Summer arts festivals are the most substantial venues, with their wide reach and appeal, presenting contemporary music in the United States today. They have the flexibility, resources, audience and the right environment to do so, and make an impact.
Tanglewood and Aspen are best known for devoting a considerable portion of their activities to contemporary music, but a close look at any given summer’s Spoleto Festival lineup does not disappoint in its new music content, or quality, especially since it does not only focus on music as the above mentioned two do, but also includes other art forms.
Those other vessels of contemporary art, such as cinema, theater, dance and the visual arts, historically have been better agents of new styles, and have gone a lot further in gaining support and wide appeal.
It’s not unusual to meet people who are regulars at art galleries and theaters, who follow all the latest developments, while being very conservative in their music preferences.
It somehow remains a struggle to program new music even today, a time when polemics have subsided, styles have softened up, composers care to connect with audiences and musicians are much better trained to perform it.
There are two main reasons for this — audiences’ lack of stylistic insight, and the inherent property of music to consume one’s perception and demand constant attention and re-contextualization.
Simply put, one needs to understand the stylistic language of a piece, and one needs to remain engaged in its narrative long enough to “connect the dots” into a meaningful whole over an extended period of time, with no possibility of “rewinding” or re-evaluating moments passed, since music is a time-based art.
Of course so are theater and dance, but those use languages mostly familiar to the receiver and are able, therefore, to operate on higher conceptual levels without the danger of losing the connection.
Music, especially instrumental music, is by default the most abstract of arts. Even within a generally familiar language such as that of the classical period, one can see how much easier it would be to connect with an unfamiliar work by Haydn than with one by Beethoven.
Haydn operated within a consistent and thus familiar style, while Beethoven constantly redefined his.
It’s no wonder that new works attempting to redefine a style or introduce a new one will inevitably hit a wall with audiences at first contact. In fact, the more groundbreaking the music, the more resistance it will find.
A repeat listen will reveal much more of the music’s language and meaning to the listener, allowing one to make an informed aesthetic decision. However, most new pieces rarely get a second performance, let alone a second listen.
Audiences are ready for new things, despite what one may think, and they respond to quality performances. In this light, it becomes crucial for new works to be presented with as much context and additional background as humanly possible in order to allow the listener to create meaningful associations while processing new aural information.
This can be achieved with smart programming and use of multimedia technology.
For one thing, it’s time to start mixing up programs. New music doesn’t need any more segregation. Simon Rattle and other conductors have done wonders by programming contemporary works alongside Romantic, Classical and even early music pieces, all unified by a common thread.
There were a few glimpses of that during the festival, notably in the Bank of America Chamber Music series. This allowed the audience to experience repertoire in transition, and realize that all music is connected.
The opera “Feng Yi Ting” was a successful example of technology used tastefully and seamlessly to help complete the atmosphere suggested by the music.
I’m convinced that this is the path to take in order to create more connections between the audience and unfamiliar sounds. Instead of introducing a new work by an extended printed program note that most people won’t even read, let alone understand, there could be a short film projection that creates context.
We live in a visual age, and the power and availability of new technology can help tremendously.
Audiences need to be approached as listeners, not as consumers, and most of them actually come to Spoleto to be exposed to new things, whether that means new approaches to staples of the repertoire, or new additions to it.
They visit our beautiful city and feel cosmopolitan and ready to take it all in with open ears and open minds.
Spoleto is doing a great job in not disappointing its faithful patrons by trying new things, and as long as that continues, people will continue to visit, even if they don’t absolutely love everything they hear.
Besides, some of the most important pieces that we love now had rough beginnings, as does any work of art that breaks new ground.
Sometimes a new piece needs a second or even third chance, and it’s our duty as a forward-moving society to give it that chance. After all, could we even imagine our lives without the “Eroica” or the “Rite of Spring”?