Are You Sitting Down? A Diatribe Against Contemporary Art Music

Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima, known for his very modern (minimalist) compositions and playing style sits with his instrument while artist Antonio Di Mino paints a modern piece beside him.(Photo: Olga e Zanni)
Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima, known for his very modern (minimalist) compositions and playing style sits with his instrument while artist Antonio Di Mino paints a modern piece beside him.(Photo: Olga e Zanni)

Okay, folks, this is serious. Last week, a number of you weighed in via Classical 101′s Facebook page on a Christian Science Monitor story I sent your way that explored why contemporary classical music “spurns melody.” It was a lively discussion (to put it mildly), so I know lots of you care about contemporary art music.

That’s why I’m now referring you to Robert Blumen’s blogpost, Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?, the most recent installment in a war of the contemporary music pamphleteers, allegedly set in motion by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.

In the article, Blumen sounds the death knell for modern classical music saying, “Even after a century, the public does not accept the a-melodic, dissonant, car-crash, sound-effect-driven compositional output of the modernist school as music. It is ultimately audience acceptance that drives composition, not the other way around. While we have been on a bit of a detour for the last 100 years, that should be long enough to declare the modernist agenda a failure and move on to something that people do like.”

I know you’ve got some thing to say.  Let’s hear it.

Comments
  • Boyce

    I remember the violently angry reaction of a former colleague to a performance we attended at a conference, complaining loudly to all within earshot…”That’s not music. Anyone who calls that music is out of their minds.” . Guess the tip off should have been their name…Bang On A Can.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Hello, Boyce,

      Maybe this tempest in a teapot simply prompts the age-old question: what is art?

      - Jennifer Hambrick

      • Boyce

        Agreed!

    • Rainer Steinhoff

      Personally, I like “Bang on a Can”.

  • Boyce

    I remember the violently angry reaction of a former colleague to a performance we attended at a conference, complaining loudly to all within earshot…”That’s not music. Anyone who calls that music is out of their minds.” . Guess the tip off should have been their name…Bang On A Can.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Hello, Boyce,

      Maybe this tempest in a teapot simply prompts the age-old question: what is art?

      - Jennifer Hambrick

      • Boyce

        Agreed!

    • Rainer Steinhoff

      Personally, I like “Bang on a Can”.

  • Boyce

    I remember the violently angry reaction of a former colleague to a performance we attended at a conference, complaining loudly to all within earshot…”That’s not music. Anyone who calls that music is out of their minds.” . Guess the tip off should have been their name…Bang On A Can.

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  • Phil Rudell, music lover

    Well, Jennifer, this is hardly a diatribe, but a reasoned look at contemporary classical music and Blumen’s opinions based on that. I wish I could express it as well as he did. Since Classical 101 FM is what unites us, I have to ask why the radio station doesn’t play these ear-splitting compositions, and the reason is simple: the station cares about its listeners.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Hello, Phil,

      Well, you’ve got me there: Classical 101 does care about its (our) listeners. I’m glad our mix doesn’t split your ears. Thank you for listening!

      - Jennifer Hambrick

  • Phil Rudell, music lover

    Well, Jennifer, this is hardly a diatribe, but a reasoned look at contemporary classical music and Blumen’s opinions based on that. I wish I could express it as well as he did. Since Classical 101 FM is what unites us, I have to ask why the radio station doesn’t play these ear-splitting compositions, and the reason is simple: the station cares about its listeners.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Hello, Phil,

      Well, you’ve got me there: Classical 101 does care about its (our) listeners. I’m glad our mix doesn’t split your ears. Thank you for listening!

      - Jennifer Hambrick

  • Rainer Steinhoff

    Not all music has to be accessible and “pretty” in the traditional sense. It’s also important for composers to take music in a new direction, and to challenge the listeners.

  • Rainer Steinhoff

    Not all music has to be accessible and “pretty” in the traditional sense. It’s also important for composers to take music in a new direction, and to challenge the listeners.

  • Zach

    Music, as it was known to indigenous cultures throughout history, was a way to embody the very essence of creation into a medium that can be expressed by human hands. The hindi idea of Nada Brahma even states that the entire world is sound, and, as such, can be expressed through sound. Artists from J.R. Tolkien to Terry Gilliam have produced that include the idea of sound as the primary force of creation in the universe. Even the bible said “in the beginning was the word” (word, of course, indicating sound) All this leads to the assumption that music is a primal and spiritual force in the world. Composers throughout time knew this. Music was based on feeling and the soul from which that feeling came. Modern music is often based on a cerebral conception of the technique that went into it. While I do believe that it is important to challenge a listener, I think it should challenge their soul with the magnitude of creation. Not challenge their ears to sit through something that strives no higher than the banging of a can. Of course, they are striving to make the point that banging on a can is music and to ask the question “what is music”? But I challenge that banging on a can IS music, but it should be done on a can, not on a concert stage. Music should strive to connect the listener to something higher.

  • Zach

    Music, as it was known to indigenous cultures throughout history, was a way to embody the very essence of creation into a medium that can be expressed by human hands. The hindi idea of Nada Brahma even states that the entire world is sound, and, as such, can be expressed through sound. Artists from J.R. Tolkien to Terry Gilliam have produced that include the idea of sound as the primary force of creation in the universe. Even the bible said “in the beginning was the word” (word, of course, indicating sound) All this leads to the assumption that music is a primal and spiritual force in the world. Composers throughout time knew this. Music was based on feeling and the soul from which that feeling came. Modern music is often based on a cerebral conception of the technique that went into it. While I do believe that it is important to challenge a listener, I think it should challenge their soul with the magnitude of creation. Not challenge their ears to sit through something that strives no higher than the banging of a can. Of course, they are striving to make the point that banging on a can is music and to ask the question “what is music”? But I challenge that banging on a can IS music, but it should be done on a can, not on a concert stage. Music should strive to connect the listener to something higher.

  • Chris

    It is not that complicated. Modern “classical” music disappoints because sustained disorientation after a while becomes very unpleasant. The interesting question is why people resist that conclusion. Of course it has a lot to do with government art funding agencies and their capture by the self-appointed musical elite. The tell tale sign of a corrupt institution is when work is not simply a little worse than one would expect but rather a conscious aesthetic inversion. The work is deliberately made ugly in order to separate people into elite and non elite classes, so that the former can sneer at the latter, feel superior, and extract funding from other elites controlling the public fisc. Such a shame. Think of all the wonderful music that could have been published and performed in the twentieth century had symphonies been required to get their funds from audiences and voluntary donors.