Tag: tastemakers

An Open Response to “… But I Hate Modern Music”

Cartoon of bolts striking a reddened ear

As a composer, performer, and lover of almost every stripe of music, I feel it’s important that “…But I Hate Modern Music,” the recent article by Maia Jasper White that was published in NewMusicBox, receive a thorough and thoughtful response.

As a composer I rely on the good will and enthusiasm of musicians such as Jasper White for the effective performance of my music. As a performer, I sit in the same ensembles, and I most certainly am part of the same audiences. Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed by the dismissive tone of her article, and I feel compelled to set the record at least a bit straighter, from a composer’s point of view.

So first off, let’s talk about the opening disclaimer that all art is subjective. All art is definitely NOT subjective. For example, the stick figure drawings of a two-year-old may be heartwarming and worthy of a spot on the fridge, but we can all objectively agree on their relative quality and value within a very narrow range. When art reaches a high level of professional accomplishment that requires peer review for funding and curation for its production, the objective measures are very often already in place.

What the article refers to in terms of subjectivity isn’t actually a matter of taste. It’s a matter of expectation. When it comes to art and artistic renderings, there is, unfortunately, often a disconnect between what an artist is presenting and what an audience believes their price of admission is buying. For example, I once knew a very lovely and open-minded army veteran who loathed hearing pop artists sing the national anthem. Yes, he even hated Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl version—and he otherwise loved Whitney Houston’s singing. He hated her rendition because he believed the purpose of singing the national anthem before sporting events was so that we could all take a moment to collectively show our respect for our country. In his mind, Whitney was showing disrespect through her (in his mind) self-serving reinterpretation of the song. There was nothing subjective when considering the quality of the performance, only in the expectation of the way it should serve its audience.

As for the further disclaimer that art is too often shielded from criticism, it’s off base even in its sarcasm. While I do believe that art—through its attempt to reflect and challenge the norms of our culture and society, to express the inner working of the mind, and to inspire contemplation in those who engage with it—does hold intrinsic value, I’ve never experienced or even witnessed that aura of social value sparing it from criticism. Note that within the article I’m responding to here, the author confesses that she walked out on the performance she was attending. Criticism of contemporary art is alive and well and thriving in the hearts of every person who engages with it. Isn’t that half the fun? Isn’t that, at least in some part, the point? When you go to the movies, you don’t walk home talking about the weather; you dissect your experience. Sometimes ruthlessly. Sometimes you walk out. When you walk out, you can blame the filmmaker for letting you down, or you can kick yourself for not having gone to Rotten Tomatoes to see what the critics and other audience members thought, for not watching the trailer ahead of time, for not having checked out what your favorite reviewer thought, maybe even checking out other films by the same director, screenwriter, lead actors, etc.

I simply don’t believe that the author is attempting to soothe the collective consciences of concertgoers who have been traumatized by their new music experiences. No, there is no hostage taking being perpetrated by composers today.

Here’s why I don’t believe it: while the author claims to “love and respect” composition, and to be a champion of contemporary music, the entirety of the article is an explication of what a single concert programmer expects contemporary music to do for her. Remember what I wrote above about expectations?  I do not think that’s what a champion of art does.

Champions of art seek connections. They seek connections between themselves and the artists, between the work of those artists and other works they’ve experienced, between the works of art and the lives of their constituents, between the motivations of the artist and the world in which we live. A champion of art is a translator, a cheerleader, an ambassador, a confidante, and sometimes a guru. A champion feels an obligation equally to the constituents who have placed their trust in them, and to the composers who they are ushering to the ears of the public. At least from what I can infer from this article, the model being presented is not of a new music champion.

When the author writes about bearing the brunt of concertgoers’ complaints toward contemporary offerings, she seems to be blaming composers for putting her in the awkward position of having a career as a professional performer. When she brushes off her parents’ negative response as a fact of human nature, she makes the concept of swaying their opinions seem akin to climbing Mt. Everest. In fact it’s much more liking visiting the summit of Mt. Washington. Yes the climb can be taxing, but there’s a road that goes up the back side of the mountain, in case you’d rather drive.

