How new is your “new music”?

Late last month, Q2 Music, the online new music channel of New York classical radio station WQXR, ran an informal poll asking listeners, in their words, “What Does the ‘New’ in ‘New Music’ Mean to You?” Listeners were asked to vote on whether they would define “new music” (meaning “new classical music”)  as any written in the past 20 years, 40 years, 60 years or 80 years. How would you have voted? Think about your answer before moving on.

As it turned, out of 242 voters, 90 of them (37.2 %) chose the narrowest definition of “new music” as any written in the past 20 years. 68 voters (28.1 %) chose 40 years, 67 (27.7 %) chose 60, and just 17 (7 %) chose 80. Of course, the poll was entirely unscientific, good for provoking discussion and little else. And one could, indeed should, argue that a musical work’s “newness” or lack of same has to do with much more than its chronology. Some works remain edgy, challenging, fresh, etc., for decades; others are stale right out of the box.

But it struck me as odd that in a group of 242 people interested enough in new music to listen to Q2 and to vote in this poll, nearly two-thirds of them (62.8 %) accepted the term “new music” when applied to music produced during or prior to 1976, forty or more years ago. Doesn’t it stike you the same way?

For grins, I looked up the music of 1976 (thank you, Wikipedia) to get a sense of how new it remained. Before clicking on the link, can you name the top two singles of the year? Why of course, they were ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody!” Cool songs, to be sure, but they’re not exactly bumping Adele from today’s charts. Top albums of 1976 included “Wings at the Speed of Sound,” “Frampton Comes Alive!” and Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” Oh, and let’s not forget the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). In other words, it was so long ago that the Eagles were already putting out a greatest hits album. As for how “new” any of these records remain, let’s just say that if you actually owned any of them then, you probably own an AARP card now.

“Sure,” you might say, “that’s pop music. How about classical?” All right then, here are some of the classical “hits” of the year, if you’ll pardon the expression: Elliott Carter’s “A Symphony of Three Orchestras,” George Crumb’s “Dream Sequence (Images II),” Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit,” Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Violin Concerto No. 1” and Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).” From the world of opera, 1976 was also the year of the premiere of Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” Not a bad crop, including two works (the Górecki and the Glass) that, at least to some extent, transcended classical and opera to take their place in the overall cultural landscape.

But would you still call these pieces “new music?” Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about this, but I say “no.” Rather, I’d say that these are pieces of their time reflecting the mix of styles of their day, from high modernism to neo-romanticism — neither of which is currently in vogue — along with an early milestone of minimalism. Their composers’ names will appear in future music history books in the chapter devoted to the 20th century, not the 21st. They’re part of the soundtrack of the ‘seventies, just like the pop records in the preceding paragraph.

OK, we get that classical music is supposed to have a longer life than pop songs, most of which, compared with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, have the relative life span of a fruit fly. The two musics, classical and pop, operate under different calendars. For listeners to Q2 Music, a piece from 40 years ago could be “new.” On the Top 40 pop stations I grew up listening to (our family favorite was New York’s WABC), any song that had been off the charts for more than six minutes was an “oldie”.

But it used to be the latter way in classical music too. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, when our current idea of a “classical canon” was emerging, the music scene resembled Top 40 radio — current hits and occasional “oldies” from a few years earlier — more closely than it does today’s classical radio, with its emphasis on the music of prior centuries. For instance, when Joseph Haydn was producing one hit symphony after another in the 1780s and ’90s, music from 40-to-60 years earlier would have been that of J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and their contemporaries. Yet other than the oratorios of Handel (especially “Messiah”), such music was regarded as totally out-of-date and only of interest to antiquarians. An avid concert-goer could go a lifetime and never hear any of it.

So once upon a time, what we call classical music meant new music. And new music meant this year, this month, today. If in their attempts to modernize their appeal, classical music institutions would rather not turn to pop music for emulation and inspiriation, they could at least look to their own music’s past. Once upon a time, classical music was the coolest, hippest, newest thing around. It could be that way again.

One thought on “How new is your “new music”?

  1. Thanks for this. I would have defined new music as the last 50 years…..falling into the trap. Most useful thing, was learning about Q2 music! I need this after a week of listening to the NPR affiliate classical music station from Nashville that all new music was by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. There was no Bach, and certainly no Adams or Glass….

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