Contemporary music risks

There hangs around classical music, and especially around its subspecies: contemporary music, an atmosphere of initiation: the listener has to know something about it to experience it to the full. Therefore people with knowledge of classical music, and especially contemporary music, are often considered ‘special’ or / and ‘elitist’, invoking feelings of inferiority with people who never go to classical music concerts, let alone new music concerts, but who do go to the new films, know about the new fiction that is reviewed in their newspaper and occasionally visit the museums of modern art. In contrast with contemporary visual art, of which we only see in the big museums the concept art variety and not the contemporary figurative painting, contemporary art music operates in the margins of the margins of the central performance culture. Its audiences are remarkably small when compared to the visitors of concept art exhibitions. Also, the money which is going around in the ‘contemporary art market’ is astonishing, and devastatingly different from the money which is spent on contemporary music – with the exception of the Netherlands where millions of euros are spent by the government on concept music which has practically no audience at all.

Museums of modern art draw thousands of visitors, in spite of the mostly unbearable nonsense on show there. Why this abyssmal difference?

A well-known British art critic recently wrote about the popularity of contemporary visual art (concept art, that is):

“This ambiguity – that art can mean anything a viewer wants, or nothing at all – makes contemporary art more appealing to wider audiences. There is no need to learn the history, the characters or the symbols that artists of old portrayed and employed in their works. And therefore there is no reason to feel deficient.”

And so it is. Concept art is, in fact, populist: it can be experienced by anybody with eye sight, and it is also something that anybody can do, so it has a reassuring, egalitarian, non-elitist quality. Looking at a work of concept art does not make any demands upon knowledge, sensitivity, imagination, aesthetic sensibility, historical knowledge, cultural awareness – it is mere fun for the eye – at best. But with music, you have to buy a ticket, and prepare yourself if you want to understand anything that will be going-on, and the moment you have occupied your seat and the music is beginning, you can’t easily leave in case you don’t like the sound. You have to sit it out. So, there are many more risks to take to visit a contemporary music concert.

The great museums of old collections don’t have a department with new figurative art, which is strange, because it implies that the figurative tradition has ended and that ‘new art’ is so different, so much a new beginning, that it needs a totally different context and thus, a different museum. But it would be perfecly normal to extend the collections of older art with works that develop the figurative tradition into the 20th and 21st century. In the same way, it would be normal if new classical / tonal music would have a normal place in today’s orchestral programming, instead of the occasional atonal work which is sandwiched between works of the traditional, classical repertoire. But that idea has as yet not arrived in the orchestral circuit – at least, not in Europe, while in the USA new tonal music has entered the regular performance practice over the last years. One would hope that such insight would, in due course, also arrive in Europe.

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