Cultivating Acceptance of the Unfamiliar / by Nicolas Bejarano

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My last post was about Thomas Stevens, his legacy and his plight to get the trumpet onto the moving train of musical history. The response to my post was overwhelming and (personally) deeply moving, it has been read hundreds of times in many countries, and it gives me hope that the message Tom promoted is perhaps not as lost as I thought. There were also a few who resisted my portrayal of his main preoccupations, specifically his promotion of new (trumpet) music. I will not try to dispute with those who disagreed; they might have known Tom at a different time than I did, or have their own biases and tastes. With that out of the way I want to make clear that the text ahead is not about Tom. While this blog HAD to begin with him, moving forward I will mainly focus on my fixations, my understanding of our profession, and the plight of the artist.

 For a long time I have been very amazed by the resistance trained and educated musicians around the world display towards new music. It seems to me there are many reasons to support and promote new art, and to ensure its permanent outpour so it can continue to hold its elevated place in societal development and study. We must ask ourselves if we would remember Michelangelo or DaVinci had they been mere copyists of the medieval, or Bach had he been a stoic devotee of Monteverdi, or Mozart had he just chosen to repeat the ideas of Bach, or Miles had he been a carbon copy of Jellyroll Morton, or Dalí had he simply copied Velazquez, ad infinitum (ad nauseaum). People applaud the genius of Picasso for painting Guernica, or think they would have been in the forefront of defenders of Stravinsky at the premiere of his Sacre du Printemps, and yet they continually sneer at anything created during and after the post-war era.  

 In some ways audiences have always resisted progress, it is the natural human reaction to new things: we fear the unfamiliar. However, that artists are joining those ranks is a historically new phenomenon. I don’t mean to say that there haven’t always been artists resisting progress, but it is a novel development that they are succeeding in their efforts. In the last 50 years we have broken a system that promotes new things, and embraces the best minds of each generation. We have broken the natural relationship of audiences with music by interrupting progress to indulge in the results of 500 years of musical Darwinism, and we risk seriously damaging our permanence as a musical species. While the graphic arts, plastic arts, and literature can exhibit their work and wait for society to become familiar with it, music cannot exist without performance. Therefore in order to breed familiarity of audiences with new music, in the hopes to elevate these works into the pantheon of musical history, we must insist on their repeated performance. 

 Building familiarity is more important than just about anything in promoting the expansion and permanence of our repertoire. If we do not allow audiences repeat performances of new works, it is possible that we will lose masterpieces by overshadowing them with tried and tested music. To those who claim that music today is just not as good as it used to be, I ask: what if the orchestras of the past had not given certain composers a chance to become familiar? Do you think these pieces would have survived? What if Strauss and Mahler had not performed Wagner, Rachmaninoff, or Verdi because “they’re no Rossini”? What if Walter, and Klemperer had not performed Strauss and Mahler because “They’re no Beethoven”? What if Bernstein and Solti had not championed Stravisnky, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Bartok and Copland because “music is not as good as it used to be”? This attitude would have been the promotion of mediocrity and the fear of failure…two traits that are incompatible with artistic immortality.

 The economist and public intellectual, Eric Weinstein, often says that democracy is falling prey to its child: technology. I would say that “classical” music has also fallen pray to this child; it has stifled its development. While initially records helped important music get disseminated, and allowed audiences to become more intimately acquainted with the repertoire than anyone in any other time in history (which initially promoted a new generation of concert goers and enthusiasts), it also accustomed them to concerts of classical music’s greatest hits: with the ability to listen to what they wanted at home, they started expecting the same experience in the concert halls. This type of concert experience has become antiquated and unnecessary, and audiences are thinning thanks to the lack of innovation and excitement, preferring nights at home conjuring <through the wonders of technology> their favorite composers, conductors and orchestras into their living rooms and headphones. Orchestras should have resisted, let the masses have their Beethoven at home but continue to pump them at the concert hall with new music that could excite their curiosity. Keep them coming for unique experiences not available in their quotidian existence. But orchestras didn’t do this; they yielded and stopped pushing forwards. Humanity does not honor, value or remember mediocre and conservative decisions in art. We always applaud and venerate those who pushed boundaries, expanded languages, and took risks to move things forward: with respect to the past, but with their sights on the future.  We should stop promoting the idea that history is over, or in 200 years we will have no composers to venerate the way we do Beethoven or Bach.

 It is pretty logical that when the technology became viable conductors wanted to record the things they had studied and considered audiences should have at home. Little could they have imagined that 80 years later we would still continue to record box sets of the same music they did. Do we really need a new Tchaikovsky box set? How much can someone else discover in that music that the top minds in the field haven’t in the last 50 years? This is not to say that we should stop performing these masterpieces, they’ve survived for a reason. However, Solti recorded much of Bartok (a contemporary composer of his time), Bernstein recorded much of Ives, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. Bruno Walter and Klemperer recorded Mahler (their teacher), and others made sure to champion the works of Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern. Even the most stoic and conservative of them all, Karajan, recorded many works by composers of his time. And with reduced recording contracts we should very much advocate for the recordings of repertoire that we are not as familiar with.

 Why have we such few performances, let alone recordings by major orchestras of Berio, Nono, Xenakis, Kagel, Gubaidulina, Stockhausen, Cage, Partch and others that are now dead; and only occasional (or worse, token) performances of the luminaries of this age? Must we continue to rely on contemporary music specialists (with much reduced budgets when compared to their symphonic counterparts) to keep alive the works of composers whose works are quickly aging and should’ve entered the lore long ago? Do they not deserve the opportunities we extended to Stravinsky? Perhaps our current conductors (with some exceptions), and the musicians who agree with conventionalism are infinitely less daring than their historic counterparts, and too concerned with their precious traditions to see that they are slowly but surely guaranteeing the demise of a repertoire that will continue to dry up, and worse missing their opportunity to be part of historic artistic moments.

 Is there hope for the future or are we doomed to repeat the top-40 playlist of 500 years of music? I surely hope not. My wish is that we will collectively realize that our shrinking symphonic audiences can be revitalized by the exciting prospect of unique experiences, rather than a weekly visit to a symphonic mausoleum. I would encourage every musician interested in classical music to purchase Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective. Those who know me know I’ve been obsessed with this book for some time. For those unfamiliar, it is a collection of musical opinions by critics contemporaneous with venerated composers, it brings to light the short sighted nature of detractors, and holds a mirror to those who falsely claim that they are open minded but are terrified of change. The introduction of this book alone, “Non-acceptance of the Unfamiliar”, is worth the price of the book, and should be compulsory reading in any serious art school’s curriculum. I particularly like this segment from it:

 “In his ‘Reminiscences of a Quintageranian,’ published in The proceedings of the Musical Association of London for the year 1910, George Bernard Shaw offers some illuminating remarks on the growth of musical tolerance: ‘It is not easy for a musician of today to confess that he once found Wagner’s music formless, melodyless, and abominably discordant; but that many musicians, now living, did so is beyond all question…The technical history of modern harmony is a history of growth of toleration by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians.’"

 I would not wish for a world where we would have ignored Wagner because we didn’t give his music the chance to become familiar, but if that’s the artistic world you dream of my dear reader, then bask in your musical intolerance. I remember seeing an interview of one of my teachers where he said something I will never forget: “I’ve always viewed our repertoire as a river: it flow from the baroque, into the classical period, into the romantic period, into the neo-classic new musics, and beyond…we can enter that river at any point, but its always moving ahead.” No barrier should restrict the flow of such a wonderful river, and we should not continue to promote the erection of such a structure. 

Some Pieces to Consider for the Unfamiliar: