I don't understand some modern classical music

I have a pretty wide range of musical tastes (my iPhone has everything from Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, and Liszt to Velvet Revolver, Foo Fighters, Clapton, and Goo-Goo Dolls, along with everything in between).

I listen to a lot of classical music - I particularly enjoy the piano and violin, so my playlists are heavy with Chopin Nocturnes, Beethoven sonatas, lots of Haydn, etc. My wife happens to be an amazing piano player - she can sight-read stupidly hard pieces from Chopin, with so many notes on the page it makes my head hurt…

Anyway, the Barbican is but a 10-minute walk from work, so I picked up some tickets for a concert last Friday to celebrate her birthday. Here was the program:

**György Kurtág **…quasi una fantasia…
**Mozart **Piano Concerto No 9 in E flat major, K. 271
Kodály Mátrai Pictures (Matrai Pictures)
Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin

Now, the only piece that sounded like ‘typical’ classical music was the second piece, Mozart’s No. 9 concerto. This was beautiful; I loved the back-and-forth between the piano and orchestra (I also thought it was interesting that the piano came in so early - usually the piano has to sit there for a couple of minutes while the orchestra gets things started). And the slow, somber second movement was almost un-Mozrt-like.

Matrai Pictures was an interesting choral piece, basically a three-part song based on Hungarian folk tales, essentially a Hungarian version of Robin Hood.

The first and last pieces, however…well, to this somewhat un-culturered ear (when it comes to classical music), it was just not pleasant. I know a lot of Bartok pieces that I actually like, but The Miraculous Mandarin isn’t one of them. Apparently this piece is quite famous, although I suspect it’s famous more for the scandalous story linemore than anything (I can’t believe this was on the program for what was supposed to be ‘family night’!). Neither of us cared for it all that much, although we could see how the music was supposed to tie in to the story. And there was a sense of melody and rhythm, disjointed as it could be at times.

The first piece tho - that just left us shaking our heads. I mean, there was nothing musical going on. No base of reference to use when listening to it. No way to figure out what the beat was, or the key, nothing. Just a bunch of random noise. I’m sure there’s a really deep message in there somewhere, and I’m sure it’s ‘harder’ to appreciate music that isn’t structured all nicely for you - but, sort of like my view of modern art, simply throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and calling it art just because ‘you can’ doesn’t make it art, right? Doesn’t mean I have to like it right?

So call me shallow, but I’ll continue to stick to ‘traditional’ sounding classical music. My basic rule of thumb is, could I hum it 15 minutes after hearing it? That wasn’t true for the first or last pieces on Friday. It was definitely true for the second and third pieces.

In many ways modern painting offers an analogy: artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, musical as well as visual, were faced with a new cultural landscape. Photography usurped the quasi-utilitarian function of art (portraiture, illustration, etc.) and freed artists to focus on art as a means of personal expression. In a similar way, the ability to record music and transport an entire orchestra via a disc or tape–not to mention the ongoing evolution of the means to create music–had an effect on how people perceived “art” music, audiences as well as artists. (Sorry, return key not working. ¶) Even more than this, the massive cultural upheavals that dot the timeline of the last century and a half or so have had a tremendous effect on all forms, context as well as content, of artistic expression. ¶ All this is a groggily abstract way of trying to communicate the idea that the way people communicate with each other artistically has undergone tremendous changes in the time since the classical canon–Mozart, Beethoven, et al.–was established. And as in any other discipline, it would be difficult to leap directly from A to say W without understanding the continuum of change that occurred between them. ¶ The vocabulary has changed almost completely. Although some composers still work largely in a more classical vocabulary (e.g., postmodernists like Corigliano), many others have worked very hard to create their own. (I’m mostly out of the loop these days, so most of my examples are pretty outdated: seek out some of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s pieces for one such example.) ¶ Point being (still groggy): to appreciate a lot of modern music, you have to approach it the way the composer intended: as a way to explore a new vocabulary. ¶ That being said, some of it just sucks. We’ve had the aid of centuries in weeding out the dreck of the past; with new music, we have to wade through all of it and discern for ourselves.