In David Allen’s recent New York Times article on the popularity of “response commissions” he refers to these pieces being an attempt to overcome an audience’s “built-in distaste towards modern music.” This sets up a quotation from Jane Moss, artistic director of the Lincoln Center, who writes that audiences “have a very clear picture in their minds about how they don’t like it.” Moss’ words seem infused with the frustrations of someone who has worked at the coalface of audience development. Recognising the practical reality of what she says, nevertheless I feel that more generally there is often a lack of clarity over what “modern music” is, and perhaps consequently the feeling that antipathy towards it is both total and somewhat inexplicable.
There are works labeled as “modern” that have become part of the canon, and though these could be the exceptions that prove the rule of antipathy, I have not seen compelling arguments as to how certain pieces transcend their “modern-ness”. It seems that with these works audiences will accept modernity as an intrinsic part of the piece’s construction. Related to this point is the fact that the label “modern music” is applied to music written over such an absurdly long period of time – perhaps a century or more – encapsulating numerous different aesthetic approaches to composition. Consequently the “modern” label, to my mind, has no value inasmuch as it describes the characteristics of any given piece of music. If though, as Moss suggests, audiences seem to have fairly clear idea about what they mean when they describe something as “modern music”, this surely has come to be something like “music that is unfamiliar and does not sound like the majority of the music that an orchestra plays”.
I’m hoping to present this statement without value judgment: it represents only the tip of an iceberg comprising knotty questions about art, value, and entertainment that I certainly don’t want to begin to tackle. I would humbly submit, though, that a very significant strand of this topic comprises questions to do with education: what do our audiences already know? What can we teach them? What do they want to be taught? There are no easy answers here. But I am struck that “response commissions” seem to speak to this issue by recognising that – a few masterpieces aside – audiences cannot (and should not) be expected to fully understand a composer’s musical language from cold, nor without familiarity with a great deal of the music from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that – directly or indirectly – has shaped that composer’s language. The “response” element uses an existing composition as a familiar middle ground whereupon the audience and composer can meet, confident that they each already understand something of how the other thinks.
Or to put it another way, the older composer (the one who is “responded” to) acts as a kind of surrogate to their modern successor. In the article the composer Jörg Widmann comments on how the composition of his piece “Con brio” taught him not only about Beethoven but also about himself. I hope that the audience for this piece experienced it in something of a similar way. And it is that kind of relational experience that can make “response commissions” so effective: they offer a means to bridge an ever-widening gap between the what is familiar to the audience and what is familiar to the composer. This is something that, once achieved in a “response commission”, alters the parameters of an audiences’ relationship with a modern composer (it is perhaps the ideal opening gambit in a composer-in-residence program).
We all – as musicians and audiences – have long and emotional relationships with the music we love, and with our image of the composers that have written it. “Response commissions” present the same kind of unexpected potential that comes when a friend draws us in to a conversation with someone new. Perhaps our audiences do not harbour antipathy towards “modern music”: we just need to make proper introductions.