By Carey Campbell
NPR’s show Composer’s Datebook ends each episode with the trademarked phrase: “reminding you that all music was once new.” Why do listeners need to be reminded of such a seemingly obvious fact?
You see, in the classical music world, the old warhorses — the pieces audiences and performers already know — seem to take precedence over the new and unfamiliar.These warhorses, things like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and so on, seem somehow timeless, like the grass or the trees, like they’ve always been around. This is, of course, not true. Mozart’s piano concertos were in fact all once “new music”. And at the time that was the most exciting and important thing about them.
Today, classical music that is labelled “new” often scares people, and they are often warned they won’t like it or won’t understand it. This is a shame, because it literally prejudices the listener against the piece before even hearing a note. We know what to expect from Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mozart, and usually no one finds it necessary to “explain” their music to us in the same way 20 th or 21 st -century music gets expounded. This strikes me as somehow backwards.
To say that “all music was once new” is not the same as saying “all music was once shocking and hard to understand.” It simply means that all pieces of music originate from a specific time and place, and presumes that knowing a little bit about that time and place is a good thing. Some classical pieces absolutely traumatized audiences at their first performance (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for instance), and a lot of those are in hindsight seen as revolutionary. A much greater majority of music, though, was found to be precisely of the kind the audience expected in their own day and time – it was, by definition, “contemporary music.”
It is very curious, then, that classical music audiences today seem to have little patience for music of their own time – the 21 st century. I’m not a therapist, but I’m pretty sure that one would say that living solely in the past is a bad idea. To do so avoids engagement with the present, while whatever might be cultivated in the future all but withers up and dies.
To listen to music of the 21 st century is to interface with the voices of artists experiencing life at precisely the same time as we are, albeit sometimes under diverse circumstances. Hearing their points of view encourages reflection about our own ways of seeing the world, and how we might express ourselves similarly or differently.
NEXT Ensemble’s January concert is devoted exclusively to music of living composers. The ensemble seeks to transform the concert experience by presenting classical music in no-longer- traditional spaces, and on Saturday, they are taking that mission a step further by featuring music of local living composers. The composers will be there, among the listeners, eager to meet you and have a chat. We hope to see you there.
NEXT Underground Series: Saturday, January 28 th | 6:30pm at Moxie at Alleged on Historic 25 th Street.