Why does contemporary classical music spurn melody?

Proponents of modern symphonic music cast unhappy audiences as unenlightened. But for most listeners, music elicits emotional rather than intellectual responses. Certainly, classical music should should challenge and evoke. It just shouldn't sound like bus crashes.

A few years before he passed, my father and I were discussing contemporary symphonic music. Like most concertgoers, Dad didn't care for it – except he wasn't like most concert-goers. He was a charter member of the Duluth, Minn., Symphony Orchestra, and sat in its French horn section for nearly 40 years.

He said that during his tenure Duluth conductors scheduled at least one modern unconventional score each season. "During all those years, the orchestra repeated Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – most of the classical canon – many times," he said. "But we never again replayed a modern composition."

In 1986, when he became music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Edo de Waart was an advocate of contemporary composers. On a radio talk show, a caller asked him, "Why do we have to listen to music that sounds like bus crashes?" To which the maestro replied, "Sir, you're living in the wrong century." In other words, get used to the dissonance.

Another view: Why concerts are boring

But ticketholders had little patience with discordance, and Mr. de Waart and the orchestra largely reverted to the familiar oeuvre of classic works.

An acquired taste?

The Guardian, in London, recently published a piece called "Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?" by Alex Ross, in which he argued that we shouldn't. He urged that fans of symphonic music embrace the new, pointing to acceptance of abstract and conceptual art following years of critical and popular rejection.

While works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and others have generated millions of dollars in sales, there's a difference between painting or sculpture and music. An objet d'art's worth is measured by how much a collector will pay for it. Visitors to an art museum, as Mr. Ross does point out, can glance at a piece and move away. A concertgoer is probably stuck in a seat for 20-plus minutes, gnashing teeth while the orchestra plays a cacophonous opus in something like 37/9 time.

Ross also opines that since classical music is an acquired taste, enduring exposure to modern expressions will develop an appreciation for 20th- and 21st-century compositions. The problem: Some tastes are more easily acquired than others. Would periodic servings of fried tripe produce diners ravenous for the dish, or would those predisposed to abhor it continue to do so? (No offense intended to connoisseurs of fried tripe.)

Ross also suggests that disharmonious major film and TV scores ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Shutter Island," and the series "Lost") were not alienating to audiences. He reasons that because viewers didn't reject the films, they cannot actually be wired to loathe such dissonant music.

But the operative factor here is that viewers were engrossed in the visual stories, with the scores as mere afterthoughts, or supplements to the ima­gery and story line. Moviegoers aren't hearing film scores as isolated pieces of music – if they are even considering them at all.

Emotional vs. intellectual connections

While adherents of contemporary orchestral music and many musicians contend that the newer compositions challenge the intellect of listeners as well as the skill of performers, most listeners simply are not programmed to accept what sounds grating and unpleasant. Critics ignore the notion that, for most listeners, music elicits emotional rather than intellectual responses.

Dad liked to illustrate his antipathy toward new music by relating an anecdote. A former conductor of the Duluth orchestra had selected an all-Finnish program for a concert. "We played Sibelius, of course," Dad said, "and people wept. But we'd also commissioned something by a young Finnish composer. I'd say he got a polite, but reserved, reception. Then we played 'Finlandia' as an encore, and people cried and cheered."

A few years ago, appearing with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air," Paul McCartney was asked about his foray into classical music composition. Ms. Gross mentioned that recordings of those works sold well, but reviews had been harsh at worst and lukewarm at best. His response: "Well, Terry, I like melody."

Heedless of critics, audiences do, too. Familiar musical strains trigger memories and connections for everyone. Dissonant sounds, on the other hand, rarely become familiar, because without great effort, they cannot be embedded in our minds' ears.

A cadre of music critics, performers, and proponents, however, posit that repetition of the classical canon no longer engages them. Like elevator music, it doesn't stimulate and has become a frustrating bore.

Check out the Monitor's Music page

A solution may be for new composers to embrace, rather than scorn, melody. Certain modern composers – Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber come to mind – have often done so. Some of their works are frequently included in the repertoires of orchestras and chamber ensembles, and have rightly earned their way into the hearts – and ears – of listeners.

Certainly classical music isn't simply written or played to make us comfortable. It should challenge, inspire, and evoke. It just shouldn't sound like bus crashes.

Michael Fedo is an author and former college communications teacher.

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