Contemporary Music Debate

I just listened to a podcast from Upbeat with Eva Radich called “The Emperor’s New Clothes?â€?. Many of you may have heard the original interview on Concert FM, but if not the podcast is available here. Anyway it was a debate between Eva and James Gardner (composer and 175 East director), both great people, about contemporary music. Specifically programming, programme notes, and it being inaccessible and hard for audiences, all in relation to last weekends’ concerts by 175 East and Stroma (NZ’s leading contemporary ensembles). It was quite a good listen and if any of you get a free chance then definitely give it some time.

The discussion about programme notes was around whether or not to have them and to what extent. Should music completely speak for itself or should it have a note to provide some insight? There was also debate as to whether a long programme note consisting of “semi-intellectual twaddleâ€? does anything productive for the piece – a lot of technical words that really glorify the composers’ vocabulary and intellect rather than the musical meaning.

This lead to the point of the music itself being more an intellectual activity for the composer rather than it providing any emotional impact to the audience. Some may say that the music is too complex for the audience to understand. But it was asked what the point of this is. It is hard enough getting audiences to contemporary music concerts as it is, and are all these elements just making it harder? Have audiences moved on from this? Other modern music, that of John Psathas was mentioned, is very inclusive; it speaks for itself and always gets full houses. So question was asked as to why make it harder and harder for audiences to understand and enjoy contemporary music.

Of course this has always been a debate, and it was great to hear some spicy discussion on it again. Both 175 East and Stroma and their artistic directors do a fantastic job and do have many elements that help to draw the audience into the concert. I have been to many myself, and they are very enjoyable concerts. BUT I totally see Eva’s many points as very relevant. There is so much music that is far more “intellectualâ€? for the composer than “emotionalâ€? to the audience (…not that it all has to be). I have been down that path myself, but have come out the other end. As a composer I think without any question the main goal is to affect the audience. The composers that primarily consider this are those that are most successful.

Anyway great debate, have a listen if you can.