Sidney Chen over at the blog The Standing Room had a link to a blog entry by Michael Hovnanian, Bassist with the Chicago Symphony. Titled “More Clearing of the Inbox“, he tries to address a reader’s question:

I would be so curious to hear more from your insider’s perspective as a player about what makes some modern pieces distasteful. Is it gratuitous dissonance, technical demands on the performers, what?”

Part of his reply: “There are so many ways players hate modern music it is impossible to discuss them all. As an aside, one of the most surprising things to me entering this profession was the discovery that orchestra musicians might be even more conservative than their audience when it comes to new music.

Take a good read at Michael’s own blog, but I’ll give the gist of his observations:

1) “For many players and audience members alike, the concert hall has become a mausoleum where only the most esteemed corpses are allowed to rest.

2) “…atonality is probably the most criticized element of modern works, whether or not they are familiar.

3) “…simply lack of craft. Ungainly or unplayable instrumental parts are sure to raise musician hackles. Poor orchestration is another but related complaint. Dense, muddy, over-scored orchestrations seem to be the norm for a lot of the newly commissioned works we see.

4) “Works that utilize musicians like robots are especially distasteful [...] Often, it seems as if a new work was written on a synthesizer and might be best also played by one.

5) “…the feeling by some players that they can’t use their music training or instincts, the musical language is somehow unintelligible, leaving them bewildered, clueless and demoralized when facing a new work.

25 Responses to “How Do We Hate Thee? Let Us Count The Ways.”
  1. Kyle Gann says:

    His closing comments:

    it is unfair to compare a recent work, especially one getting its first performance, to any of the over fed war-horses contentedly munching away in the orchestral stables these past 200 years. The idea of holding every new thing up to the standard of ‘masterpiece’ or simply the ‘familiar’ probably does more to stifle music than any sinister machinations of the atonalists.

    prove him more sympathetic to new music than I feared from the examples you gave. Too bad he’s probably unaware that there are tremendously better composers around these days than most of the usual suspects who get the orchestra commissions. I’m sure his complaints are, given the benighted repertoire he gets to play, pretty legitimate.

  2. zeno says:

    Here were the Chicago Symphony Orchestra world, United States, and local premieres for the 2006-07 Subscription Season:

    World premieres:

    Lindberg, Trombone Concerto (CSO Commission)
    Turnage, From All Sides (CSO Commission)

    U.S. premiere

    Tüür, Zeitraum

    CSO first performances:

    Castellanos, Santa Cruz de Pacairigua
    Golijov, Last Round
    Golijov, Night of the Flying Horses
    Harrison, Pipa Concerto
    Lutosławski, Chain 2
    Marsalis, All Rise
    McPhee, Tabuh-tabuhan
    Rihm, Das Lesen der Schrift
    Traditional/Wu, Ambush from Ten Sides
    Yanov-Yanovsky, Night Music: Voices in the Leaves


    While Mr Hovnanian makes some highly constructive points, I also don’t feel that the artistic leadership of the Chicago Symphony itself — one of America’s most distinguished musical organizations — has provided much leadership when in comes to 21st century American and world orchestral music.

    And within the composing community, could it be agreed that Andrew Imbrie’s ‘Third Symphony’, Steve Reich’s ‘The Four Sections’, and David Lang’s ‘Eating Living Monkeys’ are not the greatest works of orchestral composition from the past 35 or so years?

  3. Daniel G. says:

    I hate to say it, but I agree with a lot of what he says. Particularly about the unidiomatic writing and muddy orchestrations. I’m sure he could say the same about some dead guys from the 19th century, but he was asked about modern music. The question is snide, but the response is somewhat appropriate.

    So what does disappointed orchestra players + disappointed audience members equal? Clueless conductors?

    I have always believed in more chamber music anyways.

  4. It should be pointed out that the Lindberg Trombone Concerto is by Christian, and not Magnus.

  5. The comment about pieces written on a synthesizer is interesting – it used to be that performers (justifiably) complained that a lot of their music was idiomatic on a piano, but awkward on orchestral instruments. Now I guess it’s idiomatic for a laptop.

