When we think of classical music we conjure sounds of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Wagner, and Copland, among others. But it’s no secret that with that love of the classics often comes a noticeable hesitation to embrace contemporary classical music, a genre encompassing works composed from the mid-1970s to the present day.
Finding an audience for modern music that is perceived as awkward and unpleasant is not easy. Fortunately there are major orchestras that, through artist residency programs, openly support works from new composers. But should we as listeners take a chance on contemporary classical music? As rhetorical as this question might sound, I believe that I have nothing to lose and attempting to answer it will only help the longevity of classical music as a whole. In other words, why not?
Spaces Between (2006) – Jen Wang
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major, op. 102 no. 2 – Ludwig van Beethoven
S.T.I.C. (1995) – Dan Becker (b. 1960)
This was a new kind of symphonic experience, an auditory buffet that introduced me to contemporary music paired with pieces that were not so contemporary, without program notes or a pre-concert lecture. Instead, prior to each piece the members of the ensemble would demonstrate each piece’s contrasting styles through the recitation of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It was fascinating to realize the vast differences between Beethoven’s counterpoint and Carter’s complexity, explained through a well-known folk tune.
This process gave the audience a chance to learn about each piece and the composer’s creative approach that created it. It enabled us to personalize the music as it was played, therefore making it more difficult to dismiss it as inaccessible. Kathyrn Bates Williams, founding member and cellist, states in her blog, “Listening to all music is important. It distinguishes the artistic values that we appreciate and those we don’t. It brings us surprises both good and bad.” I can’t help but agree with her. It’s a risk, a small risk that we take in seeing contemporary concerts, equivalent to trying a new restaurant.
After the concert we filed into the lobby where the composers Jen Wang and Dan Becker mingled with the audience. Suddenly it dawned on me how important it was for these two artists that there even was an audience, that it possibly didn’t matter whether or not I actually liked their music.
This is an extremely liberating concept for me as a listener and performer. The New Spectrum Ensemble strives to promote contemporary composers, and to accomplish that it took me on a strange journey made available through their unique, tongue-in-cheek programming. My journey might result in me not liking everything that I hear and that’s ok. In the end all that matters is that I showed up and listened.
Meet the members of the New Spectrum Ensemble here: www.thenewspectrum.com. Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about contemporary classical music or just looking for an informative website from one of today’s most entertaining musical thinkers, please check out Alex Ross, music writer for The New Yorker. His website and blog are located at www.therestisnoise.com