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 aesthetic 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.