Why I Listen to Music I Don't Like

This past week was the Next on Grand festival down at Disney Hall, a series of concerts celebrating contemporary American composers. I couldn't attend every single one, but I caught the bulk of them, my bus pass getting a strenuous workout in the process. Seeing this behavior, you might well think that I was rather besotted with the repertoire, in love with the pieces on the program.

By and large, I wasn't.

The obvious caveat, of course, is that most of these performances were world premières, and it makes little sense to love music you've never heard or even heard described. But even after hearing them, I was largely underwhelmed, and, more to the point, I pretty much expected that to be the case going in.

This isn't terribly surprising. The fact of the matter is that I just don't like the bulk of contemporary concert music. I don't think this is because contemporary concert music is in a bad way, that we're in a fading era incapable of producing the same quality of work as past giants in the field — far from it! The diversity and vibrancy of the new music scene is precisely the reason these concerts are so hit-and-miss: We're living in a moment that can comfortably and enthusiastically accommodate a bewildering diversity of styles and tastes, from tonal enthusiasts to electronic experimenters and everything in between. Of course any one person isn't going to like most of it; the scene is far too diverse to fit neatly into one aesthetic profile.

(And, of course, there's more to the past than we commonly remember. It's easy to wax nostalgic for the time when Mozart was alive and churning out pieces, but he had scads of contemporaries, many of whom time has been less kind to. How many of you have heard an opera by Wagenseil, a symphony by Schenk? A Viennese new music concert (insofar as it really makes sense to talk about such a thing before the closing of the canon) in the 1780s wouldn't necessarily have been brimming to the top with freshly written masterpieces either.)

OK, so then why go? Why am I so eager to find programs filled with names I don't know, representing styles I'm likely to be cool on? Why not stick to familiar waters, or at least wait for early reviews?

The easiest answer, of course, is that I can't know I won't like it until I experience it, and there certainly have been concerts where an unknown piece has become an instant favorite. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen sometimes, and that kind of wheat is worth a lot of chaff.

But even when it doesn't — and it very often doesn't — I seldom regret going. There are very few concerts indeed that I regret going to, that I wouldn't go to again if I had the chance to live my life over. There's something more than the off-chance of a new favorite that keeps me coming back.

It's the puzzle-solving. As I've confessed before, I don't really know, say, Haydn's works all that well, but I do know how they're put together, how they work on a deep musical level. I may not be able to follow absolutely every twist and turn of one of his more elaborate formal constructions on a first hearing, but the broad strokes are almost trivial for me to pick out, and listening to a Haydn string quartet I don't know is unlikely to meaningfully enrich or expand my conception of what music can be, the ways it can be put together, regardless of however valuable exercising my real-time tonal analysis skills is.

New music is a different world. There are no standard forms, no harmonic principles and formulas that underlie the bulk of what's being written. Each composer approaches harmony and form in a different way, and even a firm grounding in contemporary theory can only give you so much guidance. Hearing unknown contemporary works is more than just a chance to discover a new favorite, it's a chance to practice digging into a new style in real time. What kind of change marks a shift to new musical material? Are those shifts sharply delineated, or are the transitions blurred? What transformations are taking place to avoid direct repetition? Is there a clear climax point? If so, what makes that it, and not some other measure? If not, how is the piece shaped with regards to tension and release? Why does the piece end where it does? What is it that marks that moment as formally complete?

I can't always answer all (or even any) of these questions for every new piece the very first time I hear it. (See above re the bewildering variety of contemporary styles: With so many possibilities, hard answers are going to remain elusive.) But even when the answers are only half-glimpsed and tentatively sketched, they can still seriously expand my imagination of the musically possible. "Oh! I never would have thought to put together a piece like that! To score that kind of melody for a piccolo and bass clarinet! I don't like what you've done with them here, but I'm excited to add them to my own mental melting pot of musical materials to draw on and enhance one of my own pieces down the line." I don't have to like something to find it interesting to pick apart.

So there, at last, is the real reason I go to contemporary concerts. Sure, there's great community and sometimes a work that strikes my fancy, but really, I'm a magpie. I'm a thief, and contemporary concerts are an unguarded chest of glittering treasures. I go to concerts to steal.