Not too long ago, I stumbled across a 2010 article from The Guardian entitled “Why do we hate modern classical music?” In spite of the fact that I myself am more than a tad guilty of this, I opened the article anyway, and I’ve been mulling some of its points for a while now. To wit: “Rather, modern composers have fallen victim to a long-smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music’s idolatrous relationship with the past.” In music, at least, we cling to familiar sounds over what our ear considers strange or ‘wrong,’ and we focus on recreating music from centuries ago, over and against fostering new and innovative creativity.
To me, in some ways this parallels the history of jazz – that tension between novelty and safety also characterizes jazz through the decades. But I think we forget sometimes that even the ‘safest,’ most comfortable composers were themselves new once, and in many cases it took multiple hearings – and listeners giving the music a chance – for many compositions to gain their place in the standard repertoire.
During a recent trip to Toronto, I came across an album from a set of records released by CBC for the 1967 centennial, entitled “Music and Musicians of Canada.” Other than Healey Willan, I’m ashamed to say I knew almost none of the composers represented in the series. Granted, I’m not Canadian and perhaps I have some small excuse for a lack of familiarity with Canada’s composers, but it’s still a lack I hope to rectify.
My first purchase from this series was held at one time by the Ottawa Public Library. However, as you can see below, it was discarded from their collection in 1978 – a mere eleven years after the centennial. Since the disc itself is in great shape, I can only assume that it was removed because of low circulation; I would be willing to bet that other albums purchased by the library in 1967 by composers such as Mozart and Beethoven – ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ composers – remained in circulation for several years more.
It would be so easy to listen only to music that I already know I will like, to take no risks at all in my listening habits. If I’ve learned anything from a year and a half of frequent music blogging, however, it’s that allowing oneself to take those listening risks truly opens up new worlds and new experiences. Do I enjoy everything I hear? No – but I’ve also made a firm commitment to myself to listen more than once, and to give music a second (or third, or fourth) chance, because those subsequent hearings may well reveal something to me that I do want to hear.
Over on GDW, we’ve posted with some frequency about the #ValueGap – the chasm between the value that musicians provide and what listeners are currently paying for that value. In addition to contributing to the lack of a sustainable income for those artists, this gap also is widening the divide between the ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ sounds of a few widely-known artists and a vast number of musicians who are willing to experiment, to try new things, and to step into the unknown with their listeners. That latter place is where so much beauty and creativity happen, but it’s not a place we as a society go often enough – and it’s not a place that we are adequately funding as a society. Again from the Guardian, this time in a 2014 piece entitled “The future of new music is at risk if we continue to undervalue composers”:
“If we believe that music is a living artform then it stands to reason that the creation of new music is vital to its current and future health. However, professional composers are being asked to create new music for very little money in conditions that are too often inadequate. As a sector we have some hard questions to ask ourselves about our priorities.”
That modern composing is so threatened – a situation that I strongly suspect has not improved since 2014 – points not only to a #ValueGap, but also to a #RiskGap… presenting something new is always a risk. (This is equally true in pop music; when even an artist as established as Jim Cuddy has to preface new material with an apologetic plea to listen to it, there’s something very wrong.) Fostering creativity isn’t just about funding it; it’s also about being a culture willing to take risks along with the creators. Appreciating the masters of our past is important, don’t get me wrong, but supporting the creators of our present and future – and ensuring that our generations have something to pass on to subsequent ones – is equally crucial, if not more so.