New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music

New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music

In the second essay for this series, I would like to define New Music and contemporary music. These are two terms that are often viewed as equivalent, but I will argue that they have different meanings.

In my view, New Music is a term that embodies a wide variety of artistic projects, mainly focused on sonic forms—though secondarily may also be expressed through the visual, the literary, or the theatrical—which position themselves under the umbrella of modernity in a critical manner. New Music is inherently in a difficult ideological position: it is in conflict with the economic, educational, and political structures that contribute to its birth, but it must simultaneously reconcile itself to them in order to attempt to bypass the anticipated consequences that these very conditions cause. It thus problematizes this inextricable contradiction in the hopes of generating potential alternative realities; hence New Music’s non-autonomous nature, for it conceals an ultimate purpose that surpasses its most superficial formal qualities. In this regard, New Music is embedded in modernity through a number of aesthetic forms—such as some instances of 20th-century modernism—and cannot be understood as such without its necessarily redemptory allegiance to “universal ideals of progress, reason, freedom and democracy.”[1] In consequence, New Music fits Terry Eagleton’s description of modernist works: “self-divided phenomena which deny in their discursive forms their own shabby economic reality.”[2] Beyond stylistic specifics commonly associated with this type of music (e.g. musique concrète instrumentale, spectralism, New Complexity, New Conceptualism, etc.), New Music is at its core an artistic project based on critique: this is its link to modernity—what fundamentally defines its nature.

New Music questions past, dysfunctional normative models as a means to generate newer, more appropriate aesthetic fields through which another future (however one wishes to understand this term) may be built. More specifically, the avant-garde, experimental music, free improvisation…: all of these may become New Music if they recognize a connection to modernity—they are not immanent in New Music per se. For this reason, one should not make the immediate assumption that New Music is a European or, at its worst, a Eurocentric endeavor. Far from it, New Music—quite similarly to how Srnicek and Williams define modernity—“names a set of concepts that have been independently developed in numerous cultures across the world, but which took on a particular resonance in Europe.”[3] New Music does not necessarily emerge from classical European traditions only. On the contrary: one could go as far as to claim that some instances of free jazz, punk rock, hip-hop, or music with politically revolutionary lyrics may be facets of New Music. Likewise, following this logic, it would be incorrect to presume that any music that uses sounds often heard in works by Brian Ferneyhough, Gérard Grisey, or Helmut Lachenmann should be categorized as New Music. New Music is not only recognized through how it sounds, but also by its clear-cut ideological stance against the uncritical employment of conventional means of expression. By virtue of this position, New Music is an artistic project forced to challenge its necessarily required material conditions, which, unless scrutinized through internal formal strategies, will contribute to the reiteration of flawed traditionalisms; hence the exceedingly difficult and contradictory space where New Music lies (un)comfortably. Finally, New Music cannot be defined through its material conditions only. New Music is a project of potentials; it is prescriptive with regard to what is to be heard, aesthetically and beyond. New Music cannot be understood without its projection of what different futures may look like: it is modeled after potential futures.

New Music seems to be largely negligible in U.S. culture when compared to other types of music. In this country, its influence may be mainly recognized in some university departments, conservatories, a number of summer festivals (which usually have an educational side to them), and a few—often small—venues in large metropolitan areas such as New York or Chicago. There are, of course, exceptions.[4] Today one can also listen to New Music in a few festivals across the English-speaking world.[5] However, not all of the music that is performed as part of these events can be considered to be New Music. It certainly is new, since it has been created recently, but that does not intrinsically result in this music’s pursuit of the historical and aesthetic critique that New Music does. This type of new music—contemporary music[6] from now on—does not have to be in dialogue with modernity; it does not have to aim for the (future-bound) transformational imperative that New Music endeavors towards. New Music, nevertheless, can certainly be a subset of contemporary music and is often disseminated by those institutions that support the creation, performance, and discussion of contemporary music works.

