I have been listening lately to a great deal of very new music with which I am not entirely familiar. I try very hard to keep up with the unbelievable number of composers working in the world today, all of whom seem to be doing very solid work. It is a big task, because there is so much music out there.
I had a startling revelation during one of my listening sessions. I realized that I couldn't actually tell if I liked something or not. I'm not entirely sure what happens when we listen, but somehow, listening to new music is not the same as listening to music from the common practice era. If I listen to a symphony by Anton Rubinstein, I can at least apply my expectations of a traditional Romantic work to the experience. I might find it boring, or moving, or nondescript, or exciting, but these qualities will all be clear to me immediately. Boredom might set in as time goes by, because the music does not have enough variety, but for the most part, my reaction to the music is instantaneous.
The same is not true of new music. Why not? And I don't mean just certain styles of new music, I mean any work from the last 70 years. My example is the Piano Concerto of Boris Tchaikovsky (not related to P.I.), a Russian who died in the 90s. This is one of the truly odd voices in music. The Concerto begins with a bizarre movement of nothing but repeated notes that once in a while explodes into some triads, but for the most part, it is a machine gun of repeated notes that are played by the piano and doubled by the orchestra. My first reaction was to smile. It's typical contemporary Slavic head-banging. Then I got irritated. Then I got interested in where it was going. Then I got irritated again. Then I turned it off. But I thought about it for days, and I am actually listening to it right now, as I type this text.
I think I like it.
Why do I not know for sure?
I find myself questioning the quality of the music I am listening to. Obviously, this guy knew what he was doing. He's doing it deliberately. But is it any good? Do I like it despite the fact that it's bad, the way I like some stupid action movies?
I listened to Carter's Instances, one of his last orchestra works. I liked it far better than anything else I've ever heard by Carter. Will I like it when I hear it again? I think I liked it at least partially because in it, Carter moves very deliberately back towards my own aesthetic, embracing repetition and periodicity. It was recognizably connected to traditional compositional practice. Did I like it because I analyzed it? Or did I really react to the music? Am I able to listen without analyzing? I would like to think so. I listened to Requies by Berio, and it totally engaged me for about 4 minutes. Then the next 4 minutes dragged. By the last third of the work, I was so bored I couldn't continue, and turned it off. My analytical thinking came afterwards, sometime around the 10 minute mark, when I realized I had heard everything the piece had to offer and there were still 4 minutes to go. That was the professional composer in me speaking. The listener had lost interest a long time before.
I am quite enjoying Boris Tchaikovsky's beautiful slow movement.
Is it impossible to listen to new work objectively because we have no yardstick to measure it against? Each new work carries its own grammar, its own intention, and we have to decipher these things as the work progresses. Or is something broader at work? When a work like this Concerto simply ignores expectation, and produces a confused reaction, is it because it is genuinely unexpected and creative? Does my initial positive/negative reaction indicate that there is something going on in this work?
I suspect so. I suspect that anything that is just "there" is bad music. Music I neither like nor dislike on first hearing is music I am simply not going to listen to again. And frankly, this describes about 90% of the music I hear. Even an irritating piece which forces me to react is doing something that most music doesn't do. I am very bored with the next tonal piece, the next atonal piece, the next spectralist piece, the next snappy back-beat piece, because I've heard it all before. So many composers the world over have so much craft that they can crank out endless faceless pieces. It is the music that pokes us, prods us, makes us want to hear it again, that matters. Everything else is just wasting valuable moments of my life.