On New Music
1. AN ANECDOTE
There is much new art music in the world today. Of course, every
work which you do not know and have never heard is new to you. This
became clear to me as one of my professors during the doctoral oral
examinations sought to chide me for not be fully acquainted with
certain works by a specific composer whom he deemed as central to
the Western canon, an opinion which I did not and still do not share
In the course of a most cordial examination, however, it became
clear to me that this fine composer and professor had not heard a
number of the operas which had become my "stock in trade," most
specifically my stock-in-trade over many years -- Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. I chided him sweetly in exchange, and we both
enjoyed a lesson about "new music." Of the minute portion of the
musical world which academics term "new music," no one can be an
absolute authority. Given the enormous range and depth of
repertoire, there is no academic nor professional musician today who
can lay claim to knowing more than a small portion of that
repository of the musical culture of today much less across
2. NEW MUSIC
What is new music?
In today's academic parlance, this phrase is meant to suggest
certain aesthetic stances and postures. Certainly no composition
student might bring to his lessons a well-crafted yet quite
authentic though new "Beethoven" sonata. Among other complaints, the
master composer would argue that such was not an authentic voice,
for the student would be encouraged to find his "own" voice.
[ 1 ]
This particular phrase became most humorous, as some composition
departments then sought to enforce the aesthetic stances and
postures as they themselves had been taught, embedded in the
orthodoxy of the twelve-tone and serial movements. For such as these
teachers, it was odd that they did not see their own inability to
allow for a student's "own" voice, explaining in part the aggressive
nature of the dodecaphonic movement which lingered too long,
sustained only by the academic ramparts behind which it was
encouraged, all the while the vast marketplace of music was
generally unaware of its "vitality."
To a recording company today, "new" music is the latest piece of
musical theater, music for rock bands and music videos, and "new" is
a part of the sales and marketing strategy. The smallest portion of
"new" music within this frame of reference is the first notion of
"new" art music which was long defined by the academic
establishment. Is the "new" of the academic world more "new" than
the "new" of the music industry as a whole? Any answer comes down to
aesthetic postures and opinions, for much of the twentieth century's
avant-garde experimentation may now be classified as "old," its
period in the larger historical context now past and passing still.
3. AN ANECDOTE EXTENDED
In the course of my oral examination, in addition to discovering that we
both -- professor and candidate -- had broad and incomplete knowledge of
most representative musical repertoire. We were both relatively well
informed, and we both had much more to discover. So it is will all
serious musicians, of course. During our conversation, he recounted his
first experience upon hearing the opening gestures of Bach's well-known
Toccata and Fugue in D minor. As a child, his initial reaction was one
of fear, as if the opening phrases announced something dire. I recounted
my first, which was quite the opposite. We then discussed an admirable
analysis of the toccata not based on common practice melodic and
harmonic bases, but upon rhetoric and its logical structures. The
central point herein is that we both discussed Bach's totemic work as we
had experienced it for the first time. For us, it was "new" music in
This is the reality for the world of music. That which is yet to be
heard is new, irrespective of the period in which it might have been
composed. To speak of certain approved aesthetic stances -- usually
enforced by a cadre of loyalists -- as "new," while ignoring others or
denying the newness of another music is foolish and impractical. When
The Who's Tommy was introduced as a "new" rock opera, was it in
fact "new" in the same way that the serial composers believe their work
is "new?" Was Stephen Sondheim's "Company" as "new" as anything which
his teacher, Milton Babbitt, had composed? Were the Four Last Songs
of Strauss, composed in the 40s, "newer" that Schoenberg's
Lunaire? Such questions are not difficult to answer, except for
those diehards for whom the word "new" does not mean "new," but rather
"approved by us."
For such as them, the word itself is laden with aesthetic posturing,
hidden criteria for each stance and staunch ties to one kind of
orthodoxy or another. Those for whom the newest Depeche Mode album is
"new" will rarely considered a work of Boulez "new," for in the
orthodoxy of the pop world, those like Boulez are most assuredly "old."
The same view is held by those in the classical world who look with a
certain disgust at jazz standards, musical theater and electronic music
of the kind practiced by rock and roll bands.
4. NEW IS ONLY NEW TO ME
I can have only one view: new is a most personal adjective to describe
that musical material which I have not experienced. For every child born
into the world, all music is "new." Wonderful repertoire is waiting to
be discovered. As I write this, I recall my first hearing of
Mussorgsky's orchestral works, Bach motets, Britten's "Sea Interludes,"
and so many more. Which is the "new?" At one time, these were all new to
me, though some written centuries before.
