You can imagine my reaction, therefore, when I encountered a review of the new DVD in my hometown paper, the Toronto Star, which begins as follows:
It may not be the right thing to say in polite company, but sitting through a lot of new music feels like sonic self-flagellation. If, as the late philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, pleasure is the absence of pain, silence might be bliss. That concern could come to a head during the 5 1/2 hours of Olivier Messiaen's only opera, a series of vignettes depicting St. Francis's hourney toward light and grace. The music is atonal. Jean Kalman's set is stark, laden with rough-hewn symbolism.Had I read this when it originally came out, I would have been sorely tempted to report an error in this article to the editors. Saint Francois, of course, is not atonal. This is simply factually wrong; Messiaen's score, like almost all of his music, is organized using an extended tonal language which encompasses many dissonant chords but which always resolves to a tonal center. If Mr. Terauds really believes that Messiaen's music is atonal, he has quite a bit of homework to do; it would be as though the Star's pop music critic thought that John Denver was a death metal artist. Of course, I don't think Terauds is quite that foolish; rather, I think he's using the word "atonal" carelessly, as a sort of mental shorthand for any music that sometimes doesn't sound nice. But, people, if any music that contains dissonance is atonal, then all music since the abandonment of parallel organum is atonal. Words have meanings.
But the broader problem (and one I see came up the last time Terauds reviewed Messiaen) is that this sort of classical music reporting, the kind that assumes a priori that all contemporary music is undesirable, is unhelpful, anti-intellectual, and tiresome. The presumption is that before listening to a piece of new music, you ought to assume that it's awful and atonal and unlistenable, and that you should abandon your preconceived opinion only slowly and with great reluctance, should the work turn out to be any good. (Terauds does in fact come around and give the opera a qualified recommendation, but by the time you've read that far into the article, the damage is already done.) This attitude should be anathema to a critic, consisting as it does in reviewing a work before hearing it. It also reflects a very small view of classical music: under this model, the normative pattern of classical music is to take a score by some long-dead composer off the shelf, perform it, and put it back. Performing a work of "new" music (and by "new" we mean anything written more recently than the birth of your grandparents) is a peripheral activity, one to be regarded with great suspicion.
But this sort of reporting is also extremely old-fashioned - it ignores the most interesting parts of the contemporary music scene in favour of the increasingly stagnant scene in the symphony hall and opera house. Festivals of new music like New York's Bang on a Can are attracting an increasingly mainstream audience, Greg Sandow reports that works like Messiaen's Quatuor frequently share the bill with pop musicians at clubs, and Toronto's recent Luminato festival combined more mainstream entertainment with a new music theatre piece by R. Murray Schafer. It is difficult to imagine that these events would have had the same appeal to a broad audience had the organizers instead programmed, say, all the Mozart string quintets. New music has proven itself to be capable of reaching out to a much wider audience than the blue-rinse brigade at your typical symphony performance; it can do this because its complexity, dissonance, and many of its mannerisms connect to trends in the experimental wing of the pop music scene. The traditional repertoire, especially the eighteenth-century music of Mozart or Haydn, seems more remote to non-classical music fans, like upper-class dinner music in a period film. For traditional classical music listeners (like Terauds and, let's face it, myself), there is something a bit counterintuitive about this, but we should welcome the development as a chance to rejuvenate the musical culture, and eventually bring more listeners into the fold.
The bottom line: should we review new classical music in a way that reflects the knee-jerk prejudice of your aged Aunt Mildred? Or should we consider reviewing new music with an open mind, witholding an opinion until we've judged the work on its own merits, just like arts journalists are expected to in any other area of creative endeavour?