Monday, 7 November 2016

Programming new music

Well-meaning, competent orchestral programmers, who want to avoid the pertifying impression of a 'museum culture' and are on the look-out for new works which will not disrupt the performing culture of the orchestra too much, are confronted with a devilish paradox: an unknown name on the programme means reduction of ticket sales, but if a new work is presented, it is supposed to reflect modern life in the hope that audiences will recognize their own experience in it and thus, accept it. But what if new music merely reflects the elements of modern life that audiences wanted, for a moment, to escape, because they were quite unpleasant? (Like Carter's celebration of rush hour at Times Square.) Makes such attitude them 'escapist' and 'conservative'? Logically thought-through, this would mean that Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler etc. etc. are only protected from writing 'conservative music' by their being locked-up in history, which provides the excuse to listen to them conservatively but apparently neutrally in terms of aesthetics.

So, an orchestra that wants to be 'of its own time' feels obliged to include reminders of this time, which often turn-out to stand in sharp contrast to the character of the repertoire on which the orchestra's performance culture is based, and that is not a matter of idiom but of what it 'says'. Such inclusions then need a lot of marketing and promotion effort to convince audiences that it is not as bad as it mostly sounds. In practice, this comes-down to a success if the audience receives the newling with a polite applause.

I sometimes get the critique from programmers on a proposal, that, yes, the piece is beautiful, well-made, well-scored and - in itself - even original and expressive, and yes, it fits well within the normal, regular programming, but.... it does not reflect contemporary concerns, given the problematic world we live in. This is like saying: this is very good thus not of our own time. What does that say about our own time? That we are not supposed to produce good works? And if it happens, they should not be performed because of falling short of the requirement of ugliness, clumsiness, and of being badly scored, unoriginal and inexpressive?

The popularity of Beethoven's  works with both performers and audiences, and not least with the financial administration of orchestras, does not result from his reflecting contemporary concerns around 1800 but from the filtering of real life experience through his personality into the form of abstract (i.e. non-conceptual) music, which makes it accessible to people from different times and places, recognizing the essence of comparable experience. In the Eroica, we do not experience the enthusiasm and hope of the French revolution, but enthusiasm and hope in itself, which can be invoked by numerous experiences. And so it is with every music: it distills the essence from life experience and makes it atemporal, like mathematics, as the architect Leon Krier says about classical art. And thus, contemporary music which can achieve a similar process, is contemporary for ever.

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