Meloprosophobia: the fear of modern music?

One of Britten Sinfonia’s student volunteers, Cici Carey-Stuart came along to At Lunch One in Cambridge, and was struck by the fact that all of the music on the programme was by living composers. Cici explores why as, an audience member, this might be cause for apprehension: 

In late November, as I ran from my lecture room to a concert hall in Cambridge, I was feeling quite apprehensive – even though I was attending the Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch One concert as part of the audience. I was scared because the entire program of the concert had been written within the last decade.

Many audience members were probably grappling with the same fear. We had no idea what the repertoire was going to be like: we might absolutely hate it, and no one wants to be that person who awkwardly gets up to leave after only fifteen minutes. Fortunately for me, I loved it, and after the first two pieces I had relaxed and was ready to truly enjoy the rest of the performance. But why was that? Why was I scared, and what changed to soothe my nerves?

Beginning the concert was a piece called Pale as Centuries, by Sarah Kirkland Snider. The music grew and fell in waves, the eclectic selection of instruments (flute, clarinet, electric guitar, piano and double bass) perfectly mingling, full of cycles and patterns that all slotted together beautifully. A minute or so after the piece began, I knew that I would love it – not because I could predict what would happen, but because I could tell that this piece fit within a category of modern music that I enjoy. After the first piece, there came Mark Bowler’s Deep Green on its world premiere tour – which I also liked; we’re on a roll here, I thought to myself. Thomas Hancox on flute and Joy Farrall on clarinet worked so closely with each other in a way that I don’t think I’ve heard outside of a wind band performance. Their co-dependency with Roger Linley’s double bass playing took my appreciation of the piece to another level, smoothing the modulations between the different repeating ‘grooves’ of the music through instrumental timbre.

Mark Bowler

By the end of Deep Green, I had realised that this concert was thematically linked, and I settled in to hear more pieces of gorgeously subtle repetitions, loops, grooves and patterns. Nik Bärtsch’s piano solo midway through showed me whole new sound areas of the piano, and I was amazed at how long it took me to realise that notes or intervals were changing, until it was obvious. Judd Greenstein’s City Boy was much less subtle in working out similar ideas on multiple instruments, each prominently playing in their own idiom. As I had to leave before the final piece to rush to a supervision, oscillating waves of music stayed with me even as I closed the hall doors behind me. I was far more relaxed than when I went in, because by that point I had discovered and accepted the framework for the concert, that of pattern and repetition.

Nik Bärtsch

I think it is the need for a framework that causes many people’s ‘meloprosophobia’ (from the Greek melodia, ‘music’, and proso, ‘forward/progress’). We are not worried that we will hate ‘classical’ music. We may dislike it, but generally we are unlikely to experience any strong instantly negative feeling towards a classical piece. New developments in music are no more radical now than the radical new developments in music in the eighteenth- or nineteenth-centuries, but we have had a chance to process all of this older music from a distance. We are familiar with the extremes of these periods of music, familiar enough that these extremes no longer shock us. The extremes of modern music are new, and completely unknown to us, because it is a period of music that we are still in the middle of. To the twenty-first century music lover, they feel much more extreme than any Wagner music-drama ever could, and so we naturally react with more extreme emotions, including hatred.

Older music fits within a framework that we know as ‘Classical’, or maybe ‘Romantic’ or ‘Baroque’, but Modern music is a work in progress, and so it doesn’t have a framework to fit into yet. All we can know about modern music is that we don’t know its most extreme examples, and so it is perfectly possible for me to go to a concert of modern music and hear something that I hate, without knowing about it in advance. I was able to fully relax during At Lunch One only once I had noticed the connection between the pieces, meaning that the concert itself had created a framework of music, one that had extremes that I was familiar with.

How can we overcome out meloprosophobia, then? We have to accept the growing modern music framework, as uncertain as that is. If we go to a concert with the expectation that we will hear something extreme, then we can be prepared to react extremely to it. I don’t think we should be scared of hating a piece of music, or of immediately loving it – I think we should expect these emotional reactions, and make them a part of our appreciation for contemporary music.

– Cici Carey-Stuart, Sinfonia Student 2017-18

At Lunch Two comes to Cambridge (23 January), London (24 January) and Norwich (26 January), and will feature a new work by living composer Leo Chadburn.

In At Lunch Three, we will give the world premiere of Caroline Shaw’s new work in Cambridge (17 April), London (18 April) and Norwich (20 April).