What is New Music

Towards The Future: New Music in the 21st Century

At a time when our most immediate collective reality is not only mediocre, but also dangerous and pathologically against the creation of fairer worlds, I would like to believe that there is some work to be done in our field, where perhaps we can reclaim creativity and imagination.

Written By

Joan Arnau Pàmies

To open the final essay in this series, I would like to provide summarized definitions of New Music and contemporary music:

New Music is an artistic praxis which aims at generating alternative sonic-aesthetic models to those determined by the prevailing material conditions. New Music offers a glimpse of potential futures: it is a token of different material realities. It is necessarily linked to some of the most advanced facets of modernity, such as the pursuit of self-critique and a belief in the possibility of material progress.

Contemporary music embodies pieces written by composers who have been trained in higher education institutions and write for European classical music ensembles. Contemporary music may also be composed for electronic or electroacoustic instruments, or generated through computer-assisted compositional means. This music assumes attributes of European classical music and builds its own ontology upon them. Contemporary music may 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. In the U.S., contemporary music exists as a conglomerate of artifacts cemented into two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia. 

At this point, I could prescribe what creating New Music should mean today, but I am afraid that this would be an entirely pointless endeavor. My view of reality is partial and any suggestions that I may have will be based on rather limited knowledge and personal experience. Furthermore, I would not want to interfere with the vast multiplicity of aesthetic paths that artists may generate by reducing the potential of New Music to the judgement of a sole individual. Instead, I believe that sharing brief examinations of musical pieces that appear to have some connection to the project of New Music may be a more productive action to take.

I will focus on three examples of works by the following artists: Kendrick Lamar, Ryoji Ikeda, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Kendrick Lamar: “Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free? – Interlude,” from To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

Before delving into this further, Lamar’s work is not notated. This is an important feature, since it implies that New Music is not necessarily a notational practice. New Music may be expressed through notation, but it can also operate through recordings, oral traditions, and a wide variety of platforms.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was released in 2015. This hip-hop album investigates a variety of political topics, such as racial inequality, structural discrimination, and police brutality. Here I would like to focus on the first two tracks, which appear to explore a few peculiarities that one may encounter in New Music.

“Wesley’s Theory” is the opening track. It presents a simple backbeat pattern in 4/4, which does not change significantly throughout, except for the occasional intrusion of a drum break. In addition, a low and dynamic bass line, as well as several synthesized sounds established as short melodies and cells, add sonic variety to the monotony of the rhythmic pattern. The words introduce a dialectical relationship between the two verses. The first verse represents a Black American artist who has had access to fame and capital, though she or he does not use these resources outside the logic of capital (“I’m gonna buy a brand new Caddy on fours; Trunk the hood up, two times, deuce-four; Platinum on everything, platinum on wedding ring (…) Uneducated, but I got a million-dollar check like that”). The second verse anthropomorphizes corporate America, which structurally subjugates Black Americans by promoting debt and consumerism (“Anything, see, my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog; Motherfucker, you can live at the mall; I know your kind (that’s why I’m kind); Don’t have receipts (Oh, man, that’s fine); Pay me later, wear those gators”). One should remember that “Wesley’s Theory” is based on Wesley Snipes’s tax evasion case, which led Snipes to serve three years in jail. About that situation, Lamar pointed out that “no one teaches poor black males how to manage money or celebrity, so if they do achieve success, the powers that be can take it from right under them.”[1]

The second track, “For Free? – Interlude,” is centered around a critique of how corporate America constrains Lamar’s desire—explicitly, Lamar refers to sexual desire, but one could speculate that there is a larger component to desire here, such as the freedom to explore one’s humanity outside structural oppression. However, I do not want to focus on the lyrics. Here, I am particularly interested in the accompanying musical background, which has evident stylistic characteristics found in the works of post-bop bands such as Miles Davis’s second quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Both this particular feature and the backbeat in “Wesley’s Theory” suggest a historical correlation between both genres (hip-hop and jazz) by virtue of aesthetically stating the rather obvious connection between this music and its Black American creators. This formal quality, expressed across both tracks, seems to point to a view that criticizes the hijack of Black American culture on behalf of a logic entrenched in racism and the perpetuation of poverty.

Lamar’s work may indicate that Black American musicians, regardless of the specific aesthetic qualities they have explored in the past, have been ‘pimped’ by corporate America. Radical Black American art has been commodified, with everything that this implies. An example of that may be in the fact that post-bop has become a standardized genre—treated as the quintessential form of jazz—which is studied today in prestigious conservatories and music schools, where economically and racially privileged students learn and master its stylistic particularities—at the very least, this is something that needs to be addressed. In other words: this art, which originally operated outside and beyond the expectations of a complacent culture industry, may have now lost the power to provide some degree of ideological friction. Lamar’s critique may suggest that the potential for disruption of this art may have possibly vanished.

