Why should we play the music of our time?

Mark WigglesworthTue 16th July 2013

Contemporary music stimulates our curiosity and is sustained by it

At a post concert discussion, the composer of a new work we had just premiered was asked why people didn't write tunes any more. 'They put the same question to Palestrina,' was the composer’s response - to which the audience member instantly replied 'Well I don't like Palestrina either!'

It would be a poorer world if we only valued what we liked.

Contemporary art is a reflection of its time, and it is natural that looking into a mirror can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience. Nor is it easy to appreciate something before it fully exists. Our reaction to the new is inevitably different to that of something we know, and comparisons are hard to make in the absence of a level playing field. It is also human nature to find a certain comfort in the familiar. But the best composers widen the boundaries of our culture without any sense of alienation. With notable exceptions, the history of music is one of evolution rather than revolution. Pieces can be original without losing contact with their origin.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that playing modern music is always a pleasure and it can be frustrating not to benefit from the process of natural selection that occurs over time. There are barely a handful of composers from the first decade of the 19th century whose works we still perform yet Wikipedia lists almost 1000 living and writing today. Their works will not all survive, but the future depends more on the present than the past.

Every time an orchestra plays a familiar work, it does so in relation to its expectation. Players respond to completely new compositions however, without any preconceptions. Their musical opinions are purely personal. In the absence of any inherited aural tradition on which to balance an understanding, their interpretation can be nothing other than completely sincere. With well-known music the possibility for generic performances is always there. People know ‘how it goes’ and the connection between composer and player is in reality diluted by sometimes hundreds of years of other people’s ideas. With new pieces musicians have only themselves as the source of expression. Devoid of any historical influence, the performance is inevitably as unique as the person playing it. The music-making is both liberating and empowering. It forces us to be the best musicians we can be.

Whenever people tell me that they do not understand modern music, I wonder if I ‘understand’ any music at all. I’m not sure if that is the part of our brain we are meant to be using. Understanding is a form of limitation, and music is nothing if not unlimited. Masterpieces never lose their ability to surprise, however many times they are heard. They inspire endless curiosity, an interest that is central to who we are. This is even more true for the music of our time. It stimulates our curiosity and is sustained by it. Breaking that cycle imposes fundamental restrictions on the potential of our experience.


Mark Wigglesworth

Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)

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