Why I Play (And Really Like) New Music

I took a wedding gig a few months back, and I know what you’re thinking: “Justin, you’re such a snotty jerk and you said in your last blog that you don’t play wedding gigs because you don’t have to, you pretentious horse’s ass.” And you’re right. I am a pretentious horse's ass, and I don’t often play wedding gigs, but occasionally - including some upcoming things - I’ll agree to play for a friend...but whatever you don’t actually care about this so let’s move on.

To my original thought: I played a wedding gig where all I was asked to play was a little bit of an easy peasy Bach Suite. Prior to the processional, I was in a back room in the hall and decided to play a bit of Benjamin Britten’s First Suite for Cello to “warm up.” Really, I just don’t get to play Britten Suites nearly often enough and I love the beauty and challenge of the opening of the First Suite, and the room had a nice acoustic, so I ripped off some chords. These are beautiful chords. Seriously. Really nice stuff. Someone came into the room while I was playing and said, jokingly (I think), “I don’t want to hear any of that during the wedding!” This person is a musician, and I couldn’t believe that they would place the first few measures of this particular piece by Mr. Sir Britten into a category worthy of any amount of derision.

I suppose we all have our limits. I’ve been listening to music this morning while writing this post and drinking my coffee and, while I’d consider it “new,” I won’t pretend that this playlist is full of the most forward-thinking, avant garde repertory out there. To that same point, sometimes I hear things my friends are playing, or listening to, or writing, and I can’t help but be offended on behalf of my ears and my traditional sensibilities. What is it that has made that aforementioned Britten Suite so offensive to a number of friends, audience members, and - dare I say - teachers from my recent past? I posit that it is the simple idea of newness that is the culprit: people are scared of and turned off by things they don’t know.

I don’t listen to recordings when I’m learning a piece of music, whether that new piece is a recent composition or something written 350 years ago. I don’t listen because I want to develop my own, personal, educated interpretation of the work without any outside influences. In my opinion, it is a deeper, more satisfying - arguably selfish - pursuit to create something that is all one’s own, rather than a copy of another’s.

I play Bach like someone who has performed in early music ensembles, but who also plays on a modern cello, with steel strings tuned to A=441 (thankyouverymuch). I use vibrato to elongate phrases and sometimes my bowings aren’t so historically informed. But I also allow for open strings and I make an effort to conceive of fingerings and bowings that create the most resonant tone. I don’t know if there are others who play Bach like me, because I haven’t been listening. Some might guffaw at such a statement, “I don’t listen,” but it’s how I find the most satisfaction in performing. It’s much easier - albeit sometimes out of circumstance rather than stubbornness - to avoid listening to the new(er) music that I perform. Often, there are no recordings. When there are recordings, there may be only one or two, and they may be - dare I say it - quite bad. (Some of those bad recordings of new pieces are definitely my own.) This lack of available audio resources allows me to be willfully ignorant of another cellist’s approach to the music I’m practicing.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I’m not what one would call a “traditional” musician. I’m not obsessed with my craft, nor terribly passionate about some parts of it. I don’t get worked up at the prospect of performing Bach suites. For me, there’s very little excitement in a Beethoven sonata. And oh-good-golly, don’t get me started on how I feel about performing Tchaikovsky symphonies. It is in new music - contemporary music - where I find my passion to perform, and to listen.

Perhaps I enjoy playing new music for the opposite reason I hate playing the cello concerto by Antonin Dvorak: nobody is playing new music - THIS new music, right here, in my hand - whilst EVERYONEANDTHEIRMOTHER is playing Dvorak. If you’re musically inclined, think about the last time you were surprised - truly, honestly, completely surprised - by someone’s performance of something old. (I’ll admit I’m intrigued by cellist Mischa Maisky’s interpretation of unaccompanied Bach, though really it’s for all the wrong reasons.) But then think about hearing things you’ve never heard before, whether it’s Bach or Balter. The exploration of the unknown is so fascinating, so intriguing, because you’re constantly surprised.

This makes sense, right? Of course you’re surprised by Marcos Balter’s string quartet works, because they are completely new to you. Of course you love the journey through Dominick DiOrio’s work for cello and soprano (::cough::self-promotion::cough::) because it’s full of yet-unheard wonders. I love taking listeners on this excursion. Performing can sometimes feel very selfish: you’re performing works that you love and while you’re trying to get the audience to love them, too, you’re doing it for your own purposes, financial, musical, or otherwise. In fact, I find that I'm most selfish when I’m performing pieces that I know those in the audience have heard 8,000 times before. (“That song,” ya know?) When I'm playing something new, I tend to be thinking, "Hey! You! Listen to this shit - it is awesome and you will love it." 

My dear friend and colleague, the cellist Scott Kluksdahl, once said to me about his first experience with new music, “I remember thinking that 'these notes belong to me' and that I was free to be expressive and to make my most ardent 'case' for [the composer’s] lovely sonata.”

That's the key to it all for me: new, contemporary classical music is a vehicle for the expressive nature of music. It allows us to take something that no person has heard before and make it our own, and then offer it to the listeners of the world. It is the most profound thing that we can do as musicians.

And now, I think I’ll go practice some Britten.