Remember what I said about being a champion of new music in the previous paragraph?  When people seek you out with negative opinions, champions of new music don’t take it as a complaint. They take it as a plea for your ambassadorial acumen. They don’t want their confusion to be validated—and if they do, that’s not your job, thank you very much. They want their confusion to be alleviated. Give them a map for the road up the back side of the mountain. Hell, ride along with them.

Champions of living artists are indeed an endangered species. We have far too few models. There is no critical mass of new music champions inspiring a next generation of impresarios, patrons, and yes, musician/curators to take up the torch.

To that end, it’s not helpful to acknowledge experiences with new music ranging from “profound to insufferable” without examining deeply what it is that creates that distinction for a given listener. It’s not helpful to deflect one’s own responsibility for that experience or especially to simply imply that…. what? All music should be pretty? That concertgoers are incapable of new experiences? Perpetuating false stereotypes (“grant money and music critics favor the avant-garde”) further confuses what ought to be a deep sense of responsibility for our community as a vibrant incubator of art with a fortitude and integrity to rival any other time in musical history.

Hyperbole? I don’t think so. It’s been my experience that over the past 15 years or so there’s been a dramatic shift in both the number and quality of submissions that grant panels are asked to review. Earlier in my career 100 composer submissions would in many cases have been considered an extraordinary number for a panel to review. They would be heard by a panel of 3-5 members and 10-12 of those submissions could be expected to be competitive. New Music USA now empanels 30-50 members of our professional community twice a year, just to be able to handle the immense number of submissions they receive. And even a cursory review of the funded projects will speak to the quality of the work being produced.

I’ve sat on any number of these panels and have never experienced a style-based bias deep enough to effect the outcome of the selections. The avant-garde (however we’re defining that term here) is favored when it represents the highest quality submission with the clearest and most distinctive voice. Period.

I’m not going to respond directly to the article’s review of a single illustrative concert experience, other than to point out that the composer seems not to have misrepresented the type of meditative experience being presented. Didn’t he deserve an informed, open-minded audience, capable of being in their seats ahead of time and in an appropriate frame of mind?  As I detailed above, I prepare at least this thoroughly to go to the movies. Don’t we owe our living composers more than that?

My purpose here is not to disparage the author of the article. It’s to point out the sometimes-destructive disconnect between those who would represent the broader community of professional musicians and the music of living composers, and the reality of our endeavors as artists. To that end, one last point. Jasper White presents her contention that there’s an “avant-gardist’s implicit credo” that is both arrogantly self-directed and completely dismissive of all our forebears. Leonard Bernstein is quoted to support the premise. So let me be clear. Leonard Bernstein is dead. The comments quoted from him are 50 years old now and at least 50 years behind the times. No composer of any merit is anything less than expert on the evolution of the craft of the last 300 years that informs our work, even those who come to the conclusion that the creation of new sonic approaches is essential to the expression they seek.

[Deep breath]

Perhaps finally on the last, and most important point of the article, we can agree.

The article finishes with a rejection of the conceit that there are two inevitable options when presenting contemporary music: to acknowledge our preference for “pretty” or “intelligible” music over music that is less so (which is also the preference of the audience); or to present anything that composers write whether we like it or not, honoring their First Amendment rights, and run the risk of forever alienating the audience. Thankfully, we’re in agreement that, of the contrived choices presented, neither feels good. Neither feels good because neither is necessary and neither serves artists, audiences, musicians, or anyone else.

More importantly, we can also agree that the litmus test of inspiration and the excitement of sharing ought to be the goal of the performers when presenting new music. That is, assuming they’re doing their homework. Assuming they truly are intending to be champions of that new music. Assuming they’re willing to be open minded and forward thinking. Assuming they’re truly willing to bring their audience along for the ride, unapologetically and fiercely, with a dedication to communication, and a willingness to find that common human ground that they share with the composer and their audience alike.

New Music Needs Curators

A low level bright lightbulb is almost on par with the head of a man performing on the trumpet who is reading scores from conjoined music stands as an audience stands around listening

(all photos by Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

At a time when the definition of curation is expanding rapidly, stretching from professionals in galleries, to curating your Google profile, to “tossers making a cup of tea,” there remains a lack of genuine curators and curatorial thought in the field of new music. While, historically, the curator was the person at a museum in charge of caring for that museum’s collection of artwork, this has only been a partial description of part of the profession for some time. Now, art curators are often at the forefront of enabling creative innovation and audience interaction. In the world of new music, on the other hand, curating is mostly a word we’ve usurped for use in funding applications and marketing materials. We use it because it sounds better to say someone (or a number of someones) “curated” a concert rather than “chose the pieces we’ll play.”

