The concert situation last weekend in New York left contemporary music fans with a busy schedule. The multitude of new music concerts included, among others, the Golijov Festival at Lincoln Center, the Juilliard Focus! Festival, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing a world premiere. Attending concerts all weekend, I found each offered something different, including ensemble, venue and even contrasting styles. With so much diversity under the panoptic title of “new music,” it made me ask: What is new music? This then leads one down the rabbit hole to ask the even bigger question: What is classical music? Two concerts in particular adequately summed up my findings.
Friday night was spent at the Juilliard Focus! Festival featuring music composed in the past year. Opening the night was a full orchestra piece by Zhou Long, The Enlightened, which was written to depict the composer’s awareness of international political conflicts. Sounds rumbled from the orchestra like a cloud of tension and anger. Through its untraditional landscape of sound, it was still composed in a traditional classical style of notes on a staff with meters and time signatures, scored for the ever-traditional full orchestra. Okay, classical music, check.
The next piece on the program started to blur the lines. Jukka Tiensuu, a Finnish composer, wrote a concerto for accordion and orchestra. Mikko Luoma, the guest accordionist, demonstrated the accordion’s many faces by simulating low bass lines of the bass clarinet and basses up to the high scratchy sound of violinists wistfully drawing their bows up and down the E string. Accordions are not quite a traditional classical instrument, but due to the presentation of the accordion as total orchestral machine, I felt able to check the classical music box on this one, too.
The concert concluded with an even bigger surprise from Paul Schoenfield who presented a jazzy rendition of the story Channah from the Old Testament in gospel-style with a narrator reminiscent of the comedian Chris Rock. There was an orchestra, but now with a choir, six vocal soloists including the high-pitched voice of a male countertenor, and a narrator. It wasn’t your typical orchestral concert offering, in either presentation or style of music. Was it still classical music? Maybe it was the venue, or the size and type of ensemble (orchestra, choir, soloists), but it seemed like classical music to me.
Venturing out from Lincoln Center, I headed downtown to the hole-in-the-wall experimental music club Tonic on Sunday night. None of that old “classical music” stuff was on the program, but the similarities to what I might consider new music were unavoidable. In true John Cage manner, the first act of the night, HZMT (Anthony Miller), pushed the definition of music. It was noise; feedback, static, pulsing bass at random intervals, all produced through circuits protruding out of a flat piece of wood. Composers of contemporary classical music are always looking for new ways to define sound, and this guy was no different. Were these excruciating loud, scratchy, trance-inducing sounds new music, classical music, or both? The music also played out in a minimalist vein with repeated motifs and slow-moving changes in sounds (a noise musician’s equivalent to tones). The lines were blurry, labels failed me, and even the surroundings couldn’t lend a helping hand in defining what I heard.
The concert ended with James Probiega under his alias Little Howlin’ Wolf. He played a drum set, at one point turning the bass drum on it’s side, using his hands to play, all while jamming on the harmonica. He was a man of many talents, playing both the tenor and alto saxophones – at the same time. He had two men behind him, one at the electronics table mixing in eclectic sounds while another guy played a set-up of bongo drums and cymbals to a beat of his own. I heard some jazz, blues, and folk influences, but there wasn’t a box I could check with this act. What made it any different from the music of other contemporary classical compositions? They were, as many composers strive for, finding new sounds.
Coming out of the haze Tonic left me in, I couldn’t help but realize that terms like classical music and new music were inane. They don’t mean anything outside of the meaning we prescribe them, which varies from person to person depending on their experience with music. A close relationship with new music expands your definition of classical music. A close relationship with rock, jazz and other younger genres expands your definition of new music. But it would be naïve to say that there weren’t differences between classical and jazz, new music and rock. So how do you know the difference? There doesn’t seem to be a good definition, but perhaps it’s like the Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s famous phrase regarding pornography, “I know it when I see it.” I know new music when I hear it. It’s as simple as that.