Small Apologies

The problem with'new music' marketing:too much diffidence.

Not that I have anything against Tony Bennett or Norah Jones or any of the other recording artists whose work is propped up next to the biscotti, but I was wondering when Starbucks would get around to classical music. At last they have, a CD starring the home team: The Seattle Symphony and Starbucks Entertainment have announced their co-release of Echoes, containing newly commissioned works (!) from six composers (including music director Gerard Schwarz), each one asked to somehow rework an older piece he (and they're all "he"s) loved. As an opportunity for time-travel collaboration, a meeting of musical minds from different cultures and eras, it's a great idea; as a concession to conservative classical fans who can't take their new music straight, it's dismaying.

A couple pieces are straightforward transcriptions: Bright Sheng's lovely Brahms intermezzo, retitled Black Swan, and Schwarz's own charming, if sleepy, conversion for brass quintet and strings of three movements of a Handel concerto grosso. Rubies, John Harbison's orchestral expansion of Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear," is elegant and elegiac. Also jazz-flavored is David Schiff'sInfernal; it didn't take much, just a hi-hat and a few syncopations, to twist Stravinsky's "Infernal Dance" from The Firebird into lounge music. Plenty of Horn is David Stock's disjointed and fairly silly take on Jeremiah Clarke's "Trumpet Voluntary"—at first just the opening do-re-mi motive, later the whole tune, tricked out with chimes, harp, maracas, and string glissandos.

The piece on the disc most likely to make listeners hit the repeat button is Samuel Jones' serene, utterly assured Benediction, based on an anthem by Wisconsin-born church composer Peter Lutkin (1858–1931). Over warmly cascading string murmuring, bits of chorale float by, as if borne on a river. The known quantity on Echoes is Aaron Kernis' exquisite and, for new music, oft-recorded Musica Celestis from 1990.

The fact that Starbucks and the SSO are giving seven living composers exposure is exemplary. What bothers me is the philosophy that seems to underlie the project, one endemic to the classical music business as a whole these days. Composers and performers alike so often present new work, whether strong or weak, innovative or comfy, timid or bold, with a tentative sort of hat-in-hand stance—emphasizing, above any other virtue the music might have, that it won't be scary. Constant reassurance, even apology, is the tone, in media coverage, program notes, PR material, casting musicians as supplicants and listeners as 3-year-olds who have to be coaxed to finish their beets.

I have nothing against nonscary music; I've written plenty myself. But let's face it, despite decades of effort by ear-friendly composers from Copland and Bernstein through to the ones included on Echoes, there are still people who think that all contemporary music is harsh and confrontational, who still walk out at intermission if there's a nondead composer on the second half. Well, these people are unreachable, their ignorant prejudices impenetrable, and we're wasting energy sucking up to them.

There is an untapped audience for new classical music, but reaching them, I believe, will require a new approach. They're the people who aren't averse to classical music, who are interested in the arts in general, but who need a reason to give their time and money to us rather than everything else competing for their attention in our hypersaturated culture. Suppose the wheedling and cajoling with which we serve up music is turning them off. These people aren't going to attend classical concerts or buy CDs unless they think they're going to hear something they can get excited about. I don't mean merely not offended, I mean actively thrilled. Which means, for heaven's sake, we ought to start talking about something other than nonscariness, ought to start pushing aesthetic virtues other than accessibility.

It'd be unfair to pick on Echoes as an example of an industrywide attitude when there are more egregious instances, but the tracks on the disc that stand the best chance of grabbing these potential listeners are undermined by the usual self-effacement. Just suppose that instead of drawing analogies between this music and Brahms' Haydn Variations, instead of assuring us these pieces are "based on great compositions of the past" like some sort of reverse warning sticker, the Echoes PR material called attention to how absorbing and powerfully heartfelt Jones' piece is, how magical and otherworldly Kernis' is, how sassy and jokey Schiff's is?

After all, what do listeners want? Anyone at all susceptible to the beauties of older classical music is going to seek out new music that also moves them, that startles and captivates. And it's not enough that composers write such music, or that musicians program it—we need to make it clear this is what we're offering. No more tugging the forelock, no more using "you might not hate this" as our main selling point. To paraphrase Edgard Varese's old rallying cry, back at the dawn of modernism: Thepresent-day composers refuse to kiss ass!

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