The New York Times has a new blog called The Score where American composers write about creating “classical” music in the 21st century. Yesterday, David T. Little asked if music should be political and how this could be achieved without compromising the artistic quality of a work.
Hanns Eisler looked at this question in terms of balance, developing a concept of progress and withdrawal (Fortschritt und Zurücknahme), which suggested that a work should not be both politically and musically radical at once; that it should choose one or the other. For example, if you want to be radical politically, it’s best to embrace a musical convention that will be able to communicate best to the widest number of people.
Little comes to the very interesting conclusion that today we do rarely have revolutionary music like in the political turmoils of the 20s and 30s of last century but mostly critical music that doesn’t try to win — thus distancing it from a particular movement or ideology — which rather tries to observe, illuminate, and to critique a particular aspect of society. His thoughts are accompanied by a video with music by Ted Hearne that addresses the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
The criticism of society – its consumerism, hypocrisy, superficiality – goes hand in hand with a strong believe in artistic independency and progress in contemporary music or new music, what we in Germany write as “Neue Musik” with a capital N. The paradox goes like this: the more advanced, the more artistically elaborated new music gets, the more it appears impenetrable and unaccessible for a wider audience thus looses every social or political relevance. The breaking of conventions in the communities of contemporary classical music today is something like a prerequisite for a composer, it is the expected norm to break the rules and in doing so it is reduced to absurdity. Another funny aspect of the new music scene is its self-perception as an opposition against the mainstream pop music and the commercialization of the cultural industries: major-minor tonality, repetitive rhythms and catchy melodies have to be avoided at all costs, and again in doing so new music is completely dependent from popular music. Against all rebellious rhetoric, new music can not survive without federal subsidies which, at least in Germany, has led to a sociological biotop that exists removed from everyday life and is therefore not considered an important voice anymore in the social discourse. The German music historian Frank Hentschel wrote about this in “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik”, his German article can be downloaded here.
The new music system and community is, of course, a different one in the US or UK. Guadian’s music critic Tom Service held a brilliant speech last year about the end of musical history that addressed similar terrain particularly relevant in the UK. Here is his description of the sociological biotop of the contemporary classical music scene:
Contemporary classical music is often – a culture – sub-culture is really more accurate – that consists mostly of people who want to criticise more than celebrate, and in which assessments of value and importance are made in exactly the opposite way to that which they are made in the (most of) the rest of the musical world. It’s a topsy-turvy never-never land in which the ugly is the beautiful – and not in a good way – in which musical communication, conceived as the active transmission of sonic-semantic phenomena to as great a number of people as possible, is frowned upon (you can only ‘get’ this music if you’re clever enough, if you’re part of the club), and in which if you enjoy yourself, you ain’t doing it right.
Tom Service comes the the same concluding question as David T. Little in his piece for the New York Times:
Is it enough to write music that ultimately will probably only ever be accessed by a tiny minority of new music nerds, as opposed to even attempting to communicate with a wider public, and having a genuine chance of changing people’s minds or influencing their approach to the world?
His analysis reads exactly like the one of Frank Hentschel for the German new music scene:
The essential problem is that the musical gestures of thousands of ‘modernist’ orchestral or ensemble pieces is that their voice of protest does not carry any expressive power in and of itself. In fact, the idiom of the abrasively dissonant and fractured orchestral instrumentarium has become a cliché. It hasn’t been ‘new’ for about 60 years, in fact. So instead of cutting through or resisting received opinions or modes of production, this kind of approach to orchestral composition actually shores them up. There is nothing more predictable than the angular unpredictability of a modernist orchestral work – either when it’s played at a contemporary music festival in Donaueschingen or Huddersfield, or a London Symphony Orchestra subscription concert.
Tom Service’s solution, if one can talk about a solution to the problem, is that the composers have to overcome their fear of the world: “being unafraid of going it alone, of setting up their own ensembles, finding their own audiences, outside the institutions and the stylistic languages and mannerisms of contemporary music that have ossified around them.” His role model is the minimal music scene of New York in the early 70s, Reich and Glass, their own ensembles and their own audiences building around them far away from the contemporary music scene of that time. I hope such initiatives will thrive, although I doubt that we still have new musical terrains waiting to be discovered as it was the case in the historical situation in New York at that time. The field of music has been fragmented into such little pieces and islands that it is nowadays very hard to find land that is as fresh and full of fruits waiting to be harvested as it was with minimalism at that particular time. Nonetheless, there is still great new music coming from this hermetic scene, be it political or not. Some of my favorites of the recent years would be the superb Streichquartett Nr. 3 of Beat Furrer, or Benedict Mason’s “felt | ebb | thus | brink | here | array | telling“, a concert installation which broke the performance conventions of the contemporary music scene and was one of my all time favorite sonic experiences, or Georg Friedrich Haas’ piece “natures mortes”, which I heard in Donaueschingen once and which catched me after hearing hours of new music mannerism:
PS.: Some more reads about where new music is leading to: Alex Ross wrote a piece for the Guardian “Why do we hate modern classical music?“. David Stubbs book “Fear of Music, Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen” asked some similar questions but mostly failed to come up with a concise answer.