Popular Programming Preventing Progress

By Madison Warren

The Immortalized Gaze of Beethoven; Photo by Hugo Hagen

Every year, orchestras around the world announce the programs of their upcoming seasons as though it’s an exciting surprise. Don’t get me wrong — the works of Romantic and Classical era composers will never cease to hold a soft spot in my heart. But by adhering to programs full of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Copland, and Mahler, we’re presenting classical music by composers who are white, male, and dead.

Many people understand that the role of classical music is merely shifting rather than dying. Rather than representing a weekly form of entertainment, going to a classical music concert has now become a special occasion. But the undying reverence for these older composers still causes some problems: people these days seldom bother to climb over the barricade we’ve built around the canon to see how the repertoire has evolved.

This isn’t something new. Throughout history, composers went unnoticed until after their death. Even those who were well known during their lifetime had to wait in the grave for their work to be accepted in the canon. People have always followed the latest works, while many critics, performers, and general audiences remain comfortable with what they already know. But as the world continues to speed up, and plenty of composers speed along with it, it’s odd that the expansion of repertoire feels fairly stagnant — even though composers like Mahler, who were under the rug while they were alive, are widely popular today. If progress is going to be made anyway, why don’t we want to be more involved in the evolution of our art form?

There is also a huge misunderstanding of what new music is all about. Many people who are unfamiliar with it immediately think it’s noise, or an abstraction, like John Cage’s 4’33”. Music like this is often seen as pretentious even by classical musicians, and can a huge turn off to the casual listener. But although new music demands comprehension — and understanding it is difficult — there is plenty of contemporary music that can be enjoyed without having a trained ear or an extensive background in performance or music theory.

Nico Muhly, photographed by Matthew Murphy

If you ask someone outside the classical world, they may admit they like classical music, and many even listen to it regularly as a form of relaxation. Those would be the people calmly smiling along to Mozart in their car while the classical music afficianados in the vehicle next to them are frantically bobbing their heads and flail-conducting the finale of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony.

New music can serve this “easy listening” role, yet it isn’t often put on the radio. A new piece by Nico Muhly, Keep In Touch for violin, piano, and electronics, is just one example of this style of contemporary music. It uses some newer string techniques and remains slow and sonorous, with poignant vocal sighs and the soft tapping of prerecorded sounds. The middle of the piece does get rather tense and dissonant, but it isn’t long before the viola’s singing line overcomes this.

Despite the availability of accessible contemporary music, many major orchestras rarely program it. Next season, our own Cleveland Orchestra is performing only four newer compositions, but is devoting two weekends to all of Beethoven’s Symphonies. Likewise, the Vienna Philharmonic will feature only two contemporary works next season. The Berlin Philharmonic’s programming is much more progressive, offering family concerts (one even features music by Ligeti), and more music by living composers like John Adams and HK Gruber. The marketing department of the Chicago Philharmonic seems excited to announce the performance of works by Joan Tower and Christopher Theofanidis, as well as the premiere of a commissioned work, Sonorous Earth, by Augusta Reed Thomas. These new items, however, are still surrounded by the same familiar composers that orchestras love to lean on.

With concert attendance declining, it may be that orchestras are worried about alienating their listeners. It’s uncertain how many older patrons, who make up most of their audiences, would enjoy new music when they’ve been listening to Brahms their whole lives. Younger members of the audience, who may be more susceptible to change, are often less likely to go to a concert hall. If people want to listen to music they’re more likely to log on to Spotify, or go to a show where they can be loud, socialize, and drink.

But there are also a good number of casual music lovers of all ages who are always on the lookout for new and interesting music. Although they probably wouldn’t think to flip through classical playlists, more recent works often incorporate elements of modern rock, pop, and electronic music. Clint Needham’s Chamber Symphony, recently played by the Oberlin Sinfonietta, is a good example, infusing rock and jazz elements. And artists like Mitski and Hiatus Kaiyote explore unique textures, intriguing colors, and complex rhythms, which sets them apart from generic radio pop. Younger listeners might be pleasantly surprised to find out that a lot of new music composers are interested in exploring the same features.

Although making contemporary music better known may not lead casual listeners to stream Vijay Iyer’s compositions every chance they get, it would help break down the misconception that classical music is only for wealthy, older people.

At concerts that feature the most recently-composed works, both patrons and musicians are in for an interesting time. Although some may object to leaving their comfort zone, new music can breathe new life into orchestras. Being faced with unfamiliar harmonies and bizarre orchestrations on a regular basis can enrich anyone’s musical perspective and ability.

More exposure in schools would help prepare and inspire musicians to want to perform this kind of music in their future jobs. Tim Weiss, director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, noted that though Oberlin is better at this then some, we still aren’t there yet. “I need to make sure that I take no prisoners, and that I try to indoctrinate everyone so they have some experience doing it. They may hate it, and that’s okay. But to not have that experience in your undergraduate education would be sinful on the part of those who provide the education. We have a responsibility.”

Women and transgender composers, as well as composers of color, have a greater chance of having a successful career today than they did in the past. And all contemporary composers, regardless of who they are, would benefit from increased opportunities to have their work played.

In the end, there isn’t much of a downside to having a season rich with pieces from all musical periods. Programming more new music would be a positive change both for those inside and outside the classical music world.

Photo by Laurel Wolfe


Madison Warren is in her third year at Oberlin Conservatory where she is pursing a degree in horn performance under Roland Pandolfi. When she’s not practicing or rehearsing she enjoys cutting vegetables, talking to her plants, and lying face down in the grass on a sunny day.


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