Why to listen to contemporary classical music

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Tagged: music, contemporary classical

One day, when I was a child struggling to survive school, I asked my mother why I had to learn all that. Her answer surprised me: "because you have the right to know all that." In this essay, which is the second part of my series on contemporary classical music, I will try to convince you that classical music—and more specifically contemporary classical music—is something worth getting to know.

Food for thought

Sometimes, when I am asked my opinion about a dish, I answer, to my interlocutor's amazement, that I didn't understand it. This might sound like an astonishing opinion about food, but most people would not mind using it if the question was about a work of (contemporary) art or a piece of (contemporary classical) music. Why would that be?

Both music and food are, for the most part, a matter of taste. Of course, experts will always claim that—and give reasons why—such and such is better than something else. But the proverbial man on the street will carry on with his taste, listening to his favorite tunes and eating his favorite dishes.

The reason we can even use the same word—taste—to refer to both music (art) and food is a consequence of the fact that both are directly addressed to the human senses. In both cases we can talk as much as we want about the subject, but there is no replacement for the experience—although verbal input can inform it (that's why I'm writing this).

Music and food also vary across cultures—through space (geography) and time (history). Quite unsurprisingly, since they are both products of culture. And that is my point: as a product of culture, before it can be a matter of taste, music is, to a large extent, a matter of learning.

As a side note, I am consciously ignoring the health aspect because it is difficult to trace a parallel with music. Obviously food has an important nutritional dimension, which may or may not have a musical counterpart. I defer this discussion to another occasion—or, better yet, another [Here in the commentator. Here I will just start from the premise that there is something in music that triggers the sensation of pleasure—or repulsion. Even if the mechanism is not the same as in food, the ultimate effect on our perception is somewhat equivalent.

The meat

But enough with background, let us get to the meat. I am not a foodie and, although I like good food, I could never make it to a jury for Masterchef. But there is an important sense in which I am able to talk about this subject. As a young man my culinary repertoire was exceedingly limited. I thought I knew what I liked and I was quite happy about it. Notice the parallel with music: you have probably heard someone say "I don't know much about (classical) music, but I know what I like." As I became older and more mature I started tasting different kinds of foods and my repertoire widened.

This might sound foreign to someone who was born to a foodie family and had access to a variety of tastes from birth. This was not my case with food. But it was my case with music. My family life has always been surrounded and supported by music of different genres. My father is a classical music enthusiast, he plays the organ and other keyboard instruments; and my mother is a Brazilian music encyclopedia, you can challenge her with a random word—no matter how obscure or archaic—and she will sing you a song that contains it. I also learned with her my first steps in rock.

That is not to say that my taste in music could not be broadened. Similarly to my taste in food, I also widened my music repertoire, especially after I started studies to prepare for the university, when I found contemporary classical music. At that point a whole new world opened up to me and I was able to feel pleasure in music that would have been impossible just a couple of years earlier. That is the kind of pleasure I'm trying to convey here and hopefully convince you to give it a try.

Excerpt from Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, second movement "O King", in an interpretation by The New Swingle Singers, Orchestre National de France and directed by Pierre Boulez. I could have embedded the whole piece here, but this site has a strict no tracking policy and I couldn't find a player that loads only music.

Of course, if you are content with pizza and McDonald's and have no intention of trying out different things whatsoever, this bar table philosophy is not for you. But, to echo the beginning of this article, I think you have the right to know what is out there. When faced with a contemporary music masterpiece I think some people are in a similar position as I was with food before discovering other tastes. I still eat at McDonald's and listen to pop music occasionally. One thing doesn't necessarily exclude the other.

Unlocking the perception

Thus far I have described a parallel between music and food appreciation on a personal level. I have argued that one has much to gain by opening the doors of one's perception. You can do that in many ways, for example by listening to music from other cultures; and I highly encourage you to do that.

But there is one reason I specifically selected contemporary classical music for this series. A phenomenon similar to the one I went through—with food as well as with music—took place on a societal scale. In the first article of this series I have vaguely described the expansion of the music language that happens generation after generation. In the next article I will tell a bit more specifically how composers gradually started to incorporate a wider range of sounds and musical ideas into their work. For reasons that will become clearer then, the expansion of my own taste mirrors that which happened to the music language in the recent history of the so-called West.

Excerpt from Kaija Saariaho's Solar, interpreted by Avanti! and Hannu Lintu.

To the best of my knowledge contemporary classical music took the expansion of the boundaries of its language to an extreme unheard of in any other genre, due to specific developments in the European history. The very definition of music in that context can comprehend any other music genre plus a vast universe of "non-musical" sounds. By choosing this type of music we have virtually no limits to how wide we can broaden our senses.

Read the previous article in this series →