“Modern Music” is Many Things

By Philip Maneval on November 7, 2011

Sometimes when people hear a new piece they don’t care for, I will hear them say, “I don’t like modern music.” I have always been puzzled by this. If you see a movie you don’t like, would you say, “I don’t care for modern cinema?” Or if you don’t care for a particular novel, “I don’t like contemporary fiction?”  I think not.

So what’s the difference?  When listening to new music, I ask audiences to consider the following:  First, it’s only a compilation of sounds, and it really can’t hurt you. Second, there is a huge variety of musical styles today–most are very different from one another.  Third, it is music of our time, and reflective of the world in which we all live.

Composing art music never has paid much, and this remains true today. The real incentive, I believe, is to make something unique, which is real, true to oneself and expressive of the creator’s life and artistic experiences. How can we expect a composer living in New York City, in 2012, to write music that sounds like a composer who lived, say, in Vienna in 1787, or in France in 1905? Would we really want them to?

Once, after hearing a Brahms quartet, an audience member asked me, “Why can’t you write a piece like this?”  I replied, “I don’t need to–Brahms already did.”  Hearing a piece composed in the style of Schumann, Brahms or Fauré might provide some momentary pleasure, but it won’t last. The piece won’t sustain our interest. It will soon seem like what it is–imitative and contrived.

An important part of why we love the great composers, from Bach to Stravinsky and beyond, is because they had courage, a clear voice, strong convictions and a unique artistic persona. It is not easy to accomplish this today, as musical styles have been thoroughly excavated now for several centuries. Yet this goal cannot be neglected. Composers must be true to themselves before they can truly move others.

When we listen to new music, we should hold these pieces to a high standard, but we owe composers–and ourselves–patience, an open mind, and an expectation for artistic integrity.