We’re not alone in this. For example, in his recent essay on curating the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival in the New Statesman, David Byrne focuses his many-faceted discussion entirely on the process of selection. The emphasis on choice, he argues, is down to the ubiquitous access we have to, well, everything: “Where to find, amid the glut, what is right for us? How to separate the music from the noise?” In this situation, Byrne argues that what the expert curator—as opposed to an impersonal Facebook algorithm—brings to the table is surprise:

What is the value of the information brought back by the bee that is willing to explore an unusual flower? The value of encountering an idea, an artist or a writer outside the well-trodden and machine-predictable paths? I would never call myself an expert but my point of view and experience, being a wee bit outside the norm, are a little more biased, skewed, pre-edited and peculiar that what those herd-based and algorithmic services come up with.

Curating can, of course, include the organization, discussion, and presentation of music, and our field is not lacking in the area of having all manner of experts—from musicians to musicologists to critics—select works for programming. While it would be great if this were more often informed by a systematic and thorough research of the repertoire, the real problem is that this is a myopic view of what curation can be. If we look up from Facebook and glance at the world of contemporary art, we see a curatorial practice and theory that has developed around individuals working closely with actual artists to enable them to manifest their intentions in the optimal possible form and then bringing the result to an audience in the optimal possible way.[1] Here, for example, is curator Hans Ulrich Obrist recounting advice he received when starting out:

[Alighiero] Boetti told me that if I wanted to curate exhibitions, then I should under no circumstances do what everybody else was doing—just giving the artists a certain room and suggesting that they fill it. What would be more important would be to talk to the artists and ask them which projects they could not realise under existing conditions…He mentioned that a young curator could find great value not only in working in a museum, a gallery, or a biennial, but also in making artists’ dreams come true.[2]

Notice, here, that Boetti is not simply speaking about creating more of the familiar opportunities for artists. This is not a complaint that there are not enough commissions or tenure-track teaching position for young musicians. No, here Boetti is advocating that—to be of real value—the curator should be someone who allows the artists to expand the very horizons of the art form. Obrist has followed up on this advice throughout his career by asking this question in each of his interviews, and even running a project, The Agency of Unrealized Projects, based entirely around them.[3]

A very large audience in an outdoor tent is giving a standing ovation to an orchestra.

Of course it is not that these things don’t happen at all in the field of new music. Festivals, in particular, are places where the artistic director can sometimes embody this role. Normally, though, it is down to the musicians (performers, ensembles, and composers) to come up with their project ideas on their own, and then the game becomes one of tracking down funding. This process is not one of collaboration, but of application. The very site this writing appears on, of course, represents one of the few places any young American ensemble or composer can come with just about any dream of a project and find the possibility of funding, along with a platform to reach an interested audience. In the U.K., the new music organization Sound and Music has a similar mission and is primarily focused on helping composers to imagine and create new and exciting work.

There are problems, though, when the role we are talking about is divided up like this. Funding organizations are themselves fundraisers, and their money is normally secured and then offered with some constricting vision of the work it will eventually create. This places constraints on the art form when the newly imagined project does not fall into old models of thinking. Moreover, it is very difficult to have a collaborative artistic relationship with an organization. While the president, CEO, or head of programs will certainly come to know some musicians well, funding organizations often have a remit that requires their resources—both financial and personnel—be spread in an even and (as far as possible) fair way among a huge array of artists.

On the other hand, when you look at curators in the world of art such as Kirk Varnedoe, Okwui Enwezor, and Julia Peyton-Jones, you see that these are people who did far more than funnel money to artists with ideas: they themselves made commitments to certain ideas and artists and then, through their close and intimate relationships with those artists, helped inspire and shape the work being made.

With this in mind, in a series of three musings to follow, I’d like to consider some of the things our community could learn from the contemporary thought and practice of curation. How can this vision of curation impact the activity of performers and ensembles? How could it reshape the role of composers and expand the idea of community among them? Then, in the final post, I’ll be focusing on—and looking to gather from you—unrealized projects. For now, I leave you with Juliet Darling’s A Curator’s Last Will and Testiment, made for curator Nick Waterlow after his death in 2009.[4]


1. This definition is lifted from a passage (pg. 32) in Terry Smith’s collection of essays, Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating. It is presented there not as a definition of curation, but as one possible way curators could see their practice.

2. Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Ways of Curating. London: Penguin Group, 2014, pp. 10-11

3. There is also the artist-run web platform, established by Sam Ely and Lynn Harris in 2003.

4. A summary of the events surrounding Waterlow’s death and the subsequent creation of this video can be found here.


Aaron Holloway-Nahum sitting at a desk with Copland materials in a room with a bookcase, grand piano, and big window from which trees are visible.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum at Copland House

Aaron Holloway-Nahum is a founding member and the Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble in London. He has recently written pieces for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, and Atea Wind Quintet, and is currently writing an Opera based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst with librettist Peter Jones, along with a piece for the HOCKET piano duo . Aaron was the Polonsky Fellow at the 2014 Aspen Music Festival, and will be a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Centre this summer.

Lapsed Composer and Curmudgeonly Critic Reveals All About the Reviewing Racket!

boxes filled with CDs
I’m a lapsed composer hovering at the fringes of new music. I don’t compose much, but I review and critique CDs of new music. It’s easier to find time for critical listening than for pencil pushing. It is slightly vicarious, but I get to keep an ear on what’s going on, even though commercial releases are different than the concert hall scene.

By day I earn my living working in high tech for a global technology company. New music listening is squeezed in at every opportunity. My co-workers think my stacks of discs are quaint and wonder why I don’t invest in an mp3 player, but they don’t realize that each week I devour fresh content. It’s not worth the time to create lossless CD conversions.

Everything the mailbag brings is spun at least twice. However, I can’t and therefore don’t review everything. I sort and prioritize. If it makes a good first impression or it aligns with my interests, it will likely be covered. Something poorly executed or recorded will fall to the bottom of the pile. I try not to be subjective on the initial pass. I crave new discoveries, and very often something set aside one day becomes compelling a few weeks later.

While I have no formal tutelage in “How to review new music CDs,” there are a few guiding principles I follow. Someone wiser than me shared them back when I began to spend more time in Word than Finale:
1)      Always be factually accurate
2)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to educate an unfamiliar reader
3)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to inform the composer/performer
Having the luxury of being a principal at my own shop, lafolia.com, I don’t work under deadlines and can babble about any topic that interests me, not just new releases but old recordings, obscure composers, stuff heard on the radio, or pictures from a recent trip. I’ve built up solid relationships with a diverse group of labels, publicists, performers, and ensembles over the years. I like to think this quirkiness is what sustains our readers.

There will always be some new music I will never cover and sometimes I feel conflicted about this. I always wish I could cover more releases, but there is only so much time. And even if I were able to produce words for everything that passes my way, there would then be a fair amount of neutral or negative criticism, which I think would do a disservice. I believe I’m not alone in working like this—in fact, I see it as a duty to be predominantly positive, especially when covering the obscure.

It’s not uncommon for reviewers to be handed assignments. Staffers might cover a genre or composer they know nothing about. Here’s where you might notice a reviewer sticking to rule #1, offering irrelevant trivia about the restaurant across the street from where the recording was made or regurgitating program notes. You want your post-downtown minimalist piano suite critiqued by someone who’s heard of La Monte Young, not a medieval chorister. Of course there are wonderful write-ups from reviewers who have stepped outside of their comfort zones and made discoveries, but such instances are becoming rarer in the everything-is-on-YouTube era.
Let me share some examples of what might fall to the bottom of my personal well:

  • Orchestral pieces which were clearly written on a synthesizer and scored using a paint-by-numbers technique
  • Noisy or dimly recorded live performances (unless they have historical merit)
  • Pieces where the composer doesn’t recognize the limits of their material (perhaps doesn’t develop it enough, or conversely doesn’t know when to let it alone)

I don’t sort the mail by likes and dislikes. I don’t have categories I detest or composers I hate. (Would I admit it, if I did?) I am actually more inclined to listen to someone’s second release especially if I didn’t click with their first. Of course my tastes can probably be inferred by reading what I’ve written (especially now that I’ve divulged the prioritizing aspect). A release titled Lachenmann pours Sciarrino coffee while Xenakis and Ferrari look on will probably migrate towards the top of the pile.
Because I don’t cover everything and I subjectively prioritize what I do, someone might suggest I should get out of the way. There’s a tacit understanding that I ought to say something about everything which I’m handed. Whether I inquire after a release or receive it unsolicited, there is always the assumption that it is for “consideration.” It’s not come up explicitly that the press release bandwagon would evaporate if I were overtly sour, but I have had some sources dry up when I wasn’t timely, whether or not I was eventually enthusiastic.

