Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The unwelcome new

Why are so many new works only played once and then disappearing into the drawer? Why are there hardly any new works establishing themselves as valuable additions to the existing repertoire? Why does the regular repertoire of orchestras seem to be shrinking instead of expanding - in spite of the regular premières?

There has arisen a great shift in the central performance culture since 1945. In earlier times, there was a filtering process in place, which gradually filtered-out the mediocre or bad until the best was collected, although some music lingered a long time before it was no longer deemed really interesting (Meyerbeer, for example). This filtering process consisted of a strong commitment of a large number of dedicated performers and audiences who felt music being a very important factor in ‘the good life’ (in spite of Bourdieu’s crazy claims that music was merely an instrument of bourgeois distinction). This commitment covered both ‘old’ repertoire and new works: premières were anticipated with the greatest interest and different opinions debated in heated exchanges, in newspapers, music journals, within family gatherings. All before the onset of music recording.

But since WW II the central performance culture has turned into a museum of which the heart is a programming routine of a restricted repertoire, only occasionally sprinkled with something new, be it from the past (an old work dug-up, dushed-off and wrapped in pep talk), or new (accompanied by hearing manuals). But the territory of ‘the new’ has diversified so much, and boundaries dissolved so drastically – leading to pure sound patterns or pop infested confections presented as serious music – that both musicians and audiences have become indifferent to anything outside the hallowed canon, duly accepting whatever is presented but without the commitment of yore. So, also any interest in debate has evaporated and the truly great performances of today are the achievements of performers in the museum repertoire, which are exclusively reviewed as performances, without any attention for the music. So, without the former filtering process, apart from the core repertoire anything goes, and if something good happens to be performed that also happens to be new, it is not taken-up elsewhere, because the wide-spread commitment which supported musical developments has disappeared.

There are many different factors contributing to this state of affairs, like the recording industry which on one hand has greatly opened-up music to so many people, but on the other hand has bereaved music of the rarity of its performance and led to a blasé and spoiled attitude. But maybe the greatest factor has been the development and claims of postwar modernism which has damaged the reputation of the art form immensily, since it destroyed the credibility with audiences. Even when its harshest products are no longer ‘de rigeur’, the echos of its ugliness and aggression are still in the air, feeding suspicion and indifference.

The late music publisher Ernst Roth, who worked at Universal Edition in Vienna and later at Boosey in London, had close contacts with Stravinsky, Strauss, Szymanowski, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. He was very sceptical about new music which explored ‘atonality’ and set-out to write things which broke with some fundamentals of the art form, like tonal coherence, expression (communication), and form which could be somehow experienced in the listening act, all this forming the basis of contact between composer, performer and audience. He said that he feared that if the audience’s commitment was lost, it would be very hard to get it back, it would unravel the fragile balance of the three parties of musical culture: ‘Even is a symphony in pure C major could be written today, the pulic, indifferent to all types of new music, would reject it.’

That is why it is important that debates are again initiated, and that performers, composers and music lovers begin again to think about the fundamentals of the art form they feel committed to, and its place within contemporary society. Hence the importance of initiatives like the Future Symphony Institute:

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