“That bunch of ignorant, brainless peasants — why don’t they like me?”

Why do we hate modern classical music?

As someone who can sit through “modern” classical and find some enjoyment in it (I got ambushed by that Lutoslawski a while back and nevertheless found some nice things in it — it was a little like watching clouds), but who still vastly prefers tonal music, it seems to me that a lot of people who like avant-garde stuff miss (part of) the point as to why others tend not to like it.

Now granted, I’ve only just recently started writing music as a hobby musician. And yes, I love and write tonal music. I poked around on a board for composers a while back, and what I saw there as a non-academic hobby musician was pretty alarming.

A lot of people — academics, and on the young side — were talking about how they thought that they would be considered fatally uncool for writing anything BUT avant-garde music. Furthermore one went so far as to say (as close to a direct quote as I can recall), “Look, we all know that most of our audience is totally stupid and can’t appreciate our music … ”

Jesus on toast. Do these people think that these attitudes won’t come through on stage? Do they think that audiences can’t TELL when they are being subjected to massive condescension? When they say that they like and value and want to connect with their audience — but privately call them a bunch of stupid philistines who can’t take it at their rarefied level — do they think they can hide that attitude? It all reminds me of the resentful guy in the bar who hates women but doesn’t realize that no amount of cologne can hide it … so women still won’t go near him, and he has no idea why. His response? To resent them even more.

Do they think audiences can’t tell when the music isn’t sincerely felt, moreover — when the composer isn’t expressing what they actually would rather say, as opposed to what they think will make cool people consider them to be Of The Tribe?

Audiences can tell when the person on stage, or the music itself, is written from a perspective of either insecurity (“If I don’t write like this, the cool kids will mock me”) or condescension (“Get a load of my inner torment, you ignorant peasants”).

Isn’t music about sincerity, showing what you’re feeling? Well, both of those attitudes reek of insincerity — lying to the audience and telling them you respect them while you’re just trying to get in their pants (pockets, where they keep their wallets), and lying to yourself by writing music you don’t really feel so you won’t get mocked.

There is a really good interview that I keep coming back to in my own mind by Eddie Van Halen from 1979 where he talks about this. The whole interview is incredibly insightful, but there’s one part where he’s talking about an art rock band that he idolized bombing at a show one time:

“I’m going, “My God! These guys are opening for us?” These guys are better…they’ve been through it. And they played before us, and they bombed. People hated ’em, but I’m standing there with tears in my eyes, just getting off, trippin’. It was so good. But they’re artists – “I’m playing my art, and I don’t care if you like it or not” – that type of thing, which I think is a real bad attitude. Music is for people. It’s not for yourself. Or if it is, sit in your room and play it. But if you’re gonna play it for people, you better play something that they’re gonna want to hear instead of walking up there and pretending you’re so good and beyond your audience.”

For all the talk in the classical world about how they have to learn from the world of popular music to stay relevant, they should jump at this advice from one of the most admired popular musicians of the past century.

The Lutoslawski that I got surprised with was okay, and interesting, but still not my cup of tea. (It was called “Musique Funebre,” of course. I don’t think you could write a wedding dance in that vocabulary, which is part of the problem.) But I think it would go over better if it weren’t so reliably accompanied by people like those kids on that composer’s board. They all want to think that they are lifting the audience up to their level, but you can’t lift someone up to your level without reaching down to them. And believe me, they’ll know it.

And stop writing insecure, insincere music that you hope will keep the Cool Kids from mocking you. If that’s all your art means to you, then you and it are doomed. You’re being godawful disrespectful to your muse by forcing it to serve the whims of some sneering hipster with a half crew-cut and baggy jeans sipping a skinny latte.

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