Contemporary music trends: The new niceness, aesthetic brutalism, and spectralism explained.

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July 11 2011 6:55 AM

A Grand Tour of Contemporary Music

All the new noise explained.

(Continued from Page 2)

Finally there is a new generation of composers who have fled as far as possible from the old avant-garde and offer the public a warm, fuzzy embrace. Composer Andy Vores has dubbed this aesthetic the new niceness. It can be really pretty. At its worst, new niceness would suit a commercial for gummy bears. Somebody who's ridden a flair for the pretty to a nice career is Boston's Michael Gandolfi. Here's a clip from his Y2K Compliant, played by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project:

New niceness made the map definitively last year when Jennifer Higdon's mellifluous Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize. It may not have been since the '50s that a piece this attractive in the old-fashioned sense of the word last won the big P. Here's the climax of the second movement, played by the impeccable Hilary Hahn, who the year before won a Grammy with the Schoenberg Violin Concerto (which she made sound as nice as it's ever going to). The orchestra is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko, and the clip is courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.

Higdon and Gandolfi are members of what's become known as the "Atlanta School," because they've been championed by Atlanta Symphony conductor Robert Spano. Another member is Osvaldo Golijov, much of whose celebrated Passion of St. Mark sounds like salsa on steroids.


The current scene in all the arts is chaos and anarchy on every hand, but as the Chinese or somebody says, in danger there is opportunity. If I'm right that there's a youngish and hipish audience who respond to the noisier sort of music, that's surely to the good. Go to YouTube and listen to Murail, Grisey, and the late Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, who's just now getting the attention he deserves. (Here's a taste of Scelsi, the uncanny first movement of his Uaxuctum.)

Read the rapturous comments on these composers and note their tone. One rave ends with the reminder, "smoke dope everyday."

That Schoenberg wins Grammys and sells recordings, and Jennifer Higdon wins a Pulitzer, and Ligeti at his most riotous sells out the Philharmonic—these are all good things. The audience for the noisier stuff may end up going backward from Le Grand Macabre to Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Ives. After that they might be forced to admit that they're actually into classical music, and who knows what might happen then.

Here's two cents more. The archetypal avant-garde sensibility was captured in the dictum "Make it good or make it bad, but make it new." I suggest that it's time to take that attitude out behind the barn and shoot it. Standing in the middle of the sometimes interesting chaos and anarchy that is the scene in all the arts, I suggest in its place: Make it old or make it new, but for chrissake make it good. Over the years one has encountered too many splendidly innovative, yet boring and annoying works of art. Besides, as a prominent composer noted, with a touch of despair, about 25 years ago: "It's hard to make a revolution when, two revolutions ago, they already said anything goes." Making the same point with more hope, the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu said to me around that same time: "We are free now." He meant free of musical ideologies of left or right, tonal or atonal, and so on. There are advantages in anarchy.

At the same time we should keep in mind that, in the end, what's truly new and also truly good is the best of all. Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps will always be unique, hair-raising, and revolutionary. And while labels can be useful, often the most interesting artists are unclassifiable. The most apt description of Franz Kafka is "Kafkaesque." The best label for Charles Ives is "Ivesian." (Of course, the lingering postmodern sensibility says there's no such thing as "good" and "bad." This is essentially the aesthetic foundation of the current farrago in the arts, everyone speaking his or her own language and only the law of the jungle to decide who wins. To which I answer: If you really believe there's no good and bad, that wisdom, skill, talent, and judgment don't make any difference, next time you need an operation, hire me. I'm as good a surgeon as anybody, and I'll give you a deal on it.)

Voilà, my survey and my modest proposals. File this one with articles on "The Sorry State of the Arts" going back 400 years. For my part, I view all this with a certain distance, looking for things that excite me whatever their aesthetic and not judging the product by the label. I don't like minimalist or conceptual art except for the ones I like, etc. Labels can be handy, or you might not know the sugar from the cyanide. But what matters is what's inside.

Correction, July 11, 2011: This article originally misidentified the band that performed the hit "Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy." (Return to the corrected sentence.)