LISTENING TO NEW MUSIC: Michael Torke and David Zinman Share Their Points of View

by Walter Simmons



LISTENING TO NEW MUSIC: Michael Torke and David Zinman Share Their Points of View

As the final years of the 20th century approach, many serious composers are confronting and accepting the responsibility for attracting, holding, and satisfying their listening audiences. This represents something of a change from the 1950s, 60s, and most of the 70s, when many composers aimed at shocking listeners with their originality, while others sought refuge in the ivory tower of the academic world. There they produced music through abstract mathematical processes, in an attempt to identify themselves with the objectivity of the “hard” sciences, instead of with the subjectivity and intuition traditionally associated with artistic expression. Although the “trend toward accessibility has been in the air for more than a decade, my experience as a lecturer and teacher, crusading on behalf of the large body of more “user-friendly” approaches in 20th-century composition, has indicated to me that most listeners still tend to avoid new music, often asserting that they simply don’t know how to approach it. I recently had the opportunity to discuss this problem with Michael Torke, a 30-year old composer from Wisconsin whose music is being received enthusiastically by audiences around the country, and David Zinman, the personable conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who recently presented a “mini-festival” of Torke’s music.

Simmons: Michael, do you have the audience in mind when you’re writing a piece of music?

Torke: Well, one thing I keep in mind is that nobody needs to come and hear my music. And if no one comes, then what have you got? You know, I think composers’ goals are different today from what they were right after World War II. At that time there was a feeling that unless their music was connected to complicated scientific and mathematical advancements, it was worthless. But that was a misconception — music isn’t like that. I think listeners were negatively conditioned by that period. Now composers are coming off their high horses and writing music that the ear can assimilate much more easily than what they were writing 30 or 40 years ago. They’re rediscovering how music really works — writing idiomatically for players and building a relationship with the audience.

Simmons: So what about listeners who may be a little timid, a little less sophisticated, but are willing to give it a try? How do you suggest that they approach the music of today?

Torke: Well, I think they should try to be as clear as possible about what the composer’s intention is.

Zinman: Yes, I think composers usually leave signs for people to grab on to. HTorke: You know, if a friend of yours said, “I read this great new book — you should read it,” how would you react? Most likely with a positive frame of mind, because the recommendation came from a friend. The idea is, just because a piece of music is new, doesn’t mean it’s going to be frightening. It’s funny, advertising in this country is usually based on the idea that newness sells.

Simmons: Aaron Copland made the point many years ago that music is practically the only art in which the main focus is on works of the past. I mean, people like to see the latest movies, read the latest books, see the latest shows. — they want to experience what’s going on around them. Certainly that’s true for pop music. It’s usually specialists or scholars who study older literature and films. David, what do you have to say to the average concertgoer who might have a negative attitude about hearing new or unfamiliar music?

Zinman: The most important thing is to go in with an open mind, not a negative attitude.

Torke: Some preparation helps too. A good audience is an educated audience.

Simmons: How about you, David? How do you listen to a new piece of music? HZinman: Well, I try to listen without a score first, to get an overall impression of what it’s all about. I really believe that repeated listenings are the most important thing. One hearing is just not enough, unless you’re totally turned off by it. If the piece begins to grow on me, then I’ll go to the score. My experience with new music is that first you perceive a general idea, a mood, along with certain details that stick in your mind.

Simmons: So you try to give the composer the benefit of the doubt. HZlnman: Well, I think you have to assume that if a composer goes to the trouble of writing a new piece, he’s not just spraying notes on a page.

Simmons: But I think that the average music lover feels that once he buys his ticket, he — or she — doesn’t owe anybody anything and is entitled to expect a good time.

Zinman: Well, it depends what you mean by “a good time.”

Simmons: I mean an enjoyable experience.

Zinman: Look, I don’t think music has to be soothing or enjoyable. I mean, you’re dealing with art here. Some new music is enjoyable and some isn’t. Also, you have to figure, performers aren’t going to play something for no reason. You have to give the performer a little credit for taste.

Simmons: But I think that often performers and conductors play a lot of new music that they don’t like any more than the audience does. Instead of everybody just sharing this unpleasant obligation, I’d like to see soloists and conductors taking the responsibility for selecting new music that will mean something to the audience. Let the audience demand a meaningful experience and let them judge a soloist or conductor on his ability to provide that.

Torke: That sounds like a good idea. But another thing to remember is that just because you don’t like a piece of music doesn’t mean that that piece has failed. It may not be to your liking, but it may be worthy of respect.

Simmons: But how are you supposed to know?

Torke: That’s where education comes in. You have to have the flexibility and humility to realize that your reaction isn’t the final say on whether a piece works or not. You don’t have to like it. But the excitement of witnessing a world premiere can be a fun experience in its own right. I think that more people will feel this way when America starts to take more pride in its own composers.


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century music. He is a contributor to The New Grove and a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism.