John Schaefer on Contemporary Music

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As longtime listeners will know, I am a huge fan of new music. My nightly “New Sounds” program here at WNYC has celebrated many types of new music since (gulp) 1982. So when I read Joe Queenan’s article, “Admit It, You’re As Bored As I Am,” my first inclination was to smack him. Instead, we’ve invited him to a Soundcheck Smackdown… where, it occurs to me, he will in fact be within smacking distance. Alas, as the moderator of this little event, I’m supposed to maintain some decorum.

Anyway, Joe is a humorist so part of me wonders whether he’s just having a laugh at contemporary music’s expense, tweaking classical music’s collective nose in a way… But reading it again, he really does seem to genuinely dislike all the many different flavors of new music out there. And you know what? His article, and that provocative title especially, WILL resonate with a lot of listeners. Just because I like this music doesn’t mean I’m naïve about it – I see exactly what Joe writes about: people restlessly waiting for the new crap to finish so they can hear their beloved Mozart serenade, or just sleeping through it. (But I’ve seen people sleep through Mozart too.)

I guess we need to define our terms: contemporary music for many people means the ascetic, cerebral music of Elliott Carter. For others it’s the relentless tonality of Philip Glass. Some would point to a straightforward composer of symphonies and concertos like Ellen Taaffe Zwillich. But what about the long-dead Arnold Schoenberg? Is that still contemporary music? And if so, then what do we call Puccini, Debussy, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff – all from the same time?

So, what do you think about contemporary music – however you define it? Do you like some of it, all of it, or none of it?