For many academics, only that which was represented by
on New Music was new. That which was "popular" was not new, no
matter how recently something was written. "New" meant for some "not
tonal." This is precisely why the twentieth century's experiments in
"new music" explored so many avenues, from the serial to aleatoric, from
the minimal to the electronic. Searching -- so it was always said -- for
the "new." The frantic searching has been a fool's mission, in many
ways, it turns out.
As Schoenberg had garnered his now waning position as discoverer of
a new musical "school," so did many labor in that dodecaphonic
field, wanting to be among the founders, the discoverers, the
influential, the "in" group.
Alas, the public did not play in that arena, for an "unwashed"
public knew instinctively what the word "new" meant, and it did not
mean what the twentieth century "new music" orthodoxies meant --
such as the likes of Harry Partch's interesting, new instruments and
new scales attracted few, as did the various performances with tape
loops and early electronic synthesis. There is a clientele for all
sorts of things, cultural trends, ideas and goods, but not all
clientele are equal in size or influence, and those who defined
"new" in this way were a tiny minority, at best. Reading obituaries
of some whom I have known, I take note that their lives are often
remembered more by their operating a music festival or concert
series for this coterie of like-minded musicians, than for their
Often music critics in newspapers, finding it difficult to write
about "new" music, fall back on a distinction. That which is not
radically dissonant is often termed "conservative," modeling their
words after political trends. It is easier to do so, than to write
criticism about the quality of a "new" melody when that melody is
best damned with the faint praise of adjectives like "conventional"
5. NEW IS OLD
One finds the adjective "new" throughout history, as far back as the
admonition to "sing the Lord a new song." [Psalm 96:1] A collections of
songs, the Psalms have figured throughout music history as numerous
"new" settings can be found in every musical period, from the earliest
notated to Steve Reich's Tehillim. Is only the most recent to be
composed deemed to be the "new?" Were one to adopt this
definition of "new," even Reich's recent composition no longer ranks as
the newest, for many settings follow his in historical measure.
That historical methodology in determining the "new" according to
some imagined progressive -- another political notion layered
falsely over the human musical faculty -- is fallacious, for merely
examining what is new by timelines alone declares atonality,
serialism, and chance operations to be "old" music at this date.
This is the basic error for the musicologist and theorist who
attempts to prove a progressive trend in music.
Now that John Cage
[ 2 ]
has written "nothing" in a piano work, and others have simply placed
in concert sounds gathered from any and all sorts of sources, we
have had an exquisite parade of opinions as to what music is, its
limitations and boundaries, its possible forms and complexities and
its many philosophic and aesthetic stances. But from Ives' polytonal
clashing of parade bands to dodecaphonic music, from popular ballads
and music hall to the rock concert stage, from opera to music
videos, we have still simply music, and the greatest population of
listeners -- listeners are those to whom composers speak -- has such
a broad spectrum of choices today that enforced stances as to what
constitutes "new" music are rapidly becoming old fashioned.
The most dissonant, difficult to play and complex are not the "newest,"
for all that has been done already, and the future of music does not
seem to belong to this avenue of "new" music. Music still shows its
vitality in Gebrauchmusik, music that is necessary -- necessary
for religious services, celebrations, dance, parades, convocations,
political assemblies, the concert hall as well as accompaniment to films
and television and even theater, in its cues and background. Against
this reality, the avid "new" music proponent arguing for yet more
experimentation and novelty faces a daunting task. As Schoenberg's
position as founder of a "school" becomes of less significance over
time, the notion that there are yet new schools to found based on some
new composer's "vision" is rather naive, if narcissistic.
The admonition to "sing a new song" has been a part of the Western
canon of traditions and trends for thousands of years. The
exploration of music -- one thinks of the madrigals of Gesualdo, for
example -- has been ongoing for centuries. The development on
instruments, from the simple keyboard to innovations in string
instruments to the introduction of the clarinet and other double
reeds, the Wagner tubas, the electric guitars, basses and
synthesizers all has broadened the scope of choice.
Yet foreground and background remain constant. A memorable thematic
element remains constant. The abilities of the average listener to
follow along a musical argument and appreciate a musical architecture
remain. What is new is what is simply yet not experienced. There are new
performances of unknown Baroque works which are "new," and one would
dream of the discovery of many of the "lost" scores of Bach, for
A lovely interpretation of the above Psalm verse was gifted to me by a
rabbi. He commented that "new" in this sense meant to sing with the
sense of newness -- with freshness and with joy. I have taken that to
heart when approaching a role, attempting to renew -- re-"new" -- the
music for each performance. In that most insightful way, "new" is that
which is remade anew, again and again. This should be a key notion for
any performer, to be sure, as one finds something new in music from
6. IMPLICATIONS FOR MUSIC EDUCATION AND OUTREACH
Given a time now approaching when "new music" is no longer a
marketing ploy for only some limited aesthetic musical stances, the
introduction of music to children should be more carefully thought
out. As a basic faculty among many faculties of the human mind, the
musical faculty reaches out to and grasps at musical experiences.
