Here’s an idea I had while I was learning some new pieces for my Bargemusic show last week. Perhaps performers, not composers, were at the root of all the complexity in new music, especially 20th-century music. A kind of “performance anxiety”, but not in the usual sense of the term.
When a performer learns a newly-composed piece of music, he asks himself at a certain point: is this piece any good? Is it worth the time and effort I’m putting into it? If the question persists, it makes it pretty tough to do your job.
But if the music is so dense and complex that even the performer can’t understand it, that pretty much solves the problem. Is the piece good or bad? Who cares, because it’s completely unassailable! The performer’s job is reduced from cultural gatekeeper to manual laborer. Investing so much in learning a piece of complex music is kind of like buying an expensive, unreliable European sports car: you have to justify it to yourself somehow, or you’ll go crazy.
The end result is decreased risk for the performer of contemporary music. That impenetrable wall of perceived quality is transferred to them. Maybe performers actually put themselves at greater risk by choosing to play music that’s more outwardly grasp-able or emotionally accessible. And what good are you if you don’t take risks?