Why Is So Much Contemporary Classical Music Boring?

I’ve recently enjoyed playing random albums in iTunes, finding albums I haven’t listened to in a long time to bring more variety to my listening. I don’t accept every suggestion, but I have listened to many of the albums that have come up that would fit in the “contemporary classical music” category, in part because I never think of listening to them.

And that made me wonder: why don’t I listen to many of these albums? It’s because many of them are simply boring.

This afternoon, one of the albums that popped up was a set of works by Paul Moravec, which includes his Pulitzer prize winning Tempest Fantasy. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This is certainly an interesting work, with lots of nice bits, but, in the end, it’s eminently forgettable. Granted, this is better than twelve-tone music, which is mostly just annoying, but in this work, as in many other contemporary classical works, there’s nothing to hold on to, there’s nothing to remember.

For me, music can be visceral, digging deep into my soul, and the best music carves a place in my memories, and listening to great music can be a powerful experience. But so much contemporary music sounds like it’s written by recipe that it’s lost all of that power. Yes, this isn’t the same recipe that the serialists used, but it’s still just a collection of gimmicks that don’t add up to much.

This feeling isn’t new; I wrote something similar back in 2010 when reviewing two albums by Nico Muhly for MusicWeb International. At the time I said, focusing on particular on the type of choral music featured on the two discs:

Recently, a number of discs of choral music by living composers have had a certain popularity. This may be related to the faux spirituality that people hear in this music; that a choir is something people think of in connection with a church. I’m not especially moved by this type of bland choral music, and would much rather listen to the originals, be they Bach or plainchant. One thing that I miss in the works on this disc is any sound of joy. The music is played at plodding tempi — because that sounds more “spiritual”? — and, while the sound of the choir is delicious, it becomes, in the end, little more than an attractive background. Each piece sounds similar, and Muhly’s approach consists, for the most part, of repeating the same types of harmonies and melodic fragments. A bit of raucous organ playing in A Good Understanding provides some spice, but when the choir comes in, they sound just the way they do on all the other pieces.

I concluded the review saying:

I’m very interested in the direction that young composers like Muhly are taking. I can understand that they can incite a certain level of enthusiasm among those who see this “new music” as being something that is divorced from the classical canon, but that also rejects the long-dominant atonal contemporary classical music that, for many listeners, is a source of headaches.

This is classical music for those who don’t listen to classical music, and in a way that is admirable. If these 21st century composers — those like Muhly, Timothy Andres, David Lang or Paul Moravec — can attract new listeners to the broader classical genre, then this is a good thing. If they can revitalize a genre that has, for decades, been dominated by atonality, that is perhaps even better. But these discs by Muhly, while interesting, just don’t grab me. I may be wrong, as many others seem to think that this is wonderful. But I don’t find much here to come back to, and I already feel that I’ve listened to these discs more than enough.

I don’t mean to single out Mr. Muhly particularly, nor Mr. Moravec; they are certainly successful enough that it doesn’t matter what I say. And I’m not criticizing Mr. Andres: I have returned to his Home Stretch many times; I’m not at all bored by his music. But so much of this contemporary classical music is just uninteresting, like the violin concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen that Apple has promoted. A lot of it sounds like filler written by contemporary composers for other contemporary composers. Most of these composers are also academics, and there is a certain blandness that comes across in academic works that may be at the root of this type of music.

Many of these recordings sound good the first time, but don’t have much staying power. The fact that I forget I even own many of them is telling. It could be that my musical taste just doesn’t fit with this type of music, but I think it’s a lot more than that. My music library is full of a broad range of music, and in the classical area, that ranges from the middle ages to last year. I’m always open to new styles of music, and I’m actively curious about new music. But there’s simply little that sticks.

You, dear reader, may disagree; there may be lots of recent recordings that you return to. Feel free to express your disagreement in the comments, and point out any recordings of this type of music you have that really, truly remain memorable after a few listens.