Exposure to a broad range of musical genres is necessary. Just as a
student should be taught the joy of learning, there must be nurtured
a joy in "new" musical experiences.
An anecdote proves this out in a small way. A colleague and rabbi
has two twin daughters. He had come home one late afternoon to find
these rambunctious twins to be in their room, quietly listening to
something, whereas normally rock and roll music would be the
background noise of the home at that hour. What he found was two new
listeners, avidly replaying the prelude to Tristan und Isolde,
those opening gestures touching them in a way which needed no
instruction -- merely exposure.
One may similarly find Barber's now well known Adagio for Strings
-- the second movement of a string quartet whose outer movements
earned them no interest from the very same listeners who repeatedly
hear the adagio -- as a component of a film score, as well as set
for chorus to the title of Agnus Dei.
There are works which speak to listeners, irrespective of the stance and
rhetoric of a composer or "school."
[ 3 ] Rapidly, such "new" music of its
time becomes "old" music, that is, it is accepted and firmly adopted
into a canon of work to which we are happy to listen. Less well known
perhaps, among those works I happily hear and perform are by roles and
songs by Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Barber, Rorem, Britten, Vaughan Williams
and many more.
How does one come to these "new" works without a guided exposure to
them? By happenstance, of course, and that is foolish for the
development of new audiences. Rather a broad survey of sounds and
scores will always serve to expose the student to additional
repertoire. Knowing the composers' names and something of the works
will allow student to further seek out and renew their acquaintance
with these "old" musical friends.
This is the best way I can conceive of "singing a new song." It is
how I approach composing as well. That which is new is renewed out
of that which has gone before. As a music criticism of a chamber
piece of mine debuted in Germany commented, "the future is in the
past." We must root ourselves in the evolving yet long existent
syntax, semiotic system and grammars which have gone before, lest
another musical orthodoxy come to waste precious years.
N O T E S
[ 1 ] In a similar vein, I
posed this question to an eminent professor of art -- chairman of his
department as well a curator for a major museum. I asked about one of
his favorite painters, and he replied Edvard Munch. Given that, I
offered the following scenario:
A young student as yet unknown to him brings in several canvases, which
were found in his grandmother's attic; the grandmother had known Munch.
If the canvases could be authenticated as Munch, the professor declared
this hypothetical discovery would be a true "find" for the world of art.
I then changed the scenario, saying that the student was an excellent
painter and that the canvases -- though the subjects were not copies of
any Munch painting but only in the style -- had been created in the
style of Munch. In that case, the professor declared that he would
encourage an obviously talented young painter to find his "own"
Therein lies the same challenge, whether for painter or
composer. What is style itself? Given linguist Roland Barthes' notion
about meaning lying "across" a text, style is what lies across the span
of a creative artist's opera omnia. As painters like Picasso have
had "periods" wherein style changes, so have composers like Stravinsky
had "periods" in which styles change.
Which is the authentic style? It
seems a silly question, ultimately. Goethe taught us that all we are and
do is the "one."
[ 2 ]
had the chance to visit with John Cage at his apartment in New York for
a luncheon of his macrobiotic soup and other delicacies. Along with my
colleague, tenor Tom Booth, we were talking over the upcoming Europeras 1 & 2 which we would perform. John was quite literally
chuckling over his "chance" operations in creating the shows, to include
choosing, excerpting and combining the diverse musical materials, the
stage settings and decor and the like.
I noted that he had made one a
priori decision, which he challenged me -- in a most charming way --
to name on the spot. I did so; he had chosen costumes by gender, the
choice of gender being not a matter of chance. He confessed quite
readily that this had escaped him. The planning for the upcoming debut
in Frankfurt was to near in time, or he would have gone back to remedy
this non-chance inconsistency.
As with all large works, the details
often escape us and our pre-compositional planning is often
inconsistent, making us quite human and more interesting for our
[ 3 ] During an introduction to a new production, we of
the cast sat as our stage director spoke for several hours on his
"conception" of the opera. He had handed out packets of articles about
the various elements which he was incorporating into his "design" and
direction. Some things seemed rather unusual though apt to the libretto,
but a few were quite odd choices, speaking diplomatically.
talk was over, the musical director of the opera came over to me and
quietly said, "I never trust a stage direction that requires footnotes."
While I place this anecdote in the footnote of a small essay, I think
footnotes are apt in the correct context. What one will see on a stage
is not served by footnotes. For more on this, see
How to Opera Germanly.