After a beer and a snack at a Capital Hill dive bar that was, of course, decorated with vintage political campaign paraphernalia, my friend Michael and I headed into the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium for a concert of 20th and 21st century chamber music conducted by Oliver Knussen and performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, because I see myself as an adventurous, open minded lover of an ever-evolving artform and I dig New Music.
I look down my nose at the kind of snobby classical music curmudgeons who are prejudiced against modern or 20th century or contemporary or “weird” or avant garde or experimental music and just put it all into a box labeled “atonal,” and shove it into the basement, never to gaze upon it again.
That’s of course, not to say that I love everything I see and hear. I generally find most of what’s come out of the minimalist movement to be just plain boring. You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through an entire performance of Nixon in China or Einstein on the Beach. And I’m pretty sure John Cage is just trolling everyone. But I certainly wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand without hearing it first. Of course I wouldn’t, and I appreciate these works, even if I don’t particularly want to listen to them.
No really, please don’t make me listen to them.
There are just some tropes in modern music that I can’t get past. I’ve always believed that “classical saxophone” is an oxymoron. And what is with all the crazy-ass insturmention in contemporary chamber music? You’re going to write a quintet for harp, oboe, violin, viola, and snare drum? Really? And requiring pianists to get up, reach inside the piano and pluck the strings with their fingers? (Don’t even get me started on “prepared piano.”)
I was discussing some of this with Michael, a composer of New Music himself, as we left the concert and walked back to the Metro on Tuesday night. What was with the instrumentation on that Schoenberg Serenade? I was giving major side-eye when a clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, mandolin and guitar took the stage. Mandolin and guitar? You could barely even hear them over the ruckus created by the other instruments.
“Yes, but, get it? It’s a serenade?” He pointed out.
“Well, yeah, I get that, but. . .”
“And it did in certain moments sound sort of Italian . . .”
“In a distinctly Schoenbergian way,” I snarked.
As we walked, I mentioned that my favorite piece on the program was Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance, performed beautifully by Huw Watkins. “But I guess that was the easiest to listen to piece on the program.”
“It really was,” he said.
And I complained that I was enjoying Tropi by Niccolo Castiglioni but it lost me when the pianist got up and started plucking the the strings. “It’s just silly to me.”
“I really like way it sounds.” my companion said.
“Well, maybe I’m just old-fashioned. I guess I’m a snob.”
To that, he bluntly said, “Yes.”