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Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?

February 12, 2011

Modern classical music is primarily a project of the classical music industry’s managerial elites which has no basis in consumer demand. Despite decades of evidence that audiences do not like this music, the managerial elites continue to push this agenda. When challenged, their response is to blame the classical music audience for not liking the music.

Much of my thinking about the arts has been informed by Mises faculty Paul Cantor’s ten-part lecture series on Commerce and Culture. The main theme of his lectures is that high culture has its roots in popular culture and that popular culture has always been a commercial product. While there are some instances of great art that have not been commercially successful, there is no systemic conflict between great art and commercial success. By this standard, the modernist classical agenda is a failure because it has failed the market test.

Two articles illustrating the “the consumer is wrong” crossed my web browsing path this week – Why do we hate modern classical music? by Alex Ross writing in the Guardian, and a response, Why does contemporary music spurn melody? by Michael Fedo in the Christian Science Monitor.

Fedo provides evidence of the lack of popular acceptance of the modernist agenda. New commissions hardly ever “get legs” and receive a second performance because…well…no one wants to hear them again. Actually, no one wanted to hear them the first time either.

[his father, a French horn player in the Duluth symphony] said that during his tenure Duluth conductors scheduled at least one modern unconventional score each season. “During all those years, the orchestra repeated Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – most of the classical canon – many times,” he said. “But we never again replayed a modern composition.”

While I say that “no one” likes this stuff, that is clearly wrong. As evidenced from Ross’s piece, hardly anyone likes this stuff. A typical concert program provides the following clues to the real demand for modernist music: 1) a gnarly modernist work is always programmed with Beethoven or some other popular work (disparagingly know as a “warhorse” or a “chestnut”) and 2) the popular work is always programmed after the intermission because, well, it would be very embarrassing if everyone left after the intermission and most people will not deliberately arrive late. (I am the exception to this, timing my arrival for the second half of these programs if it is something that I want to see.)

Fedo relates the following story illustrating the “blame the listener” reflex that is so common among the managerial class:

In 1986, when he became music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Edo de Waart was an advocate of contemporary composers. On a radio talk show, a caller asked him, “Why do we have to listen to music that sounds like bus crashes?” To which the maestro replied, “Sir, you’re living in the wrong century.” In other words, get used to the dissonance.

Ross — a tireless advocate of the audience-blaming agenda — admits that “modern classical music remains an unattractive proposition for many concertgoers” and in the next paragraph refers to it as a “problem” (Ross later uses the word “unappreciative” to describe concert-goers who do not like the new music). Mr. Ross, why is it a “problem” if people don’t like something? This happens all the time in markets – consumers do not like something; a product is not commercially successful. This is, from the point of view of the producer of the product a problem if he takes a loss, but it is not a systemic problem for the industry as such. It is a market signal indicating that the classical music industry is producing poor quality music.

Ross — taking the agenda of the managerial elites as a given and the preferences of listeners as changeable — argues that classical music is an acquired taste and that it is the audiences who should, well, just go about acquiring it, as distasteful as that might be.

Ross analyzes number of theories, such as the rejection of novelty, the idolization of the past, and poor marketing that seek to explain why listeners do not like modernist classical music. This effort only serves to illustrate his view of the fixity of modernism, to which audience tastes must eventually yield. The only question that remains is whether it is the classical elites who should try harder to foist this music on us, or whether we as listeners must try harder to digest this distasteful menu.

But why should it be so? Why not some public apologies on the part of the classical music elites for their poor judgment in funding composers? Why does the classical-managerial class after a century of its failed agenda not admit that they were wrong and start trying to fund music that people might like? In what other industry would entrepreneurs continue to pour funding into a failed business model?

That compositional talent still exists is proven by the film industry, which produces several great classical-sounding scores every decade. Yet Ross, predictably, draws exactly the wrong conclusion from this data:

Indeed, it’s striking that film-makers have made lavish use of the same dissonances that concertgoers have found so alienating. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its hallucinatory György Ligeti soundtrack, mesmerised millions in the late 1960s. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which deploys music by Cage, Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, and Ligeti again, was a recent box-office hit. Michael Giacchino’s score for the TV series Lost is an encyclopedia of avant garde techniques. If the human ear were instinctively hostile to dissonance, these and 1,000 other Hollywood productions would have failed.

When I think of the score of 2001, I think of the music of the younger and the older Strauss, not of dissonances. Setting that aside, I would point out that movie-goers also like action movies with car crashes that sound like car crashes. Would Ross take that as evidence that the human ear is not hostile to dissonance? Maybe people like these films in spite of the score, or maybe we have different tastes for musical scores that act as a sort of enhanced sound effect track but are not perceived as music.

The classical-sounding film scores that have taken off commercially in their own right, such as John Williams’ brilliant Star Wars efforts and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings all have recognizable melodies that any movie-goer could hum after a single hearing.

The human race has not lost the ability to write good — and popular — music. It is only that the managerial elite who run symphonies and granting agencies controlling the funding of composition have placed themselves in opposition to the tastes of classical music, and justify this by blaming the audience for their tastes.

Ross and the classical-managerial elites should question their assumption that modernism is a permanent feature of musical composition that may or may not be accepted by audiences one day. But there is nothing so permanent about modernism. The classical-managerial elites have put the modernist program on welfare to shield it from a market test. A big part of the welfare program has been the constant drum-beat of propaganda suggesting that audience should like this music, and that the problem — if they do not — is with the listener, not the music.

Even after a century, the public does not accept the a-melodic, dissonant, car-crash, sound-effect-driven compositional output of the modernist school as music. It is ultimately audience acceptance that drives composition, not the other way around. While we have been on a bit of a detour for the last 100 years, that should be long enough to declare the modernist agenda a failure and move on to something that people do like.

The classical music audience wants melody. What needs to change is not public tastes, but musical composition. It’s time to give the nascent John Williams and Howard Shores of the world the the new commissions instead of pouring more money and symphony programming space a dark hole in the ground. C’mon Alex Ross, give melody a chance.

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