Part of Bachtrack’s Contemporary Music Month, Paul Kilbey takes a look at concert programming of 20th- and 21st-century music in several venues around the world.

As Alex Ross famously declares in the preface to his book The Rest is Noise, society has been slow to catch on to the last century or so of classical music. “Experimental works by Matthew Barney or David Lynch are analyzed in college dorms around the land”, he writes, but equivalent experiments in music, rather than the visual arts or cinema, make people uneasy. Since its publication in 2007, The Rest is Noise has played a prominent part in contextualising this often difficult body of music with relevant, interesting historical information: perhaps, as time passes and it takes its place in history, this music is becoming closer to us.

One paradox of Ross’ book is that while Barney and Lynch are contemporary figures still active in the 21st century, it is very much the more conventional musical repertoire of earlier times, with an emphasis on the first half of the last century, which dominates his survey. Britten and Sibelius may not yet be Bach and Beethoven, but they are are veritable titans compared to any composer alive today. But of course, it makes sense to take things one step at a time, and with so many concert programmes still shying away from most of the 20th century, Ross’ cautious approach towards boundary-pushing has perhaps already started paying dividends in provoking programmers to explore new ground.

The book has even spawned a year-long festival: “We think it’s probably the world’s largest festival ever of 20th-century music”, says Gillian Moore, Head of Classical Music at London’s Southbank Centre, which has spent 2013 tracing the whole of the century through its classical programme, taking inspiration from the enthusiastically history-rich tone of Ross’ book. And it’s not just the largest festival of its kind – The Rest is Noise is surely also one of the most successful, as its startling statistics prove. According to Southbank’s own survey, three quarters of festival attendees have been new to contemporary classical events at the venue, and 45% are completely new to classical music there. The public has, very apparently, got caught up in the excitement of it all, and the project seems significantly less outlandish now than it did when it began.

I spoke to Moore the week before The Rest is Noise’s Britten centenary weekend, a gentle way back into the story following a summer hiatus, and certainly an easier sell than the following instalment, whose focus was on the Darmstadt School of the 1950s. It’s precisely this rather dense, uncompromisingly intellectual music, by the likes of Stockhausen and Boulez, which continues to send shivers down the spine of many a casual concertgoer – here, surely, was the crux of the whole festival. But Moore was in the most upbeat of moods, not at all concerned about a potential fade in interest. “Looking at the figures, people are booking”, she told me; it seems that they have built up a basis of trust with the festival audience by this point. “We do hold their hand”, she emphasizes, through events beyond the concerts: talks and lectures, handy introductory guides, even newspaper-style historical primers courtesy of the festival’s major orchestral partner, the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

And the audience certainly seemed fully engaged with the music last Sunday, which culminated in the London Sinfonietta’s fine performance of Gruppen, Stockhausen’s enormous, tough piece for three orchestras. Even if Tamara Stefanovich’s programme of difficult 1950s piano works hadn’t drawn the crowds earlier in the day, they arrived in force for the evening event – just before it, in fact, to hear the pre-concert talk, in which Tom Service endearingly, bumblingly gave an introduction to the piece to an eager foyer audience. Spirits were high, interest was keen.

The scale of The Rest is Noise may be unique, but the general approach it’s taking isn’t. Improving understanding of difficult or unfamiliar music through giving it the time and attention it needs is a programming strategy with plenty of history. One striking example comes from Sweden: the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra launched an annual International Composers Festival in 1986 which continues to go strong today. The idea here is to present a lot of music by a single composer over the course of a week, with plenty of seminars and other non-concert events offering guidance and explanations. Violist Peter Erikson, chairman of the orchestra and one of the festival’s founders, explains the initial impetus starkly: “I can remember still the discussion when we planned it… ‘What can we do? We want to programme new music, but where is the public?’” The solution was, in a sense, pretty logical – furnish the public with the knowledge it needs to enjoy this music, and create a sense of excitement in exploring it along the way. Erikson mentions a particular early success in 1989, when the festival featured the music of Alfred Schnittke: “It was a real event”, he says, which (like The Rest is Noise) captured the interest of the media as well as the public. Unsuk Chin is the composer featured this November, and it looks set to be another popular success.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the International Composers Festival is that contemporary music at the Konserthuset has slowly come to find its way into the regular concert season too – Erikson rightly points out the diversity of their programme all year round. Erikson is confident that the orchestra’s ability to do this without alienating their audience is something that can be attributed to the success of the festival and the spirit of exploration that goes with it.

A festival with an even longer history of programming new works is found on the east coast of the UK: Aldeburgh has been a quiet haven of contemporary music ever since the festival’s establishment by Benjamin Britten in 1948. The situation here, where “new music is part of the day-to-day”, in Chief Executive Jonathan Reekie’s words, is a little different: they have an audience who they know “are willing to take risks”. This means that Aldeburgh Music is able to programme right at the forefront of the new, with commissions and premières galore each year.

Reekie agrees on the importance of talks and other events beyond the concert – it’s crucial to be able to put a “human voice to a composer” – but his main point concerning programming is about attitude. “You mustn’t be apologetic about new music and you mustn’t be scared of it”, he says. That familiar approach of squeezing a new work into the middle of a concert of Beethoven and Brahms is not for him: a concert should be “some kind of journey”, teasing out connections between pieces whether old or new. Aldeburgh’s Artistic Director Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a master of this, Reekie argues, and it’s not hard to see what he means. (Dan Wang reviewed Aimard recently for Bachtrack in a typically surprising, delightful programme of piano concertos.) Programming is, perhaps like composing itself, another way for artists to communicate with their audiences.

Is there any contradiction between Moore’s talk of hand-holding and Reekie’s rather stern caution “Don’t patronize”? Well, there’s clearly some, but both are striving to let 20th- and 21st-century music speak to an audience in the most eloquent way it can. While there’s little doubt within the classical music world that this vast, varied repertoire has much to offer, there is also a sense of agreement – perhaps acceptance – that it doesn’t really sell itself in the same way as 19th-century music. What’s needed is an approach which is understanding to audiences, but also fully committed to communicating ambitious, new ideas – and both the intense, focused programming of Aldeburgh and the sheer scope of the vision underlying The Rest is Noise attest powerfully to the success this attitude can bring. These are far from isolated examples around the world, of course – the programme at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw is mind-bogglingly diverse, as is that at Cité de la Musique in Paris. And the New York Philharmonic has quite recently announced the first ever NY Phil Biennial, a week-and-a-half-long “kaleidoscopic exploration” of boundary-pushing new music starting in late May 2014.

“Anyone who is concerned about the future of music has to have a very good reason not to do new music”, Reekie argues, and it’s an axiomatic point for many: how can classical music move forward if its repertoire is confined to the past? It may be that we are edging closer towards a time when experiments in new classical music have that same aura of cool that Ross covets in other art forms – and to reach this point, what is surely most important is that people want to hear something different. Whatever new music sounds like, isn’t it exciting that it’s there at all? Maybe the most important thing for programmers is to communicate that sense of wonder at the very existence of contemporary music, to kindle a desire for exploration.

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