lamberto coccioli

on music and beauty

Tag: contemporary music

The museum of classical music

So-called contemporary music has often been accused of being out of touch with the audience, and in general of playing a marginal role in current cultural trends. This is the result of many causes, as I have tried to explain in other posts, but an obvious reason is the umbilical attachment that still binds contemporary music to the classical music establishment, its audiences and its modes of promotion and delivery of live and recorded music.

The majority of contemporary composers have chosen not to sever the cord with the past, believing in a sense of continuity with, and belonging to the great tradition of Western classical music. But doing so, they blindly adopted the whole apparatus of classical music concerts, from the stiff ritual to the ageing and dwindling audiences. The higher cultural status granted to their music turned out to be the kiss of death for their creations.

Many words have been spent in the past (and sadly sometimes are still spent, as I realised yesterday at a pre-concert talk given by a young Canadian composer in Toronto) to justify this state of affairs: the need for composers to explore new territories, the reluctance of musical institutions to embark on more adventurous programming, the need for the audiences to be “educated” or the schools’ failings in teaching music, and so on.

The reality is very different: we have to accept that each different music has its audience, and ‘contemporary music’ is no exception. Expecting classical music audiences to love and understand new music is like pretending that jazz fans should also automatically become hip-hop fans.

So, let’s recognise the situation, and stop trying to spoon-feed contemporary music to classical music lovers. Let’s rebadge orchestras as museums of classical music, and limit their repertoire to the great tradition. And let’s free up the energies of those musicians that want to perform new music so that they can really concentrate on their passion, but outside the current classical music circles. Interested audiences will follow, and new ones will be created. They won’t be huge, but they will be committed.

You are a content provider

We write music because we feel compelled to do it, not because of some external reason or demand. Or do we? The role of inspiration, and what can be defined as inspiration in composing music, has been debated extensively. The truth is, we cannot separate external influence from inner compulsion.

Throughout the history of music, the most successful composers have been the ones that have managed to tune their creative impulse to the needs of the outside world. As far as creative output is concerned the outside world is a strange mixture of elements, where the expectations of patrons, commissioning bodies, influential friends and colleagues coexist with an imagined audience and the public projection of a composer’s self-created artistic image. All these elements come to play in the mind of composers as potential influencing factors, and affect their work more than they would like to admit.

We should then rephrase the first sentence like this: we write music because we want to communicate with the world. What is the chosen channel for this communication? If you are a smart composer, alert to the changing world around you, you will know already that the zeitgeist doesn’t inhabit concert venues programming ‘contemporary music’ works. It is to be found instead in some sort of team endeavour – a movie, a theatre production, a multimedia installation, a site-specific event, where your music becomes part of a wider artistic venture, a complex cultural product of our time, reflecting the interconnecting nature and the infinite resonances of our mostly mediated experience of reality.

You have then become a content provider, a sharp operator in a increasingly undecipherable world, carving small slices of meaning by interacting with other media, other forms, and with the unavoidable, ubiquitous technology we try so hard, often so helplessly, to keep under control.

A role for contemporary music?

At the beginning of last summer György Ligeti left us. What struck me most, after the inevitable sorrow for the loss of another great musical mind, was the almost complete lack of notice given to his death outside the narrow world of so-called contemporary music.

Throughout the history of music there have been composers wishing to give their art a cultural status comparable to literature, or philosophy. In more recent times composers as diverse as Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez have made a considerable effort to raise the profile of musical thought, and bring it into the mainstream cultural debate.

There are inherent difficulties with these commendable attempts: intellectuals the world over are not, in general, well versed in music and compositional theory. This is obviously the result of a formative problem – music is not part of the standard education curriculum. More problems are posed by the special language – notation – that music uses, and its tenacious resistance to be apprehended and described by words alone. A good indicator of this situation is the negligible amount of citations and references to ‘contemporary music’ sources (the actual scores) and composers’ writings in essays on modern culture.

Lively, alert and informed people, interested in contemporary arts the world over, will know a lot about the latest movies, the latest books and essays, the latest exhibitions and even the latest plays, but very seldom they will know about or attend ‘contemporary music’ concerts. For them, music is a form of pleasure rather than an intellectual activity. In their experience the music space is already well stocked with the various declinations of pop, rock, jazz, world and urban music, or even with the museum of classical music.

In our eye-dominated world, where visual media condition to a large extent our perception of reality, music becomes naturally the soundtrack of our own existence – the constant background to other, more prepotent eye-driven events. This ancillary role is exactly what so-called contemporary music tries to fight against, advocating for music an autonomous status. In his 1995 article, Dei suoni e delle immagini (“Of Sounds and Images”), first read when the University of Siena awarded him the degree honoris causa, and later reworked as one of the Six Norton Lectures on Poetry ( Remembering the Future, Cambridge, Harvard University), Berio tries to defend the autonomy of the ear and its predominance on the eye.

