On contemporary music

Last updated Dec 19, 2019 | Published on Nov 10, 2014

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.
Why is contemporary music so frightening to audiences and artists? Why do people have hesitations (to be polite…) in attending contemporary music concerts? It hasn’t always been like this. There was a time, up until the mid-twentieth century, when contemporary music in its various forms was still performed and accepted (almost) without prejudice by both parties. It was common to find new operas of Verdi and Puccini in theaters long before they became classics. The theater was a place to go and have fun, like a cinema today. Audiences posed themselves less questions about music. They would not worry about understanding it or being prepared on the composer or not; they just worried about liking the music or not liking it.

But, starting with atonality and twelve-tone and then especially during the 50s and 60s with the avant-guard, musicians turned music into some complex construct in need of an explanation before it being able to be listened to. We composers made our audiences afraid of us by telling them that some music was only for an elite who could understand it. We told audiences that they had to be prepared, go to conferences, read explanatory treatises and then maybe we would allow them to approach us.

Most people go to a concert today having heard the works being performed repeatedly. They already know what they are going to listen. The musicians, at the first rehearsal, already know how they are supposed to play. Everything feels somewhat comfortable and safe.

This does not happen with contemporary freshly written music. Performing it, is a challenge, quite different from playing and listening to the classics. There is no template, nothing to relate to, nothing to listen to, no comparison chart with other performers. A singer that has a role in a new opera cannot learn the part from a cd (which, sadly, is what happens too often with regular repertoire), nor try to pick and spot his favorite interpretations and make a mix of them. In new music, every artists need to take the music out to the audience all by themselves, relying only on their knowledge, feelings, and capacity to read a score and make the most out of it, without looking at this or that interpretation. In a world, so full of models to follow in any human field in order to obtain what seem to be the most important things – success and money -, this has become increasingly difficult. Some performers rely on the fact that since it is a new work and it has never been heard before, audiences will not be able to judge their performance, an attitude that does not honor the music, the composer or the audience. Additionally, it is ultimately a wrong thesis, as it assumes that audiences are not able to have an opinion unless it is superimposed on them by some past recording or some panel of experts.

Performers, as well as audiences and composers, often forget the most important thing about music: it is not about knowledge, it is about feelings. And feelings do not need explanations or knowledge or preparation. They are what people should be sensing, whether it is new music or not. They are what people respond to, and that is what makes music so special. The main problem about contemporary music is the lack of connection to shared human emotions: composers want to be as abstract as possible, combining an infinite number of rhythms and harmonies, playing rollercoasters with tempos, shifting everything at a much faster pace than the average audience member would be able to follow.

The arrogance lies in an obtuse refusal of learning from the best, which does not imply following the same path of Mozart or Verdi, but taking advantage of their inheritance.

Part of this inheritance is tonality. Unfortunately, every contemporary composer knows that if he/she wishes to be taken seriously by the establishment, staying away from tonality is a must. Nevertheless, both audiences and performers often think differently, enjoying tonal music more than atonal. Does this mean that we should abandon atonal music simply because it is less popular? Of course not. On the same line though, why should we abandon tonal music? Moreover, why should a tonal composer be crucified by his/her “colleagues” and by the critics for not doing so? Is tonal music that uninteresting to explore? Or is atonality just a way to hide some composers’ utter inability to find new ideas?

The argument that tonality has been completeley exploited where atonality has not, miserably sinks under its own contradiction, given the infinite combinations that a few scales make available. However, it seems to justify the urge to write music that sounds like bus crashes (to quote a listener questioning Edo de Waart on a radio show in 1986).

The other argument that composers are ahead of their own time does not stand ground either: if that was true, by now would have demanded equal portions of Schoenberg and Mozart in any given concert.

The impression is that way too many composers cannot resist the temptation of finding themselves labeled in the cliché of being unreachable by the average concert-goers, building music so complex that a manual is necessary to interpret it.  While this might be of great appeal to the intellect of those who have the technical preparation and the will to reach for it, it lacks something that in every art form is fundamental: a connection to the audience. Perhaps that is another reason why people do not relate to contemporary music and desert concert halls.


Cover image by Lucas Craig from Pexels

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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