THE BLOG
12/28/2007 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Music/New Perspective

It is unusual for a writer, when giving the traditional "end of the year wrap-up", to say something at once clarifying and wise. Robert Everett-Green noted that "Calgary Opera continued to beat the odds by bravely putting a new Canadian opera on its main stage, and rousing the town to come and see it. I wasn't crazy about the result (Frobisher, a northern melodrama with a John Estacio score that kept drifting south to Broadway), but most of the new operas staged at La Scala or the Paris Opera in the past two centuries weren't masterpieces either. If you want to win, you have to keep playing."

Having not heard one note of Frobisher, let alone seen it, I can say nothing whatsoever about it. But it was the last part, "... but most of the new operas staged at La Scala or the Paris Opera in the past two centuries weren't masterpieces either. If you want to win, you have to keep playing" that caught my eye.

Mr. Everett-Green has stated an essential - and often ignored - truth: The vast majority of "new music" is almost by definition dreadful stuff. Well over 90% of the "new music" turned out in 1770 was uninspired, uninteresting, amiable, and unmemorable. It was played, it was courteously received, and it dropped off the face of the earth within twenty years. Likewise most of the new compositions from 1870 and 1970. Some of it has survived in libraries, much of it has not. For much of the great musical repositories of Europe, what the artillery of World War One did not reduce to ashes the firebombs of World War Two did.

The pattern has been repeated since Monteverdi's day and continues to our own. Here in New Haven, much of the music presented in public performance is under Yale University's auspices, and as a result we get to hear a good deal of newly composed music. Given that many concert-goers are accustomed to greeting the announcement of new compositions on concert programs with all of the enthusiasm usually associated with a trip to the endodontist for a root canal, management is generally hesitant to program it. Academic institutions have the luxury of being able to look past the financial bottom line in this respect, and as a result a good deal of music by Yale composers and their friends can be heard in these parts on almost a weekly basis.

Like most swords, this one is two-edged. What is often performed is music that is written by academics for the edification of other academics. Such music is written for purposes ostensibly loftier than appeal to the Great Unwashed. The public shuns it because they feel - often rightly - that it is not written for them. Composers can yell until they are blue in the face that what they are producing is a far cry from the mathematically correct and fascinating-as-a-mud-puddle twaddle that was "new music" thirty or forty years ago, but so long as the public hears "new composition" and thinks "plink-plank-plunk" it is a wasted effort. The clue is, as Mr. Everett-Green has stated, is that "If you want to win, you have to keep playing."

The winnowing process of time is hardly infallible. On occasion factors combine to cause a wonderful piece of music to become unjustly neglected, but if the process puts forth "false negatives" (damning to obscurity works of genuine merit) it seldom brings forth false positives, which is to say that works performed for a hundred years or more are seldom unworthy of attention. Concert managers, mindful of the financial consequences of getting too far ahead of their audiences, are a timorous bunch, preferring the sure-fire hit to something newly composed. Yet the curse of over-performance is beginning to hit hard, as audiences are rebelling against being asked to sit through the umpteenth performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21.

New compositions are, as a statistical matter, quite likely to be heard, forgotten and seldom thought of ever again. But that statistical truth ignores the plain fact that music is an evolving art form, and that although some of the new music performed is part of an evolutionary dead end, other new compositions may well be highly meritorious and will form the body of "classical music" in the year 2107. Often, the only way you are able to discover quality is to listen to a good deal of dross and make your own decisions...but without a regular diet of the newly created you never know. "If you want to win, you have to keep playing." This phrase ought to be emblazoned over the computer monitors of every arts organization manager in the civilized world.