Crusade for the New: there’s more than just the classical canon

Glance through most classical music festival programmes or most popular requests for pieces played on a classical radio station, and there’s an excellent chance that you will see familiar works from the mainstream, classical repertoire: Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart.

Whilst the venerable classical tradition of such composers will always have a place in the concert repertoire and the listening library, it is also important that audiences are introduced to, even challenged by, contemporary music, the music of their time.

The endless recycling of Great Masters is a self-rotating roundabout that can ultimately lead nowhere: there’s no development, nor indeed perhaps any desire for it. When festival-organisers and radio programmers know that a particular tranche of long-standing popular favourites will almost guarantee ticket-sales or healthy listening-figures, there’s a great reluctance to programme modern or challenging works that may drive audiences away.

But modern music need not be viewed with suspicion, with fear that audiences will be put off by recent works. Contemporary music has the capacity to embrace contemporary issues: ‘Soldiers of Heaven hold the sky’ from Nixon in China,

or The Death of Klinghoffer, and Dr. Atomic by John Adams show opera grappling with political issues of the twentieth century. And it can do so with a musical language that reflects its age: from the car-horns in Gershwin’s  American in Paris to the sirens in Antheil’s Ballet mecanique or the sampling keyboards playing non-musical ideas in Steve Reich’s City Life, contemporary music has the language and the sound-world to reflect modern life, and make us view it afresh. It can be fun and funky: think of Michael Torke’s bouncing dance-ryhthms in the percussion concerto, Rapture,

or Michael Nyman’s bright textural writing in Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds.

It can be spiritual and reflective, as in the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel,

or the work of the late Henry Gorecki, or Sir John Tavener.

Of course, music from previous eras can always have some relevance to the current political or social climate: Mozart operas being set in underground car—parks or Shakespeare plays staged in council tenement blocks can always draw contemporary relevancy from a work. But that can also be seen as imposing contemporary resonances on a work from a previous age. Contemporary music, like contemporary art, doesn’t need to have such meaning impressed upon it: it’s engaging with such issues directly. And it often does so in a refreshing, vibrant way that makes you re-evaluate its subject-matter.

As Ezra Pound famously put it, ‘Make it new.’ It’s time to trust that audiences are willing to be open to new music addressing contemporary issues, and to crusade for the new.

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(Audio extracts via LastFM).

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