New pop music is great, new classical dismal. Now why is that?

New pop music is great, new classical dismal. Now why is that?


norman lebrecht

July 09, 2016

The Ireland-based composer Kevin Volans dropped a bombshell at the conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC), telling them that most of what they put out was landfill.

Why do pop and rock look and sound so good when most ‘contemporary music’ feels like it has come off a skip? And with apologies attached.

Now we find even the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) calling for orchestral scores of less than 15 minutes! Do they realise that almost no major piece of the 20th Century would qualify? This is like an international art fair asking for work no larger than 1 metre by 1 metre. Where did this idea come from? Three guesses.

So it’s time to cut to the chase: What is the composer’s relationship with the audience, with the listener – given that she or he shouldn’t take them into account when writing?

Well, I think the answer should be: profound respect.

No composer I know can bear being unperformed and un-listened-to. We need audiences to show them what we have discovered, what we have struggled with. And to share the experience. For their cooperation we must treat them well.

New Music audiences are as sensitive and as picky as people going to a restaurant for the first time. If you want them to come back, everything has to be as perfect as possible. If they find a cockroach in the soup, they will never return. The same goes for contemporary music events.

So … how do we create audiences for New Music?

Read the full speech here.

St Jerome's Laneway Festival Melbourne  5th February 2011



  • Pianofortissimo says:

    That reminds me of the cockroachs in the “pop music video” version of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with Christine Schäfer some years ago. Schoenberg-gone-pop served with cockroachs.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    I really feel sorry for today’s “composers”. With interest in classical music dwindling, record companies closing down or at least cutting down on releases, and pop music having taken over in the media, they have tough competition. They also can blame themselves and their lack of talent. Can’t anyone today write a good tune? Is that asking too much? Or make harmonies that are thrilling to listen to? Too many composers I know are so engrossed in the technology that the art is forgotten. So many can’t seem to orchestrate or write good counterpoint. Of course, there are some classically trained composers doing quite well. One composer I know who is making very good money gave up writing string quartets and symphonies and now writes music for video games. He has a huge audience, big royalties, and no shame.

    • Sue says:

      I’m listening this week to the Sydney International Piano Competition broadcast on national FM radio. Many of the contestants (from the world over) have chosen ‘contemporary’ music for their program. I have to say most of them all sound the same and the post-performance commentary from pianist Tamara Anna Chislowska and Gerard Willems have both talked about how contestants ‘bring out the colour’ in each of these works. They seldom refer to any other aspect of the music, just the one thing – ‘colour’ – because there is little else to talk about. That’s all you can do when you hear De-Pussy – that is, random notes that the cat makes when it walks across the keyboard.

      So, when the lexicon improves to find more than ‘colour’ to discuss with this music – oh, and ‘virtuosity’ – then we must imagine it doesn’t have a whole lot more going for it.

    • Mikey says:

      the problem with composers who know their counterpoint and who can orchestrate is that most orchestras would rather perform something “new” and “groundbreaking” than something that potentially might please the audience.

      new music departments in music schools don’t teach harmony, or counterpoint, or form, or structure.. since none of these are necessary for the intellectual exercises they prefer.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It’s liberation from tradition, towards a freedom without a fundament.

      • David Greenlees says:

        Challenging and ground braking music is not something that I ( a Violist in a major European orchestra ) enjoy playing more than the great classics. In fact, so much of it is totally dispiriting to play, and foisted on both orchestra and public by artistic managers, many of whom seem to have an irresistible urge to educate the audience in the dark arts of contemporary, usually deafening, and at times almost unplayable music. If the orchestral players need/want to wear earplugs during a performance, I dread to think what is going through the minds of the audience.
        Please let me sometimes play a concert of Mozart , Mendelssohn and Tchaikowsky instead of a pile of musical tripe taking up half of the concert.

  • John Caedan says:

    As part of the post-WW1 revolution in all the arts (aka Dada), classical music annihilated the aesthetic that makes people love it and come back for more: romance.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A seemingly ‘naive’ comment, but if we understand ‘romance’ as communicative expressiveness, then it makes perfect sense. ‘Tunes’ is, however, too restricted a wish: much great music in the repertoire has no ‘tunes’, but motives and themes. A ‘tune’ is no garantee for expressive music.

      • John Caedan says:

        You injected “tunes.”

        My word was “romance.” Romance as in the aesthetic “romanticism.” Subsumed in that term is the vision of characters larger than life, possessing virtues and faults judged by the standards of life and love for human striving, with harmony and melody that uplift the heart, despite the choice of triumph or tragedy.

