…problem of explaining what I do as a composer. I’ll be on a date, or out with some people who have no background in music, or in jail after robbing a bank to pay off my student loans, and someone will ask me, “so what do you do / what are you going to school for / why are you in Eugene?” It’s totally natural to make small talk in situations like these (Hell, it’s even more natural to wonder why I’m racking up so much debt in student loans that I need to rob a bank!), and it happens fairly often, but every time it happens, I’m never prepared with a good enough answer, except, “I write music.”
At this point, my date / new party friend / police interrogator (Hey, it could happen!) says something to the effect of, “Wow, I love music! What kind do you write?”
And this is where that problem comes in! I have no idea how to effectively translate all the aspects of the music that I write into a nice, conversation-friendly soundbyte. Right about here, I usually fumble around with, “Um, well…I write classical music…but not really. I mean, it doesn’t really sound like classical music…it’s something…we call it “New Music”…yeah…”
To me, there is no bigger musical cliché than uttering the phrase, “Yeah, I don’t like the idea of putting a ‘label’ on my music.” Seriously. Try to say this phrase and not feel like a complete tool. This phrase doesn’t make you seem intelligent or open-minded. It makes you sound like every other composer out there. But, like all clichés, it’s based on a kernel of truth (in this case, much more than a kernel), that being that there is really no good nomenclature for what composers working today do.
Here, I’m going to concede expertise to a colleague of mine, Sam Richards, who has painstakingly taken time to talk about nomenclature in classical music. Richards points out some interesting politics behind the terms “classical music,” “art music,” and “serious music.” The insights are golden.
Richards defines several issues with the way that we name the classical music, but doesn’t tackle head-on one of the most difficult and confining terms: “New Music.” I don’t know of a term that’s more politically-charged than that one, except for “Classical Music.”
“New Music” made sense in the 1950’s. Back then, in the era of high Modernism, “New” was subtext for “obviously good.” It also meant music that was compliant with the ideals of Modernism. These ideals, composers believed, were going to propel us into the future (granted, it was a future where we all wore silver jumpsuits and had names like Dash Victor [italics added for sheer velocity!], but it was the future, nonetheless). In the now-infamous “Who Cares if You Listen” article, Milton Babbit describes this notion in detail, speaking mostly to New Music’s relationship with the audience and its history as classical music. (Using Babbitt is another nod to Richards, who mentions him in passing in his blog post. Thanks, Sam!)
Fast-forward, Dash Victor.
New Music today doesn’t make the sense it did sixty years ago. “New” no longer means “Congruent with Modernist Ideals.” In fact, lots of New Music being produced today bears more of a resemblance to “Old” music than New Music. Making matters worse, New Music has to compete in the marketplace of ideas along with popular music, as the common thought is that all music has artisitc merit, not just music from the Western Classical Tradition.
What does this mean for New Music as a label? Do we use it the same way today as composers used it in the 1950’s?
I feel that the cultural revolution of the 1960’s had a lot to do with how we use the term nowadays. During said cultural revolution, society reevaluated how we compared classical music to popular music, and decided that both could have the same merit (I’ve got a feeling that this is putting it lightly. I suspect that classical music was deemed a vestige of the old way of doing things, and in most circles it was thrown out in favor of a music that the counterculture felt was more akin to their way of thinking. I have no idea how classical music survived this, but it did, and it’s been slowly hemorrhaging blood ever since.) What this means for us today is that popular music often fills the artistic musical hunger that most people feel the need for. It is music that is meaningful, delivered in a dialect that the majority of people understand.
This spells complications for writers of New Music for two reasons. The first is that due to the wide dissemination of popular music, there are few people who are actively looking for music with meaning. The second is that once those few people find New Music, even fewer of them have the years of training and education under their belts to derive any meaning from what they hear.
I think this situation frustrates lots of composers. Many of us (myself included) went into school for classical composition with a sense of entitlement, thinking that the music we’re writing is obviously better than the crap that’s on the radio. After all, we belong to a Tradition here. What we do goes back hundreds of years! I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours to earn multiple degrees. Don’t those mean anything?! Why is it that four guys in a band, wearing ironic t-shirts and jeans, can be more valuable to music than me, with my tuxedo and my baton and my halls and my revered silence???!!!
This is what I think is at the heart of the term “New Music.” “New Music” really means “New Music-That’s-Part-of-a-Tradition-That-Holds-Itself-as-Superior-to-All-Other-Forms-of-Music-Owing-to-the-Fact-That-Society-Used-to-Intrinsically-Value-What-I-Did-And-Didn’t-Think-My-Job-Could-Be-Done-By-The-Beatles-God-Dammit!”
I think this subtext is what’s keeping New Music from being more widely accepted by the public. It doesn’t matter what bar you put it in, or what food you serve with it (Richards’ blog post mentions a classical music group that encourages nibbling on scones while listening to classical music…still pretty rarified, if you ask me. I don’t want to spend more time deconstructing what scones imply, though), or what clothes you wear while doing it (really, Mozart in jeans doesn’t somehow make it more accessible to the general public), it still (on one level or another) talks down to the average person or assumes that the audience is ill-equipped to understand it.
I think that the only thing to do is to let the public decide about what music they find valuable or not. The next time I’m on a date, or at a party, or robbing a bank, I’ll be sure to tell people that I just write music. If they ask me what kind, I’ll just hand them a CD.