A New Year's Resolution for 2012: Give Contemporary Classical Music a Chance

03/01/2012 11:30 GMT | Updated 29/02/2012 10:12 GMT

It can be hard to know what resolutions to come up with at New Year. Last year I think mine had something to do with washing socks. I didn't stick to it.

But, in the spirit of Christmas, here is one ready-made for you. It isn't even that hard to keep. It is simply this: give contemporary classical music a chance.

It's true, classical music hasn't had the best reputation for - well, okay, for about a century. And it's often been sort of deserved. Serialism in the 1920s and '30s may have been a bit of a blind alley; Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of this fascinating but rather cerebral technique, certainly didn't manage to 'ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years' - and given that he said things like that, it's quite hard to commiserate with him really.

And after the Second World War, several composers that hit the headlines came across as stunningly academicised, preaching a sort of lab-coat approach to writing music which gained them little popular support. American composer Milton Babbitt's infamous article 'Who Cares If You Listen?' has come to epitomise the sort of brazen disregard for the populace which the new-music intelligentsia seemed to possess. Irrespective of what it actually sounded like, new classical music shot itself in the foot by alienating itself from its audience.

All the while, furthermore, two things were happening. Firstly, popular music of various forms was gaining, er, popularity. Jazz became a mainstream phenonemon at exactly the same time as people started losing track of classical, and the rise of pop music over the past 50 years requires no introduction at all. And secondly, concert hall programming was ossifying, risking new works less and less, and falling back again and again on Beethoven, Brahms and the rest of them.

These two factors have combined to mean that it's common now to consider classical music a resolutely dead thing. Going to classical concerts tends to reinforce this idea as well; it can feel a little like pretending you're a Victorian for the evening. There is, undeniably, a strongly traditionalist air around an awful lot of mainstream classical concerts. But I think that one of the reasons that 'normal' concerts always seem slightly too stuffy for me is that the majority of concerts I attend are of contemporary music.

If you actually go to any of these, it will become very clear that contemporary classical music's image problem is very much an imagined one. People wear jeans and drink beer. They don't often talk about serialism. It's actually fairly normal. And, incidentally, they go because the music is frequently amazing.

If you want to sit down and doze off for a couple of hours, then new music probably isn't for you. But it probably is if you like it when interesting things happen, when you are played sounds you've never heard before, when you're challenged. Crazy stuff happens in contemporary music. People do weird things to pianos, and plastic bags. They make incredible scores and write odd instructions in them. They take from jazz, from rock, from folk music, from - um, other. If what you want is an interesting story, you needn't look much further.

I think the major problem contemporary classical music has is that people are still put off by its academic, too-serious reputation. As I've said, this is fair enough in a sense. But ultimately, this is a reputation gained through some composers' words, and not their music. It's worth remembering, after all, that composers are people who are (more often than not) better at expressing themselves through music than words. That is why they are composers.

The obsessive theorising of Schoenberg, Babbitt and others does not adequately represent theirmusic, which can be strange but is frequently beautiful and always worthwhile. These people do not sound like they write.

And, of course, they're not even contemporary any more. The cutting edge is full of fascinating people like Thomas Adès, Tansy Davies, Gabriel Prokofiev, who don't see genre distinctions in the same way as those who stereotype contemporary composition. All they ask is that you listen to their music from time to time.

It's not even that obscure any more. There are a huge number of recordings on labels like NMC and Nonclassical, and there are plenty of concerts out there which are well worth hunting out. The Barbican have a big contemporary month ahead, with the world-renowned Kronos Quartet, a Jonathan Harvey opera, and much else to look forward to. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group even have some family events lined up. And so on.

So this year, I think you should resolve to give this amazing new music a chance to be heard. I could go on and on. But I have socks to wash.