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Modern Sounds

November 08, 1998

Far from Mark Swed's worry, I'm not afraid of new music; it just doesn't sound good ("Night of the Living Composers," Oct. 25). There's nothing irrational or ignorant about it. I've heard 12-tone music. I've heard minimalist music. I just don't want to hear any more.

It seems to me that Swed has the implication wrong. He has it: The modern classical composers are good, therefore they should be popular. Rather, the implication goes: A composer is popular, therefore that composer is good. Remember that Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc., were popular composers in their day. Actually, there are many fine (and popular) 20th century composers. To name only three Americans: George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and John Williams.


San Pedro


Swed uses the standard argument: Audiences are always afraid of new musical forms. But the defining works of Schoenberg, Hindemith and Bartok were written 60 to 80 years ago. People aren't "afraid of the new," they just don't like the stuff.

Modern critics and composers are trained to appreciate the intellectual complexities of a Hindemith. But their audience comes at music from a different direction. They are drawn to a Brahms symphony through its melody and emotional depth; the realization of its complex structure only comes later.

This "fear" that audiences have has been debated for most of this century. Experts such as Swed continue to "educate" audiences to love the 12-tone and the atonal. Symphony orchestras continue to force cerebral music down the throats of the their subscribers. Audiences just wonder why so little of the new music touches the soul.


Los Angeles


In his book "Lexicon of Musical Invective," the late Nicolas Slonimsky documents that Brahms, Bizet, Beethoven, Bruckner, Debussy, Mahler, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and many other composers whose music is considered perfectly tonal and "respectable" today were found to be cacophonous by contemporary critics.

The only reason such music survived was that there existed an intellectual subculture to sustain it, to commission new works and to insist on the continued performance of new music by sponsoring concerts. These days, only rarely does this sort of advocacy happen outside of universities.

Ironically, as symphonies and classical radio stations try to appease audiences with an unending diet of classical warhorses and pop favorites, they undermine their future by converting concert halls into dusty museums rather than what they should be--vibrant centers of the best of music culture.



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