New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music

New Music is at its core an artistic project based on critique: this is its link to modernity—what fundamentally defines its nature. It questions past, dysfunctional normative models as a means to generate newer, more appropriate aesthetic fields through which another future may be built.

Written By

Joan Arnau Pàmies

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.