Contemporary music can cause passionate enthusiasm in some and complete bafflement in others. For many, there remains a sense of dread, and an expectation of the ‘squeaky gate’ incomprehensibility that has become the new music stereotype.
For the general public, classical music is a niche market, and within that, contemporary music has an even smaller audience. In our modern world, saturated with sonic and visual stimuli, our concentration spans are becoming shorter and shorter. We are used to being able to switch channels as soon as something loses our interest.
Listening actively is a skill which takes time to master. How often do we listen to something, only to find that something else has taken over our attention? Does it seem unreasonable to expect a modern composer to focus on short works when the composers of the past wrote epic symphonies and opera cycles?
In terms of progress of an art form, those who are at the cutting edge undoubtedly will hold a specialist knowledge of their field, and as a result will be more familiar with the style of the work than the majority of their audience. This is equally true in science, where the practitioners at the leading edge of research have a greater understanding than those who read about their work on news items and press releases. In the arts, however, this difference between the understanding of the experts and that of the audience can be seen as a negative, with mass appeal in the market place sometimes seen as a trade off for artistic integrity.
There is also the issue of depth. To withstand multiple hearings, a composition needs to work at more than just a superficial level. Consider the great works of the past, by masters such as Bach, Beethoven and Mahler. Even after multiple hearings, these works have something more to offer, and their longevity undoubtedly owes something to that. For me, depth means more than technical mastery or emotional content; it requires a combination of those things, and a sense of that magical je ne sais quoi which draws the listener back again and again.
The reality is that the well-loved classical repertoire has been subjected to many years of filtering. The works which survive do so because of a number of factors, including quality, exposure, and luck. New works haven’t been subjected to that process in such a rigorous way, and a range of quality undoubtedly exists.
Not every piece that is performed will survive to be heard by future generations, but at the moment it is impossible to predict what will become the legacy of our time.
For me, it is enough to be a part of the mechanism which allows new works to be heard. Without that exposure, the music has no chance at all of becoming part of our cultural heritage.