Finding the Right Balance

The most exciting music being created today is not the product of a single compositional aesthetic or the work of just one segment of the population. But some of us are still recovering from a century of industry-imposed genres. When we do, it will potentially be a paradise for a truly new music.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

For many music-minded folks in New York City, January is normally a crazy time of the year since this is the month when national organizations such as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and Chamber Music America always hold their national conferences here. After all these years, and especially after the arrival of the Polar Vortex, you’d think they’d opt for a month with better weather! While I opted to pass on APAP this year, I devoted the entirety of last weekend to CMA which this year offered an extraordinary range of half-four showcase performances by various ensembles—18 in all—as well as a commissioning concert featuring four works which were all created in 2012.

In addition to these conferences, another annual January event of more recent vintage now also looms large—PROTOTYPE, which is a two-week, multi-venue festival devoted to new opera. Now in its second season, PROTOTYPE presented performances of five new works—by Gregory Spears, Kamala Sankaram, Jonathan Berger, Du Yun, and Lina Lapelyté. I attended all of them and was extremely glad I did, except for not being able to rid myself of bittersweet feelings over the irony that thanks in large part to this festival, the 2013-14 concert season, which also witnessed the demise of New York City Opera, felt like NYC’s most vital one for new opera in years.

Before the holidays, I wrote about the gender inequities in classical music which continue to play out in new music and how some organizations are attempting to address this issue. Some folks got so heated up about the prospect of performing repertoire that completely reflected the totality of who creates music that the debate kept raging for a month. The bruhaha on the web this week has been revolving around an incendiary essay by a writer named Mark Vanhoenacker, posted January 21 on Slate, called “Requiem: Classical Music in America is Dead.”

To get a sense of what’s gotten folks—myself included—all riled up, here’s a choice excerpt:

Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither.

[C]onsider the relative standing of classical music. Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

It seems to me the problem with some folks’ “classical music paradigm” (as opposed to the music itself) is that it willfully assumes this music to have a role that is somehow separated from the rest of societal discourse. Of course, as Alex Temple so astutely and succinctly pointed out earlier this week: “Denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.”

What I witnessed this month, both at PROTOTYPE and in the showcases at the Chamber Music America conference, is that some folks understand what it means to pay attention to finding the right balance with respect to diversity—gender, ethnicity, age group, etc.—and in so doing have shown that “new (classical?) music” (why do we even have to label it?) is very much alive. Rather than that balance being in any way a hindrance to “quality,” by paying attention to this broader range, they are putting forward some of the most engaging stuff that is happening right now.

Jennifer Charles in Angels Bone

Jennifer Charles in a Trinity Church concert reading of Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone, an opera about human trafficking which seamlessly merges medieval polyphony, indie rock, and even a bit of Darmstadtian modernism. Photo by Noah Stern Weber, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

The most exciting music being created today is not the product of a single compositional aesthetic or the work of just one segment of the population. (Pick your prejudice and throw it away.) It cannot be contained geographically or be hermetically sealed up in impenetrable genre boxes. What writers like Vanhoenacker get so wrong when they look at statistics is how arbitrarily creative work is carved up to fit into niches that are no longer relevant. (It’s important to point out that in the percentages he shared as proof that classical music and jazz are at the bottom of “the business of American music,” no genre has a majority. That’s a far more significant piece of information which speaks to what music in the 21st century is all about thus far.)

During the question and answer period following a fascinating panel discussion at the CMA conference moderated by Joel Harrison, which also included Missy Mazzoli, Clarice Assad, and Billy Childs, Kevin James said something that I believe is emblematic for our time:

Composers now prefer to be beyond genre. There is no sound that I would not consider. Composers today want that flexibility.

Some of us are still recovering from a century of industry-imposed genres. But when we do, it will potentially be a paradise for a truly new music.