Making a case for the new 'classics'

In olden days, when classical was the popular music of the day, audiences looked forward to the next new piece by Mozart or Beethoven.

Nowadays, audiences that thrill to Bach and Rachmaninoff - music spanning nearly three centuries - tend to cringe at the thought of sitting through a symphonic concert featuring the music of their own time.

A large part of the problem is fear of the unknown. While much of the music of the first half of the 20th century has entered into the mainstream repertory (see "A taster's choice," page 16), classical music of the past 50 years has been mostly a grab bag for typical concertgoers.

For one thing, it has been especially difficult to categorize, which often leaves listeners without an easy entree into what the music is all about - what to listen for, and what it all means.

Unlike music of the past, there have been few movements or periods with commonly accepted forms and rules. Twentieth-century music had no one unified musical language, but rather a rich multiplicity of styles, with composers drawing from a wealth of diverse influences, from rap to Indonesian gamelan (a musical ensemble). Composers also have had all of civilization's history up to now from which to draw - talk about hindsight.

A work being written at the end of the 20th century can play off anything from Gregorian chant to state-of-the-art electronics. As we enter the new millennium, "the sky's the limit," which often can leave uninformed listeners struggling to open their parachutes.

Conductor-composer Robert Kapilow, who has devoted much of his career to educating the public about classical music, says: "New music on an orchestral program often puts people in a defensive frame of mind. They either feel bad if they don't like something or mad at the orchestra for programming it, and they shut down."

Instead of shutting down, however, audiences armed with background information can find that music of the here and now is just as compelling, and often more exciting and relevant, than music of "way back when."

Music written today is being informed by the rich and complicated world in which we live, and a little understanding of the plethora of influences on it can make for greater appreciation.

A little history

First, there is no clear linear history of modern music - pieces being written at any given time can and do vary wildly. But there are some general trends over the past century that can put things in perspective.

Probably the greatest shift has been the transformation of melody and harmony. Although there still are many contemporary composers who can write as lyrical a melody as their forebears, most composers these days don't send audiences away with a tune they can hum; that's a trend that started more than 100 years ago.

As the centuries-old diatonic tradition of major and minor keys seemed to lose expressive potential with overuse, composers began searching for a new musical language by exploring other combinations of notes, creating different kinds of tonalities, and exploring the clashing pitches of dissonance.

Take the Impressionists, primarily represented by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). These two Frenchmen composed some of the most memorable melodies ever written, but they often defied the 19th-century standard of centering them around a particular pitch (which helped define the key of a work), using instead a whole-tone scale in which all notes could have equal importance.

Similarly, chords (simultaneously played clusters of notes, creating a work's harmony) didn't follow traditional patterns of resolution. These composers were out to create less-concrete musical images, much the way the Impressionist painters blurred the clarities of line in art.

With Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), commonly considered the most important composer of the 20th century, the classical world began to embrace dissonance (pitches that clash with one another) and a reinvigoration of rhythm. Anyone who has ever heard Stravinsky's landmark ballets ("The Firebird," "Petrushka," and "The Rite of Spring") can attest to the tremendous impact of the composer's penchant for crashing chords and jagged, pulsating rhythms. And though "The Rite of Spring" caused a near-riot at its premire in 1913, it was soundly cheered when it was performed the following year, making the case that with challenging music, familiarity doesn't always breed contempt.

In his later years, Stravinsky helped establish a movement known as neoclassicism, which basically implies music marking a return to the clarity of structure and balanced restraint of the earlier classical styles, but with an expanded sense of tonality. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) are two of the better-known composers who wrote from this aesthetic.

In Vienna, music was dominated by a group of composers dubbed "The Second Viennese School," led by Arnold Schnberg (1874-1951). Schnberg, along with composers Anton Webern and Alban Berg, developed the highly cerebral process of serialism, using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale (a 12-tone row) in a contrived order in which no note can be repeated until all the other 11 notes have been played.

It's a fantastically challenging method of controlled organization that can result in music ranging from the passionately lyrical to the stridently harsh.

Meanwhile, in America, classical music was developing along a very different path. Charles Ives (1874-1954) delighted in creating music in which dissonance was often expressed as two keys competing for dominance at the same time. Often melodies in two keys would be played in two different tempos as well. Composers like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin took inspiration from the world of jazz and Tin Pan Alley.

As the century progressed, classical music splintered in a number of directions, with composers feeling free to pick and choose and mingle musical styles and concepts.

Experimental composers, beginning with John Cage in the 1950s, allowed chance procedures to factor into or even control the progress of a piece.

Improvisational elements allowed players to add their own musical materials to a piece during performance. Conceptual pieces revolve more around an idea or theatrical concept than specific notes.

Over the century, rhythm has changed dramatically, often becoming less regular, more complex. Sometimes it takes cues from the syncopations of jazz or the visceral energy of rock, for instance in minimalism, which tends to play off small, slowly shifting motifs in catchy, propulsive rhythms. Other times, rhythmic change is so slow as to be imperceptible, defying any kind of beat you could tap your foot to.

