How Modern Classical Music Could Still Succeed – Alex Ross

How modern classical music can still succeed

Image Credit- Roger Bourland music blog.

Alex Ross on Modern Classical Music

I've been wanting to write about this article by Alex Ross, published in the UK Guardian in November 2010, for some time now. Ross introduces some of the ideas from his new book, Listen to This, which is sure to garner as much attention as his first wildly popular book, The Rest is Noise.

Articles on classical music's troubles appear daily in various news publications, so why is this book such a breath of fresh air? Three reasons:

  • Ross is a master of historical detail regarding trends and attitudes toward art in the past few hundred years, imbuing his views with relevance.
  • He is a gifted writer with a knack for vivid and evocative descriptions of classical music, indicating his depth of understanding of the music itself.
  • He is not afraid to lay his considerable reputation on the line to say what few others have said, that the whole culture of classical music is deeply troubled.

I'd like to share a story from my own musical history, which relates to the views of Alex Ross.

Believe it or not, my first exposure to Brahms symphonic music was in High School. Although I had started clarinet at age 12, and had played a few simple solos from Brahms clarinet sonatas, I had not heard or played any of his symphonies.

Then, while attending the Interlochen Summer Music Camp, I was in an orchestra which played Brahms 4th symphony in E Minor, Op. 98. I was blown away by how "modern" Brahms sounded. I had enough musical experience and knowledge to compare his music to other more classical period works up through Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and some 20th century works such as Howard Hanson's very romantic 2nd Symphony.

Brahms crams inventiveness into every measure, radically daring harmonies and rhythms tucked into an overall "sensible" romantic style. It seems almost too much to enjoy, at least for a casual, passive listening experience. His music was just challenging enough to my relatively shallow listening sensibilities at the time that he propelled me to seek more and more complex "challenges" of musical puzzles.

I agree with Mr. Ross below, that the entire culture of classical music must untangle itself from the tradition of "easy listening":

What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls. Such an attitude undercuts not only 20th-century composers but also the classics it purports to cherish. Imagine Beethoven's rage if he had been told that one day his music would be piped into railway stations to calm commuters and drive away delinquents. Listeners who become accustomed to Berg and Ligeti will find new dimensions in Mozart and Beethoven. So, too, will performers. For too long, we have placed the classical masters in a gilded cage. It is time to let them out.

Those are hard words to hear for a performing musician who has honed a career perfecting the dusty old classical symphonies. But they are perhaps even more painful words for those who manage orchestras. For they are the ones who must reinvent the business and marketing of orchestral music, selling it to a new audience without alienating the old too much.

Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? You could do so at the Practice Café.

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10 comments for “How Modern Classical Music Could Still Succeed – Alex Ross

  1. Ayoris
    February 13, 2011 at

    Regardless whether the public likes it or not, the institutions have the right to teach and let people know about this kind of music because of it’s different theoretical principles behind it.

    Whether it appeals to the public that’s a different matter. I also don’t know if knowing more will lead to liking more. I studied this music, and heard it on a daily basis, I thought i would like it more, but so far it just doesn’t stick… However, I know other musicians who love performing this music, no idea how they do it, but there are certainly lovers out there. Unfortunately, I haven’t found people listening to Xenakis while cooking… or listening to Stockhousen while driving – perhaps it is not exactly in the ‘mood’. I remember playing Schoenberg small pieces for piano, and I never felt I could play it correctly without pretending to be a psychiatric patient, funny!

    Some of the composers I know compose ‘modern music’ to escape tonal forms, as a new way of freedom from all the rules that had been built in the previous centuries. Just perhaps that freedom might turn into chaos for some or resulting into a lack of.. harmony, form, order, at least on the surface, as a proper analysis would show otherwise.

    I guess, the closest genre that music could be compared to is cinema, because unlike architecture, painting, and sculpture, music uses the time factor. Some movies are very dense and psychological, others are light entertainment, etc, etc,. I appreciate the variety, even if I cannot understand all of it. It just makes life more interesting.

    Also, I have seen the conditioning argument before. I wonder then, why kids don’t like veggies. They probably ate them in some form when they were babies by the tons but then they manage to grab a spoon, and eww veggies, it is just weeeird!… I mean.. does conditioning implies liking? hmnnnnnn

    Anyway… I’ll just say that for me, modern music is just, like pickles! Love it in the hamburguer, too much and the tummy hurts.

