The Importance of New Music: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Modern Classical Music


The question on everyone’s lips (at least those attuned to culture in LA) is how conductor Gustavo Dudamel is going to change the landscape of the city, its orchestra, and the classical music world in general. It seems that here is someone who has a unique opportunity to be a uniter. He has a Latino heritage that speaks to the growing population in LA. He has the youth (26 years old) that resonates to a generation that didn’t grow up believing Beethoven was necessarily important to know. And let’s not forget that he has talent, that magical substance that everyone I’ve talked to says lives up to its own hype.

Here’s Mark Swed’s take on what Dudamel will do for us.

It’s particularly exciting as I attend what few concerts the modern music world has in store for us in LA, namely the Monday Evening Concerts, the Green Umbrella Series, and Piano Spheres. That these concerts feature many of the same performers and are attended by many of the same people is indicative of how insular this world remains. And again, it points to how important it is for education to get the word out.

I ran into an interesting philosophical conundrum the other day…isn’t all human progress and achievement based on technology and science and politics? And in turn, isn’t art just a reflection of those achievements and a mirror of them rather than actively participating in the betterment of the future? Okay, a lot of you will easily retort that art is important and universal, but certainly there’s an element that doesn’t bring it to the level of food production, car manufacturing, etc. In other words, this is a real question that underlines the crisis in music education and the way society views art. I think the quick and easy answer is that art, and music in particular, is a civilizing influence…it gets people expressing themselves in healthy ways and gets people together who can appreciate the way music makes them feel. And why does everything need to be about progress…why can’t it be instead about understanding, which is a great hallmark of an arts education?

Perhaps the Green Umbrella series is the most accessible of the new music concerts available to the public. They are housed in a big, recognizable building, and they occur on Tuesday nights, leaving the weekends open to parties, clubbing, and the rest. And it costs the amount of a movie ticket and has the added bonus of feeling “cultural” in some vague way.

So a lot of walk-ins come around not knowing what they are getting. Indeed, the concept of a classical concert may be unknown to them let alone a modern classical concert. And what follows generally dispels the notions they came in with, namely that classical music is genteel and polite. Green Umbrella concerts almost always push the boundaries of performance techniques. But in other ways, it does fit into the general stereotype because the audience is an older demographic. This is largely unavoidable since this is the subscription base and these are the people who grew up knowing what serious music was.

And take last night’s concert, featuring three composers with a focus on Steven Stucky’s 20th anniversary at the LA Phil. Stucky’s pieces were edgy and full of interesting timbres and simple textures and melodic structures. Yet they were the most traditional thing on the program. Mattheson’s Songs of Love, Desire, and Loss was beautifully textured and sounded new in its post-minimalist expressivity, even while using virtually the same instrumentation as Stucky’s Boston Fancies. Susan Botti’s Jabberwocky verged on performance art with the evocative violet lighting, disembodied voice and arms, and a drum kit that added jazzy punctuation to Botti’s own vocal gymnastics.

But yet while Stucky’s pieces sounded good in a traditional sense, what I believe actually connected to the younger audiences were the Botti and Mattheson pieces (they are relatively younger composers unsurprisingly). In other words, the crazier and less traditional the piece, the more attractive to the uninitiated. With newer music there is a sense that it is activating an imagination rather than depending on the audience to follow permutations of development. And it plays directly into what engages a younger audience, namely sounds that are unique and unidentifiable. More and more, we are creating acoustic sounds that feel electronic and electronic sounds that feel acoustic. The lines are blurring and concert music should be no different.

And even this past Tuesday concert was a breeze compared to the Monday Evening Concert on the preceding night. The focus was on Radulescu, Stravinsky, and Xenakis. The best piece of the night was the Radulescu Das Anderes (The Other), which featured a solo violist doing what seemed to be endless varieties of new sounds on the viola in a propulsive rhythm. It was virtuosic and yet whispered with delicacy. But it was a far cry from the centerpiece, the Xenakis Eonta, which was loud, simple, and even hokey. The piece features an excruciatingly difficult piano solo in 6 against 5 rhythm that is unrelenting, while a brass chorus travels around the stage doing crescendos and playing with mutes and such. The whole thing is in 4/4, which is the same rhythmic profile as most pop music. It was enjoyably high-strung performance art (the brass would sometimes play into the piano causing a sympathetic vibration in the strings), but not easy listening by any stretch.

Where does this leave us? Well, after the Monday Evening Concerts, you always get the hobnobbing of music students and their teachers. Surely these are the sure-fire concertgoers who want to challenge their taste and compare their work to contemporaries and to see and be seen among the elite. It is a crowd that will always remain (and actually began the Monday evening concerts with the elite salons of Paris), but one that severly limits the relevance of the work. We need diplomats, and that’s exactly why Dudamel is perfect.

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