        These values were judged to be too bourgeois by the intellectuals at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. They sought to destroy them, with the excuse of the horror of WW1 and the supposed evils of commerce and industry. In its place they championed nihilism, despair, ennui, insanity, anarchy and dissipation. It’s in the music and in the plots of the operas.

        Who wants to come back again and again for that?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Sorry about the ‘tunes’… I got mixed-up with an earlier comment. I think you are right, but what drove a very small number of Austrian early 20C composers – three and a half, in fact – was the wish to tell ‘the truth’ about the world in which they lived, which they considered decadent, superficial and entirely focussed on entertainment. (The half composer was Mahler who not only expressed cultural despair but also some hope and a persistent longing for beauty; the other three were S, B and W.) Since the truth they saw, was ugly, beauty went out of the window and this very minor group became the ‘leading light’ of postwar modernism which wanted to be ot its time, which was also not particularly beautiful. Pure sound as music was an inviting alternative because the entire dimension of emotion was left untouched, and all attention went into the structuring of the sonic curface. Hence sonic art as a separate art form. But all along, expressive music was written, of which Shostakovich and Britten were outstanding masters.

          Nothing has dated so much as the cult of ugliness and indifference to beauty of sound, but the usual alternative: music sounding like a Hollywood sound track, only justifies existing scepticism.

          • John Caedan says:

            Those that continue to carry the flag for Schoenberg, Berg and Webern would not say that “reality looks ugly to me.” They would say “reality IS ugly.” This is the core dishonesty of post-moderns, naturalists and Dadaists: they claim classical/romantic artists are disingenuous because they “choose” to see beauty and hope, while they are the warriors for true reality without illusion, namely nihilism. This is false. They are the ones choosing to see the ugly.

            Both realities lie in the hearts of humans. An artist can choose to glorify either. One is life-giving, the other death.

            [did you know that Stephen Sondheim sought out Schoenberg in Los Angeles and asked to study with him? According to Sondheim, Schoenberg said “have you said everything you can say in tonality?” and Sondheim said “no.” Schoenberg told him to stick with tonality.]

          • John Winder says:

            Schoenberg died when Sondheim was 21. I would guess you must be thinking of Sondheim’s teacher, Milton Babbitt, who was a student of Schoenberg.

  • Milka says:

    Volans is quite clever , as a good politico his speech has a little something
    for every one , and in the long run says nothing , an art in itself.
    Banality is too kind a word for the speech,it will last until the next gathering
    when the same old same old as presented here will be repeated and a feel good time will be had by all.

    • Harold Lewis says:

      … a comment from the less intelligent of our two resident practitioners of ‘same old, same old’.

      • Milka says:

        an expected typical response from the living dead ……

        • Harold Lewis says:

          Your addiction to zombie films should have warned you of the perils of provoking the living dead. We know who you are and may come and get you.

          • Milka says:

            You confuse zombie movies with symphony hall audiences, having
            an acquaintance with both I found the movie zombies had more
            life,whereas the symphony zombies just seem to mull around aimlessly
            and gave the impression that by the time they acted on anything one could
            expire of natural causes . I recall as a youngster after seeing a good zombie
            movie one checked out the whole house before going to sleep but after
            a concert one just went to sleep. So bring on your symphony zombies .

          • Terri says:

            Don’t waste your time, Harold Lewis. You will not find a brain to consume. And if by chance you do, it will taste like sour milk.

  • Ann Nomynous says:

    99% of new pop music is shite, and there isn’t such thing as “new classical” music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In contrary: a whole new form of classical music is emerging, already for many years: among others, David Matthews in England, Nicolas Bacri, Karol Beffa and Richard Dubugnon in France, various composers in the USA, too many to mention here. But their music is not acknowledged by the established new music scene, which – separately from the central performance culture – just muddles-on, ignorant of a changing world. And occasionally when someone criticizes established (post-)modernism in public space, the modern establishment reacts like a politbureau shocked by deviation from the party line:

      There is no greater threat to the modern music establishment than a new form of classical music which takes its cues from the fundaments, aesthetic and psychological, of the central performance culture.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Curious speech, with some good things in it, and quite a couple of nonsensical things, inviting for futher reflection. He begins by describing ‘new music’ as a separate art form invented at the beginning of the 20th century, as if the central performance culture did no longer exist:

    “The point I would like to make is that New Music as an art from the beginning of the 20th century survived either as a very private practice within a small circle of aficionados, or with massive government sponsorship. It is expensive, and it is a great luxury. Only wealthy countries can afford music as an art. And they did spend money on New Music. In a big way.”

    A rather crazy and arrogant assessment, thinking of the amount of sonic despair produced within this circle.

    Then he celebrates the new music seventies, and then jumps to politics, after which we are treated on criticism of cheap marketing of CLASSICAL music. So, if he has anything good to say, it’s about the new music scene, if something bad, it’s classical music. When eventually new music’s qualities sink, Volans is suggesting that this is due to bad marketing of classical, not new music. The entire perspective of this speech is from the linear historicist narrative of ‘new music’ as invented by Schoenberg, as a small group cult, and taken-up after WW II by modernism, as if there had not been written classical, tonal music during the entire century (Prokofiev? Ravel? Shostakovich? Bartok? Britten? Dutilleux? etc. etc.) So, of course he is completely blind to the distinction between the central performance culture and the platoons of new music which occupy an entirely different cultural space, in spite of the occasional intrusion of its products in the central performance culture, where they do not survive.

    Volans’ own music explains a lot, like this description of a drunk being locked-up in a pianola which is freaking-out:

    And this is, in the context of the regular type of new music, a brilliant work, far removed from the later Darmstadt achievements:

    “Like the CIA involvement in Abstract Expressionism, governments got behind these large scale works because they were intended to show off the artistic superiority of the West. And they took huge state investment.”

    This was a scandalous attempt at manipulating an art form, comparable with Soviet practice, bypassing performance practice and the negative reputation new music had in the central performance culture: new music as a politicized instrument. But Volans does not seem to find that wrong: of course not, better a state-steered new music scene than being dependent upon the whims of an audience. This has led to the establishment of self-serving, circular financing institutions for new music with aesthetic biasses, entirely separated from the effect of presenting music in public space. And then the formulation ‘…artistic superiority of the West’ which is ridiculous. If anything, the attempt was to demonstrate the freedom of the west, i.e. the freedom of completely ignoring art as part of a tradition and a shared culture, and the freedom of denigrating artists whose taste did not comply to the party lines – an ironic mirror image of the Soviet mentality.

    “More important than official study is the time spent talking and listening to other composers. Years of time, spent in a compositional community. So that the young composers are not under pressure to produce, so that their ideas and their education can mature quietly.”

    A typical idea from the sixties and seventies: put young composers together so that they will develop the same conformity as we see in revolutionary gangs: either you are a member of the avantgarde, so: the future, or else you are a bourgeois and the enemy in the class warfare. Such ideas were fed by the perverted leftwing philosophies of 1968 and essentially totalitarian: group thinking,streamlining, setting-out battle lines in the Great Cause of the Music of the Future. Volans seems to suggest that such communities of debating and conforming non-conformists should be paid for by the state, a sort of holiday camp of a couple of years where youth can go bonkers.

    “Serious composition is not a business. It is a vocation. A career is a side effect of this vocation.”

    Entirely true. And for that reason, a purely individual thing, and not the stuff of freewheeling summer camp ideologies.

    “Yet now we find even the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) calling for orchestral scores of less than 15 minutes! Do they realise that almost no major piece of the 20th Century would qualify? This is like an international art fair asking for work no larger than 1 metre by 1 metre.”

    Obviously the ISCM wants to give more space to more composers, and 15 minutes is a considerable length, enough to say musically something of interest. Debussy’s ballet ‘Jeux’ is 16 minutes, and a great work; his ‘Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune’ is barely 12 minutes and a peak in the repertoire. And then, for a painting, 1 x 1 metre is a very large canvas… most of the Vermeers are ca. 50 x 50. An ’emerging composer’ should be able to ‘present himself’ completely within 15 minutes.

    “New Music audiences are as sensitive and as picky as people going to a restaurant for the first time. If you want them to come back, everything has to be as perfect as possible. If they find a cockroach in the soup, they will never return. The same goes for contemporary music events.”

    The audiences for new music are very different, on the whole, from the audiences of classical music, they occupy very different cultural spheres. What I have seen in my life of new music audiences, reinforces the enduring impression that such audiences are not sensitive and picky at all, they are more like people who prefer a suspicious snackbar in a run-down quarter to a normal restaurant, and would spend their holiday in Manhatten rather than in Vienna or Venice, and when visiting Paris they would prefer La Défense to the Louvre.

    The whole speech is driven by an understanbable disappointment about new music in general and its position in contemporary culture a a whole, but burdened by postwar modernist ideologies, distorting any perspective which could offer some hints of a solution. The advices at the end are rather lame specimen of common sense and if they need to be formulated, that also says a lot about new music mores.

    ‘New music’ as a separate art form has cornered itself in the cultural field because of the inherent flaws of its early 20C founding philosophies, so: any solution for its current problems best begin by asking some fundamental questions like: what is the relationship between the three parties which make-up musical culture? Composer, performer, audience… they all three form a holistic whole, and the composer should feel part of the same culture as audience and performer – that is what a musical culture IS. If you go from here to the beginning of ‘official new music’: Schoenberg’s Vienna, a lot will become clear.

    • John Caedan says:

      An excellent critique, Mr. Borstlap.

      You inculcate one of the roots of music such as that Vorlans Piano Concerto: no skill, technique, intelligence or discipline required. It is the easy way by far. I am a pianist, and I have channeled such composing. All you have to do is choose (or have a random person call out) an emotional landscape, then go to town. Because of having to elicit Chopin’s (et. al.) manifestations of emotion and storytelling, it is easy for me to go to town. Emote away, with no actual music. I have done this. I know how easy it is.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Who says pop and rock look and sound so good? To me they sound horrible and I run from them. Even the pop or rock musicians I liked at one time, I can’t stand to listen to now. Maybe I’m just a weirdo.

    • Andrey says:

      Silly. Audiences say that. Those millions and millions of people bying records and going to the concerts. Unlike 16 people at the last Avant-guarde premiere for quintet (because the don’t have a budget for the orchestra)

  • Michael B. says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with Cubs Fan that interest in classical music, including contemporary classical music, is decreasing. As for the record labels, this collector would assert that there are more labels recording more contemporary music than ever before in the history of commercial recordings. A list of just some of the labels would run on for pages, but there are Neos, Kairos, Col Legno, RZ, Innova, New World, Dux, BIS, Cantaloupe, NMC, Naxos (with more and more contemporary music), Wergo, ECM, Bridge, Aeon, Mode, Aurora, Metier, Toccata, and many others. I started collecting LP’s in what was generally assumed to be the “golden age” of the late 1950’s, and it was virtually impossible then to find recordings of contemporary music, and even the music of the last generation of composers (Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Bartok, and so forth) was very poorly represented on disc. Now, it has become nearly routine for major works to be available in commercial recordings within two to three years after their premiere. In the late 1950’s, the interval between premiere and commercial recording would often be two to three decades if not longer. Let’s not cry gloom and doom.

  • Sue says:

    I love the moniker “landfill” and think it entirely appropriate in this context.

  • Jimbo says:

    Good ‘classical music’ is still being produced, for the cinema, video games, commercials and to a lesser extent musicals. I discovered Max Ritcher’s ON THE NATURE OF DAYLIGHT by watching Shutter Island.

    This guy seems to be a clueless sob, because all his recommendations have been implemented years ago by Andree Rieu, lol. The secret is just write music people want to listen to.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Good ‘classical music’ is still being produced, for the cinema, video games, commercials and to a lesser extent musicals.”

      Maybe you are on the wrong website?

      Cinema, video games, commercials and musicals do NOT use classical music, let alone ‘good’ classical music. It is the stuff many people want to listen to because it is entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but classical music is an art form, not entertainment, although an element of entertainment is usual built-in.

      • Milka says:

        Define what you mean by classical music if you dare ,…..

        • John Borstlap says:

          Not so difficult.

          CM is the repertoire performed in the central performance culture: symphony orchestras, opera houses, chamber music venues, churches.

          Or: CM is the art form which began with Gregorian chant in the Christian church communities, a couple of centuries after Christ, and developed over the ages into a high art form embodying the highest aspirations of the human soul and heart, in terms of aesthetics, ethics, and emotional depth. With and after the Enlightenment (around 1800) it became a repository of emotional, ethical, spiritual and aesthetic stimuli spreading its influence even into poetry and literature, until in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century in the head of a betrayed husband, quite different interpretations of these things emerged.

          Or simply: all the music you hate.

          • Milka says:

            Inept doesn’t begin to fully describe your response.
            Your closing sentence reflects ignorance , one certainly expected better .

  • OperaGene says:

    I think Mr. Volans is full of it, or at least full of himself. No one should try to place limits on what “true art” is or isn’t!