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Let’s Talk: Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?

UCSD Distinguished Professor of Music and Percussionist Steven Schick.

Above: UCSD Distinguished Professor of Music and Percussionist Steven Schick.

Composer John Cage playing prepared piano.
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Above: Composer John Cage playing prepared piano.

The brilliant Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker and author of the book "The Rest is Noise" wrote an essay for The Guardian about the public's resistance to modern classical music. Think Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage. Or, locally, think the UCSD Music department and Roger Reynolds, Chinary Ung, and even Steven Schick (who performs and conducts more than he composes, but he primarily performs modern compositions).

If you don't know any of these names, you're not alone. I think when most people hear modern classical music, they glob onto the "classical" part and forget the modern. After all, everyone knows Brahms and Beethoven.

But the reverence for the early giants to the exclusion of all things modern is not the case in other art forms like it is in classical music. As Ross points out, Jackson Pollack, Frank Gehry, James Joyce, Jean Luc-Godard are recognizable names in their respective fields, and they've all advanced their art forms and broke ranks with the past. Why do audiences embrace experimentation in other art forms but not in classical music?

Ross thinks the problem resides with the classical music industry. He writes: "modern composers have fallen victim to a long-smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music's idolatrous relationship with the past."

He goes on to say:

The music profession became focused on the manic polishing of a display of masterpieces. By the time Schoenberg, Stravinsky and company introduced a new vocabulary of chords and rhythms, the game was fixed against them. Even composers who bent over backwards to accommodate a taste for Romantic tonality encountered scepticism; they could not overcome, except by drastic measures, the disadvantage of being alive.

So I want to hear from readers on this. Do you love or hate modern classical music? Why? Why do you think audiences don't embrace it? What do you think the future is for modern classical music?

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | December 1, 2010 at 9:09 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Music critics like Alex Ross will never forgive the masses for not loving Schoenberg. But they don't love Schoenberg. So why doesn't Ross just leave us alone? Abstraction in art may have once been a novelty or an acquired taste. Maybe Beethoven's music was considered (by some people) an unlistenable cacophany. But those times have passed as people have gotten used to their style. Now, we think the Mark Rothko's art is beautiful because it is. Is Alban Berg's music beautiful? Most people don't think so. Why?? I don't know. Maybe it's just too "dissonant." Dissonance may work in movie scores, but it's not something we enjoy sitting down and actually listening to with no visual distractions. I'd also point out that this "modern" music we don't like isn't modern any more. It was written in the early 20th century. Are we just as resistant to the music of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass? I don't think so. So Alex... I'm sorry I don't like Schoenberg, but some folks just don't catch on. Get used to it.

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Avatar for user 'TitoFrescas'

TitoFrescas | December 2, 2010 at 10:38 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

I think a lot more people would like "modern" classical music if it sound a little more like this piece:

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Avatar for user 'Tomasz'

Tomasz | December 2, 2010 at 11:23 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

I believe that the reason why Modern Classical Music is not welcomed is due to the fact that we lack education in our own culture. I would like to see the same amount of attention $$$$$ that is given to popular music(promoted heavily in our mass media)to be given to Modern Classical Music. This is just one reason why I think no attention is given to Modern Classical Music.( in order for you to realize that such genre exist, you will bump in to it as a mere accident). Classical Music is being commercialized more, you hear the fifth of beethoven on Kellogg's commercials, You hear Mozart's Mass in C- in bubble gum commercials, sure, if it sells why not, after all, is all about the money making machine.. how can we like something , when we have no knowledge about it? @Tom Fudge,I don't think the issue is on a personal level, "So Alex... I'm sorry I don't like Schoenberg, but some folks just don't catch on. Get used to it." its a bit deeper then then just that. .

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Avatar for user 'epsteinsternator'

epsteinsternator | December 2, 2010 at 9:43 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Call me naive, but I don't see why Ross should stop defending and advocating for the music he loves, just because you and others don't love it. It's the critic's job to make value judgments and defend them, not to like the same thing "most people" like. If he and the masses agree, well, all the better. I don't understand what harm is done by explaining what he values in these things.

And who's this "we" you keep talking about? Is there a frog in your pocket? I think Berg's music is sublime, deeply lyrical. I think most people who listen to the "Interlude" from Wozzeck, the cycle "Der Wein," and the Violin Concerto would find it lovely if they didn't know who wrote it. But guess what, even if I'm what? I (and most people like me who enjoy modernist music) don't think less of anyone who disagrees, the same way my s/o doesn't judge me for not liking Lady Gaga. WHAT is all the fuss about? The pseudo-populist "look how elitist I'm not" shtick gets just as old and tiresome as the "everything but Schoenberg is dreck" shtick, or the "everything but abstraction is bad" shtick, that Adorno and Greenberg (respectively) used to peddle. (And Ross isn't exactly an Adorno-lite; he advocates for Bjork and Copland and Coltrane and Dylan as much as he does for Schoenberg and Berg.)

PS For those who need images, etc. to accompany dissonance to enjoy it, Berg wrote operas and Stravinsky wrote ballets. Give 'em a shot, you never know.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | December 3, 2010 at 12:34 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Ross can certainly advocate for the music he loves. But in reading his essay I sensed his frustration with the fact that few people agree with him. If certain kinds of music don't catch on, the fault doesn't necessary lie with the listening public. It might be the fault of the music. I also wonder why discussions that ask "Why don't we like modern music?" always seem to come down to two composers. Berg and Schoenberg. There are other modern musicians (some of whom are actually still alive) that are more appealing to today's audiences.

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Avatar for user 'epsteinsternator'

epsteinsternator | December 3, 2010 at 1:02 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Yes, there certainly are; Ross names another (Britten) in that essay, whose music is tonal, melodic, and very accessible. His frustration is with the guy assuming that anyone who claps must be an audience "plant." THAT is what's closed-minded. Don't like Britten. More power to you -- I can't stand Sibelius or Orff -- but I can value what people find appealing about them. Ross's "frustration," inasmuch as he actually expresses any, is with people who intentionally shut themselves off from new music that they would find perfectly palatable if it were part of a film score.

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Avatar for user 'epsteinsternator'

epsteinsternator | December 3, 2010 at 1:36 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Incidentally, one thing that I think is important to note is that Ross is NOT suggesting we should perform new music *INSTEAD* of pieces audiences find accessible; he's suggesting we should perform it *in addition to* pieces we're already accustomed to, and that so doing will (1) reflect well on the new stuff and (2) help us hear the old stuff with fresh ears. I agree with him on both points, and find it consistent with my own experience (I have seen rooms full of 18-year-olds respond with glee to a back-to-back performance of Ligeti's Trio and the Brahms trio to which it refers; but I understand that anecdote is not evidence). In any event, Ross certainly doesn't need my defense, but I do object to what seems like a very reductive treatment of what he's saying.

(When James Joyce heard Antheil's *Ballet Mecanique* for the first time he said it sounded "like Mozart." Not an assessment I share myself...but the sort of thing Ross seems to be talking about.)

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Avatar for user 'Tomasz'

Tomasz | December 4, 2010 at 12:17 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Elliott Carter the father of American "Modern Classical Music"

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