As international travel and the wide availability of recordings "shrank" the globe, composers began to embrace influences from around the world - folk tunes, exotic scales, and innovative instrumentation.

Electronic music has made a huge palette of electronically generated sounds available at the touch of a button, and the computer has made it possible to create these sounds and rhythms at a rate before impossible.

From midcentury on, there has been such a plurality of musical languages, often within the same composition (eclecticism) and coupled with a fondness for experimentation, that it can be tricky for the average listener to get a handle on a piece he or she has never heard before.

Remember, you as a listener can let yourself off the hook a bit - you don't have to assume the responsibility of understanding and appreciating everything out there. Some compositions will appeal to you and others won't. Don't expect to like (or dislike) everything you hear.

If a piece of music doesn't speak to you, it's not necessarily your lack of understanding. (Conversely, it isn't necessarily an inferior piece of music, though there's a lot of that out there, as well.) You may also like parts of a piece, but not the whole piece. Trust your instincts.

How to listen

Here are a few suggestions that can be useful in listening to any unfamiliar piece of music, regardless of style:

*Listen with an open mind. Don't expect this music to sound like music from the past. Throw out your assumptions, expectations, and predispositions. Let go of preconceived notions as to what music is and is not. Give it a chance.

*Listen actively and inquisitively - don't just daydream. Someone has put his or her heart and soul into what you're listening to, and there's undoubtedly something you can take away from the experience.

*Arm yourself with a little knowledge. Try to find out what the composer had in mind when writing the piece. If an orchestra offers a pre-concert lecture or a "meet the composer" opportunity, take advantage of it.

Hearing a composer talk about his or her work puts a face and a human sensibility on the music, and it is invaluable for helping a listener make a real connection to an unfamiliar piece.

Similarly, read program notes - they can offer insight into the musical theories a composer is working with and the context in which a work was created. And if there is a chance to hear something unfamiliar more than once, take advantage of it.

Challenging works can rarely be fully appreciated on first hearing, and subsequent listening should bring out a host of intricate details you may have missed the first time out.

*Try to fit the work in context, keeping in mind some of the musical styles that have evolved over the centuries. Does it sound similar to another piece you already know?

*Accept that music is not necessarily "about something." There may be no narrative or overriding emotion involved. Composers may be more interested in a mathematical process that slowly unfolds or a wash of tonal colors.

*Challenge yourself. If you find yourself not liking a piece, don't shut down. Probe what it is about the music that you don't like - too dense, too repetitive? It will make you a more sophisticated listener.

What to listen for

For the engaged and inquisitive listener, recognizing the basic elements of music and how they are at play can help you get "inside" an unfamiliar work.

As you listen, ask yourself:

*Is there a regular beat? Are there rhythmic patterns that engage the ear?

*Is there thematic material - melodic, harmonic, rhythmic - that keeps repeating in some way, transforming and developing as the music progresses?

*Is there a sense of the music going someplace?

*What is the texture like (dense vs. transparent, full vs. sparse) and how does it change as the piece progresses? Does the music seem to feature one voice at a time or are there musical conversations occurring between instruments? Is there counterpoint (like two or more conversations happening at the same time)?

*Does it have striking instrumental colors? Are they dark or bright, and how do they contribute to tone or mood? Revel in the glory of new sonorities.

*Is there a satisfying balance of unity and variety (fast-slow, soft-loud, tension-release)?

*What is the scale of the work - an architectural monolith, a pristine miniature filled with tiny details, or somewhere in between? Try "telescoping," letting your attention move from the overall wash of sound (the big picture) into focusing on smaller, more discreet events. Let your ear decide what is most interesting.

*How does the work make you feel - intellectually stimulated, emotionally moved, or both? Listen for both the unfolding of intriguing structural details and revelations of the human element - humor, passion, anger, terror. If the music makes you feel something, that response is worth noting. The experience has moved you, even if it's annoyance or anger. That's what art is all about.

But after all is said and done, don't analyze too much. Though understanding adds to the experience of appreciation, you often can enjoy something you don't completely understand. Think of it as a continuum in which appreciation comes at many different levels.

Augusta Read Thomas, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's composer-in-residence, says, "Mostly people want to understand what they're hearing. But there are all sorts of things all around us that we don't fully understand. There's a huge threshold of mystery, and it's OK to be baffled....

"When it comes to music, cherish that mystery. Enjoy the complexities. With new music, people often say, 'I don't get it.' Celebrate that instead of trying to squish it in a little box with all the answers. Music is way too complicated, too multifaceted for that."

Sometimes it's better to surrender to the experience of listening and let music be an adventure of discovery. (Even old music, given a probing performance, can give you that delicious experience of hearing something for the first time.)

It's a little unsettling - we have to let go of the familiar and engage our curiosity and imagination. But, after all, why come to a concert simply to be reassured of what you already know? Like any new experience, it will enlarge your world. Let new music take you someplace untested, to an emotional or intellectual soundscape in which you've never found yourself before. Then sit back and enjoy the ride.

*For more information, click on (American Symphony Orchestra League) or (American Music Center).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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