New music in frugal times


Since the beginning of the current financial crisis in 2008, classical music as a genre has become – in the West – increasingly under pressure. But it seems that financial pressures are only bringing other pressures in relief: the pressures of ‘exhaustion of old repertoire’, the aging of audiences, and the critique that ‘classical music’ with its endless repetitions of the same works is no longer compatible with modern, progressive, egalitarian and multicultural society and does not deserve the elitist and high-brow status and position as expressed through its funding, privately in America and by the state in Europe. Serious music, be it the old repertoire or new music, needs strong arguments to justify its position and funding, and needs to be able to formulate its meaning and value for society as a whole. This can only be achieved by demonstrating its connection with the best of Western culture, with its cultural identity and with the community: its relationship with audiences.

In such context, the ‘new music scene’ is in a doubly difficult position. Where new music forms a separate territory with performances on specialist festivals and in specialist concerts entirely dedicated to new music, its relevance has become nugatory, and where it is occasionally performed in the context of the regular, traditional performance culture, it is mostly met by a polite tolerance rather than an enthusiastic embrace of a much-needed injection of new life into an art form which otherwise may wither away due to its character of a museum.

To get an insight into the plight of contemporary music, we need to view the territory as objective as possible. To interpret the view, we need a framework with which information can be processed and assessed. Untill recently, new music was seen within the framework to which it owes its postwar dynamics: a historicist notion of development which, after WW II, described musical history in a linear fashion from the past, via the present into an unknown but inviting future, creating the drive of many changes in the musical languages used by many composers. But historical development cannot give any means of value assessment, because music which is created in a certain period does not gain or loose in terms of artistic value by its place on the time line. So, an assessment of music being more, or less, progressive, is meaningless in the present situation, all the more so since the pressures require an assessment in terms of an evaluation which could bolster-up new music’s position in the world. A historicist approach is meaningless in a world where audience demand, available money and status within society determine practice.

A better context is offered by the idea that music is seen in terms of cultural traditions. A cultural tradition offers a framework with basic norms, deviations, reactions, and developments, i.e. processes within a framework that remains intact (transgressing the cultural framework itself would destroy the means of evaluation and thus, development). In this sense we can distinguish between popular music (entertainment), functional music (film music, commercial music), folklore music, and serious music (art music) which in the West is formed by the central performance culture of ‘classical music’. Where does new music fit-in? That is not so simple a question. Where new music adheres to the norms of pop music, it has to be evaluated by the framework of that tradition. Since we are talking about art music, serious music, we can conclude that new music which does not follow aesthetic and quality intentions of art music, can be left out of our considerations. But very much new music from after WW II cannot be related to the norms of the cultural tradition of ‘classical music’ in the sense of what was and is practiced in the central performance culture, in ‘regular concert life’. It is on this point, that much confusion of terms hides a fundamental phenomenon: new music after 1945 which had been established as ‘the most respresentative’ of serious new music of the time, has broken with the framework of classical music altogether, and forming a separate cultural tradition. We can thus speak of a new form of art, fundamentally different from the classical tradition, an entirely new musical art which can be best described as ‘sonic art’. Another term is ‘modernism’, possibly extended with ‘postmodernism’. (Further explorations of this theme can be found elsewhere on this site.) Anyway, modernism has created its own tradition with its own norms and varieties. Where new music crosses boundaries – for instance, between serious and pop, between West and East, between artistic and commercial – value frameworks disintegrate and make any quality assessment, or even assessment of intention, very difficult or even impossible. In times like ours, this is – instead of a liberation from limitations, as is often heard – an invitation for disaster.

Contemporary composers have to choose for which cultural tradition they want to write. The established norms in the usual ‘modern scene’, however diverse and varied, i.e. the type of work and type of sound that is generally expected from a new piece to be termed ‘contemporary’, are often still rooted in ideas, by now half a century old, stemming from a time when money was easy to find and a general mood of progressiveness – those hip sixties – supported new music that seemed to carry classical, serious art music forward on a wave of enthusiastic momentum. It is not difficult to see that this mood has entirely disappeared, undermining the ‘raison d’etre’ of new music at its core. Where money becomes scarce, one of the first things to be cut is a new piece on a programme and fees for commissions, where in Europe state subsidies are diminishing as well. Given the general lack of audience enthusiasm for new music within the central performance culture (the traditional world of ‘classical music’), new pieces are not very welcome there nowadays. The new scene (festivals, new music series by specialist ensembles) increasingly struggles to find the money to realize its projects. Most of the composers who are determined to contribute something to the existing repertoire keep themselves alive with other jobs and try to compose in their spare time. All this contributes to a sense of crisis, in spite of the procedures of commissions, performances, recordings and festivals still going-on – but for how long?

The central performance culture, with its long history, immense iconic status among classical music lovers and surveyable repertoire cultivated by star performers, has the best chances of survival in a civilization which begins to contest its greatest achievements, due to the artistic quality of its works which have stood the test of time and which are still capable of ‘speaking’ to audiences who live in a fundamentally different world. Scarcity of means will make it crumble a bit at the margins, but not totally disappear; there will remain a core of music making based upon the classical repertoire, which we can expect given the fact that audiences are shrinking but also being replenished by younger people, albeit not enough to stop the average audience age from rising. It is therefore unlikely that funding of classical music making will entirely disappear.

In the given situation, if new music wants to survive, and would be prepared to embrace the fundamental aesthetic norms of the ‘museum’ of the central performance culture, this culture would offer opportunities which would stimulate creativity for both the performer and the composer: the ‘museum’ would open its doors to a fresh breeze of new life, could attract more audiences, and thus would underline its relevance for modern times and thus, would have more arguments to justify financial support, while composers would find an opportunity to be performed by high-quality, committed musicians who would recognize the dynamics upon which their own performing art is built, and could expect more performances and thus income in terms of royalties and commissions than is currently the case. In short: a much closer relationship between the central performance culture and the contemporary composer than is found today. If this may sound as advocating conservatism, it may be useful to mention that this is only ‘conservatism’ if seen from the above-mentioned historicist perpective which has shown to be inadequate in the present situation. And looking back can be ‘progressive’ in circumstances where contexts are shifting and changing their meaning.

It will be clear that this relationship could only be possible if the idiom of a new work would adhere to the same artistic and aesthetic dynamics and norms as the repertoire on which the central performance culture is built. In other words: the central performance culture is a cultural tradition based upon norms which provide the musical dynamics which keep it alive and which offer individual development and interpretation. Seen in this way, composers could learn to acquire these norms, interpret them for their own use, and develop a personal ‘language’ that can be accessible and understandable to audiences, developed on the traditional repertoire. ‘Progressive’ new music after WW II had broken with the classical tradition, i.e. with the fundamental aesthetic and structural norms which were its basis for ages, and created a garden of its own. When that garden would no longer seem viable, a return to tradition would be not a failure of the ‘modern project in music’ but the exploration of new possibilities where formerly only dusty convention was seen.

Is it possible to renew a cultural tradition? Yes, because that has already been demonstrated in the past: the Italian Renaissance sought to emulate and to restore the culture of Antiquity, but in fact created a new world of sensibilities and realizations. Such an attitude requires a thorough learning process, which – as we know – was something of an obsession with Renaissance artists, and which has produced very impressive fruits. It may be that the pressures of the current crisis of new music, and the crisis that threatens classical music as a whole (the central performance culture), can bring creativity of the fields of composition and classical performance together and thus, strengthen the art form for the future, near and far away.


© John Borstlap / 2015

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