Listening to Contemporary Music
by Steven Stucky
Keynote address, Florida State University New Music Festival, April 1993
Just for fun, I once counted up the number of 20th-century works in the subscription programs of one of our major American symphony orchestras for one season. The results may surprise you. Forty percent of the pieces played that season were written in the 20th century. That — at least from my point of view —is good news. But now consider that only a quarter of these 20th-century works — not 40 percent of the season, only 10 percent — were by composers who were still alive. It seems clear that the phrase “20th-century music,” which used to be synonymous with “avant-garde stuff nobody likes,” has now caught up with us. The 20th century now stretches back so far that much of its music has come to seem familiar, comfortable, and safe. Thus the 40 percent of its season which our unnamed symphony orchestra devoted to this century turned out to comprise mostly the tried and true: Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, Copland, Prokofiev, Bartók, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich.
Still, the 10 percent of the season occupied by really new music undoubtedly remained a stumbling-block for many concertgoers. As a composer, I am often asked two sorts of questions by members of the audience. One is both practical and aesthetic: it goes something like “I don’t know how to listen to this kind of music. Can you help” in the polite version (or, in the less polite version, “Do you really expect me to listen to this garbage”). The other sort of question is, if you like, sociological: “Who is the audience for your music? Whom are you addressing?”
Let me try to answer the second question first. In fact I was asked this question by phone just last week by a writer for the Tallahassee Democrat. It seems an obvious, honest, straightforward question. Assuming that a composer (or a painter, or a playwright, or a sculptor, or a novelist) creates because he wants to communicate something to others, who are those others? Who does the artist expect will understand and appreciate his work? Yet in so-called classical music these days, this is a painfully sensitive question, and its answer is far from obvious. We know, for example, that of all record sales in this country, 4 percent are of classical music. Out of 100 record buyers, 96 don’t buy classical music. Is my audience, then, those lonely four who remain? Probably not. I’ll bet that three of those people are looking for their umpteenth version of Vivaldi’s The Seasons, or completing their collection of Pavarotti’s greatest high C’s. And so, clearly, from the point of view of market share, Greg Steinke and Ladislav Kubik and I might as well not compose at all
But suppose I tried my best to capture that market share? To write music that would hit those four listeners out of a hundred right where they live? Or to reach out and grab a share of, say, the rock audience by “crossing over”? This seems to me a recipe for disaster, or for kitsch, or both. Trying to imagine how other people will react to music, and then tailoring your music to elicit these reactions, is equivalent to writing advertising jingles. It may be honest work; it may even have some value to society; but it’s not art, it’s business. (A recent counterexample should still be fresh in our memories. In many of the formerly Communist countries, officials spent 30 years pressuring composers to write music aimed deliberately at the common man, tunes that could be readily understood by every factory worker. The results were disastrous. We would do well to keep that experiment in mind.)
Compare the situation in literature. We accept that the authors of supermarket romances, for example, think hard about their audience and hew religiously to the formulas already proven to satisfy that audience. We don’t ask the same of Thomas Pynchon or Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie; we respect them enough to concede that the audience will have to meet them half-way. One is business, the other art. And yet, more and more, one has the feeling that composers are expected to adopt some easy populism to win back an audience they have supposedly alienated.
It sounds pretentious, I know, but the fact is that a composer’s duty is not to any particular listener or any particular imagined audience; a composer’s duty is to the work itself. A composer has to remember that a true work of art is rich, multifaceted, and challenging. Its aim is not popularity, its aim is truth. It doesn’t give up all its secrets at first hearing, because it’s built to last: designed not merely to charm at first hearing, but to withstand the test of fifty hearings. The bodice-ripper you buy at the checkout stand is good for (at most) one reading; James Joyce’s Ulysses is good for dozens (indeed, it may actually require dozens). There’s the difference: one is business, the other art. Beethoven, you remember, sneered at the notion that he should consider the limitations of his listeners — or even his performers. He was rude, nasty, and arrogant. But do you suppose that if he had been less arrogant, if he had aimed lower, his symphonies would have been rich enough, compelling enough still to thrill us 200 years later? I would never dare compare my music to Beethoven’s. (I said once that I belong to that great throng of composers who spend their whole lives trying to be almost as good as Massenet.) Yet, to be worth his salt, any composer has to aim as high as Beethoven.
Who is my audience, then? The practical answer is: an audience of one listener, myself. Only if I write music that makes my blood race, that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, do I have any hope of writing something truthful enough to have the same effect on another listener. I can only hope that this approach will put me in touch with a slightly larger audience: those who love the great tradition of Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Debussy, Bartók, and who are willing not merely to sit back passively and let music wash over them like some mood-altering drug, but to work hard enough to meet the composer half-way.
By the way, this doesn’t apply only to new music. Far from it! At a preconcert talk in Los Angeles a few years ago, an audience member asked me: “I come to the symphony to relax. Why are you doing this to me?” And I answered, as gently as could, that he had come to the wrong place. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is not for relaxing; neither — despite its glaring difference in quality — is my music.
Let’s go back now to the first question. Assuming the best will in the world, how do you get the most out of listening to unfamiliar new music? Let me offer five short pieces of advice: (1) don’t expect the wrong things; (2) be prepared for discontinuity; (3) don’t try too hard; (4) expect new instruments, new sounds, and new influences from other cultures; and (5) give yourself permission to dislike what you hear.
