Thursday, September 17, 2009

Who killed musical innovation?

The other day I heard a radio announcer on a classical music station arguing that contemporary orchestral music is under-represented in today’s concert repertoire when compared to the concert programs of the nineteenth century. Basically, the argument was that it takes twentieth century composers much longer to get into the standard repertoire than it did their nineteenth century counterparts and that was an indictment on modern orchestral composers.

Certainly nineteenth-century audiences listened to much more contemporary orchestral music than we do. But who is to blame, if, indeed, we agree that the orchestral concert hall has become a museum - with the average age of works performed somewhere around, at a guess, 125 years - and that this is a regrettable situation? Traditionally, music lovers blame the composers. They are meant to write to the tastes of audiences. But what if audiences have become intolerably conservative? What if the world’s orchestras have closed their books and are happy to pander to audience taste for the ‘canon’? Nineteenth-century composers got into the repertoire much quicker because the repertoire of the day was much more contemporary. There was more room for them and audiences had a thirst for the new.

Affluence plays a big role here. We are more affluent than in any era in human history. Affluence and conservatism go hand in hand. The more affluent we become as a society, the more we hanker to protect our affluence. This attitude spills over into our culture and the pioneering spirit is replaced by a desire to protect the familiar and to bask in the self-referential desire to have our “taste” confirmed. The obsession with “taste” is an off-shoot of affluence.

Technology is also important. Today, for a few hundred dollars you can easily assemble a collection of recorded music that spans the last 500 years and in the comfort of your living room go on a musical journey between Gregorian chant and the music of John Cage or Steve Reich. Such a luxury is unprecedented in human history. Beethoven knew very little music that was not written by his contemporaries. The average music lover today knows much more music than Beethoven did. And it is almost entirely more than a century old.

Nothing is to blame for the mothballing of our orchestral culture more than the self-satisfied conservatism of our audiences.

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