Consequently, in the two tracks above, I would argue that New Music is generated by: (1) the anti-establishment content of the lyrics and (2) pastiching stylistic qualities from historically black genres such as hip-hop and jazz, which potentially enhances critical readings of the history of black music through the capitalist economy. Whether Lamar provides an alternative view of the material conditions—what should be done considering these circumstances—remains to be seen. (A deeper analysis of the entire album would perhaps lead to a definitive conclusion.) That said, both tracks discussed here present a highly critical view of not only discriminatory socioeconomic structures in the U.S., but also of the assimilation of radical Black American culture—in the form of music—by these very structures.

Ryoji Ikeda: the transfinite (2011)

Ryoji Ikeda is primarily known for his electronic music albums, which tend to use minimal and repetitive materials often expressed through a representational aesthetics based on glitch and temporary computer malfunction. the transfinite is an audiovisual installation piece:

There is much that could be said about the transfinite, but I would like to focus on the interrelatedness of two aspects that I personally find significant: the overwhelmingness of the experience and the semantic implications of the audiovisual materials employed.

Nick Srnicek has argued that,

Ryoji Ikeda’s work on dataphonics is exemplary of this approach. Wielding massive datasets and numbers that defy human comprehension, Ikeda has built installations and soundscapes that operate at the very boundaries of human sensibility. The sonic frequencies of his music often just barely enter into the range of human auditory capacities, and his visual installations are designed to overwhelm and incapacitate. The technical sublime emerges here: where perception recoils at an incomprehensible vastness whilst cognition and reason sits back and black boxes it. The sublime here is the parallax tension between a horror at the level of sensibilia and conceptual understanding at the level of cognition.[2]

the transfinite may be understood as a representation of the vast complexity of underlying networks that form the present world. It is a constant flux of monolithic information, which swamps human sensorial experience with exceedingly fast changes in light and sound. As Srnicek contends, it is “designed to overwhelm and incapacitate,” an argument with which I would agree. I would also like to point to the fact that the viewer/listener is located inside the piece: the spectator truly is in a position where she or he has to navigate through these streams of data. In addition, I would suggest that the nature of the sounds employed conveys a landscape that resembles that of encrypted data, thus contributing to the illusion of the impossibility of deciphering the true meaning of these materials.

As I see it, the transfinite functions as a rather clear parallel to how global markets operate today: high-speed algorithmic trading which allows capital to fluctuate internationally at extremely fast speeds. Simultaneously, people—biopower, as Michel Foucault and later Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri would describe it—have neither the physical ability nor the means to change their geographic location at a similar rate. the transfinite operates according to the same paradoxical logic: digital data is highly dynamic, while spectators are physically stuck in this ever-changing space.

While the transfinite may be an excellent example of a representational aesthetics of early 21st-century capital, I am not sure whether it provides a critique of this situation, let alone an alternative. I will leave this up to the reader’s discretion.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110: I. Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo (1821)

In spite of having been dead for almost two centuries, Beethoven is a paradigmatic composer of New Music—here the word “New” emerges as a major contradictory entity. Beethoven produced a body of work which, in my view, exemplifies the two fundamental priorities of the modern project of New Music: (1) the critique of (possibly flawed) traditional models and (2) the creation of newer (perhaps more productive) alternative means. The surface of the composer’s discourse—the rhetorical tools rooted in functional tonality—is certainly old and familiar to many, but I am not sure that his ability to question, deconstruct, and reassemble musical discursivity has been recognized by large audiences yet. Beethoven, as Adorno and Charles Rosen have argued, is possibly a Classical and a modernist composer at once. (This has also been contended by Michael Spitzer in his book Music as Philosophy[3].) In fact, one could speculate that Beethoven is the ultimate New Music composer, since the object of his critique—the Classical style—is a consistent stylistic formation relatively easy to categorize and scrutinize. From Haydn to Mozart, to the likes of Muzio Clementi and Johann Christian Bach, the Classical style demonstrates a highly systematic approach to formal development. What we know as sonata form is an example of this aesthetic. Sonata form is rooted in a dialectical means of organization, in which two contrasting themes (A and B) in different keys are ultimately reintroduced (and reconciled) in the original key of the movement after having gone through multiple potential organizational options in a developmental section. This form, in its most basic iterations, was commonly used in some movements of instrumental sonatas, chamber music, and symphonies, and was a fundamental pillar of Central European notated music in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beethoven was thus a composer working in this tradition.