    A few years ago I had a conversation with a composer who had had several works played by the CSO. We were lamenting the problem of limited rehearsal time for orchestras. I mentioned my love for writing string quartets, because of their tradition of rehearsing pieces for weeks and months at a time before a performance. He was dubious, citing the lack of coloristic variety. I countered by reciting the trials of being an orchestral musician: the relative lack of investment in the final product, the drudgery of submitting ones talents to an often unsympathetic conductor, etc. He looked puzzled, saying, “Orchestral musicians? Who cares about them?”

  6. Dan says:

    At least with the older repetoire we get to filter out the “weaker” works.
    I imagine Beethoven’s music was performed side-by-side with lesser works which are now forgotten.
    We are listening to many of those weaker, soon-to-be-forgotten works.
    In fact, probably 99.9999% of all music written has been forgotten. Of course, much of it has
    probably been performed a few times—and perhaps this is what the blogger was speaking about.
    We have to sit through (and the performers must play) all these works to find the rare piece
    which deserves a place to be heard and performed.
    The opportunity cost of listening to Lindberg and Turnage is pretty high. Competing with every masterpiece which
    has come before you.
    If Ruth, Gherig, Cobb and Williams were still playing ball there would be far fewer newcomers in the lineup.
    Most of it just isn’t good enough.

  7. john mclaughlin williams says:

    A great post by Hovnanian. He is right on the mark about craft, and I’ve always found this to be the singular issue when coming to terms with new music by younger composers. Of course, some composers never learn no matter how much they write. When I was in Donald Erb’s class, Bernard Rands came to speak to us. He singled out craft as the primary quality lacking in most of the new scores, and among the more notable offenders included in his devastating verdict were a couple of his own rather well-known students. In my experience not much has changed, the emphasis being upon freedom of expression rather than rigor.

  8. David Salvage says:

    What are the hallmarks of “synthesizer” new music?

  9. Robert Jordahl says:

    Since synths are hybrid instruments ( Can anyone name an
    important work? ), why are we even talking about them.

  10. zeno says:

    I think that the original mention of synthesizers by Mr Hovnanian referred to the abilities of synthesizers to precisely articulate or sound complex rythmic (or harmonic) notations. The reference to robots reminded me of the unhappiness of several orchestral musicians who performed in early operas by Philip Glass (e.g. Satyagraha). They didn’t know why orchestral musicians were required since Mr Glass had, at the time (ca. 1980), professed his ideal of orchestral sound to be homogenized, as if from a single musical instrument (or “synthesizer”). Some of those early Glass opera recordings (and some Reich recordings) required trained instrumentalists to wear earphones and coordinate their playing through “click-tracks”.


    Marc, the mention of Lindberg and trombone made me, and probably others here, think immediately of Christian Lindberg (or perhaps Jan Sandstrom’s Concerto for trombone and orchestra (his ‘Motorbike Concerto’).

  11. Steve Layton says:

    I don’t want to steer the thread completely off-topic, Robert, but maybe one comment won’t hurt… Synths are a “hybrid”, but then so is almost every other instrument (saxophone, anyone? Even the piano is simply a harp struck with mallets held by little machines instead of the hands). The problems with using synths in traditional notated composition are:

    1) They’re still extremely new, only a generation or at most two, and within that time there hasn’t only been one kind of synth, but a plethora of different types. The issue of whether or how to “translate” a piece, conceived on an earlier synth, for something current is still being sorted out.

    2) A synth can be played not only with a keyboard, but wind, guitar and percussion controllers as well; and even knobs, dials and connectors, or now simply a mouse and laptop! So what a synth “player” actually is, is still in transition.

    3) Sampling technology was quickly melded with pure synthesis, enriching but further complicating the picture.

    4) Most composers have only the barest understanding of synths as instruments, so really don’t have much of a clue how to write for one in the way that they might for, say, a violin. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that the synth is almost never taught as part of orchestration (not surprising, since most of the teachers don’t know themselves). Similarly, I’ve yet to see a school that cultivates synth performers.