It is telling that Berio identifies music theatre – opera – as the one area where music still has the power to be in control, generate the dramatic structure and influence all visual and narrative elements. Music theatre is inherently a ‘dirty’ playing field, where visual and musical elements merge and interact in unpredictable ways. As much as composers wish for music to be in control, planning carefully every element of the show, it will be almost impossible to avoid the predominance of the visual element. Berio’s wishful thinking is shattered against the hard facts of human perception and cultural conditioning. Moreover, opera is a team enterprise, where the composer is but one of the authors. Berio’s quarrels with directors and stage designers became proverbial, showing the difficulty of maintaining control – à la Wagner – over everything. Role specialisation in today’s theatre and the refinement of available technologies make it altogether impossible. It is also presumptuous to think that one person – the composer – can be at the same time the librettist, director and stage designer of his/her operas. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s own unsatisfactory results should rest my case.

But then, if even music theatre cannot be the vehicle of musical thought, what is left to us? Precious little, I’m afraid. We have to accept that the incomparable depth and richness found in contemporary musical thought is lost to the cultural debate, and belongs to the kind of esoteric endeavours that never go past the narrow confines of ‘contemporary music’ circles.

Where is my audience?

The relationship between composer and audience today is a strange one indeed. More to the point, is there an audience at all for so-called contemporary music? We need to be honest about it: the audience is disappearing. This is not something to worry too much about: it is only the natural consequence of the demise of the social role and status of contemporary classical music, and the related changes in music fruition and delivery. The music critic, another element of the traditional concert ecology, is also silently fading away, a powerless casualty of this evolving situation.

As a musician, I’m principally interested in live performance. The magic dimensions of a public concert is what we should care about: the ritual offering, the virtuoso display, the theatre happening on stage and the risky, adventurous nature of a live concert performance are a precious gift to all of us. But without an audience, live performance cannot survive. We already experience live performance without having to attend a ‘contemporary music’ concert: how do we convince our potential audiences that they are missing something that can’t be found elsewhere? Or, reversing the question, when was the last time you cried at a ‘contemporary music’ concert?

One obstacle, first brought to my attention by Peter Johnson, Head of Research at Birmingham Conservatoire, is the lack of a performance tradition for the vast majority of contemporary works. They are performed a few times and almost never recorded to the standards of a commercial release. They often include specific parts for specific performers, making it impossible or very difficult for other interpreters to tackle the works. A second related problem is the performers’ knowledge of the piece. How deep can your interpretation go if you are learning the piece for the first time and perform it only a few times? Compare this with the intimate relationship over the years, indeed over a lifetime, that most performers build with the classical music repertoire. A third problem is the nature of ‘contemporary music’ micro-market: the ratio between sellers (the composers) and buyers (the performers and the audiences) is incredibly skewed towards the former. The late Stephen Jay Gould had a very original interpretation for justifying this state of affairs, what he called the right wall of human achievement: in a society that favours innovation at all costs, there comes a time when the relative advancement of an art form, say music, becomes smaller and smaller, until it is imperceptible.

Current literature on audience numbers for ‘contemporary music’ concerts and audience development strategies are often enthusiastic, but, I’m afraid. always misleading. I’m referring here to the UK state of affairs, but the main argument could be applied equally well to French or Italian audiences. I would like to correlate the number of composers writing music today with the amount of people listening to their music. My impression is that the composer/audience ratio is dwindling ferociously, rather than expanding. The reason for this is probably a steeper pyramid, with few composers getting a lot of attention from the niche audiences of “contemporary music”, and a plethora of less well-known composers that remain virtually ignored.

What is in a name

Naming something is the primordial act of identification. Names form the basis of knowledge. They segment reality into discrete units that can be processed. Names describe and define reality. If something has no name, its very existence is in doubt.

This is what strikes me so much about so-called contemporary music: it has no name. Contemporary is a neutral adjective, merely stating the obvious fact that we are referring to music written in our time. It doesn’t qualify the word ‘music’ in any useful way. This is why time and again other names have been used to define this unwieldy object: art music, modern music, neue Musik [new music], musica colta [cultured music], musica seria [serious music], to name a few in English, German and Italian. None of these definitions have stuck, nor are they particularly helpful, the reason being that the segmentation of this particular bit of reality is completely artificial. It is not borne out of any historical, social, artistic or aesthetical necessity.

If we wished to define in the most concise form the conceptual field that ‘contemporary music’ and these other unhelpful names attempt to encircle, we would arrive at something like “music written by an academically trained living composer”. Although this is already quite a long definition, it needs to be further qualified: composers that are not with us anymore, mostly from the second half of the 20th century, are also labelled as “contemporary”, and “academically trained” is too narrow, as composers may have very diverse backgrounds and still be considered as belonging to the “contemporary music” field.

This is exactly the problem: the artificial definition of a “contemporary music” field is the consequence of a historical aberration: the desire to maintain a link with the tradition of classical music and to keep the distance from popular music or other music genres. But both the link with tradition and the distance from other musics are partly fictitious, and cannot be safely encoded in a name.

The conclusion is that the “contemporary music” object is not an object at all. Critical apprehension of “contemporary music” bangs all the time against this conceptual wall. We need to accept the artificiality of the “contemporary music” construct, and deal with a fragmented reality that cannot be labelled easily, if at all.

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