Not long after the turn of the 20th century, poets stopped rhyming and painters turned to abstractions. Composers who write classical music threw out their long-established rules around that time, too. Most audiences didn't like that change. Most orchestras just stopped playing new music.
A century later, that’s finally changing. And in Nashville, some musicians who play contemporary and avant-garde compositions are starting to draw even the youngest of audiences.
The first attempt came on a Sunday afternoon not long ago, as children were invited to imagine they were in the Hundred Acre Wood. A small group of musicians played as a puppeteer circled the room, acting out familiar scenes of a bear searching for honey.
But this Winnie the Pooh sounded very different from the traditionally “kid-friendly” Disney version. The rhythms were dense and irregular, the harmonies were thick and sometimes dissonant. There was singing, but the words didn’t tell a story as much as set a mood and hint at a plot.
At first, the children didn’t seem to know what to make of it. They whispered questions to their parents and peered cautiously. But they quickly warmed to the new sounds. Their applause was energetic, and their comments afterwards were enthusiastic. “I heard opera,” one little girl said, “it was good!”
That’s exactly what soprano and conductor Kelly Corcoran hoped to hear.
She founded the new ensemble, Intersection, in hopes of finding new audiences for music long dismissed as weird or difficult, music she didn’t discover until college.
She remembers being assigned to perform the schrechstimme part in Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark composition, “Pierrot Lunaire.” It’s a half-sung, half-spoken setting of a somewhat unsettling (some would say blasphemous) poem. The lyrics touch on themes of violence, insanity and depravity. Even if you don't understand the words, the music gets those ideas across very well.
Corcaran says it was the first time she’d encountered music that was so manic and crazy. It was fun, she says, and “really Interesting for me to realize that music is not always beautiful.”
This 1999 short film by Oliver Hermann features soprano Christine Schafer singing a portion of "Pierrot Lunaire."
Corcoran learned that sometimes what’s interesting is challenging or even a little ugly. “If we’re going to have music be a full reflection of our culture and our world and humanity," she says, "then it’s got to embrace all that that means.”
Of course, what’s interesting to one person can be off-putting for another. For decades, music in the tradition of “Pierrot Lunaire” rarely made it on the programs of mainstream ensembles.
But eventually, concert after concert pulled from an unchanging standard repertoire left musicians a little bored. As cellist Matt Walker puts it, “to play something very familiar and easy to listen to, everybody will applaud at that and that’s great, but we as performers need something else.” They hungered for new challenges, new experiences, and they found it in newer music.
Groups like Nashville’s Alias Chamber Ensemble, which Walker helped found, gradually started going out on a limb and mixing newer stuff into their programs, despite conventional wisdom that said nobody would want to listen. What they found, Walker says, is that audiences really did respond well when they saw the musicians having fun.
Watch Alias perform Kenjii Bunch's "Boiling Point," which the musicians must pace so that it takes the same amount of time to play as an electric teakettle takes to boil water.
These days, most Alias concerts are almost entirely made of new pieces, with commissioned pieces and world premieres. They’ve recorded things like a string quintet with drum kit and tea kettle (that's it in the video just above). More often than not, Walker says, they hear afterwards from audience members who say “I don’t usually like new music, but that new piece was really interesting! I didn’t expect to like it, but I did.”
Now ensembles like Intersection are springing up, devoted from the start to the new, the unusual and the avant-garde. With adults more willing to listen to new music, Kelly Corcoran considers introducing it to kids to be a natural next step. She says she’s excited by the idea of cultivating a new generation of listeners that’s open to hearing all kinds of music — listeners who don’t see the label avant-garde and think “I’m not supposed to like that.”