On New Music


On New Music

A Commentary




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 with him.


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 centuries.




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.




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 that moment.


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 Pierrot 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.




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 Perspectives 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 compositions.


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" and "conservative."




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 example.


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 centuries ago.




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.



[ 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" authentic style.

          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 ]   I 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 foibles.

[ 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. 

          After the 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.