The Music Corner for Piano Lovers

The State of New Music

10 Nov 2014 News

Some time back, my husband and I attended a concert that included a new work specially commissioned by the director of the orchestra: Patrick Cameron's Lines of the Southern Cross. Cameron is of Australian origin, and studied film music. His work — a panoramic soundscape depicting different regions in Australia. My husband and I were suitably impressed. It's rare for a concert to include a work by a contemporary composer; rarer still for the composer to spend some time talking about his work before the performance itself.

The experience got me to thinking about the current state of new music. New artists and new music abound in the world of popular music. Not everyone may make it big, and of those who do, some may only enjoy a brief moment in the sun. But a brief Google search yields any number of forums, support groups, and resources for wannabe artists to connect with those who've already made it. The craft of writing hit songs — and yes, it is a craft no matter how much anyone trained in classical music might be tempted to dismiss contemporary songs — and melodies is available to anyone who wishes to learn it. The diverse business aspects of recording a song, marketing and promoting it are also available to the newbie.

And the newbie isn't necessarily someone who's had years of music training either. It could just as easily be someone who simply enjoys playing, and plays by ear.

Yet in the world of classical music, music education is all too often confined to learning and memorizing repertoire from the period between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. The art of composing is rarely taught. Music students often venture into improvisation and creative composition all on their own; and certainly not many college students appreciate or enjoy the composition courses they're forced to take during their four-year program of study.

There's a sense that composition is only for the talented few. You can either do it or not. It can't be taught. And when it is taught, unfortunately, the business aspects of the music world are neglected. I may be wrong, but there also seems to be very little interest in new music in the classical vein for music education, for the church, or for concert performances. I wonder if this is because the rare performances of contemporary classical music tend to be atonal, and, therefore, harsh-sounding and rather dissonant to the ear. Obviously not all music falls under this category. Cameron's piece was beautiful. But quite often the words "contemporary piece" signal something too intellectual to be bothered with a melody that the ear might find attractive.

Certainly opportunities to connect with composers in the classical tradition seem limited. I'm a member of the American Composers Forum, but there isn't actually a forum or listserv that enables members to reach out and discuss aspects of both the craft of music and the business of marketing and promoting one's music. On the other hand, the number of forums devoted to songwriting is quite breathtaking.

It's, perhaps, not surprising that the contemporary music that does seem to be thriving — popular music — is vocal. After all, even Haydn, the father of such instrumental forms as the symphony and the string quartet, was prouder of his large body of vocal music— operas, oratorios, and masses— than of his instrumental works. Of course, men like Haydn and Liszt — to name just two — were able to incorporate folk forms and music into their own works, and were adept at appealing to contemporary tastes.  

Is this the way forward for those trained in the classical tradition? Consider, Metallica's performance of No Leaf Clover with the San Francisco Philharmonic. It was spectacular, and it's hard to deny that orchestral sounds seem especially suited to heavy metal. And I have to admit a cello version of Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" that I heard on Youtube sounded much better than the original.

I can't say I know the answer to the questions I've posed here, but I do know that these questions are worth asking and thinking about. If you're a composer in the classical tradition, what are your thoughts on the subject? What has your experience been?



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