The Temple of My Familiar

The Temple of My Familiar

There’s a certain emotional state that familiar music triggers that the new just can’t because it is new.

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.

“But what was wrong with the performance?” she asked. “I thought it was wonderful.”

“Don’t you remember?” I said. “The record we used to listen to, at the end of the second movement there was this tiny scratch you could hear. Putchi! Putchi! Somehow, without that scratch, I can’t get into the music!”

– Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun,
translated by Philip Gabriel (2000, Vintage International), p. 148


With Colin Holter’s take on standard repertoire overload continuing to provoke a wide range of opinions, I thought I’d play a new music devil’s advocate for once and seriously consider the comfort of familiarity. I always like to say that I love new music because I never know what it’s going to sound like, but isn’t such an aesthetic one that is arrived at more intellectually than emotionally?

I tend to over-intellectualize most things so it’s difficult to make personal analogies that will stick, but from what I can glean about the rest of the world around me, most people seek things they already know about because to do so is emotionally reassuring. One of the reasons McDonald’s is so popular with tourists around the world is that if you order something there you know exactly what you are going to get. It’s the same reason Best Westerns and Holiday Inns are so popular: no surprises. To raise the bar a bit, so to speak, it’s also why many fans of single malt scotch always order the same specific brand and pedigree: e.g. Macallan 18, Lagavulin 16.

To bring it back to music, it seems to me that most pop stars who have lip-synched during concerts have not done so because they are incapable of singing in real life, but rather because they (and for that matter all people) are incapable of sounding exactly like their recordings, and the sound of their recordings, which is what is already familiar, is the sound that their fans want to hear. Much of the classical music fan base is no different: people want to hear music they already know, both in terms of repertoire and the performance practice that goes with it. This doesn’t only negatively impact on new music; it took years for period instrument performances to make much of a headway with audiences because it made much of the music sound, well, unfamiliar.

I don’t make these pronouncements to in any way posit that wallowing in the familiar is something for the great unwashed masses. The fact is there’s a certain emotional state that it triggers that the new just can’t because it is new. It’s the difference between hugging a friend or a relative you’ve known all your life and hugging a complete stranger. So perhaps the real question is, what do we do to make the complete strangers we create, e.g. our music, less strange?