“New York, New York; It’s a hell of a town” (Week 2)

Last night I had the privilege of attending the Bernstein Centennial Finale concert (hence the Bernstein reference in today’s title… I was proud of that one), presented by Lost Dog New Music Ensemble in midtown Manhattan. They played new orchestrations of two of Bernstein’s ballets, Dybbuk and Fancy Free, both of which were originally written in collaboration with Jerome Robbins. While listening to his two works (which could not have been more different, by the way… check them out if you haven’t heard them), I found myself thinking about his life, particularly his teaching life.

As I wrote in a high school project, “Bernstein’s educational outreach efforts were extremely successful because they coincided with the advent of television, and were ultimately able to become huge learning opportunities within American culture. In addition to the advantage he took of the television age, he was wildly popular because of his overall curiosity, intelligence, and innate passion for music; he took his passion for learning and, turning it around, became one of the world’s best teachers.” 

I could go on about the way Bernstein’s constant curiosity and “student-mode” led him to be such a great teacher. But what I found myself concerned with last night was the fact that, through his Young People’s Concerts, he became such a household name. From Bartok to Copland to Bach, he showed the next generation of listeners what music was. And he did that by relating classical music to the music they heard on the radio: The Beatles! Jazz! Unfortunately, not many people try to bridge those genre gaps anymore, and certainly no one as prominent as Bernstein was.

I’ve often thought about the divide between contemporary music in popular culture and contemporary music as I know it. This gap seems to be increasing in size, and likely has been since the early 20th century. And it seems like many classical composers don’t care. We go through rigorous training and we develop the expectation that our music doesn’t have to be accessible, or at the very least, we decide that it isn’t our job to make our music understandable to an untrained ear. We put the responsibility of accessibility on the performer or, even worse, the audience, which would certainly explain the many audience members who have essentially given up on contemporary classical music, accepting its erudite incomprehensibility as an element which is impossible to overcome. 

I know many people who have found themselves in this frustrated hate-hate relationship with new music, and I don’t blame them for coming to the conclusion that the effort it would take to knowledgeably listen to new music is not worth it. I’ve found myself in that boat once or twice (or a million times), but have also had many conversations with performer colleagues trying to defend the merit of new music and its creators. The biggest challenge in trying to argue in favor of modern music is its element of unfamiliarity. Many modern performers don’t grow up hearing a ton of contemporary music, which makes the unconventional techniques and notation systems that much more intimidating. Maybe this is an issue with the kinds of music young children are exposed to? Maybe there’s a problem somewhere later in their training? Or maybe we’re not making our music as accessible to them as it can be?

Regrettably, I don’t have answers, let alone a solution. But I think it’s important to at least discuss these differing attitudes toward new music and acknowledge the fact that we have stopped trying to connect it to the music of popular culture, whether for better or for worse. Should we take a little more initiative as composers to make things understandable? Or should we find ways to educate audience members/performers to be able to understand and appreciate our music for what it is? Should we even care if a non-musician audience member “gets” our music or not? I hope it’s clear by now that my answer, at least to the last question, is a resounding “yes”, but I’d love to hear what you guys think! Have a wonderful day! :)