New Music Ensembles

This post is an open letter of sorts to David Tomasacci, composer and theorist, in response to his request for my thoughts on how a particular new music ensemble could be improved. However, I will make my recommendations in a generalized fashion and refer to particulars only infrequently.

1. Defining “New Music”

“New Music” has been loosely used to refer to music written as long ago as the turn of the twentieth century. I would suggest that music that has been around longer than it takes a person to be born and earn a doctorate in new music composition can simply not be called “new.” Pick a cut-off date and try to stick to it. How about even as many as 25 years ago? Even with such a loose definition of “new,” try to include more music written in the past five or ten years such that it occupies a majority of the space on the program.

I realize that much of the music written between 1920 and 1980 tends not to get played very much because it’s too “modern” to be classic and too old to receive the boost of a premiere. One could argue that this music has failed the test of time, but I will give it the benefit of the doubt and suggest audiences haven’t heard enough of this music to make it familiar. And yet, this still does not mean we should refer to it as “new music.”

2. Plan on Variety

Within the great variety of new music, there are clear trends and “schools” of composing. For the simple sake of giving exposure to a broad range of new music, why program several pieces that are in many ways similar?

More importantly, it’s tiring to listen to a lot of the same thing. I love Beethoven, for example, but it’s very difficult to listen to more than one of his quartets or sonatas on a single concert. More than two pretty much kills the evening for me. Perhaps one of the most tiring experiences can be an entire evening of only one composer or very similar composers. Given all of the variety available, why not program a balanced and contrasting concert?

3. Local New Music

Supporters of new music in the past were in many ways local. Given the number of composers today, there is no reason that new music could not still be primarily local. Granted, the internet gives us wonderful access to music from around the world that we may not otherwise encounter. And yet, why not support local composers as much as possible?

A local new music ensemble—i.e., one that does not travel—could really be a driving force behind the growth and support of new music. Composers generally do not make it big on a national or world scale before doing well locally, except for those who are the exceptional one-in-a-million. This could really be a compounding force for new music as more composers find support locally, resulting in more new music gaining recognition and acknowledgment.

4. The Audience’s Timing

Modern concerts of “serious” music from any time period are generally structured in similar ways. The two halves of the concert generally feature two or three pieces each, only one of which is a “major” work. Overall, the concert is likely 1.5-2.5 hours, including intermissions and breaks. This works well because it plays into how long an audience can sit comfortably with rapt attention. Why would a new music ensemble think that an audience would want to sit longer? Or listen to music during the intermission? Or otherwise have their sensory inputs filled to the limit and beyond?

This assumes that the music is the only focus. Another model could be that of dinner and music. The divided attention that the dinner requires could allow for more music. I think the same thing is true for all performances. I can listen to jazz music at a bar or club for hours on end, but put it on a stage and I can only listen to so much.

5. Intrigue, Don’t Alarm

I don’t think that it is any (or at least most) new music ensemble’s intent to alienate the audience. It’s a fine line between broadening an audience’s horizon or making a philosophical statement and simply pushing the audience away. I don’t think this issue necessarily even ever involves the music itself. I see a lot of new music ensembles try to catch audiences off-guard with performance logistics such as lighting, timing, etc. that deviate from concert norms. Do we really need or want to have audiences feel uneasy during performances of new music? Isn’t it enough that they are listening to new music?

I’ll also note that it is the philosophical intent of some composers to alarm their audiences in a very real sense. There will likely always be a market for this, but it should be no surprise if it drives away a large part of an audience that may otherwise be interested in new music.


It’s been my impression that “new-music-black” references the Avant-garde of the mid-twentieth-century more than some want to admit. The professional ensembles that specialize in new music that I see generally dress in a trendy, clean fashion. That often includes jeans, but need not do so. The familiarity of jeans is welcoming to audiences, but the neatness and trendiness generally makes a clear separation from performers and audiences. “New-music-black” is sometimes just a bit ominous.

Also, I suspect that the audience we want to attract for new music ensembles is accustomed to the professionalism of the symphony or local chamber groups that have been around for quite some time. That means program books have to be clear and engaging, posters have to be sharp and well-made. I truly believe that professionalism could easily put a new music ensemble on par with any other local ensemble. Audiences want to know they can expect good things.

Concluding Thoughts

I decided to go forth with publishing this as is, even though I suspect I may have further thoughts down the road. I would also like to see any responses to the ideas listed above that I can incorporate. I tried to make this as general as possible, but I do suppose there will likely be exceptions.


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