Relax, it’s just contemporary music

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 02.03.2017


A friend of mine in Italy who has recorded some of John Cage’s prepared piano pieces struggles with many of the new keyboard works coming down the pike, devoting hours of practice to the mind-bending notation. He concludes, alas, that the level of contemporary composition has “plunged dramatically” in the past few years.

I am with him. Too much of it is computer-aided, offhand or just awful. My least favorite works are those that thump and bang in an effort to shock.

John Cage, by Michael Johnson

And yet it is not always thus. Look around and open your ears -- you may be pleasantly surprised. For there are also marvelous new sound worlds out there that gradually settle in the mind, given the chance. True, some can be difficult at first hearing. I need at least five repeats on my CD player to lock onto what the far-out composers are doing. The younger ones are set on redefining the very meaning of music.

Experimental/contemporary music is for those who like to be challenged, not those who choose to stay in their comfort zone. Of course there is no common standard by which to judge new music, so every choice is personal and, worse, the playing field is constantly shifting. One American music professor tells his students to compose pieces “that you don’t like yet”.

I am annoyed that conservative audiences today can be so tone deaf and so alienated that they stalk out of a concert. They may never know what they are missing. Most of the early exits are of a certain age and I have to restrain myself from grabbing them by the white hair and pulling them back into their seats.

Morton Feldman, by Michael Johnson

True, as a critic friend insists, much contemporary lacks the melodic quality that can be so pleasant and memorable to the listener. And another handicap is that many contemporary pieces get one or two hearings, then disappear from the repertoire. The saving grace is that composers can resort to YouTube as a way of reaching audiences.


Ivan Ilić, pianist 

Allons, as we say in France, how can Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari or his For Bunita Marcus be resisted? John Cage’s Dream is as haunting as anything from our European past. In this performance by pianist Ivan Ilić, the magic appears.




How can an open-minded listener fail to see the beauty and the humor in Laurence Crane’s Seven Short Pieces?



Listening to Frank Denyer’s Whispers recently I found myself drawn into his intimate and barely audible world.



Denyer asks you to listen hard, to strain your ear to grasp his “exquisite sensitivity to sound,” as one critic put it. Keeril Makan does some of the same in his Washed by Fire.



 At the other extreme, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Due Notturni Crudelli Il Furio, metallo is one of the most arresting and powerful short pieces ever written for piano.



I refer to Cage’s dictum: “The function of music is to change the mind so that it becomes open to experience, which is inevitably interesting.” And he often cited his Indian friend Gita Sarabhai who believed music could “sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences”.

Looking for backup to support my own prejudices, I tracked down the mild-mannered Simon Reynell of Sheffield, England, founder and director of the “Another Timbre”. He is producing about one new CD of contemporary/experimental music per month and has his finger on the pulse better than almost anyone. “The audience is expanding,” he tells me, “but also breaking up into new fragments.” His CDs sell in the hundreds, some more than a thousand, as word-of-mouth spreads among the aficianados. Orders flow in from Japan, the U.S. and Europe in equal proportions.

Nicolas Slonimsky

Some composers believe it is time to take audience reaction into account, to meet the listener halfway. Keeril Makan urges explanatory talks before playing; others go further and advise toning down the shock effects altogether. Indeed, Reynell says these softening trends are already evident. In his ten years in the avant-garde, he has noted a clear movement toward melody and harmony. Moreover, today his composers rely 80 percent on written scores and 20 percent on improvisation.  Those ratios were reversed ten years ago.

True, as we often hear, rejection of music innovators is nothing particularly new. Bold composers – from Beethoven to Stravinsky and Copland -- have faced stiff resistance. Beethoven’s Ninth was likened to “a blind painter touching the canvas at random”. Copland was once said that to write such violent orchestral works that he must be capable of murder. Stravinsky sparked riots.

The great critic, conductor-composer and commentator Nicolas Slonimsky advanced a theory in his essay “Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar” that to listeners steeped in traditional music “modern works are meaningless”. He advised calm and patience. After forty years, he wrote, monstrosities have a way of becoming masterpieces.

Aaron Copland, 1962


Another version of this essay appears in the current International Piano magazine.


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