chestnuts

Once

Once.

That’s how many times any given member of an audience will hear any given piece of new music. Not twice, not three times, and four times is right out. Once.

Many, if not most pieces of new concert music are played exactly once. If the same performers do play the piece again, it will likely be before a different audience; new music ensembles don’t tend to recycle the same material—they are, after all, new music ensembles, and their audiences come to hear something new.

The reason I bring this up is that it’s the holidays again, and venturing out into a public place means you’re going to hear holiday songs, the same holiday songs that you’ve been hearing every December since you were a kid. Not only the same songs, but usually the same recordings. You know the ones I mean. How many hundreds of times have we heard these songs? We know every vocal inflection, every chord change, every orchestrational flourish. And they are sticky. They are to regular earworms what the giant sandworms of Dune are to regular terrestrial worms. No matter how good the tunes are, after the three-hundredth time they lose a lot of their appeal; to (ahem) some of us, they lose so much their appeal seeps down into the negative numbers.

Those songs are a large part of why I do a lot of my holiday shopping online—you don’t have to hear the songs if you don’t go in the stores! (I wonder if anyone has done a study of whether the rise in online retailing has contributed to a drop in Bing Crosby-related violence. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.)

Pop songs are written to be heard once—or at least to be entirely comprehensible on the first hearing. Why isn’t new concert music?

There is classical music we’ve all heard dozens of times. Beethoven symphonies; Mozart sonatas. Verdi and Puccini arias. Most of us have had the experience of falling in love with a piece of music and listening to the recording over and over. (Today’s kids will never know the pleasure of playing a record so much that it wears out, or a cassette tape so much that it breaks. Try that with an mp3 file. Ha! But I digress.) The best music rewards that, whether pop or otherwise.

But I doubt there’s a piece written in the last 50 years that’s in the remotest danger of becoming a chestnut. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong!)

Composers listen to their work over and over as it takes shape, if only in their heads. Performers grow intimately familiar with a piece of music while preparing to perform it (hopefully). I wonder if sometimes both groups forget that the audience is going to hear the piece…once.