Friday, October 8, 2010

In their opinion: A conversation on the state of new music

The following is a short conversation between composer and Middlebury College professor Peter Hamlin and the VSO's Executive Director, Alan Jordan. They consider new music and help you understand barriers involved in bringing it to the stage, the politics behind it, and how the classical realm functions in regards to the new stuff. What do you think? Are you open to new works or just a fan of the classics?

I was thinking about new music and how audiences react to it. And also thinking what that says about the health of classical music today.

It seems to me that there are two opposite things happening in the national classical music scene that are both not good. One is a hunger by audiences for certain kinds of accessible music but no real mechanism for getting that music more widely created, supported and heard. I really do feel that there are “gatekeepers” (funding agencies, critics, etc.) who are not helpful to the creation of “populist” new music, and I think a big part of the “crisis” of modern music is that people aren’t writing popular new music in nearly enough numbers. Made in Vermont is a wonderful program that addresses this need, but nationwide there isn’t enough of it. It struck me how passionate and excited audiences have been about Don Jameson’s piece. This is a success story that we should replicate as much as possible.

The opposite concern is that audiences also don’t seem to understand the importance of avant-garde and experimental music. Like “pure research” in science, it may not make immediate connections with large audiences, but it is an important laboratory that continues to reinvigorate music. For orchestras to flourish and remain relevant, they need to be, at least in part, a crucible for new ideas.

These seem to be conflicting positions, but I actually think they can reinforce each other. I think part of the intolerance audiences have for more challenging music is that it is so rare for them to hear a new piece that they can genuinely and deeply fall in love with.
For what it’s worth, I’ll tell a favorite story about an orchestral premiere of mine in New Hampshire some years back. Before the concert, a guy in the audience overheard that I was the composer of the new work, and he turned around and gave me a long and impassioned speech about why he hated new music, how the new pieces were always the worst ones on the program, and on and on. After the piece, he turned to me and said, “Congratulations, I didn’t hate it!”

Peter S. Hamlin, Middlebury

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What a great e-conversation starter. You're right--nobody wants to fund new pops music (although there have been some efforts by several larger orchestras to co-commission new pops programs, but I think that effort is as much about sight as it is sound). In many places, orchestras and other presenters have formed commissioning clubs: groups of individuals who contribute a set amount to be part of a commissioning process. The group occassionally meets with the composer and perhaps orchestra artistic personnel to get a "report" on progress. This sometimes includes some "give and take" feedback with the audience. Talk about getting folks "invested!"

We are looking into commissioning a violin concerto for our concertmaster, Katherine Winterstein, by Kenji Bunch, who is well-known in Vermont through the Craftsbury Chamber Players. It's a major project the VSO cannot undertake on its own. The price tag will probably be around $25,000. I wonder if we might be able to create a commissioning club in Vermont for such projects?

I don't see any problem with incorporating both thorny and beautiful/ethereal into the same work. Movie and TV composers do it all the time. David Ludwig's symphony certainly did that too. What turned a generation of audience off was 40 minutes of non-stop thorniness!

To be continued...

Alan Jordan, VSO Executive Director