of my favorite writers on music this brief essay demonstrates why. With graceful reasonableness and friendly readability, he eloquently demolishes all the old canards that seek to prove “modern” music is unlistenable (i.e. dubious research showing that infants “prefer” tonality to dissonance, audiences can't sit still, etc.) and suggests that it is the regressive institutions of so-called “classical music” that have instilled this hatred modern music:

The core problem is, I suspect, neither physiological nor sociological. Rather, modern composers have fallen victim to a long-smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music's idolatrous relationship with the past. Even before 1900, people were attending concerts in the expectation that they would be massaged by the lovely sounds of bygone days. ("New works do not succeed in Leipzig," a critic said of the premiere of Brahms's First Piano Concerto in 1859.)

The music profession became focused on the manic polishing of a display of masterpieces.
Ross then goes on to show that a handful of orchestras and cultural organizations have found some success—and, perhaps more importantly, younger audiences—with programs featuring such “difficult” modern composers such as, Varése, Xenakis, Stockhausen and Ligeti. Mr. Ross loves the 18th and 19th century "standard repertoire" as much as anyone, but also sees music as a living art, not just polished museum pieces. His tastes range from Mozart to Schoenberg to Sonic Youth and beyond and would like to see "classical" music be treated like all the other arts, like painting, literature, film, and dance. In his view (and mine) music should be a world where anything can happen instead of the same old thing night after night.

What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls. Such an attitude undercuts not only 20th-century composers but also the classics it purports to cherish. Imagine Beethoven's rage if he had been told that one day his music would be piped into railway stations to calm commuters and drive away delinquents. Listeners who become accustomed to Berg and Ligeti will find new dimensions in Mozart and Beethoven. So, too, will performers. For too long, we have placed the classical masters in a gilded cage. It is time to let them out.

I couldn’t agree more. Go ahead, read the whole thing. It’s brilliant. His new book, Listen to This (FSG), a collection of essays and journalism, is also highly recommended as is his magisterial history of modernism in music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (FSG, 2007). Reading Alex Ross will make you want to listen to the music he writes about, even if you think you hate it. Give it a try!

1 comment:

MilesOfTrane said...

This a rare blog post of mine re classical music. <a href="</a>