I don’t remember exactly when I started playing contemporary music, but I do remember many of the pieces that I worked on as a young pianist, by composers like Violet Archer, Barbara Pentland, Jean Coulthard, Gerald Bales, and “King of List E” Boris Berlin, and I know that by the time I reached high school, playing contemporary music was already important to me. I think that I was partly rebelling from the “rules” that policed the standard repertoire, which were unimpeachable and objective right up to the moment when they became unfashionable. I also railed against the marble-busted pantheon of “great composers”, whose history often reads more like Homeric epic than critical review. My first serious teacher was a nun who championed learning by metronomic rote and balanced pennies on my hands to encourage good technique. Although from the old school, she also made a conscious effort to give me contemporary work to play, above and beyond what was required by the conservatories and local music festivals, and I’m sure that had an influence on me as well.
I wanted to face music on my own terms. For anyone studying right now, take some Ferneyhough into your lesson and see if you don’t get a bit more latitude. I also discovered a moment that I now crave, when struggling with an unintelligible new work. It’s a bit like having to find someone’s house without a map or an address (and more often than not, being late), but euphoria eventually arrives in the moment of coming-to-know, of understanding what I want to do with a work, and the strange array of notes becomes a little less foreign. It doesn’t get easier; it just becomes hard for a reason.
My favourite thing about playing contemporary music, though, is being an integral part of a living creation. As performing artists, we do not create in the sense that composers, or painters or poets do, and our creations are ephemeral moments that cannot truly be preserved. We can offer our unique interpretations, and are quite capable of captivating an audience, but we’re more akin to waiters than chefs. Still, I believe that through collaborations with living composers, we can choose to be a part of a greater purpose, one that goes beyond (but does not exclude) pleasing the public or ourselves.
I recently shared a train ride home with the composer Brian Current, and we discussed the act of composition. As he put it, “Composers are trying to tell you what it’s like to be alive at this time in history.” Contemporary art provokes us and challenges our ways of thinking, but it also reflects us as a society and it is through our art that we can piece together a sense of identity. This was nicely summed up when Juror Mary di Michele recently described the shortlisted poets for the G-G Awards as being “engaged in a sense of what it means to be alive in a certain time in a certain place, which is Canada but also the global village.” As I see it, music of our time can be written at us, to us, against us or about us, but in all cases we, the performers and listeners of today, are woven into the manuscript. New music gives us the precious opportunity to be involved with our history, and to be a part of a larger community.
And this community has space for so many different ways of thinking. Western art music has never had such a diversity of aesthetics as it does today. It is an unprecedented wealth of styles and sounds and hopes, and I consider myself lucky to have so many completely different voices to listen to. Think about the contrasts between Jo Kondo and Unsuk Chin, Steve Reich and Georges Aperghis, Linda Catlin Smith and Ana Sokolovic, even John Rutter, John Oswald and John Zorn, and then, try to figure out where to put Frank Zappa and Laurie Anderson.
There are still people smarting from the tempest that the second Viennese school unleashed upon the world almost a century ago. They question what value there could be in music that seems to lack a place for beauty. As the stage director Graham Cozzubbo once pointed out to me, they are in danger of confusing beauty with nostalgia. The melodies of the bel canto arias and the themes of the great 19th century orchestral works are all deeply ingrained in our minds and our movie soundtracks. The myth of Shostakovich is appealing in our post-cold war culture, and the keyboard music of Bach made the jump to pop culture along with the irresistible phenomenon of Glenn Gould. When I’m feeling blue, I’ll often put on the Goldberg Variations (1955 of course!), and with the help of its soothing polyphony find myself in a happier, less troubled place. It’s pleasurable to connect with what is familiar, and I am as given to sentimental indulgence as the next sentimental fool, but I wonder if treating music as a legal opiate doesn’t miss the point. Besides, as “Moms” Mabley once said, “The good old days. I was there. Where was they?”
A colleague of mine once used the argument that new music has never touched him emotionally, whereas there are works in the standard repertoire that can move him to tears. This argument never made sense to me personally, because I’ve cried watching Grey’s Anatomy and reruns of Friends, and a whole lot of manipulative Hollywood movies. I don’t think I’m alone (at least about the latter), and I don’t think there are many who consider these the zenith of our generation’s artistic yield. Tears are overrated, and aren’t half as interesting as riots or blood feuds.
If you took someone to a concert, someone unfamiliar with classical music, and she was to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, she might say something like “Well, it was interesting to see all those instruments, but it didn’t really do anything for me, and I think that Avril Lavigne has a lot more to say.” You could reasonably respond, “Give it a chance. The problem may be that you lack the tools with which to appreciate this music. If you were to keep listening, and learn more about the music and what Beethoven is saying, you might come to understand and appreciate it much more, and you would be the richer for it.” I think this can apply to many forms of music, but especially new music, because the many different languages that composers are using today are not the same languages that composers used even twenty years ago. Modern art can be elusive, but it does reveal itself to those who actively try to access it.
Recently, a Group of Seven painting was featured on the front page of the feel-good Globe and Mail Christmas edition, but in 1920, according to the critics, the Group of Seven’s first exhibition was “garish…loud, affected, freakish.” It was largely unsuccessful, and with only three paintings sold and a net loss taken, the group’s founder, J. E. H. MacDonald commented that, “It seems probable that we shall have to pay, as usual, for the privilege of giving the Toronto public an art education”. I’d like to include a small passage from the foreword to their catalogue.
A word as you view the pictures. The artists invite adverse criticism. Indifference is the greatest evil they have to contend with. But they would ask you – do you read books that contain only what you already know? If not, they argue, that you should hardly want to see pictures that show you what you can already see for yourselves.
There has always been a need for performers willing to advocate for a living art, and the list of those who have taken up this cause includes not only the likes of Pierre Boulez, Ursula Oppens and le Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne, but also romanticized icons of the past like Serge Koussevitzky, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Josef Szigeti and Franz Liszt, who all took the risk of playing new music for fresh, often unreceptive ears. It’s hard for most of us, myself included, to imagine their performances as they would have seemed to their audiences, to viscerally hear Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as revolutionary instead of lovely, or feel violent rage listening to Ravel and Debussy. Because of this, it’s easy to forget the contribution that these advocates made to the music of their time, and ultimately our time. So I’d like to suggest a different approach. Instead of trying to put ourselves in their shoes, why don’t we instead take a few walks in our own, and see if we don’t discover something new – something perhaps outrageous, or vulgar or sublime, but alive and of our time.
Adams, James, “Poets aplenty, but who’s reading the verse?”. Globe and Mail. November 20,, 2006.
E. Kaye Fulton, “Group of Seven Show”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation, 1995. October 30, 1995. http://www.thecanadianency
Foreword from Art Museum of Toronto, The Group of Seven, catalogue #22, May 7 – 27, 1920
This essay was originally published as a program note for a concert in the University of Toronto Thursday Noon Series in 2007. It was subsequently published in CMC Notations.