Contemporary music may also be at home in situations closer to cultural imperatives explicitly designed by market forces than those associated with academia. John Adams, David Del Tredici, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, and the members of Bang on a Can are examples of composers who have been trained in academic institutions, have (at some point or another) participated in discussions about aesthetics, culture, and philosophy, and have eventually earned significant economic success by promoting their music through structures located outside academic environments. It would be incorrect to assume that these artists downgraded the quality of their works in order to follow marketability. There is plenty of popular music developed in the antipodes of academia that is financially successful and displays substantial quality. What places these composers under the umbrella of contemporary music—and not of popular music—is their connection to academia, without which it is unlikely they would have developed their particular aesthetic ideas. Firstly, their works generally display some relation to European traditions of classical music (even if they function as clear-cut negations of some of the basic principles of these traditions); traditions that seemed to access Anglo-American intellectual discourse primarily via academic institutions. Secondly, all of the aforementioned composers use notation in order to express their music—this is another crucial feature of European classical music. Thirdly, these composers benefited from analytical discourses that have generally taken place in Anglo-American academia; discourses that had an impact on the particular aesthetic paths that their works followed. To sum up, while some of these composers may not be active members of the academic community at the moment and may earn their living by pursuing careers outside this domain, they are participants in the field of contemporary music by virtue of their education, collaborators (individual performers, ensembles, and orchestras), analytical discourse, and general aesthetic ideas.

For the most part, contemporary music embodies pieces written by composers who have been trained in higher education institutions and write for traditional, classical music ensembles such as orchestras, wind and vocal ensembles, and string quartets. Contemporary music may also be composed for electronic or electroacoustic instruments, or generated through computer-assisted compositional means. In short, contemporary music assumes basic attributes of European classical music and builds its own ontology upon them. Whether such an ontology predominantly accepts European classical music as a positive feature or not is largely peripheral. Contemporary music may explicitly reject certain ideas associated with classical music in order to differentiate itself, but that does not make it less engaged with classical music on a conceptual basis. Nowadays, contemporary music in the U.S. exists as a conglomerate of artifacts cemented into two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia. Consequently, contemporary music institutions appear to be prone to take an indifferent stance toward their relation to the self-critical view of history embedded in some discourses around modernity.

The next post will explore the crisis of U.S. modern music in relation to scientism and the successive defeat of New Music.

1. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

2. Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism,” 67.

3. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

4. Omaha Under the Radar (Nebraska), Versipel New Music, and ANODE (New Orleans) are three recently launched small festivals that are not associated with higher education institutions and are not located in large metropolitan areas.

5. The following is a partial list of prominent contemporary music festivals and concert series across the English-speaking world not associated with universities or conservatories: MATA (New York), Bang on a Can Marathon (New York), Aldeburgh Festival (United Kingdom), Ojai Music Festival (California), Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (Massachusetts), Ear Taxi Festival (Chicago), London Ear Festival, London Contemporary Music Festival, Sound Scotland (Aberdeen), Sonorities (Belfast), Monday Evening Concerts (Los Angeles), BIFEM (Bendigo, Victoria), the NOW now (Sydney), SoundOut (Canberra), Liquid Architecture (Australia), and Metropolis New Music Festival (Melbourne). The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, one of the leading festivals of contemporary music in the United Kingdom, has a partnership with the University of Huddersfield.

6. I would like to thank my friend and colleague Alec Hall, who brought to my attention that Michael Rebhahn has also developed a similar taxonomical divide between New Music and the oxymoronic term Contemporary Classical Music.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music

  1. Michael Robinson

    This is another fascinating discussion. I do wish the writer had listed some specific “New Music” artists as he did “contemporary music” artists for purposes of comparison and easier intelligibility for myself.

    The statement, “Nowadays, contemporary music in the U.S. exists as a conglomerate of artifacts cemented into two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia”, appears to contradict the inclusion of the contemporary music artist listed here who has interested me most: Steve Reich. While it is true that Steve attended Cornell and Juilliard, his innovative work was forged outside of academia, and his lifeblood was imbibed through Indian classical music as filtered through the prism of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who was deeply touched by sitarist Ravi Shankar and shahnai artist Bismillah Khan. Reich has also mentioned experiencing an epiphany upon hearing a rhythm and blues/soul song with only verses and no chorus, a procedure related to Indian ragas. Of course, Steve actually studied African and Indonesian traditional music in considerable depth, but my sense is that the jazz of John Coltrane, which is a synthesis of Indian classical music and modern jazz, forms the bedrock of Steve’s sound. So, in brief, the streams of musical bodies I have entered here: Indian classical music, rhythm and blues/soul, African music, Indonesian music and modern jazz, have little to do with European classical music and academia, with the exception of modern jazz, which is related to European classical music in some relatively indirect ways. In terms of overall perspective, I recently commented: “My sense is that more than anyone else, Steve Reich led the way for Western composers out of the desert of serialism. His example is a massive bedrock the rest of us may build upon in wildly varying directions.”

