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New music on a first hearing

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–In the last issue I wrote on being more discriminating and critical when hearing familiar music at a concert and/or recital. But, what if it is new music, possibly being played for the first time?

One of the most difficult questions which I am asked is, “When we hear a new work, how can we tell if it is of quality, or if it will last?” After all, we realize that by going on our impulse emotions, we could be dead wrong. The history of music is full of cases where experienced critics spouted off some horrible comments about new works of their time, where a few generations later, the same music became a staple we all enjoy time and time again.

Check out Nicolas Slonimsky’s hilarious but revealing book, The Lexicon of Musical Invective.

What may be unknown to you is that in many instances in past centuries, distinguished musicians and writers of music have praised to the hilt a new work, calling it a masterpiece for the ages, which today’s sophisticated audiences would only laugh at hearing them. Time can be a great equalizer, and the ultimate judge of lasting value. And it works both ways, to eliminate the inane, and to preserve the worthy.

This brings us back to our question. There may not be a simple answer to this, but a few insights and comments may put it in perspective.

In art, we usually react emotionally to something we hear or see. By the definition of many, an emotional reaction is enough to merit a certain degree of quality. But, here is where we can go astray. For a new piece of music, does it have to be wild and attention-getting to be considered worthwhile? Does it have to be “on the edge” in order to qualify as a contemporary statement? Should newly composed music that is on the conservative side be labeled as worthless and dated material? Many people believe so, but this may not be the entire story.

Let us not forget that Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), one of the great composers of all time, was considered very old fashioned during his lifetime. His composing style looked back, not forward; his various composer-sons, looked ahead and pushed their father to “move with the times, and let go the old style”.

But who do we remember today? Of course, Papa Bach, by far. He may have been far too conservative in comparison to other music in the last 25 years of his lifetime, but what made him a giant in music, surpassing anything his sons did, was simply one word: Quality.

This is why I am skeptical when I hear a new work, a world premiere of plincks, pluncks, bangs, pops, sighs, and silences, and someone seated next to me is ecstatic, praising it with superlatives. Do not misinterpret what I say. This new work may actually be a masterpiece for the ages, but not only because it sounds modern and dissonant, but because it contains elements of a serious message, longevity, and craftsmanship. Sometimes this is not easily discernable on the first hearing.

Music can look backwards, open new horizons and break new paths, or simply reflect the trends and sounds of today, but none of the above entitles it to be called “good music”, or “bad music”. We all heard the stories of monkeys trained to splash paint on a canvas, and the works sold for serious money. But we also know that artists who have developed their art and craft for decades give their work a certain quality that simians can not reach. But, after visiting a few modern art museums, I too have scratched my head in amazement as to a few of the pieces which some museums claim to be great art.

The same applies to introducing new music to the concert hall. The conductor, the festival director, or whomever is the one who chooses the new works to be played during the season, is using his or her best judgment to give the audience the opportunity to discover new music, and at the same time contribute to the development of the art form. Otherwise, we all could be the witnesses and contributors to a museum, playing only the masterpieces of the past, and actively participating in the death of an art form. 

The great, innovator of composers in the Twentieth Century said wisely, “Play new music as if it is a masterpiece from the past, and play the established classics with the zest and enthusiasm of new music”. And for us the listeners, we can only improve our listening and enjoyment skills with frequent exposure to new creations. Acceptance of new music, art, food, people, or places comes with contact, exposure, and open minds.

Let us look forward to hearing new music with a sense of excitement and anticipation. It could simply be horrible, or it may surprise us by appealing to us, or at least portions of it. But only in this manner we can allow music to keep evolving, as we leave our own time’s creations for future generations to appreciate or reject.


Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.

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