Why is new music relevant? — by Dylan Mattingly


My first response when asked this question is to quickly consult my iTunes library, turn on my speakers, turn them up high enough that the quiet moments of classical music are still an all-encompassing experience (ample volume is essential!), find The Dharma at Big Sur by John C. Adams, and ask how is this not relevant? 

Some will respond with a quip about the perfection of Beethoven 5 or the serenity of their favorite Chopin nocturne. But the interesting thing is that very rarely will anyone suggest any non-classical music as an alternative. Why is this? For the most part, there are two solid reasons:

1.Die-hard Radiohead fans, for example, are less likely to resist John Adams as die-hard Mozart fans, and are far more likely to be enthusiastic.

2.Many Radiohead fans have never heard anything like The Dharma at Big Sur.

This tells us not only that there is an obvious marketing opportunity that is being missed by the failure to present new music to an audience that will appreciate it (why would you program a concert with a Mendelssohn symphony and a Schnittke Concerto Grosso when it’s much more likely that the Schnittke would get a better reception at a Metallica concert?), and it suggests that perhaps the boundaries of what people enjoy listening to should not be represented by the arbitrary genres given to them by iTunes or other distributors (why is Laurie Anderson “alternative & punk,” but Meredith Monk is “classical”?), but rather by the era from which the music comes from.

Because how does one relate to music which doesn’t describe their culture? Music is,  above all else, a manner of expression—sometimes an attempt at preserving a single moment, sometimes a political statement, sometimes the only possible recreation of an innermost feeling, and sometimes a necessary outburst of exploding creativity—if done well, music is a method, slightly less imperfect than words, of understanding the life of another human.

When you listen to music, whether intentional or not, the composer is giving you just a small slice of their life, and for just that moment you can feel what it’s like to exist as someone else. Sometimes it works to think of music as a highly advanced form of virtual reality. You have a variety of choices, each of which will send you into a different emotional state, and your decision all depends on your mood. Perhaps you want to be able to feel the slow unfolding of the 19th century Austrian countryside, and you can put on Bruckner 4. Or perhaps you’d prefer a childhood memory of trains and war, like soft chugging dreams, and you’ll put on Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

But although it can be an interesting learning exercise to listen to music that presents a life to which you cannotrelate, I find (and I believe that most people agree) that there is a far more powerful beauty, the feeling that up against this deep black universe, across this long breathing black of the strange and electric night, perhaps there are others with whom I can share this fundamental innerness of human being, others to stand witness, to help break down this lighthouse-loneliness of thought.

And it is here that new music is most relevant. The music of our time should be exactly that. It should express our world. Music has the ability to connect people like few other things, and the music that we listen to is the music which we best understand. Some people will tell you that they identify more with Mozart than with anyone else. And that’s fine—if it’s true. But I challenge you, anyone reading this who is afraid of any of the thousands of strands of new music that exist today, anyone who settles for Beethoven (because what could be better?), or who doesn’t listen to anything without words (because it’s boring and quiet), or who assumes that what you listen to is what you like: make an effort to listen to as much new music as possible, listen to it loud (because music is meant to be heard!), and listen to it multiple times. Some of it you will hate. But there are some works which you will find indescribably beautiful, being produced all over the world, all the time, which are so much more meaningful because they describe a time and place to which we can relate.

So why is new music relevant? Because we don’t live in a world with court musicians anymore, and we don’t live in a world ruled by the British Empire, and we don’t live in a world where the fastest way to contact a friend is to write them a letter or ride to their home. Even since the premiere of The Rite of Spring—a piece often associated with modernism—we’ve been through two world wars, sent humans into space, and invented the internet. Music is my optimal language, and I want it to express my world.

— Dylan Mattingly, co-artistic director