    5) The same conservative tendency in the classical world that Hovnanian remarked in his post has worked against it. Notice that the same could be said for the electric guitar, even though it’s currently the dominant instrument worldwide (even the first instrument of many of today’s younger composers).

  12. The sound of a piece having been ‘written on a synthesizer’ to me means lots of repetition without breathing or rests and sometimes a lack of rhythmic variety. A lot of recent John Adams reminds me of that! ;)

  13. To me, the culprit in music composed using electronics is an over-reliance on layering to create interest. It’s easy to pile one simple idea on top of another until you get something that sounds interestingly complex. The problem is the dullness of each idea, which leads to the disgruntlement among individual players cited by Hovnanian. I imagine it’s frustrating to devote your life to making an inanimate object sound life-like, only to be given music that asks you to sound inanimate.

    And no, this is not the fault of the technology, but rather of composers settling for the easiest means – just as the over-reliance on cello arpeggios was never the fault of the piano.

  14. James Cook says:

    5) “…the feeling by some players that they can’t use their music training or instincts, the musical language is somehow unintelligible, leaving them bewildered, clueless and demoralized when facing a new work.“

    That, of course, is a commentary on orchestral life, and not on any specific repertory. Very little, if any, of a contemporary orchestral musician’s time seems to be spent on anything so “intellectual” as “using musical training or instincts” (which means thinking about musical structure). There is evidently no time for such things in the midst of the hectic mundane cycle of practice-perform-travel-practice-perform-travel-…

    How do we fix this? Answer: create new types of orchestras. Imagine a giant musical “institute for advanced study” with an orchestra made up of faculty who are both performers and scholars. The orchestra might give a formal concert every now and then, but most days would be spent in open rehearsals and giving lectures to students (and, indeed, the public) about the music currently under study. The repertory selected would be the highest quality (as determined by the expert opinion of the musician-scholars themselves) of all historical periods, juxtaposed side by side. Such an orchestra would be an “army of generals” like the Mannheim orchestra was said to be in the 18th century. (Perhaps there would also be a student orchestra that would do slightly less prestigious older repertory, as well as brand new works by lesser known composers.)

    All it would take for this to happen would be for some rich person to want it to happen. If I were given, say, a billion dollars, this would probably be the first thing I would do.

    In the meantime, my recommendation would be for composers (and others) to publicly and enthusiastically promote the concept of music as a form of advanced creative intellection, and to help make it easier for musicians to behave the “institute” faculty that I imagined above. One could start with something as apparently trivial as including, with each orchestral part, a detailed explanation of how that player’s part fits into the structure of the work as a whole.

  15. zeno says:

    Mr Cook, I agree with you to some extent; but isn’t the giant “institute for advanced [musical] study” exactly what Pierre Boulez and Francois Mitterrand had in mind in funding — to the tune of billions of francs over 25 years — the IRCAM project, in Paris, beginning in ca. 1977?

    Personally, I’d prefer the institutional and civic maturation which would make such orchestras as those in Chicago, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and perhaps Washington, more like civic “institutes for advanced [musical] study”. New York City, London, Washington, all have highly-funded “institutes for advanced visual studies” [Washington has a huge beautiful, I.M. Pei building facing the U.S. Capital just for this purpose] , which all, to some degree or other, influence the tenor of the visual arts discussion (if not necessarily creation) in those cities.

    I’m still thinking (i.e. the Chicago world premieres and U.S. premieres, cited above) about the number of leading American orchestras which think they can fulfill their musical and civic roles without proposing, each season, ANY new American orchestral music. The same can still unfortunately be said for many American opera companies.

    Yes, the institutional role and funding of American orchestras and radio systems in American culture must be completely rethought and rebuilt. (Who’d ever have thought that the esteemed MET Opera company — our new Metropolitan National Opera company? — would be seeking its institutional rebuilding through a serious long-term partnership with the English National Opera?) [At the same time, I am less certain whether a formal partnership, for example, between the San Francisco Symphony and the Stanford and Berkeley's computer music and acoustic research centers is what is called for.]


