You're as Bored as I Am
by Joe Queenan
After 40 years and 1,500 concerts,
Joe Queenan is finally ready to say the unsayable:
new classical music is absolute torture.
During a radio interview between acts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a famous singer recently said she could not understand why audiences were so reluctant to listen to new music, given that they were more than ready to attend sporting events whose outcome was uncertain. It was a daft analogy.
If people don't know in advance whether Nadal or Federer is going to win, but still love Wimbledon, why don't they enjoy it when an enraged percussionist plays a series of brutal, fragmented chords on his electric marimba? What's wrong with them?
The reason the sports analogy fails is because when Spain plays Germany, everyone knows that the game will be played with one ball, not eight; and that the final score will be 1-0 or 3-2 or even 8-1 - but definitely not 1,600,758 to Arf-Arf the Chalet Ate My Banana. The public may not know in advance what the score will be, but it at least understands the rules of the game.
There is no denying that the people filling the great concert halls of the world are conservative
In New York, Philadelphia and Boston, concert-goers have learned to stay awake and applaud politely at compositions by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun. But they do this only because these works tend to be short and not terribly atonal; because they know this is the last time in their lives they'll have to listen to them; and because the orchestra has signed a contract in blood guaranteeing that if everyone holds their nose and eats their vegetables, they'll be rewarded with a great dollop of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn.
I started listening to classical music when I entered college, aged 17. Because of my working-class background, "serious" music was important to me - not only because it was mysterious and beautiful in a way the Rolling Stones were not, but because it confirmed that I had cut my ties with the proletariat and "arrived."
Over the years, this sense of membership of a cultural elite has evaporated: after attending roughly 1,500 concerts in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Paris, London, Berlin and Sydney, I no longer believe that fans of classical music are especially knowledgeable.
American audiences, even those that fancy themselves quite in the know, roll over and drool like trained seals in the presence of charismatic hacks phoning in yet another performance of the Emperor Concerto. The public likes its warhorses, but it doesn't seem to care how well these warhorses get played. These people may think they care more about music than the kids who listen to hip-hop, but I've been eavesdropping on their conversations for 40 years and the results are not impressive. They know that Clair de Lune is prettier than Fnr Elise, that Mozart died penniless, and that Schumann went nuts. That's about it.
Last winter, I attended a performance of Luciano Berio's seminal 1968 composition Sinfonia. Two days later, the New York Times reported that the New York Philharmonic gave an "electrifying and sumptuously colourful" reading of this "all-embracing and ingenious" masterpiece. Maybe they did.
But the day I heard it, I gazed down from the balcony at a sea of old men snoring, a bunch of irate, middle-aged women fanning themselves with their programmes, and scores of high-school students poised to garrote their teachers in reprisal for 35 minutes of non-stop torture.
Sinfonia may be one of the cornerstones of 20th-century music. But the Times critic might have noticed that the audience merely tolerated it - and that unlike him, very few dismissed Brahms' Fourth Symphony as an "afterthought". Not judging from the applause I heard.
When I was 18, I bought a record called The New Music. It featured Kontra-Punkte by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki. I was incredibly proud of myself for giving this music a try, even though the Stockhausen sounded like a cat running up and down the piano, and the Penderecki was that reliable old post-Schoenberg standby: belligerent bees buzzing in the basement.
I did not really like these pieces, but I would put them on the turntable every few months to see if the bizarre might one day morph into the familiar. I've been doing that for 40 years now, and both compositions continue to sound harsh, unpleasant, gloomy, post-nuclear.
It is not the composers' fault that they wrote uncompromising music that was a direct response to the violence and stupidity of the 20th century; but it is not my fault that I would rather listen to Bach. That's my way of responding to the violence and stupidity of the 20th century, and the 21st century as well.
I have tried to come to terms with the demands of modern music. I own tons of records by Berg, Webern, Crumb, Carter, and Babbitt: I consider myself to be the kind of listener contemporary composers would need to reach if they had any hope of achieving a breakthrough. So far, this has not happened, and I doubt that it will.
