Contemporary music: is it beyond our reach ?

Contemporary music festivals are often perceived as being notoriously expensive. They can need dedicated professionals working at the peak of their powers to realise extremely demanding repertoire, Rolls Royce ensembles, high-profile conductors. Scores and music are expensive to hire or purchase. The music can be fiendishly difficult both to execute and to comprehend: or of course, the music of composers like Howard Skempton and Michael Nyman, which is challenging in a different way. Brash, modern ensembles, amplified instruments, electronics, a battery of percussion: think of groups like Icebreaker, the Orkest de Volharding, or Bang On a Can.

Commensurately, ticket prices can be high, as festival organisers endeavour to recoup some of the cost.

This is, of course, not true. Or at least – not always.

The widespread nature of this misconception is a shame, because contemporary music is part of the lifeblood of contemporary culture. It reflects modern concerns, resonating with the sounds of urban life and society’s hang-ups: the forthcoming opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage is a meditation on the life and untimely death of Anna Nicole Smith. Contemporary music can be riotous and fun: think of the music of Graham Fitkin or John Adams, with its exciting rhythmic vibrancy. It is a way of engaging with current issues, and making audiences consider political or social issues: Nixon in China, for example.

The music of Xenakis might not be the most accessible of modern compositions – Psappha for percussion solo, for instance.

But it has great conviction, and great virtuosity: seeing the performer is as much a part of the performance as listening to the piece itself. Toru Takemitsu’s wonderful soundscapes are full of colour and luminosity.

American composers such as Michael Torke or Nico Mulhy write music brim-full of rhythmic energy and bouncing textures. Torke’s saxophone quartet, July, is full of funky lines, bouncing rhythm and punchy textures.

Or, on the other hand, the contemplative scores of Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, or another Adams, John Luther Adams’ evocative In a Treeless Place, Only Snow.

And modern music concerts can be heard at the Proms for a mere £5, like Prom 28 with pieces by Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin; or discounted on-line prices to hear Stockhausen and Rebecca Saunders at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Or for £8, you could have had a ticket to hear David Matthews and John Casken at the recent Brighton Festival. 

It’s an exciting time for contemporary music, and it’s not always inaccessible, incomprehensible, or expensive. Don’t let it pass you by.

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