Orchestras and New Rep

NPR Posted a very interesting article on American orchestras and their relationship (or lack thereof) with new music.

Check it out here

I was pretty intrigued by it and the author raised a number of interesting points. Namely, that the idea has been passed down in modern composition departments that it’s a futile endeavor to write a large orchestral piece.  The argument is mainly from a practical standpoint; orchestras are big, unwieldy beasts, and the costs of rehearsal time and performances almost completely outweigh the opportunity of in-depth exploration for both the orchestra and the composer. It’s unfortunate we’ve arrived at this point, but there it is.

Honestly, I’m of the opinion that as long as orchestras continue to act like museums for the classics, then they’ll stagnate and go by the wayside. One could argue that people pay a ridiculous sum to hear something they specifically want to hear. People are paying good money to hear Beethoven 5 for the billionth time, why should they be bothered by what some unknown composer wants to say?

Well, because we live now, not in 18th century Vienna.

What are we afraid of? Dissonance? Angularity? The Avant-Garde?

Where would we be if all new music was tossed aside simply because people were hostile towards it at the time? Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a literal riot. If the riot were taken at face value, then it probably wouldn’t have become the 20th century masterpiece it’s currently thought of as.

One other issue with orchestral programming and new music is that often there is a clause in the commission contract that gives the premiering ensemble exclusive performance rights for a given time (usually about a year or so). Any newly commissioned work will only be able to live with one ensemble, despite the possibility of listeners getting excited and possibly wanting to perform it themselves (if they’re musicians). This amounts to a virtual shelf life for new music.

Here’s a possibly audacious thought – what if we eliminated those exclusive performance rights and replaced them with a clause that allowed the commissioning ensemble to delegate performances of the new work within their respective players? In other words, if a string quartet commissioned a new work and someone within that ensemble was in another quartet and wanted to play it, why couldn’t they? After all, this performer is part of a larger ensemble that this work was written for, but they are still a part of it as an individual.

I’ve went off on a bit of a tangent there.

The point to all of this is obvious; we shouldn’t fear the new simply because it’s new. Yes, lots of terrible music will be written in our time, and every few hundred or so a real diamond will shine through. But isn’t that part of the fun? I’d like to believe that modern audiences would enjoy the prospect of being part of such an invigorating journey.

They’re witnessing history in real time.

On Listening to New Music

There was an interesting article posted on Allclassical FM‘s Facebook page today, asking “How are we to listen to New Music?” The article goes on to interview a composer asking if there’s more to “get” in New Music.

I think the best way to approach “new music” is to think about how it was conceived within the context it was written in.

Back in the day, Classical music was used as the entertainment of the time. Going to the symphony hall was equivalent to going to the movies, and the music was given attention accordingly. The Romantics aimed at the heart, so we listen to that music knowing it’s going to tug at our heartstrings. The Modernists had entirely different aims, and Schoenberg (literally) turned his back on the audience, despite trying to “liberate” dissonance. The Minimalists reacted against the formalism of the Second Viennese/Darmstadt schools with the reintroduction of tonality, repetition, and the pulse. 

So we listen to that music with this in mind. This in turn affects our expectations when we listen.

So what do we say about the newest of new music? How should we listen to it? It’s my belief that a lot of people make the mistake of listening to New Music with ears conditioned to listen to the classics and the Romantics, and thus listen with the wrong mode, context, and expectations in mind.  New Music is written at the end of a long lineage of battling ideas and conceptions of consonance, dissonance, form, tension and release, and so on. Many composers conscientiously chose to modify or even abandon the usual sign posts we’re used to hearing.  If we listen to this music with the expectations of things that won’t come, we come away feeling dissatisfied, like we’re missing something, like there’s something more to “get” or understand.

I don’t think there’s anything more to “get” in New Music than the classics. This is a false question.

I believe that this notion that there’s something to “get” in New Music is because there’s sometimes something that didn’t quite meet our expectations. We feel like we’re missing something because the music is sometimes very different than what we’re used to. Think about the difference between Schoenberg’s op.11 and Bach’s Jesu. Night and day, right? Schoenberg abandoned the tonal center, so when we approach that with tonal ears we feel like we’re missing something, and thus there’s something more we feel we need to “get.”



With Bach, there is firm, reassuring tonality, grounded within nature and within our expectations.



With Schoenberg, there is the absence of tonality replaced by intervallic consistency and a much more gestural approach to writing.

There is nothing more to get than usual. The only thing that changes is our expectations.

On Rehearsing

Soon I’ll be working directly with Third Angle on my string quartet; the first open rehearsal of my piece will be this Friday. It’s starting to get very, very real. I’m a bit nervous because the piece has no central score, so this will be a challenge not only for the ensemble but for myself, especially when trying to work on specific passages and point them in the right direction. How can you point someone in the right direction without a map?

I’ve always felt a bit apprehensive when it comes to “coaching” ensembles or performers who are playing my work. Everything I have to say about how the piece should be played is already written into the score in the form of dynamics, articulations, etc. To me, anything beyond that is subject to interpretation on the performer’s part. I seldom feel like I have anything meaningful to say in that area. Sure, I could wax philosophical about the piece, but really, how is that more helpful than figuring out bowing or fingerings or breaths, or delving into the mechanics of the form? Anyone could come up with something that could be just as interesting (or more so) than what I have to say, when it comes to interpretations  Maybe I just have a hard time because I spent so much time wading through every little detail that if asked I just get lost because all the information about the piece has over-saturated my mind.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to working directly with Third Angle. This will be my first time working with a professional ensemble, so I’m hoping my lack of insight won’t be a hindrance.



Welcome to my home page and blog. Right now it’s pretty empty, but in the very near future this will be a vibrant hub of activity. It’ll also be a place where I’ll share my unsolicited thoughts on new music, experiences in the Portland new music community, my compositions and current projects, upcoming concerts, recordings, and any other miscellaneous things that could be remotely related.

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