In March I saw Harrison Birtwistle's new opera, The Minotaur, at Covent Garden. I entered the concert hall with the same excitement I always have: prepared to be blown out of the room. This did not happen. The Minotaur is harsh and ugly and monotonous and generically apocalyptic. Birtwistleites might dismiss me as a Luddite who despises new music, but the truth is, I find nothing new in The Minotaur's dreary, brutish score; it's the same funereal caterwauling that bourgeoisie-loathing composers have been churning out since the 1930s. To me, there is little difference between Birtwistle, now in his 70s, and Eric Clapton, now in his 60s. These are old men doing the same music in their dotage that they used to do as kids.
Earlier this year, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall by the National Symphony under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin is a canny, industrious conductor and a champion of American music. His philosophy seems to be that if Americans do not support living composers, American composers will cease to exist - though if the best America can do is John Corigliano and Philip Glass and the dozens of academics who give each other awards for music nobody likes, this might not be such a bad thing.
Slatkin's programme consisted of three gimmicky pieces: Liszt's flamboyant Second Piano Concert, Ravel's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; and an ambitious new work by a young American named Mason Bates.
This last piece, entitled Liquid Interface, examined "the phenomenon of water in its variety of forms," something Ravel and Mussorgsky never got around to. It featured wind machines and bongos and an electric drum pad and a laptop and a gigantic orchestra. It was bloated but thoroughly harmless, and the audience responded warmly; nothing thrills a classical music crowd more than a new piece of music that doesn't make them physically ill.
But the concert underscored the problem in including new work on the same programme as the old chestnuts: it is not just asking striplings to compete with titans; it is asking obscure, academically trained liquid interfacers to compete with titans at the top of their game. As the saying goes: you don't send a boy to do Franz Liszt's job.
The debate about what is wrong with the world of classical music has been going on for at least a half a century. Specious arguments dominate the conversation. Why has the public accepted abstract art but not abstract music? (Discordant visual art does not cause visceral pain, discordant music does.) Why does the public accept atonal music in films, but not in the concert hall? (Jaws wouldn't work if the shark's attacks were synchronised with Carmen. We expect sound effects in the movies, but we're not going to pay to hear them in the concert hall.)
Would contemporary music attract more listeners if a truly great composer came along? The last time the American public got excited about a living composer was when Leonard Bernstein was in vogue; but Bernstein, a superb conductor and Broadway tunesmith, never developed into a great composer.
At present, the American public seems most taken by anachronisms (Henryk G=recki, Arvo PSrt), infantilists (Glass), eclectics (Corigliano) and atmospheric neo-Brucknerites (John Adams). Even when the public embraces the new, what it is really looking for is the old. It is hardly surprising that so many composers simply throw in the towel and compose music that will be ignored in their own lifetimes, hoping it will find an audience with posterity.
Their hopes may be misplaced. A hundred years after Schoenberg, the public still doesn't like anything after Transfigured Night, and even that is a stretch. The works of the former wunderkindern Boulez and Stockhausen have not entered the permanent repertory, and Lutoslawski and Elliott Carter, while respected, are not beloved.
Last month, I attended a free concert in New York in honour of Carter and the France-based Greek composer Georges Aperghis.
In a discussion that preceded the show, a woman in the audience reminded us that Haydn's work was first thought of as "radical", but had long since entered the mainstream. This was an earnest reaffirmation of the theory that what starts out on the fringe ultimately makes its way to the middle.
The concert then got underway. The 70 or so people in the hall held up pretty well through a handful of progressively more difficult Carter pieces, though after the interval their numbers dwindled to 50.
After the break, a singer performed Jactations No 1, 2 and 4, an Aperghis composition I had not heard before. The singer preened, acted a bit goofy, stared at the score, made a few weird sounds, fell down, squatted, pouted, kissed the music stand, stretched out and simulated falling asleep. He was succeeded by a young woman who regaled the crowd with six or seven minutes of sing-song gibberish. It was pretty radical stuff, all right. In a couple of hundred years, maybe it'll be as mainstream as Haydn's Creation. But I'm not holding my breath.
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