New music, new audiences

The younger generation finds contemporary music less daunting than older listeners. Contemporary music has changed dramatically in the last two decades and now includes a thick strand of music influenced by popular music from the 1960’s on, written by a generation of composers who grew up listening to it. John Adams for example, though now over 60, speaks directly to the new generation. His music attracts a large audience almost anywhere: the UK, Germany, Japan, the US.

Prior to this, classical music went through a period when new music was written by composers for each other rather than for an audience. We’ve come out of it healthier. That said, looking at a work like the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, I think to myself, this is actually very beautiful, but it’s at the outer edge in its complexity of musical language. If you don’t know the language, if you’re not fluent in it, it really is hard to understand, a bit like watching an arty foreign film without subtitles. If you do know the language it’s very traditional in many ways, with variations on phrases strung together the way Brahms might have and a discernible musical and emotional structure. While one can see why it doesn’t often get played, one can feel nothing but admiration for the composer’s craft. It’s a big task to connect this music to a mass audience. It requires the teaching of musical language with a depth not found anywhere today. This is a challenge in a culture that too often dismisses complexity as not worth the trouble, but we shouldn’t be artists if we are unwilling to take it on.