1. Don’t expect the wrong things. The music of the traditional Bach-to-Brahms repertoire operates with familiar elements: major and minor keys; motifs, melodies, and themes; chord progressions; familiar forms like sonata or rondo; ways of playing instruments and using sounds that we have learned to recognize. One of the ways in which contemporary music often differs is that any or all of these familiar elements may be missing, or may be turned to radically different purposes. Adams may use familiar chords in unexpected contexts. Or Ligeti may pile melody upon melody until they are all submerged in a bundle of sound. Or, in place of the contrast between two memorable themes — a principle we depend on heavily, even if subconsciously, when listening to Classical and Romantic forms — Penderecki or Xenakis may substitute the contrast of memorable sound-colors or sound-textures. To listen to these sorts of music using the old mental and aural categories can be frustrating, even infuriating — like looking at an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock as if it were supposed to be a figurative painting by Andrew Wyeth. Let each new piece you encounter set its own agenda, create its own frame of reference, define its own terms. Check all your preconceptions at the door; they’ll only slow you down.
2. Be prepared for discontinuity. Traditional modes of continuity — how one gets smoothly from one musical event to the next, and how these events are made to seem to belong together — are largely a thing of the past. Many composers have adopted new techniques deriving from the dominant new artistic medium of our century, the film. Thus, instead of orderly, sectional Classical schemes linked by smooth transitions, we might hear instead dissolves, jump cuts, flashbacks. (In music, these techniques are at least as old as Stravinsky, but we are still getting used to them.) Instead of the predictable return of ideas we have already heard, we might hear instead a stream-of-consciousness narrative. (In music, this idea goes back at least as far as Debussy’s Jeux, but, again, we are still adjusting.) Be prepared for these 20th-century styles of musical narrative.
3. Don’t try too hard to”understand.” Lots of contemporary music is composed using elaborate, esoteric techniques. But so were Bach’s Musical Offering, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Brahms’s Haydn Variations. All these works move us deeply, but not because we are following the composer’s every machination. When we are thrilled by a brilliant piece of architecture, it’s not because we know how to calculate the structural loading or even because we understand the first thing about what makes buildings stand up. In just the same way, if you have ever seen and heard a production of Berg’sopera Wozzeck, you know that it is not necessary to understand Berg’s enormously rigorous and sophisticated structural schemes to respond directly, emotionally to the music’s passion, its tragedy, and its voluptuous sound.
The poet T.S. Eliot, 60 years ago, described the same dilemma in his essay “Difficult Poetry.” Readers, he wrote, often suffer a kind of stage fright, afraid they will not be equal to the challenge of something new and strange. Eliot admitted that very often he didn’t “get it” either. Certainly I often feel baffled by a new piece, as perhaps some of you feel. Let me make a suggestion: In place of anxiety over your skills as a listener, focus on the delicious excitement of facing new music absolutely, bracingly alone: without historians or critics or traditions to tell you what to think, free to form your own spontaneous impressions — like a listener in 1830 hearing Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique for the first time, or in 1893 Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, or Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1944. In this frame of mind, what can be more exhilarating than hearing a new piece for the very first time! “Understanding” (whatever that is) can come later.
4. Expect new instruments, new ways of playing and singing, and influences from other cultures. Throughout the development of Western concert music, composers have restlessly expanded their resources by borrowing instruments and ways of thinking from outside their own tradition. In Mozart and Beethoven’s time, composers imported outlandish instruments like the bass drum, cymbals, and triangle from Turkish military bands into the European orchestra. Debussy’s generation discovered the music of the Javanese gamelan and was deeply changed by the encounter. Aaron Copland’s and William Schuman’s infatuation with 1920s jazz was essential to the music they created. Today, John Adams’s music would be very different if you subtracted his love for the big bands of the 1940s; Steve Reich’s music would be impossible without the inspiration of West African drumming; György Ligeti depends heavily on the music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Thus, when you hear tonight Mr. Kubik’s piece for 1 flute and 10 percussionists, or Mr. Lubet’s music performed by members of several different ethnic ensembles, or Mr. Steinke’s allusions to the Japanese and Native American cultures, you will be hearing the continuation of a very long and very honorable tradition in Western art music.
5. And finally, give yourself permission to dislike what you hear. If all your best efforts fail, nobody says you have to like every new piece you hear. One of my favorite moments happened a few years back after a concert. A line of people came backstage to shake my hand and tell me they enjoyed my piece in the usual way. But then a large man came up to me, smiled, extended his hand, and said cordially, “I really hated your piece.” That man meant more to me than all the rest, because — instead of telling me politely that it was “very interesting,” or more likely just going home mad without saying anything — he took his own reactions seriously enough to seek me out politely and talk about them.
Give yourself permission to dislike what you hear. But please — don’t explain your dislike by claiming that “it isn’t music.” History is strewn with rash talk about what is and isn’t music: even Beethoven was regularly declared an antimusical lunatic by critics hearing his radical new symphonies for the first time. The boundaries of music have been expanding for centuries, and, inexorably, they will continue to widen. But since Mahler, Bartók, and Shostakovich have already become accessible (at least to our beloved 4% market share), perhaps someday soon the composers whose music we are about to hear will be too. We owe it to ourselves to hope for — no, to work for that day.
© Steven Stucky