The new helps appreciate the old: Joshua Fineberg on music

I’ve spent the past week reading Joshua Fineberg’s Classical Music: Why Bother ?, a strident defence of contemporary music’s place in society and an assessment of some of the problems faced by today’s composers in surviving in the current age.

The most striking observation comes near the end:

A real danger exists that, as marketing and focus groups learn to locate our current preferences with ever greater precision, the range of stimuli we receive will draw ever tighter. If we only go to a museum to see over and over again the paintings we already love, we are not developing into anything: We are like rats in a cage pulling the lever that will deliver us a reward until we get so sated we fall asleep. Moreover,the jolt we get each time is less fulfilling than the last. The malaise of the modern condition often feels like we’ve already “been there, done that.” But there are so many things we have not seen or heard — an essentially endless supply. Yet we must put up with the discomfiture of travel if we are to discover a new place, if we are to return home with slightly different eyes. If the orchestra only plays what we already know we want to hear, we will never hear anything new and we will never find a new way to hear the pieces we already love.

Fineberg: thought--provoking defenderWhat Fineberg is reminding us is that, through our exposure to new experiences, not only do we widen our emotional spectrum, we are also able to revisit works which we already know in a way which makes us perceive them anew. It’s the experience of something new which reinvigorates our experience of something old, of something we already love. The idea of listening to new works (or seeing new art, or reading new books) is linked with the idea of our developing, our growing. I think this refers to a sense of emotional, intellectual and cultural development, a widening of the aesthetic senses through a constant quest for new phenomena that will not only enrich our experience but also help us re-evaluate those things which we already take for granted. A sense of development, of changing to encompass or adapt to new things, is crucial if we are not to stand still, to ossify, to become lazy in our cultural consumption such that we only listen to, or view, or read, things we already know we like.

The search for new stimuli is perhaps an important part of the human condition, of our developing. Listening to new works only enriches our lives, exposing us to new soundscapes whilst renewing those with which we are already familiar.

Thought-provoking reading: recommended.

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