I do not think that the enjoyment of contemporary music needs to be an intellectual exercise. On the other hand it does occasionally take some small amount of conceptual adjustment. Debussy’s modal harmonies or Milhaud’s polytonal compositions once sounded harsh, chaotic and, well, untuneful. But after nearly a century we seem to have got our ears around this music and find it rather pleasant, playful and perhaps even relaxing.
When you first hear a prepared-piano piece by Cage, it sounds like someone is attempting to play a badly broken, out of tune piano. Harry Partch sounds like a manic horde of young children run amok in an industrial kitchen. These are the immediate cultural references many of us bring to this music. But a small bit of conceptual readjustment will tame the manic hordes and broken pianos and place us in the front row of a virtuoso percussion ensemble playing exotic variety of unusual tuned and untuned percussion instruments. The music no longer grates but soothes, it is not harsh but sweet. Listen to it again and you start to hear the tunes, perhaps you even want to dance, not a waltz, not a tango, but that not-always-on-the-beat, syncopated exuberant dance that humans do.
It is emotional. It is just harder to share the emotion on a message board. It must get turned into words, words without gestures and expressions. So while writing may put some limits on our ability to convey the emotional satisfaction of the music, there are some benefits. One does not have the time to spend sorting through the vast amount new music to find those breath-taking moments of emotional intensity. But there are others among us who love that task and get great joy from sharing what we find. Not everyone will have the time or inclination to come to grips with Brian Ferneyhough’s La chute d’icare; but it will always delight me when someone will once again attempt to discover for themselves the cold intensity of Lutoslawski’s Partita the majesty of Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No. 1 or the quietly moving Quaderno musicale of Dallapiccola.