Out of the Box: Plus C’est La Même Chose

Music is indelibly linked to space and place. It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible. That shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music.

Written By

Imani Mosley

[Ed. note: Last November, New Music USA marked its 10th anniversary. While we are continuing to celebrate all of the remarkable new music that has been created over the last ten years and our relationship to it throughout the coming months, we also want to start our second decade by imagining what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. To that end, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder this question. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. Our first contributor is University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley.-FJO]

Anthony Tommasini, in his final article as chief classical music critic for The New York Times, asks “so what things about classical music shouldn’t change?” It’s an interesting thought exercise that he unfurls throughout the article, reminding readers of things possibly slipping away: the sound of live acoustics, the exhilaration of risky playing, the generational work of artists and institutions. I don’t particularly have a qualm with the exercise or its examples — it’s a way, in a sense, of grounding classical music in a space and time that currently feels so unhinged, unembodied, unpracticed. But I am struck by the binary presented (even if it is to take apart a particular “problem”): that we in classical music-land are either asking what should change or what should remain the same. In approaching an essay such as this one that I was tasked with writing — what will new music look like ten years from now — I find myself running into that same binary. It is the idea that in order to assess or predict the new music landscape, one must be forced to face the conflict of change and stasis; not that things will change as most things inevitably do, but that change is not definite; stasis is.

This binary becomes murky both in theory and practice. One could say that art music throughout the twentieth century was based on change and the refutation of past practices. But as composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or. The urge to be static rose concurrently with the urge to change. And so, in the twenty-first century, we’re presented with a choice: to look ahead or to look down. Not back or backwards, not into the past (because pastness cannot be and is not always equated with stasis), but down: down at our idle hands, down and away from our communities, down and buried in the sand. Had I been approached with discussing the future of new music two years ago, I probably would have answered differently; that our desire to look ahead would always be countered with our desire to look down. But as we enter the third year of a global pandemic, my view has shifted ever so slightly. Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model. It has become “look ahead or cease to exist.” And while I do not want to tie this piece so explicitly to current events, I don’t think it is possible for me to talk about the future without acknowledging what is happening in the here and now.

  • As composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • That shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley

Music is indelibly linked to space and place. Those elements can shape, structure, and define our listening and performance practices. The rigid acoustics of a European concert hall, the grand solemnity of a cathedral, the vast possibilities of a soundwalk—these are all ways in which music moves from the theoretical to the experiential. Music thrives on the performance of the experiential, on the real. The real, dependent upon physical space and presence, has been valorized above other kinds of performance often by listeners and performers. Whereas other types of music and performing media may thrive within recordings, art music relies upon the live. This is not disputing the long history of classical music recording, but rather positioning it within a synchronous history of live performance practice. Recording obfuscates authenticity because it has to be imbued in order to be believed, as explained by Philip Auslander: “[T]he music industry specifically sets out to endow its products with the necessary signs of authenticity.” Even Pierre Boulez expressed concern about the fidelity of recording, where “the so-called techniques of reproduction are acquiring an irrepressible tendency to become autonomous and to impress their own image of existing music, and less and less concerned to reproduce as faithfully as possible the conditions of direct audition.” For a genre that existed before recording technology, its authenticity lay within the visage of liveness (one only has to look to arguments around amplification to see this concept at work); liveness becomes the real. It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible. Philip Auslander and Jonathan Sterne discuss a shift that occurred in the 1990s, but the advance of the internet has accelerated that shift. Space and place could become virtual, mediated, otherworldly. The late 2000s saw Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir as well as the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, emphasizing that a virtual space could still be experiential, authentic, real.

So, what happens when physical space and place are no longer available to you? The COVID-19 pandemic posed this question to musicians, composers, and institutions. What about your precious real now? Many organizations opted to make already filmed material available to a wider public, following the already existing models created by the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and Glyndebourne. But others saw this as an untapped creative space: Opera Philadelphia created a streaming channel with new works by composers such as Caroline Shaw, Angélica Negrón, Tyshawn Sorey, and Melissa Dunphy. These composers created works within a virtual space, decidedly unreal in a sense, to make a multifaceted multimedia object, one that uses all available tools to build something unique. Like the television opera/opera on television divide, these works exist in this mediated way first, much like Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave or Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Their authenticity is not predicated on some kind of prescribed and imagined liveness; they are not meant to be experienced in that way. And more than anything, that shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music. This is more than just using media, electronics, and technology as tools; this is about restructuring foundational elements of art music.

I am loathe to cite this pandemic as a breaking open of anything. Music’s relationship to this moment is varied and I find the “Newton’s Annus mirabilis” approach to these last few years as demoralizing and unapt. But decisions will be made and I wonder if in ten years hence, we’ll look back at now and see those decisions as being tectonic for new music. There is an immediacy that exists in a way that has seldom been seen and with that immediacy comes freedom: freedom to create new music without the shackles of place, space, and institution. The freedom that signifies the taking back of creative power and control. As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years. And I cannot imagine anyone wanting to give that up. With the virtuality of space and place comes a kind of equalizing; yes, there will always be funders, donors, money, connection, and privilege. But virtual space is limitless. I’m reminded of composer Garrett Schumann’s “I’m a composer and I wrote this music” TikToks, maximizing the medium’s penchant for virality, its visibility and algorithmic pervasiveness to introduce his music, new music to the world. And as we’re forced to turn to those virtual spaces to have as close to real musical experiences as we can get, the more we reify that aforementioned power. I do not foresee a looking down after this moment ends.

So, what does that mean for the future of new music? What happens in that next decade? I personally can’t speak to musical and stylistic changes, that’s anyone’s guess. But as a musicologist and historian who specializes in how people have reacted to music in specific cultural moments, I can guess as to how the moment will be presented to us. In schools, in our major institutions, and with individuals, we will have assessed what to let go, what will change, and what will remain static. Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves. Tommasini ends his article noting that he wants to “protect it [classical music], as well as shake it up.” This reads as that forced binary appearing once again and this moment now suggests that that binary may no longer be viable. We may experience another moment when we will have to let things go because they have been taken from us. And instead of approaching that moment as a deficiency, let us approach it as an abundance, as so many composers and performers are doing now. Creation not in spite of but out of a desire to. A future where change is definite.