Classical music was popular—and productively evolving—for centuries. Why do we hate the modern stuff so much? And can that change? New Yorker music critic Alex Ross argues in The Guardian that it can; we're not necessarily born hating the sound of a kazoo sonata. Modernism has succeeded in visual art, dance, film, and literature. Maybe the music world just isn't approaching it correctly. Here are the highlights of his lengthy exploration--well worth reading in full.
WHY STANDARD EXPLANATIONS DON'T WORK
[While] explanations for the abiding resistance to musical modernism have proliferated, their multiplicity suggesting that none quite holds the key. One theory holds that a preference for simple tonality is wired into the human brain. Attempts to test this proposition have produced ambiguous results. For example, a couple of studies suggest that infants prefer consonant to dissonant intervals. Yet infants hear tonal music almost from the moment of birth, and so have been conditioned to accept it as "natural".
... One would expect that dance, theatre and movie audiences would show the same revulsion toward novel ideas.The relative popularity of George Balanchine, Samuel Beckett or Jean-Luc Godard suggests otherwise. Indeed, it's striking that film-makers have made lavish use of the same dissonances that concertgoers have found so alienating. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its hallucinatory György Ligeti soundtrack, mesmerised millions in the late 1960s.
EVIDENCE THAT THE REAL PROBLEM IS 'CLASSICAL MUSIC'S IDOLATROUS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PAST'
Even before 1900, people were attending concerts in the expectation that they would be massaged by the lovely sounds of bygone days. ("New works do not succeed in Leipzig," a critic said of the premiere of Brahms's First Piano Concerto in 1859.) ... Even composers who bent over backwards to accommodate a taste for Romantic tonality encountered scepticism; they could not overcome, except by drastic measures, the disadvantage of being alive.
WAYS THIS COULD CHANGE
Museums and galleries took a markedly different approach. In America, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other leading institutions propagandised for modern art. ... The idea took hold that museums could be sites of intellectual adventure. ... At present, no major orchestra is able or willing to describe itself in the same terms. But a few organisations are moving in that direction. ... .Alan Gilbert, who took over as the New York Philharmonic's music director last season, has had startling successes with such rowdy fare as Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, Varèse's Amériques, and, at the beginning of this season, Magnus Lindberg's Kraft. Veteran observers were agog at the sight of Philharmonic subscribers cheering Lindberg's piece, which contains hardly a trace of tonality and requires the use of discarded car parts as percussion. What made the difference was Gilbert's gift for talking audiences through unfamiliar territory: in a mini-lecture, he mapped out the structure of the piece, demonstrated a few highlights, made jokes at his own expense, and generally gave people the idea that if they left early they'd be missing out.
WHY WE SHOULDN'T BALK AT EDUCATING PEOPLE TO LIKE THIS MUSIC
All music is an acquired taste; no music is everywhere beloved. A couple of months ago, the blogger Proper Discord noticed that the top-selling album in America that week--Katy Perry's precision-tuned pop medley Teenage Dream--had been purchased by only one in 1,600 citizens.
THE CONCLUSION: STOP WITH THIS 'CLASSICAL IS CALMING' NONSENSE
What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty--a kind of spa treatment for tired souls. Such an attitude undercuts not only 20th-century composers but also the classics it purports to cherish. Imagine Beethoven's rage if he had been told that one day his music would be piped into railway stations to calm commuters and drive away delinquents. Listeners who become accustomed to Berg and Ligeti will find new dimensions in Mozart and Beethoven. So, too, will performers.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.