Preparing for the New Challenges of New Music

Baroque, Classical and Romantic period music each bring their own set of difficulties and necessary techniques for performance and practice. After you've mastered the bow stroke or embouchure or committed the chordal progression of harmonies and melodies to memory, the likelihood of encountering the same piece of music again, or another piece from the period with similar requirements, is extremely high. I can't even count the amount of times in my career that I've played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" Symphony.


But new music brings a new set of challenges with each piece containing specific codes or dissonant and possibly unfamiliar harmonies. New music is new territory for many players and in addition to the changing musical demands, contemporary pieces may bring about a new physical or mental demand. 


Mentally Prepare

I know this seems very obvious but new music takes time beforehand to decode before even picking up the instrument. While most of us play in the realm of Western Music, where we have tempered instruments on twelve-tone scales, in the 20th century composers began incorporating quarter tones and semi-tunes which required a new set of symbols for communicating these musical needs.


At the front of any new piece of music is a brand new code. It may render codes we've learned in the past such as key signatures and time signatures irrelevant. In fact, a researcher in the United Kingdom went as far as to claim that new music notation and capabilities could render modern instruments and playing techniques "useless".


Take, for example, composer Steve Reich's score for "Pendulum Music", which contains only a written set of instructions on how the piece should be performed and staged: 

“2, 3, 4 or more microphones are suspended from the ceiling by their cables so that they all hang the same distance from the floor and are all free to swing with a pendular motion. Each microphone cable is plugged into an amplifier which is connected to a speaker. Each microphone hangs a few inches directly above or next to it’s speaker.

The performance begins with performers taking each mike, pulling it back like a swing, and then in unison releasing all of them together. Performers then carefully turn up each amplifier just to the point where feedback occurs when a mike swings directly over or next to it’s speaker. Thus, a series of feedback pulses are headed which will either be all in unison or not depending on the gradually changing phase relations of the different mike pendulums.

Performers then sit down to watch and listen to the process along with the audience.

The piece is ended sometime after all mikes have come to rest and are feeding back a continuous tone by performers pulling out the power cords of the amplifiers.”


While mental visualization of familiar music can trigger kinesthetic responses in the muscles, making mental practice an effective tool, most of new music does not yet exist within our muscle memory. Proper time before playing to understand the changing paradigms and music notation are necessary when taking on new music pieces.


Physically Prepare

I remember in college performing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 which typically clocks in with a performance time just over one hour. The cello part in particular pushes through with few rests and little downtime as one movement transitions nearly seamlessly to the next.


In the world of new music, composers are pushing the human body and brain to their limit with longer pieces requiring greater physical and mental stamina. While John Cage's composition "Organ2/ASLSP" or "As Slow As Possible", is scheduled to conclude in the year 2640 after 639 years of continual performance, there is no player physically responsible for the continual production of sound.


Compare this with demanding pieces such as String Quartet No. 2 by Morton Feldman. Originally written for the Kronos Quartet, they performed an abbreviated version of the piece in 1983 and later cancelled the full performance they had scheduled at the Lincoln Center Festival due to the sheer physical demands of the piece. 


There are several prominent pieces that have increased the players demand for stamina from the well-known Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler, also lasting around an hour, to the Phillip Glass opera, "Einstein on the Beach", which lasts five hours split across four acts. And now, almost common, solo piano composers are putting out pieces with performance times of three to eight hours.


But it's not just stamina that is being tested. Composers and even pop/rock music ensembles and musicians are pushing the boundaries of speed and tempo as explained in this fantastic YouTube video by Adam Neely (stick with him through the silly intro!)


And music is also putting the test on the limitations of the human voice with the Metropolitan Opera's soprano vocalist, Audrey Luna, hitting a brief A above high C in performance for the first time in the history of the institution.


Emotionally Prepare

The term "aleatoric music" first appeared in the 1950's and is used to describe a piece of music that has a "course determined in general but depends on chance in detail." For many classical musicians perfectionism through scale practice, metronome work and method books leaves us with little room for chance in our playing. Symphonies strive for perfection and pop music conforms to a click.


The composer John Cage brought about changing demands through "indeterminacy compositions" which force an element of freedom that can seem overwhelming or impossible at first. The idea behind indeterminacy is that a piece can have a performance that is built on it's ability "to be performed in substantially different ways."


Stepping away from confines of perfectionism can be a difficult journey for many classically trained musicians who began playing at a very young age. Even ensembles as a whole find new frustrations and challenges. A prominent example occurred recently with the Los Angeles Philharmonic when they scheduled the U.S. premiere performance of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Cello Concerto. This incredibly complex cello solo occurs in three movements and includes an option of performing the piece with a dance accompaniment.


When the scheduled soloist withdrew three days before the concert for personal reasons, the LA Phil had to respond quickly. There was said to be only three cellists in the world, all in Europe, who had even performed this piece prior. The solo was divided up between three Los Angeles-based cellists who received their scores on Wednesday morning for a Thursday rehearsal and Friday concert.

The emotional willingness to tackle new music and the unexpected is a new, and in my opinion, welcomed hurdle for the world of classical music.


New music is definitely bringing a new set of demands in all performance aspects. This Thursday I have a podcast episode with harpist Liz Huston who works in new music performance and, herself, tackled an impressive three hour solo harp piece. We will be discussing the changing paradigms of the music industry and the welcomed changes it can bring.


Remember your body should never limit your art so learn how to train like an athlete to play like a musician.


Health and happiness,


  • Feb 12, 2018
  • Category: Blog
  • Comments: 0
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