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Stories We Tell Ourselves

Author:  John Steinmetz

Publication:  Chamber Music Magazine

Publication Date: June 2007


Part of what’s “classical” about classical music is its familiarity. Through repeated hearings, certain pieces become old friends; and their styles become old friends, too. An unfamiliar Mozart quartet can bring a smile because it’s so “Mozart,” and an unfamiliar Romantic sonata gives delight by surprising us—in just the ways we already expect. Classical music is one area in which familiarity breeds enjoyment.

Because new pieces by living composers are by definition unfamiliar, they often fit uncomfortably into classical programs. Why, with so many Certified Masterworks by dead composers available, does anybody bother with living composers at all? (I’m one of those undead composers, so I have a real interest in this topic.) The classical music community responds to this question in various ways. I think of the answers as stories we tell ourselves, but they’re often less than convincing.

Classical music is full of stories about strange new pieces, such as Beethoven’s late quartets or The Rite of Spring, that at first baffled listeners and then eventually overcame audience incomprehension, reshaped taste, and became familiar. Carry the story forward, and you arrive at the idea that today’s composers write music in the hope that one day in the future they will be admitted to the Pantheon of Immortal Masters. The problem with this story is that composing for listeners not yet born leaves the current audience no meaningful role. Even so, this narrative gained such currency in the years following World War II that it convinced many listeners to avoid new music altogether.

In another story, new music is like medicine that the audience must drink despite its unfamiliar taste. Why the audience must drink the medicine is not quite clear; perhaps the formula is meant to cure some inadequacy in the audience, or else it addresses “our responsibility to the music of our time.” In any case, the story turns new music into an obligation for the audience, not a pleasure. Talking about duty, as any parent knows, is a sure-fire way to turn people off, and that’s just what happens in the medicine story.

Yet another narrative asserts that new music’s purpose is “to challenge the audience.” The nature of this challenge is vague. Is new music supposed to be an antidote to all the “unchallenging” music by those dead guys? Is new music supposed to be like a hard puzzle or a poem in a foreign language, something difficult that’s interesting to figure out? Is new music supposed to challenge people’s assumptions about music—or about life? Whatever the word “challenge” means here, for most people it’s another turn-off. Listeners come to concerts for many different reasons, but how many come for a challenge?

These stories may help to justify new music, but they don’t offer much help for an audience encountering a brand-new piece. Most listeners want to enjoy music. They don’t want it to taste like medicine, and they don’t want to be cast as the uncomprehending naysayers in some story about a composer’s future triumph over adversity.

As a performer and composer, I’m not very interested in future triumph, either. I don’t want to wait until I’m dead to connect with listeners; I want it to happen in the here and now. So I’m looking for a more positive and useful story, a better way to show what living composers and new pieces have to offer. This story would need to link unfamiliar music with enjoyment. In such a story, unfamiliarity itself might be a pleasure instead of a problem.

In such a story, a living, breathing, mortal composer would bring pleasures that no Immortal Master could provide.

In search of a better narrative, I asked some of my new-music-loving friends about what draws them to the works of the present. Their replies are helping me frame alternative answers to the question, “Why bother with new music?” (Some of my friends sent reasons why new music is important, but I insisted that they tell me what they like about it. That distinction, I believe, is crucial.)

First of all, this is a story about vitality. Jill Marderness, bassoonist and arts consultant in Phoenix, pointed out that performers’ extra investment in new pieces makes their performances compelling. “Hearing new music is exciting because the performances are, well, more ‘alive’ than usual. More convincing. More thought-through. More focused.”

Renée Wilson observed a similar aliveness in listeners. A Los Angeles photographer and artist who is relatively new to concert-going, Renée noticed that “at concerts of old music, the audience seems to bask in the experience, but new-music audiences are more alert, paying close attention to what’s going on.”

For new-music fans, the story involves eagerness, even hunger. Los Angeles artist manager Valerie Bernstein (a champion of the Monday Evening Concerts that her late husband Dorrance Stalvey ran for decades) described the craving:

With the good stuff (as with good food), first a surprise (not sure, how do I feel about that? Need to hear/taste again). Then, listen again, a delight, better and better, can't get full, need more.

What’s so exciting for these listeners? Southern California performer/composer Amy Knoles says it’s “the thrill of exploration.” For her, listening to a new piece is like “driving in Utah, not knowing what beautiful sight is going to be just around the next bend, or snorkeling in a coral reef, seeing an anemone that your imagination could never have created.”

Many of the replies were about exploration, discovery, or adventure. New York clarinetist Jeannine Burky said, “It’s like a treasure hunt. New music comes up with awesome sounds.” Los Angeles composer/flutist Mark Carlson, director of Pacific Serenades, celebrated “hearing new sounds—or old sounds used in a new way.”

Lest you assume that sonic adventuring is an overrefined or hyperintellectual pastime, listen to what L.A. new-music champion Heidi Lesemann had to say:

Sometimes in a concert of music I haven’t heard before, sometimes my heart starts beating a little faster, and without knowing it I'm riveted, and something has reached me beyond the joy of listening to a great performance of a well-known piece. Maybe the hair on my neck stands up, and I look around to see if anyone else is hearing what I’m hearing. And then I don't care, and I don’t want the piece to end. It’s a private time of being touched by something I’ve never heard before—or never heard in this way.

If this resembles the excitement of physical passion, well, new music touches some people that deeply. Apparently new music sets some listeners ablaze.

Part of the heat comes from connecting musically with another human. Mark Carlson wrote of “being touched by someone else’s passion.” Heidi Lesemann feels the connection in many ways:

Sometimes it’s knowing that the composer has mastered the craft and is flying his or her own plane.  And sometimes I laugh out loud, not in ridicule, but because the composer is making a joke, or because of the joy of the composer in making “that” point—I hear him or her laughing, too. I honor the guts any composer has to put their music out there, to want and need that communication of their art with others.

A new piece is like a peek inside somebody. Mark Carlson enjoys “getting to hear a composer’s creativity at work, and his/her personality as manifested in musical style, choices, etc.” Comparing a new piece to a painting, Jeannine Burky asked, “At one point this incredible canvas was an off-white stretched space. How did the artist see like this?” Heidi Lesemann listens to the composer’s decisions: “There’s also pleasure in asking myself why something didn’t work and to figure out what the composer might have tried to do—and not do—with me.”

Of course one crucial feature of the new music story is that it is current. It tells what our contemporaries are thinking and feeling, what the neighbors are up to. Mark Carlson said, “I sincerely want to hear what springs forth from our own time and geography and culture (or our own time and someone else’s geography and culture).” He likes “hearing how new music is evolving, given all of the diverse musical influences we have available to us, and given changes in the ‘politics’ of the new-music scene over time.” Like any human activity, music has its trends and fads, its shifting centers of gravity. Some people enjoy watching musical hemlines rise and fall, or feeling seismic shifts in culture.

Because it is current, new music can reveal new mindsets, fresh perspectives. Jill Marderness calls it “glimpsing the future.” I don’t think she’s talking about a search for tomorrow’s masterworks, but about something much more fascinating: in today’s music we may glimpse emerging values, perceptions, and points of view. Listening to new music is a safe way to test new perspectives and new values, like trying on clothes before you decide whether to buy anything. We don’t have to like every point of view, and we don’t have to agree; we can simply explore. Trying on new music can be tremendous fun.

A defining characteristic of this story is uncertainty. You never know what you’ll find, or whether you’ll like it, or even whether you’ll find anything at all. Composer Alex Shapiro, of Washington’s San Juan Island, embarks on the adventure anyway:

Among the reasons that drive music-lovers—and even music-likers—to keep coming to concerts, is the joy of discovery. We don’t go to live performances (as well as to theater and museums) because we think we’re going to love everything on the program. We know we won’t. In fact, we're often fairly certain that we definitely will not enjoy some of what’s offered... and yet we purchase the ticket. Why? Because there’s an enticing chance that we’ll discover a new piece that we do love.

Alex compared that kind of discovery to “the thrill of a first date.” She said, “There’s something utterly thrilling about coming home from a performance enthralled by an unexpected and wonderful experience.”

The new-music adventure, unlike an amusement park ride or a travel film, is a real adventure, with a certain amount of risk and no guarantees. New music lovers seem to like it that way. Mark Carlson put it simply: “I like it because I don’t know what is going to happen.” This aspect of the story may be hard for some music lovers to understand: for many fans of new music, uncertainty is enjoyable.

Finally, this is a story is about being special—about being among the first to have a new experience, about being part of a unique in-crowd. Mark Carlson called it “the thrill of being in on something unheard before.” As a result, nobody can tell you how to react. Because critics, historians, and other experts have not weighed in about a new piece, listeners are free to respond for themselves, in their own way. That’s the only way they can respond.

