21st century orchestras, 21st century issues

[A version of this essay originally appeared on WQXR.org as part of a series celebrating Symphomania 2.0, a broadcast marathon of 21st century orchestra music]

If there is one thing that I have learned in my unusual career as a conductor, it’s that our field is in a state of becoming, rather than of being.  As much as we might pretend otherwise, and as much as it might be in the interests of our institutions to believe the opposite, everything about music is in a state of flux all the time.  Playing styles change, audiences’ tastes shift, performers age, instruments develop, technology alters how we receive and listen.  In a certain sense, this is obvious, a truism—the world changes, and so how could the culture that is part of it and reflects it not also change? 

The particular question of what music is played, i.e., repertoire, is a thorny one, though, especially in the United States.  Beethoven’s music, say, is great and influential and important for a number of reasons.  (And actually I’d argue that chief among these are that his is music of change, of revolution, at a critical time in European history that had implications for our current world.)  But why do we tend to make a specific category distinction when talking about his music vs. some more recent music?  Why do we think the music of Beethoven is “standard repertoire” but that of others is “new music?”  Of course, there’s something obvious: Beethoven’s music was written a long time ago; but we mean more than a historical period when we say “standard repertoire,” and it’s hard to put one’s finger on what.  One might appeal to highly subjective notions of quality, questions of stylistic taste, historical claims about a certain Darwinism of repertoire selection, but I suspect the answer is more mundane: arts organizations feel more comfortable programming works that they know are economically reliable.  This is due to an understandable constellation of anxieties given that the mechanisms of consumer capitalism are not especially well-suited to supporting the arts, especially the performing arts, which are not readily commodifiable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  This is particularly palpable to me, with fingers in so many pies: “new music,” “standard repertoire,” education, opera, etc.  As the conductor of Ensemble Dal Niente, every day I interact with musicians re-inventing what it means to play an instrument or sing in 2016, who ask why they're doing it and how their craft can be re-thought.  With equal frequency, in my work at the DePaul University School of Music, I encounter students in similar states of figuring out their musical identities.  The orchestra as an institution and the orchestra as an artistic body must respond, or—more accurately—does respond, to the needs of an ever-changing world.  The difficult question to answer is: how should it respond?

My provisional answers involve starting with and bringing to the artistic forefront the continued relevance, to our world now, of the symphony orchestra as an artistic, cultural, and political body, and not simply doing so as a PR ploy.  My recent programming is meant to reflect this.  Most radically, in spring of 2015, my orchestra at the DePaul University School of Music played a version of Mathias Spahlinger’s doppelt bejaht [doubly affirmed], 24 etudes for orchestra without conductor.  Each etude is a set of instructions for what amounts to a structured improvisation, and each moves from one musical state to another.  The suggested transitions (and it’s possible for the orchestra to create new ones) between the etudes are, similarly, processes of becoming rather than of being.  The orchestra makes decisions—collectively, in real time, and through an essentially musical process—about which etude to play, when, and for how long.  Thus, the agency of orchestra players, a thing usually discouraged in recent US orchestra practice, is not only allowed, but forced.  The line between the composers and performers is blurred, and the hierarchy among the musicians is substantially erased.  The conductor sits and watches (happily, in my case) from the audience.  Is this is a vision for a new “classical music” performance practice?  A idealistic artistic suggestion for utopian society?  An artificially created political atmosphere?  I don’t see why one has to decide between those options (and many other possibilities).

Last month, with the same ensemble, I programmed Chaya Czernowin’s The Quiet along with Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony.  As Chaya says, in her program note to a work full of highly original instrumentation and orchestration, she was interested in reflecting on storms that “evolved from natural occurrences into far away atmospheres surrounding human activity, before returning to natural realms.”  I was struck by both the similarities and differences of this sentiment to Mahler’s re-invention of the orchestra in his work: the “like a sound of nature” of its opening, its use of cosmopolitan and popular dance forms.  This concert was one way of exploring how we experience the nature-society dichotomy, done through the lenses of two similar-but-different voices.

Next month, my orchestra and my new music ensemble at DePaul will present joint thematic concerts about the overtone series (featuring Mozart, Haas, Murail, and Mahler) and counterpoint (featuring Bach, Webern, Ligeti, Shawn Jaeger, and Mozart).  These concerts are, in a general sense, about the history of how people hear harmony and melody, and how this hearing has changed.

In short, the orchestra now is a reflection of our social and cultural climate, every bit as much as it was in the 19th century.  It’s just that this climate is very very different, and possibly considerably more multifarious, in 2016.  Rather than artificially confine itself to music written a long time ago, in a far away geographical region, by people with a vastly different worldview, the orchestra must engage the confusingly and sublimely complex reality of life in the 21st century.  Composers are already doing this; we’d all be better off if more orchestral institutions made more forceful attempts to catch up.