‘Expression is always concentrated in the dissonance’ - Charles Rosen
‘They muddy the water to make it seem deep’.
The elephant in the room, which, for the time being, I’m going to leave right there in the far corner, behind the pinball machine.
For some time I’ve been thinking about how a standard audience hears new music. How do they engage with something as perceivably foreign to their life experience as avant-garde musical language? Why should they endeavour to find a way to engage? And most strikingly, why do they traditionally struggle, when the genre is so richly colourful?
A matter of weeks ago I attended a concert in Munich, with the extraordinary Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by my mentor Peter Eötvös. It was a programme of works exclusively by Helmut Lachenmann, including a 40-minute work for solo piano performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Lachenmann’s music, while never far removed from great humour, is defined by its brutality. Yet the concert was sold out and both the composer (who was present to witness a premiere) and the performing musicians received several standing ovations from a relatively diverse audience which included children, adults attired from faux pas to vogue, and a wonderful blind man beside me who had clearly never been informed that growing up involves losing an unchecked child-like range of emotions on one’s face during exciting and enjoyable experiences. The key here, in part, was the audience’s familiarity with Lachenmann. He’s a prominent and constant voice in German culture, and from what I understand the Munich locals have developed a fondness and respect for him and his music. Comparably, in Paris after a performance of Pierre Boulez by Ensemble Intercontemporain I witnessed a similar thing: his relentless similitude was accepted and appreciated by a public who knew him, loved him and had witnessed his evolution first hand. The roots of our art-form grow from European origins, and thus European audiences represent a part of a constant relationship between artist and consumer. These audiences are familiar with the path of change, have protested, acquiesced, and embraced over and over again. In such communities the general and unquestioned belief is that this journey is of ultimate importance to their world. The pride of a local culture, of that culture’s presence on the world stage and the importance of supporting it, intermingled with the audience’s understood and accepted duty to “give it a go”, ensures that contemporary music thrives. Not all of us, however, have grown up under such conditions.
To return to my opening confession regarding abstraction, I must say that abstraction in music is a considerable reason why I do what I do and love it. I say this in a feeble attempt to halt jealous academics and purists. Music, to them, is purely abstract. To suggest that it means anything is, largely, a doomed argument. However, the way I see it, music is, intentionally or not, influenced by the world of the artist.
It should always be a privilege to hear voices of significant creative talent speak. In an episode of the BBC panel show Q.I., British/Danish comedian Sandi Toksvig expressed a wish that poets, painters and writers were taken on space missions, so that we could explore vicariously through the eyes of the most lucid and observant. Space may not yet have been graced by such presence, but Earth has been and, for the time being, continues to be.
Finally to engage with the elephant, who has been waiting so patiently. Perhaps you should ignore “them”, the people patrolling the realm of contemporary art. Perhaps contemporary music shouldn’t be heard, it should be listened to. And listened to with a purpose, with a method. To quote Charles Rosen, the eminent musicologist - ‘To appreciate a new and difficult style…takes an act of will, a decision to experience it again’. Perhaps the mode with which all of us can experiment (particularly those who tell themselves that contemporary music, all of it, is simply not for them) is to remember that it is a voice engaging with our world, this one that we all share. It is the manifestation of someone, who loves something (music) you also love, analysing questions with which you engage and which you quite possibly haven’t yet found the answers to of your own volition. That the world contains beauty as defined differently from our own should not be surprising, the exploration in various modes around its value and beauty is a constant and vital discussion.
Join the conversation. We need you, and I promise it’s worth it.