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June 25th, 2008

Why should we listen to modern music?

By James L. McHard

Why should we listen to modern music? The audiences listening to art music of the 1950’s and 1960’s felt besieged by dissonances of arbitrary patterns coming off the pens of such pioneering masters as Arnold Schönberg, Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg, and, especially Anton Webern and Edgard Varèse. This music was often harsh and angular and did not meet the audience on familiar territory. Some of the music seemed arid and dry, especially the rigid serial works of many of those composers. The audiences’ negative response to this music forced later composers to make choices between continuing along a pathway of discovery that audiences refused to support or return to proven stereotypes. Many composers opted for the latter choice. This led to a series of dissatisfying musical works that either pandered to the lowest common denominator of simple-minded music listeners, such as "minimalism", or to a return to the old styles with classifications such as neo-Baroque, neo-Classical or neo-Romantic.

Recently, more sophisticated listeners have begun to see this turn of events for what it was: a reneging by composers on their contract to create anew; to give audiences a panorama of interesting, challenging sounds in patterns that surprise and stimulate thinking. They were receiving, instead, shopworn compromises consisting of threadbare mush combining some new sounds with old, while ordering them in a predictable array of impotent, outdated forms.

Some composers retained the trappings of modernism in their subsequent works, while offering more directly palatable alternative style. Notable in this regard were Iannis Xenakis, Luigi Nono, Giacinto Scelsi, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Henryk Górecki, Toru Takemitsu and Julio Estrada. Although these composers’ works are no easy fare, here are four reasons why should make the effort to listen:

• Expanded experience that keeps one in touch with aspects of contemporary life.

• Stretched mental capacities and one’s ability to grasp complex processes. This skill is transferable to disciplines such as understanding new languages and other cultures.

• Expanded pleasures associated with the conquest of difficult new processes.

• Finding of new sources of pleasure in alternative art.

By choosing more traditional modernisms, such as Debussy or Ravel before proceeding forward to the more difficult; concentrating; and listening repeatedly to each piece, you can overcome the difficulties of listening to modern music and find enriching new sonic vistas in return.

James L. McHard is a freelance composer, lecturer, and author of "The Future of Modern Music" (Iconic Press).

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