It isn't music to my ears

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The Independent Online
I quite like the sound of Sir John Drummond, when he is not talking about modern music. I like the fact that, according to Giles Smith ( this paper last Monday), Sir John does not like getting memos in the BBC couched in managerial gobbledygook. I like the fact that, allegedly, he writes "Translate!" on these wodges of jargon and sends them back to the writer.

What worries me about Sir John is that he is guilty of the same crime. For years he has been promoting new concert music and encouraging young composers to write the sort of music that young composers feel they have to write.

And for years the public has been sending new music back, with a note scribbled on it saying: "Translate!"

No, I'm wrong.

For years the public has been either ignoring new music or scribbling a note on it saying: "Don't ring us, we won't ring you either."

This doesn't particularly worry me, as I am not a composer and I don't like contemporary concert music, or not enough of it to make the rest worth examining. But if I were a composer, I would be worried. If I were someone like the American avant-garde composer Gunther Schuller, I would be very worried.

In fact, he is very worried. Or he was in 1986, when he published in a book called Musings ( OUP ) the following cry of anguish:

"By now it must seem obvious to everyone that what we call 'contemporary music' ( the music of the past few decades) has failed to capture the sustained interest of either lay audiences or professional performers; in fact, it has encountered a stone wall of resistance and apathy. ... I am a composer and I have thought about these things all of my life. But I have also been a fighter and activist for new music for many decades, as a performer, as a teacher, as a lecturer. Perhaps naively, I used to take great comfort in the notion that almost all new art, particularly if it is radically new, is at first rejected or greeted with apathy, and that it takes a generation or two for the audience to catch up with the front-runners. By that time, of course, they are no longer front-runners, and have now been replaced by a new group of front-runners. I resigned myself to the notion that the complexities of Schoenberg, Weber and Ives would have to wait their 30- to 40-year turn to be resolved and understood. The problem is that it is no longer 30 years; it is getting to be 60 years. And my earlier optimism has long ago been replaced by a growing discomfort that the old axiom never had much substance. It was an illusion, a hope."

Brave and honest words. What Schuller is doing is heroically abandoning one of the great central planks of modern art music: the belief that, given time, the public will catch up. It is grandly obvious that they never will. They don't want to. Why on earth should they want to? Why on earth should they listen to the music that Sir John wants them to listen to? There is nothing there for them, nothing for their emotions or feelings to catch on to. New music tells no stories and casts no spells. It is only about itself. New music has been, in Schuller's phrase, "seduced into the pursuit of complexity and intellectualism for their own sakes and when the apostles of new music go into the wilderness to wait for the people to catch up, they go into the wilderness alone.

A rather sad example of this cropped up last week on Radio 3, a brief series called Mind Over Music, which set out to find out why we enjoyed music. It was as joyless as the name suggests. It used scientists to examine our enjoyment. It assumed you could only enjoy music by listening to it, not by playing it. It assumed that only written music could be enjoyable. It did not seem to imagine that music could have a sensual element. It was very Radio 3, very depressing.

Oh, well, it's an old problem. At least 100 years ago Ambrose Bierce was driven to fury by a Wagner critic called Krehbiel, who wrote the following rubbish: "Wagner strove to express artistic truths, not to tickle the ear, and therefore his work will stand, while Italian opera, which is founded on sensual enjoyment, must pass away. ..."

When Bierce has got his breath back, he comments briefly: "A more amusing non-sequitur it would be difficult for the most accomplished logician to construct. Because the city is founded on a rock it will topple down! I think I could name several sorts of sensual enjoyment which give promise of enduring as long as the senses. Among them I should give a high place to whatever kind of music the sense of hearing most enjoys. If posterity is going to be such an infinite fool as to stop its ears to sounds which please them, I thank Heaven that I live in antiquity."

And he did not even know about Harrison Birtwhistle.