    Thanks again for raising these important points.

  16. CB says:

    “I have always believed in more chamber music anyways.”

    I as well. I think we’re onto something in this discussion about craft, but some of you have resorted to knocking back the hater-aid. And I can name many “important” works for synth, at least by my standards.

    Some work by Richard Davis James comes to mind…

    Sign me up for Mr. Cook’s super group.

  17. James Cook says:

    Mr Cook, I agree with you to some extent; but isn’t the giant “institute for advanced [musical] study” exactly what Pierre Boulez and Francois Mitterrand had in mind in funding — to the tune of billions of francs over 25 years — the IRCAM project, in Paris, beginning in ca. 1977?

    Only in part. IRCAM’s role is as a center for electronic music, which is all well and good; but I was envisioning something that would (also) promote the orchestra as a medium of contemporary (and historical) musical expression.

    Personally, I’d prefer the institutional and civic maturation which would make such orchestras as those in Chicago, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and perhaps Washington, more like civic “institutes for advanced [musical] study”.

    It’s not a dichotomy, and hence not a question of “preference”. Indeed, one of the positive effects of such a hypothetical institute as I described would be the sort of “institutional and civic maturation” you speak of. The institute, by its very nature, would have enormous prestige, and would exert an influence on musical culture. There would be all sorts of “cross-breeding”: The ranks of “traditional” orchestras, for example, would eventually include many musicians who had studied there.

    But then again, helping to turn existing orchestras into institutes of this kind, to whatever extent this may be possible, is exactly what I suggested for the time being. And this doesn’t necessarily require the use of wrecking balls.

  18. Joanne Forman says:

    I was amused/bemused to see Colin McPhee’s TABU-TABUHAN on the list of what is apparently regarded as “new” “experimental” “Way out” or whatever. If I remember correctly, it dates back to the 1930s–which hardly makes it “new.” Also, if I remember correctly, it was the very first essay in western music of the Balinese gamelan sound.

  19. Robert Jordahl asks if anyone can name an important work for synthesizer. A few off the top of my head:

    David Borden: “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint”
    Morton Subotnik: “Silver Apples of the Moon”
    Milton Babbitt: lots of stuff, including “Philomel”
    Terry Riley: “Rainbown in Curved Air”

  20. zeno says:

    I realized earlier that I had meant to refer to both IRCAM and to the EIC (Ensemble Inter-Contemporaine) in my comment above.
    (The EIC was the forerunner to the excellent (tri-national?) Ensemble Modern, which can be both a chamber ensemble and a full size orchestra.)


  21. Regarding orchestral writing craft, as a percussionist, I can tell you one of the ‘sounds great on my sampler/synth’ tells for me in new works is in the timpani writing. People who write with their samples in mind tend to write very low in the register with lots of low (below bass clef staff) C, D, or Eb. Yes, Richard Strauss wrote some of those notes, but the major orchestras have extra extra-large drums (35″ etc.) to get those notes reasonably. Having four timpani does not mean that you get any four pitches you choose. Each drum has a different range and it’s not an _optimally_ a fifth wide. You also see lots more scalar writing in MIDI conceived timpani parts.

  22. typo correction (when do we get the Preview/Publish button here?) The optimal range on each timpano is about a fifth wide.

  23. Hucbald says:

    I don’t think many of you are all that familiar with electronic music. There is a lot going on there. For three “serious” pieces of electronic music from the CEMI lab (Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia) – downloadable MP3′s – go here:

  24. Rodney Lister says:

    Sorry to, as it were, harp on this, but: who the hell knows what atonal is? I don’t for sure, and I don’t believe many or any people do. What people mean when they say something’s atonal (or serial) is that they think it’s ugly. It’s that simple.

  25. john mclaughlin williams says:

    Historical note concerning Tabu-Tabuhan: It wasn’t the first essay exploring the gamelan in American music. Henry Eichheim (1871-1942 I think) wrote a series of works using it from about 1915 on. He had major performances from Stokowski and other big names. It was he who pointed the way for McPhee and Harrison.