    • February 18, 2011 at

      Hello and thanks for your comment. You add a fresh perspective. Just because a few people don’t like it, doesn’t make it bad for all.

  2. February 12, 2011 at

    So much great content!
    I’ll be back.
    Gotta go.
    Thank you.

  3. BW
    February 9, 2011 at

    I also whole-heartedly agree with Matthew. The modern traditions are supported by the institutions which have become extremely self-involved due to a lack of audience and interest. Music is, can and always will be the closest thing we have to illustrate the feeling of being alive. I do not think it is about tonality or melody, it is about the willingness to communicate. Abstraction was the 20th century, Brahms is missing something. Audiences are ready, I think, because the “consoling beauty” is indeed correct. However, there is room for music that is created in a challenging manner that still carries substance to its listeners. It is harder to create, but, when it is right, it is an outpouring of the modern soul. I love Ives, he floats between a tonal and tonal, but he always says something – gives it a context. My blog has started a discussion about this subject, check it out if you would like.

    David, thank you for your post about the article, but I think “keeping an open mind” at this point, which is essentially your argument, can be for other people. Passion and longing for a music to call our own in this time is not a terrible thing. Because people have been complacent about these subjects, becaus they are told, they don’t know anything about them and should be silent, has created the divide.

    I appologize for spelling errors, as I am traveling abroad and English spellcheck does not exsist on my device…


    • February 9, 2011 at

      Hello BW. You would be surprised at how much I agree with you. But drawing a musical line somewhere, and saying “this is the music I can call my own”, simply cannot be done. Each person has a different limit or extent of interest and connection with music. And that line continues to move as more music is experienced. No one is forcing anyone to listen to anything. But if a piece is not performed because it could possibly not be understood or appreciated, even by just one person, then it will never be heard, and will not have a chance to become meaningful. Perhaps I am consoled (or stimulated) by much more dissonant music than you. Does that mean I cannot hear it live?

  4. February 6, 2011 at

    very well said, matthew

  5. Matthew
    February 4, 2011 at


    The title of the article by Mr. Ross is misplaced — people don’t “hate” modern classical music, they are just indifferent to so much of it. It’s very frustrating to see him, like so many others before him, criticize listeners for not liking the “right” music. The implication that anyone who rejects a dissonant modernist musical work is necessarily under the… Notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls … is simplistic and insulting. Surely, there are many smart, engaged listeners looking for a deep experience — and who just can’t enjoy endless, disorienting dissonance or hyper-complex rhythms. And the idea that most prefer tonality because it’s all we are fed from the cradle is laughable. Show me a music anywhere, anytime in the world that does or did not have some kind of tonal center and pitch prioritization, other than a tiny sliver of the western classical tradition, and I promise to listen to the complete works of Boulez in one sitting.

    Many generations of audiences have been hectored and bullied to like atonality. After all that, a few love it it, a lot more don’t. Philip Ball and other neurobiologists are persuasive on why.

    Writes Mr. Ball:

    There is also a physiological dissonance created by tones played so close together that the acoustic waves interfere with one another. So at least some of the ugliness of atonal music is produced by physics, not the bourgeois prejudice excoriated by Boulez and Stockhausen. One can hardly blame audiences for suspecting that what is left is musically rather sparse…

    But it’s not just about extreme dissonance. Basically it comes down to the fact that it’s difficult for most humans to take pleasure in music that frequently lacks clearly demarcated formal shapes. Most people honestly can’t perceive the substance or depth in much of it. And we need to stop blaming them for their ’insufficient long-range attention’.

    So Ross is wrong to claim that… Classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty must fall away.

    This is as senseless as arguing that appreciation of gorgeous sunsets must fall away.

    This article could have been written 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. In fact, it was; many, many times. Nicolas Slonimsky, bless his elfish little soul, devoted A Lexicon of Musical Invective to the assertion that great music was never appreciated in its time, perhaps as a rebuttal to those who disdained modern music. It’s true that many composers’ greatest works suffered terrible criticism before ultimate acceptance. However, to take just one example here in America, I think it’s clear by now that despite their historic importance as part of Carter’s oeuvre, his string quartets are no more accepted today than they were 50 years ago with his first. Or how about “Pierrot Lunaire”? Despite its historic importance in Schoenberg’s work, it is no more accepted today than it was almost 100 years ago.

