Hunger for the Vast Unknown

Hunger for the Vast Unknown

Several years ago I was talking about new music and contemporary composers with a good friend and colleague who had degrees in both theory and musicology, and the topic came around to why contemporary composers weren’t covered more in history classes, etc. She told me point blank that anything like that would have to be directed by a composer, because no one else even knew where to start. I’ve kept that idea with me, and a conversation I had just this week brought it back to the forefront of my mind. During a lunch with a highly regarded musicologist who was on campus to give a colloquium lecture, we talked about his book, anthology, and CD box set as well as my own project, and he more or less said the same thing—and he had just gotten done writing a textbook on music history! He seemed very interested in finding out more about contemporary composers and by the end of lunch suggested that we kept in touch for the next edition; only time will tell what will come of that, but the fact that he was openly enthusiastic about this unknown (to him) era of music was very promising.

I came away from this discussion with several ideas all hitting me at once. First, for many reasons, a good portion of the people who study music from either a historical or theoretical perspective have missed the boat on music written in the past few decades; most can get you to John Adams in the 1980s, but after that it’s very much hit or miss. There are many reasons why this would be, but safe to say that from an analytical point of view, contemporary composition remains a fertile field waiting to be harvested. Second, many academics know this, and are excited about this, but the fact that the field is both much larger and much more fluid than other periods of music (since we’re, well, not dead yet) seems to make the task much more intimidating—it’s much easier to go find a little undusted corner of the Renaissance or some minute aspect of Schoenberg’s output and stake a claim there than to attempt to chart the waters of the contemporary. Third, as much as we in the contemporary music community have done to get our music out to the world, there’s a lot more work left to do.

Am I saying that we need to have the blessing of the academy in order for our music to achieve some form of legitimacy? Of course not. But wouldn’t it be nice if composers and the blessed-few instrumental enthusiasts weren’t the only ones pushing new music? If works of the recent past were studied and taught with the same gusto as works by them-who-wore-wigs, who knows what ramifications that might have?

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2 thoughts on “Hunger for the Vast Unknown

  1. ndemos

    It’s ironic to have read this posting having just been asked by a musicologist colleague of mine to lecture on contemporary music and important composers in his history course. Your observations are spot on! Those of us in the academy who have an opportunity to lecture in this manner should be quick to take advantage of the opportunity.

  2. mclaren

    “If works of the recent past were studied …”

    In order to study music of the recent past, you need access to the scores.

    I’ve tried to get access to the scores of many recent compositions. They’re all unavailable.

    As in “the publisher will not distribute these scores outside a limited geographic area.” If you live in New York City, great. If you live elsewhere, you’re going to have a problem.

    Also: the sheer cost of getting just one score by a recent composer like, say, Michael Gordon or Tom Johnson is mind-boggling. I could eat for a month for what one score costs.

    Make the scores available. Then we’ll talk.

    Oh, and also…whenever someone tries to put up an excerpt of recent music on youtube or a podcast, the post gets taken down and the user banned because it’s alleged to be a violation of copyright. Fair use no longer exists.


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