To modern listeners, especially the younger set, the words “classical music” tend to evoke adjectives such as boring, boring and boring. On a spring walk through Old Campus the courtyard boom boxes may be heard blasting music of any number of genres, but are nearly guaranteed to exclude such mighty works as Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7” or Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks.” Britney Spears or Sublime are much more likely candidates for this arena, as they are in many other parts of the globe. From this evidence people usually conclude that contemporary audiences are unable or unwilling to enjoy “classical music.” This is not true.
First, let me present a few little-known facts. Though “classical music” has come to be an overarching classification, traditionally it is meant to describe specifically that style of music written approximately between 1750 and 1800. It is characterized by its clarity, structure and elegance. Composers of the classical period include Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in his earlier years. In contrast, the music being written today for concert venues could more accurately be described as “art music” or perhaps “concert music.” Though these labels are often problematic for experimental composers pushing the boundaries of conventional concert experiences, they are widely used by knowledgeable critics, conservatory lecturers, and, of course, the artists themselves.
In a similar vein, people often assume that professors and students make a qualitative judgment by performing and studying art music more intensively than other genres. Actually, this is rarely the case. Most contemporary composers live and work within the legendary truth asserted by Duke Ellington: “there are only two kinds of music: good and bad.” Beyond that meta-framework, we can further discern different genres (art, rock, jazz, zydeco), but by no means does any one genre have a monopoly on the production of good music. Rather, it is within each genre that qualitative judgments must be passed on individual works. This level of assessment is intensely personal and often controversial. I might think Pink Floyd is the greatest band in history; you might think otherwise. There is no way to claim that I am “wrong” in my opinion, but in argument you can claim that it is out of ignorance that I pass this judgment. As a passionate musician and a Yale student, my curiosity and dedication to personal growth demands that I take seriously such a claim and listen to any band you might put forth as better.
It is in this same pursuit of personal growth that the student body of Yale should wake up to the rich and pulsing art music community on this campus. Yet attending new music concerts, one can’t help but notice the lack of student presence. Why is this? Ignorance. It is not a matter of taste that holds the numbers back, but an ignorance of the styles and trends of contemporary concert music. The common misapplication of the term “classical music” is a symptom of a larger problem. Many people assume that the art music being written by composers of our time sounds like opaque reworkings of the iconic works of Mozart or Beethoven. Nay, not so! A similar assumption would claim that rock musicians today sounds like distorted copies of Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. A blanketing appraisal of the inaccessibility of all modern music is simply wrong.
Ample evidence of this flawed conception was displayed last night in a concert presented by the Yale Philharmonia showcasing the works of six Yale composers. Representing a wide range of styles among themselves, professors Martin Bresnick and Aaron Kernis, along with School of Music students Patrick Burke ’04, Judd Greenstein ’04, David Stovall ’04, and Nathan Williamson ’04, confirm that the concert music of our time is alive and kicking. The ensembles for which these men write do place them in the line of historical tradition dating back centuries, but the influence of diverse genres and the simple evolution of craft put their work in a truly unique musical location.
Greenstein, whose work might loosely be called post-minimalist, has both a tonal beauty and a pulsing energy that appeals to listeners from numerous musical backgrounds. The obsession to categorize music often clouds the larger Ellington picture. Greenstein rightly comments that “composers at Yale tend to avoid [absurd self-consciousness] and concentrate instead on writing really good music. That’s what makes this composition program so special.”
This concert, an installment in the School of Music’s New Music New Haven series, is only one example of the accessibility of modern art music at Yale. Further, Ensemble IGIGI, a collective of undergraduate composers and performers, represents radically diverse branches of art music styles in every one of its concerts. Usually announced in the Yale Bulletin, individual recitals often include exciting contemporary works on their programs. Even a trip to Cutler’s or the Music Library could end up changing the way you think about music.