    Also, that one can occasionally fill concert halls (especially in the UK) in large urban areas for something modern tells me nothing, other than you can find a few hundred people who like just about anything in big cities. I think those in the UK should be careful of patting themselves on the back too much over their supposed greater willingness to embrace challenging new music. What is the evidence?

    I heard a discussion on Radio 3 a few years ago, when Barenboim and others were declaring that audiences had to learn to listen to new music in a new way. Seems to me that an art form that requires its audience to change is on very thin ice — you can despise those bourgeois New Yorkers as much as you like, but ultimately if you’re composing pieces that people don’t want to hear, you can’t blame them for not wanting to hear it. And how long can this state of affairs continue?

    Not liking certain music is simply not done in polite circles. But why? I have rarely seen an enthusiastic commentary on modern classical music that wouldn’t provide a stone-faced eulogy of the sort …Doesn’t this exhaust pipe sound divine and whoever disagrees is a reactionary. Have you ever heard Alex Ross or other enthusiast actually say something like: I love Stockhausen, but can’t stand Xenakis because I think his music is just vapid noise? But surely, not all of modern classical music is good? Surely, they can’t like it all? I would be equally suspicious of people who like all the canonical composers to the same degree.

    I think the better question is: Why it’s so goddamned important for people to embrace modernist music? First it was …Give the public fifty years. Well, fifty plus have come and gone, and they still don’t like it. Now it’s… Oh, let’s give seminars and pre-concert talks, just a few more and they’ll get it.

    Is it entirely impossible that much of this music is not really all that great? Think of all the late 19th century salon artists that went into the dustbin of history. Is it possible that much modern classical music took a detour that didn’t pan out all that well? If you have a sensitive ear and some patience, I’m sure you can hear some pattern in Xenakis or Cage or whoever. As for Boulez, Stockhausen etc… they have aged horribly. Their music is incredibly of its time. Their institutionalization of the avant garde also does more harm than good for creativity and yet the classical institution seems hell bent on not only still calling them modern, but on insisting that this is how classical music is supposed to sound. No art with such a limited palette can hope to be popular. People like Milton Babbbit used to see this unpopularity as an endorsement of the new music’s complexity and intellectual superiority, as if were string theory or particle physics. But Ross sees it as a failure on the part of the audience to educate itself.

    Excuse me Mr. Ross, but isn’t the ability to write genuinely distinctive tonal music that makes original use of melody, rhythm, and harmony bloody hard? If I were a composer who quickly realized I wasn’t really up to it, I’d be very relieved to find some kind of “organizing principle or theory” that actually made a virtue of my shortcomings.

    As for Ross’s analogy between the relative acceptance of modern painting and architecture versus the relative lack of acceptance of modern classical music, he’s ignoring at least one key distinction – works of physical art are typically one of a kind, purchasable objects. Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm,” for example, may or may not be as graspable or attractive to a mass audience as an Andrew Wyeth or a Norman Rockwell; but there is only one “Autumn Rhythm,” and once it becomes valued by an actual or would-be elite (or both), it’s game over in terms of monetary value; the sky’s the limit. But for a host of obvious reasons, no work of music is an object in any similar way; there is no equivalent to the equation between the potential value and singularity of object that characterizes the physical arts – nor do I see how there could be one – to that of music, especially in an age where sound can be infinitely reproduced.

    It almost seems as if the cultural elite would rather forever drive away the small remaining audience for classical music than admit that a lot of the modern stuff isn’t very good…. Death before dishonor. The audience dislikes most of it and the institutions answer is….Tough kiddo.

    The initiatives Ross mentions are no more than further attempts to stuff contemporary music (or rather a certain facet of it) into people’s faces. But it has been going on for years, and it hasn’t worked.

    Ross also overlooks a crucial point, which is that, now perhaps more than ever, classical music does not consist of one overarching style to which all aspire. In fact, there are many different types of modern music, some of which are popular, some aren’t. John Adams plays to packed houses wherever he can be persuaded to go, unlike poor old Birtwhistle, Wuorinen, or even Carter. And yet the powers that be – certainly in the UK – have tried for years to push the serialist and post-Webernist line, as if the hostility it aroused in audiences validated the street-cred of its adherents –Mr and Mrs concert-goer from Frodsham don’t like it, so that just shows how superior I am.