The first movement of Beethoven’s thirty-first sonata for piano is an excellent instance of the composer’s interest in disrupting the traditional logic of sonata form. Firstly, though, it may be of help to provide an example of the quintessential structural organization of sonata form. Here is the first movement of Clementi’s first piano sonata in C:

Clementi’s first piano sonata in C

One can easily see the two themes introduced in the exposition: A in the tonic key; B in the dominant. The dialectical opposition of thesis (A) and antithesis (B) blossoms in the development, while the synthesis of the two appears in the recapitulation, where both themes are now reintroduced in the original tonic key.

This model is significantly challenged by Beethoven:

Beethoven’s thirty-first sonata for piano

The movement opens with a similar discursive approach to the Clementi, with the addition of introductory material. Among the many special peculiarities that one could discuss here, what is particularly striking is the insertion of a false recapitulation, which reintroduces the A theme in the predominant key (IV) instead of in the tonic. This practice, however, had already been pursued by earlier composers. One may think of Haydn’s Symphony No. 55 or Mozart, whose first movement of the Piano Sonata K. 545 introduces the A theme in the recapitulation in the key of the predominant. Nonetheless, in the example above, it seems as if Beethoven wanted us to be aware of this structural discrepancy, to the extent that one can perceive mm. 75-78 as his deliberate attempt to write a tonal correction. The third measure in the attached excerpt from the score, where the key signature changes, may be considered to be an interruption and repurposing of the previous material:

Beethoven Key Correction

That a composer would think of writing a measure of music whose main purpose is to raise consciousness of and point to the “mistake” committed by a false recapitulation is something that impresses me very much. This compositional move suggests Beethoven’s awareness of the tradition he operates in, which I suspect he did not take for granted, but rather assumed as a historical artifact open to further problematization. It is this externality of tradition, paradoxically accomplished by the deepest knowledge of its intricacies, that allowed Beethoven to generate a New Music. The alternative here lies in the possibility of thinking musically beyond the Classical style, in particular outside sonata form. Or, demonstrating that musical expression may be successfully achieved (and enhanced!) outside of a particular tradition.

At the expense of losing nuance, if I were to oversimplify my language, New Music is an emancipatory project largely dissatisfied with the world, which thus attempts to project the possibility of other worlds. On the other hand, contemporary music is music created today based on rather superficial aesthetic qualities (instrumentation, gesture, harmony, counterpoint, texture, timbre) found in European classical music. This distinction explains why I define some of Kendrick Lamar’s work as New Music, while it cannot certainly be understood as a form of contemporary music. That is also why there may certainly exist New Music that uses some aesthetic features from contemporary music. In addition, New Music does not have to be new: Beethoven has strong New Music qualities—whether these convey any real potential today or not is an entirely different conversation. To sum up: New Music is ultimately an anti-establishment (and by that I mean all forms of anti-establishment: economic, cultural, educational, artistic) ideologico-aesthetic project, whereas contemporary music does not have to be.

As a composer myself, I do my best to write New Music. Whether it is notated or not, whether it uses recent technological developments, whether and how it uses Western instruments: these are—to some extent—secondary aspects of my music. Ultimately, I am at a point in my career where my priority is to create works that do not accept a given tradition as a natural artifact. I try to persistently reevaluate the knowledge I have gained over years of study, as well as the tools that I have been given throughout my formal education. This does not come from a dogmatic position, but rather from an experimental hypothesis. My contention is that music may serve to open alternative paths for human existence, through which we may gain access to uncharted phenomenological territories.

At a time when our most immediate collective reality is not only mediocre, but also dangerous and pathologically against the creation of fairer worlds, I would like to believe that there is some work to be done in our field, where perhaps we can reclaim creativity and imagination through the difficult—yet hopefully productive—process of constant self-critique, rigorous historical analysis, and the development of a holistic praxis that is skeptical of the thoughtless reiteration of obsolete models.

At the very least, I would suggest that it is our social responsibility to stick our fingers into the small cracks in this wall of concrete located in front of us—that is, a standardized and commodified existence—which has robbed us of the possibility of imagining a better future.

1. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/the-juice/6517089/kendrick-lamar-to-pimp-a-butterfly-caterpillar-album-title.

2. Nick Srnicek, “Navigating Neoliberalism: Political Aesthetics in an Age of Crisis,” presented at The Matter of Contradiction: Ungrounding the Object, Vassivière, France, 8-9 September, 2012.

3. Michael Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven’s Late Style (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).