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The Composer Is (Not) Dead: How to Enjoy Contemporary Classical Music

By on April 13, 2016

As we write this blog post, there’s a CD sitting on our education coordinator’s desk entitled “The Composer Is Dead.” It’s an entertaining program designed to introduce classical music to young kids, but it exposes a truth that sticks with many of us well beyond our playground years.

In the minds of many classical music lovers, the composer is dead.

The composer, in the kindergarten part of our minds, fits a very specific archetype. He is European, he is male, he probably has weird hair, and his music has stood the test of time to become one of the great works of Western art. When we go to the concert hall to hear the composer’s music, we know we’re going to hear something that has resonated with audiences for generations. His music glows with layer after layer of interpretation and nuance on the part of musicians who love his work and know it, inside and out. They’ve had plenty of time to practice — the guy who wrote it has been dead for a hundred years.

Amadeus: Stereotypes in action.

Amadeus: Stereotypes in action.

The work of living composers? If we’ve had that experience at all, chances are we didn’t enjoy it. In fact, most professional orchestras report greater difficulty in introducing their audiences to contemporary music. When we’re accustomed to dead composers, the work of living composers can seem like something other than the classical music we know and love, and we approach it with hesitancy. In some cases, we may avoid new works altogether, since we feel we’ll likely find them strange and unpleasant.

But here’s the problem: If we view contemporary work as external to the great narrative of classical music, if we learn to dread that sense of uncertainty when we’re about to listen to a new work, if we look at contemporary composers as creative anachronists who, ultimately, can’t do anything that hasn’t already been done better by a resident of Vienna in the 1800s, then we exclude ourselves from a crucial part of classical music.

Let us say it again: When we listen to contemporary works, we’re inserting ourselves in the heart of the classical music experience.

Witnessing an orchestra in the process of interpreting a new work, unhampered by familiarity and centuries of interpretation, led by a conductor who is on fire with a sense of discovery, and perhaps even with the collaboration of the composer himself, is a thrilling spectacle.

Those dead composers we love so much? Their fans understood this. Schubert’s fans weren’t clamoring for Corelli’s greatest hits, and Mahler actually had trouble convincing his audience that listening to that old guy Mozart would be worth their time. No: they wanted to hear something that had been composed last week — that morning, even.


They knew that when they walked into the concert hall, they were entering unknown territory. They weren’t sure what crazy sounds and rhythms they were about to hear. And for them, that was the whole point: The tension of ambiguity, the energy of musicians exploring new material, and the thrill of discovery when it all cohered into a magnificent work of art that never existed before.

They didn’t care if it was “traditional” or pleasant to listen to. (Just think of The Rite of Spring — it broke all the rules, caused the audience to riot, and revolutionized a whole generation of composers.)

Instead, they looked at the facts; the same facts we encounter with contemporary music today: This work is being performed by an orchestra we know to be skilled, under the baton of a music director whom we credit with great sensitivity and taste. The craftsmanship of the performance is not in question. If we don’t enjoy it, it’s because we expect it to be the same as other classical music concerts.

That’s the secret: Our ability to enjoy a work of contemporary orchestral music has little, if nothing to do with the actual musical merit of the piece. It has everything to do with participating in the continued evolution of an art form we love dearly.

Conversely, to insist that contemporary composers can’t hack it compared to the greats of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods is to participate in the decline of this art form. And when we impose the expectations and formulas of antique literature on the works of the present day, we make the composer a nonentity in the creative process of performance.

In that case, the composer really is dead. We’ve killed him.

But if an audience can “kill” a composer, it can also bring him back — in the concert hall, as in the Marvel Universe, death is optional. If we can let go of our beloved dead composers, just for an afternoon, the element of surprise in a living composer’s work can be a force for transformation. We may find that our understanding of orchestral music — past, present and future — has been illuminated.

“I always say, come to the concert without any expectation,” says Maestro Josep Caballé-Domenech. “Let yourself be surprised. Even if you don’t know the name, even if you don’t know the soloist, even if you don’t know many things, just go there, have the experience… because you will be probably surprised. That’s what I as an artist am interested in, is to surprise people with something that they don’t expect.”

Join composer Larry Alan Smith for the premiere of his Symphony No. 4, dedicated to and conducted by his friend Josep Caballé-Domenech, at Doctor Atomic on April 16-17 at the Pikes Peak Center. For tickets, call 520-SHOW or click here.

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