    But one thing is for sure; however much people acknowledge the force of dissonance or hyper-complexity, everyone’s a sucker for a good melody, or at least a good chord progression. Even Schoenberg never forgot that.

    Finally, when Ross gets to would-be remedies, we have this gem:

    On a recent trip to MoMA, I was struck by a poster at the entrance: Belong to something brilliant, electrifying, radical, curious, sharp, moving . . . unruly, visionary, dramatic, current, provocative, bold …..

    Oh yes of course, that’s the ticket! Yes, more posters, more arch-hucksterism, more etc. Seems to fundamentally contradict Ross’ previous:

    No more spa treatment for tired souls, approach.

    He’s saying, Trade in your taste for ‘consoling beauty’ – you’ll feel better if you belong to something brilliant, electrifying, radical, curious, sharp, moving, etc.

    Right – Belong to. Hmm, I see…

    Why not just cut to the clothing and perfume ads? Ross’ thinking and remedies here strike me as those of a PR. man.

    People who are drawn compulsively, fervently to any music should recall as best they can how that happened, what we “heard” in what we heard and why it touched us. Yes, the “exposure to” factor is crucial, but we are/were exposed to a great many things and do not respond solely or merely for that reason. It may not be that our answers to that question remain the best or only answers, but they will have the virtue of being tied to and having been tested by actual experience.

    As an aside: I have never understood the impulse to participate in the “shock and awe” aspect of new music, and I find the whole process of “cultivating” the “right” people revolting. I can’t stand it in any corner of the musical world. Unfortunately Ross is far too provincial for my taste, and he is far too impressed with the “right people.” His word is not gospel. It isn’t even close. He’s just someone who talks a big game and is able to put sentences and paragraphs together for an audience of people who want to have a musical “guru” to follow.

    In closing, I listen to music because I want to be moved, torn, shattered by its emotional power. No other art form in gives me that cathartic charge. Unfortunately, with a few honorable exceptions, most recent classical music inspires either boredom or rage in me. Should one have to work so hard to appreciate it? Does much of it even merit that much attention? As I’ve stated there are honorable exceptions but they seem the exception rather than the rule.

    • February 5, 2011 at

      What a great comment. Well argued and beautifully written. May I publish it in a post?

      I agree with you that 1- not all modern music, or any music, is automatically good because some guru likes it. 2- Listeners should never be reproached for not liking or understanding a piece, no matter how much an elite critic likes it. 3- Schoenberg is still pretty cool.

      But what about the dissonant and ugly music often heard in movie soundtracks? With appropriate images, even noise can become meaningful in context. The most famous example is Kubrick’s use of Ligeti’s music. I don’t like very much purely atonal music, but in the right context I love it. Penderecki Hiroshima is valid and meaningful for the subject. That’s what it’s meant to be, not “good” or “enjoyable”.

      On the other hand, should composers try to please you or others like you? Is that what Beethoven did? In a market driven society a composer deserves a chance to at least experiment, to push limits, if that’s what he genuinely hears in his head. So the elite establishment, including Ross, along with the few thousand “gullible” audience members in big cities willing to listen to something really wild, allow for the next Stravinsky or Shostakovich to survive, if not become established in the canon of great music.

      I would prefer a powerful critic like Ross draw some lines, as you suggest, but he may also shed a bit of light into music I may not have otherwise liked. I don’t mind that, and neither should you.

      The defensive stance in your essay is understandable as a critical response to Ross, but should all music that you in particular don’t like simply be dropped, even if it has some redeeming value that you don’t understand? Of course not.

      I reiterate that I agree with most of what you have stated. I don’t go to concerts of or play “that” kind of music, unless I like it, or that I am willing to give it a chance, which is not often. And that is all Ross and others of the “elite” critics you rail against are asking you to do, to consider something challenging for the right reasons, because it challenges what you consider “normal”. For when normal becomes purely democratic and capitalized, it quickly becomes oppression and censorship.

      Let there be bad composers and elite, pompous critics, and let the public decide for themselves, each and every one. It keeps us honest and gives us something to argue about.

  6. February 4, 2011 at

    Great post. The idea that classical music is “relaxing” is not going to help orchestras get new (young) audiences into the seats. I heard a fundraiser on my local PBS radio station last week and ended writing a blog post about this very topic.

    • February 6, 2011 at

      Thanks Cathy. I’ll check out your post.

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