Why Is New Music So Good?

May 31, 2014

Benjamin Taylorby Benjamin Taylor, SFCA Composer in Residence

Let me begin by stating that clearly there is plenty of old music that is good, and plenty that isn’t so good! The same is true of “New Music” as a category: plenty is good, but plenty is bad! When I ask “Why is new music so good?”, I refer to our interactive experience with new music rather than the music itself. Allow me to explain.

At the inception of the creative process, every single work of art–music, drama, sculpture, etc.–has two immediate influences. First and most obvious is the influence of the creative artist, who has conceived the work. A second and no less important influence is the art work’s place in culture: its time, place, and its creator’s assumed impact on the original audience.

We lovers of art enjoy learning of a work’s meaning in its original context and allowing that different perspective to color our experience of the art. We appreciate knowing of the artist’s life and intent, helping us develop a kind of shadow perspective adjacent to our own immediate interaction with the artwork. This shadow perspective can reflect in exciting ways against the perspectives we have developed in our own lives.

While this informed appreciation can be invigorating, there is something easier, something more pure and immediate, in approaching a new work of art that shares our time and place, shares our basic understanding of the world. A new work of art typically assumes that we are share many experiences with the artist. For example, many of us may likely need some help recognizing the L’homme arme tune embedded in a 16th century mass, but we may not need any warning if a new work quotes the theme song from the Jeopardy television show. Most of us will need little to no explanation if an orchestra premieres something titled Elegy for Sandyhook Elementary School or Peewee Herman’s Wild Ride. The creative artist can assume that most of us will recognize the reference to a part of our current and popular culture.

That immediacy of a new work is powerful, can stir humor, passion, or nostalgia in ways much older music simply cannot. And that is why “New Music” is so good. It hits us with no necessity for extensive backstory, no need for a history lesson. Funding for new art, such as the Roger Nixon Living Music Initiative, is important because it facilitates our opportunity to reflect directly on our own times, our collective fears and hopes, our shared celebrations. At its best, “New Music” is music truly for us.

So, besides enjoying the listening experience, you can support that experience for others. A first step is to never grumble about “New Music!” You can honestly not like what you hear (New Music advocacy doesn’t mean ignoring our personal tastes), but be sure not to condemn such a truly vital and relevant artistic endeavor. Your supportive curiosity and open-minded approach helps others come to the experience, too. A still greater support is to donate to initiatives such as the Roger Nixon Living Music Initiative, helping bring new artistic experiences to so many. Most composers write for peanuts, so any amount of support can truly make a difference in bringing a new work to you and your fellow music lovers.

Happy listening!