I’m sure this story about new music has other elements, but you can see that it covers a lot of ground: vitality, adventure and discovery, uncertainty as a pleasure, intense passion, human connection, present tense, creativity, trying on points of view, the thrill of being first in line, and making up your own mind.

Looking at the story and its many pleasures brings some issues into focus. First of all, many of the joys of new music are opposite from basic classical values. Classical music promises quality; new music entails uncertainty. Classical music offers timelessness; new music is current. Classical music reveres immortal masters; new music connects with living people. Classical music stays on familiar turf; new music goes exploring. Classical music honors greatness; new music emphasizes vitality. (I’m overgeneralizing on purpose, in order to learn from the contrasts.)

New music’s story emphasizes the very qualities that some classical listeners want to avoid. Some people value classical music as a refuge from the energies of the present; the music gives comfort and reassurance in a time of uncertainty. Meanwhile that present energy and that uncertainty are precisely what new music lovers seek out. These contrasting motivations are important to keep in mind, especially for program planning and audience cultivation.

Let’s just admit that the pleasures of new music are not for everyone. Not everybody loves adventure (and not every adventurer loves the same kind of adventure). I can’t think of any good reason to force new music on audiences who only want old music, yet this often happens, needlessly alienating some concertgoers. (In fact, many so-called “conservative” listeners may in fact be adventurers of a particular repertory, seeking powerful experiences in a genre that speaks to them.)

On the other hand, there are certainly potential listeners who don’t care about classical music but who would enjoy new music’s pleasures. New music’s story gives clues about what kinds of people to seek: passionate, curious, adventuresome souls who want to immerse themselves in current perspectives.

And of course many people love both old and new music. Given the varieties of musical taste and the immense diversity of musical styles available, I am surprised how few different programming models have evolved. One of my favorite conventional-wisdom-defying examples is Pacific Serenades, the Los Angeles chamber music series that presents, along with standard repertoire, a newly commissioned work on every program. At first glance its audience resembles a mainstream chamber music crowd, and yet Pacific Serenades listeners always seem excited to hear the new piece and happy to meet the un-dead composer. In this context the pleasures of old and new music are perfectly compatible, and the series’ growth over its twenty-one seasons bears this out.

One strange thing about the new music story is that it talks about pleasures that can be enjoyed in any music. While every style has its unique delights, every kind of music can involve discovery, adventure, connecting with human impulses and energies, trying on different points of view, and the vitality of the creative act. New music’s only advantage is that it makes these pleasures especially obvious by putting them at the center of the story. And here’s where I think un-dead composers can help their deceased colleagues.

In a classical music culture that emphasizes masterworks, all those dead geniuses can seem a bit remote, both for their distance in time and for their superhuman aura of perfection. For some people, that remoteness is a barrier. By contrast, a new piece by a living composer connects us with music as a living art made by mortals who walk the earth as we do. Listeners can relate. Many performers and listeners have commented about how a new piece helps them to hear an older one freshly, with new ears, with more joy and enthusiasm.

Personally, I am relieved that the new music story does not depend on masterworks. All the pleasures—sense of adventure, connecting, creativity, and the rest— are available no matter what the piece. This is a great comfort to me as an un-dead composer, because in the Masterpiece Game I am no match for the Towering Genius Master Composers of All Time, but when music is about enjoying sound instead of evaluating it, any composer can play.

In a new music context, talking about what is or isn’t a masterwork can mislead listeners and distract them from hearing and responding to the sounds. (Frankly, I think talk of masterworks diminishes classical music, too. For me, classics are wonderful not for their “greatness,” but for their humanity, their particular beauties and insights, their soulfulness and passion. Classics become classics simply because a lot of people keep liking them.)

The story of new music isn’t really a single story; it is told anew with each performance of each new piece, and it unfolds differently every time. Here’s one way to tell it: I love watching and listening as musicians build bridges of communication across the gulf between performer and listener, as they throw bridges of meaning across the chasm between everyday awareness and new, unknown worlds. Sometimes the bridges reach all the way across and sometimes they don’t, but that doesn’t matter, because the effort of building them is so fascinating, so beautiful, so inspiring, so wonderfully human—and so alive.

Bassoonist John Steinmetz plays music by dead and undead composers, with XTET, Camerata Pacifica, L. A. Opera, and whoever else calls. His compositions have been released on CDs from Helicon, Albany, and Crystal. More information at

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