Nowadays, I don’t think speedy verdicts are necessary, except to create buzz for an initial launch. On the internet, things stick. Anyone doing a web search can find critical information, whether it coincided with the street date or was penned months, even years later. Widely spaced mentions in the press are often good indicators of music’s endurance.

New music, as diverse and percolating as it is, maintains a thin niche. Every day we’re told classical music, our close cousin, is on the wane, or that it died just last week. We want to attract new ears, be appealing to new audiences, and not alienate potential fans. Publicity hounds prefer positive and timely tweets. We’re drowning under an avalanche of good press. We’re a supportive and encouraging community.

But is too much positivism bad? I remember a professor at college who could be relied upon for the same peppy post-concert verdict. He loved everything, to the point that his consistent post-performance adulation became disingenuous, and some of us reused his catchphrase as a snide greeting. It was clear his opinion had minimal value. We don’t want empty voices in our community, yet we walk a fine line between supporting one another and ensuring that we’re raising the bar.

I would like to write more negative reviews (and employ rules #2 and #3 above). There’s the myth that they are fun to write, but I am simply not that clever. In my experience, a pan takes as much effort as gushing words, but the writing isn’t as satisfying. I could take pains to be fair, to draw upon experience, and wherever possible, educate. But I really don’t want to spend time on something which simply isn’t worth the trouble. It’s rewarding to write about good and interesting things. It wastes effort to be neutral or negative.

If I were to craft a scathing review, would it have any effect? I don’t think I have that power. I would honestly feel bad if I hurt someone’s chances for funding or derailed future opportunities. But then again, the true creators among us always pick themselves up and start again. Do negative reviews matter as much given how easy it is to set up one’s own soapbox? Do we expect a more critical stance from established journalism? Do you expect the Gray Lady to err on the side of meanness?
If you start to think about it, there really ought to be more negative press out there. We have all attended poorly prepared performances and have heard completely forgettable pieces. To compensate for the major labels’ disinterest in new music, countless vanity projects have sprung up. There are fewer barriers to self-publication and so it follows that the standard of quality would slip. Proportionally we ought to see more negativity, but in the interest of time and sanity, I think the critical legion is trying just to keep up with the good stuff.

Now and again, I have let neutral or negative reviews leave the house. I’m sure there’s a reader out there who thinks everything I’ve posted is evasive or dismissive, just as I worry that I’ve offended everyone at least once. Subjectivity is always a consideration, but if I think a piece or release is miscued, and the composer or performer is established enough to withstand some needle marks, then I’m more inclined to express negativity.

I frequently forage through Fanfare and American Record Guide and might find a non-stellar review of a contemporary release. I can often tell whether I might actually enjoy a disc because someone else disliked it. I have sought out and covered at least one Xenakis release because of this. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to restore the balance of the universe, but mostly it’s about countering a review where it’s evident that the critic has no clue about the composer and his music, very likely the result of an ill-fitting assignment.

Admittedly, no one actually bestowed upon me the ability to be a new music critic. Such is the greatness of the internet: anyone can hang out a shingle. I believe I am putting my experience to good and objective use. I’ve put forth some of the thoughts I think all critics wrestle with but don’t openly discuss, and invite your comments. For now, I need to get back to my listening. I really do want to review more CDs.


photo of Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell is the Managing Editor for LaFolia.com and tweets at @lafoliaed. He works in the Boston area for a global technology company that made hardware which Xenakis and Babbitt both used. Covell is also a composer of electroacoustic and instrumental music that has been performed in the U.S. and abroad; some of his electronic works have been commercially released on the Canadian Electroacoustic Community’s Presence III, The Door Project from the International Computer Music Association, and a 2012 disc also featuring music by Kazumi Umeda.