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Education: Rotterdam Conservatory, Cambridge University // Activities: composition, writing

Thursday 9 January 2020

Programming new symphonic music

Much new music which makes it to be performed by a symphony orchestra, is not really functioning according to the fundamentals of the performance culture of the medium. Or said differently: the new works chosen to be performed, are more often than not chosen with the idea that they should, somehow, represent modernity. And this notion of modernity is more often than not, a misunderstood modernity, as if ‘modern times’ force us to restrict our minds to a small number of choices. These choices often tend to conform to the idea that the music should offer associations with contemporary entertainment music, or with inaccessible complexity (because the modern world is complex), with sound effects 'never heard before' (to signify newness and progress) and recognizable as coming from modern industrial complexes or the world of computer technology, with bland repetitative processes reminiscent of certain pop music - in short: a connection with contemporary concerns or points of recognition. But all of these associations stem from outside the cultural tradition which is the symphonic performance culture, and tend to neutralize or to diminish the expressive means of the medium which have accumulated over a long period of time - from the late 18th century onwards.

Since orchestras are considered a remnant of bygone ages and of a culture that no longer exists – in terms of writing for them – the idea behind programming new music is that it should somehow ‘anchor’ the orchestra within the context of our own time, to somehow ensure its viability and survival in times with an increasing distance to the periods in which the classical repertoire was written. Ironically, since the choices are so often based upon a narrow and misunderstood notion of modernity (a straightjacket, with taboos), the choices effect the opposite: what is experienced as ‘modern’ by audiences, somehow does not fit in the symphonic culture, and does not appeal to classical music audiences. And this in turn confirms the museum character of the genre.

In short: the fear of being seen as ‘conservative’ by not programming pieces which reflect ‘modernity’, is undermining the orchestra's aim to preserve its place within contemporary culture. Trying to find new music which is both new, and in the same time respects and builds on the symphonic culture, is not conservative, because the existing repertoire is still functioning as a presence, and not as a collection of archeological relics. If progress is understood as improvement, choices of programming will look differently from a one-sided and simplistic idea of 'modernity', and that which is truly modern may happen to be improvement on the basis of artistic quality and in harmony with an existing and symphonic performance culture which is still very much alive.