    I’m not sure why more people aren’t commenting. I personally enjoy interacting with the high level of content found in this piece and others, and my intention certainly isn’t to be critical or contrary, but rather to offer another perspective for purposes of diversity.

  2. Aaron Holloway-Nahum

    Thanks for this article, Joan.

    There’s a lot in this short span, and some really interesting ideas to think about. I think, though, that I really disagree with the distinctions you draw – and, in truth, I really don’t understand where some of your assertions and definitions are based upon/coming from. It might be that I am just completely missing some widely accepted piece of current theory/writing/critique (?) but it’s hard to see why “New Music” and “Contemporary Music” should be defined in these ways unless there is already a standard of people in the field using them like this/with these meanings…?

    More to the point, your examples of these two different types of music don’t seem to me to fall into the categories you assign them. Yes, there is *something* of critique in the founding of new complexity, but many who compose “this” music would surely emphasise their aesthetic choices over ones of critique and I genuinely think that the practitioners just like the experience, journey, challenge and musical results that come from these stylistic choices and constraints. Similarly (and even more so?) with spectralism, in which I think you find composers absolutely obsessed with sound and timbre and beauty – not a critical interaction with the idea of “modernity” at all.

    Conversely, some of the composers you mentioned in the “Contemporary Music” line – especially Steve Reich/John Adams – are composers who absolutely cannot be understood without an assessment of how their music critically interacted with and challenged what it meant to write “modern music” at the time. You seem to argue that – because these composers are financially the most successful composers working (in America BTW!) today – it means that their music was shaped by forces outside of Academia. But the paths these composers set off down were not, at the time, questions of economics or accessibility. Steve Reich had to form his own ensemble to get his music played, and he was considered a wildly avant-garde composer when he did so.

    It’s also just worth pointing out that – while they may not be played in the US outside of more academic contexts (though a multitude of ensembles such as Dal Niente & ICE would challenge this…?) the “New Music” composers you mention were/are/will continue to be the toast of many music festivals, professional ensembles and non-academic institutions outside of the US.

    Have I missed your point(s) somehow, or misunderstood you? I would value your reply and clarification!

    1. Joan Arnau Pàmies

      Hi Aaron; thanks for reading. I will try to clarify as much as I can some of the distinctions that I draw in the article. But firstly, as I have shared with you already, for a more comprehensive view, I would recommend reading the first chapter of my dissertation, which can be found here:

      I want to provide a distinction between “New”and “contemporary”because, in my view and in this particular context, one may create “contemporary music” without necessarily creating “New Music.” The reason I use the term New Music is because it has some connotations that relate it to Adorno, in particular to his essay “The Aging of The New Music,”written in 1955. Here is an excerpt from an abstract from this article:

      “To speak of the aging of the New Music seems paradoxical. Yet music that has its essence in the refusal to go along with things as they are, and has its justification in giving shape to what the conventional superficies of daily life hide and what is otherwise condemned to silence by the culture industry — which threatens to acquire New Music as a wholly owned subsidiary — precisely this music has begun to show symptoms of false satisfaction.”

      Adorno understands this music through a Marxist analysis, where New Music is given a status capable of disrupting some of the expectations that society has come to develop by being exposed to a culture industry operating under the logic of capitalism. That said, I do not fully agree with Adorno’s ideas, and that is what I will try to argue in the final essay of the series–you may be a bit surprised to read about the examples that I provide of New Music, which are quite far from Ferneyhough, Grisey, or Lachenmann. For a more nuanced Adornian argument as regards aesthetics, I always suggest reading Marcuse’s ‘The Aesthetic Dimension’.

      “Contemporary music” has not much to do with this entire endeavor of societal critique. However, contemporary music has embodied some aesthetic aspects that we associate with some notated European music, which has indeed pursued this radical societal critique. That is why I claim that contemporary music in the U.S. has been built upon two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia. This, however, does not intrinsically link it to the ideological project of New Music.

Comments are closed.