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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Last season maestro Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic filled Avery Fisher Hall for György Ligeti's berserkly comic, highly noisy opera Le Grand Macabre, written between the '70s and '90s. Here's a sample. The audience was largely made up of the youngish and hipish, which can't be said of the usual operatic performance. They went nuts over the opera, which they probably called the "song." A few years ago when the Boston Symphony put on Edgard Varese's Amériques from the '20s, a sort of slowly accumulating orchestral traffic jam and one of the most fuck-you pieces ever written, much of the audience was also conspicuously youthful and enthusiastic. So are the responders on YouTube.

From these points I began to ponder yet again, in a new decade of a still-new century, the state of more or less "contemporary" classical music, the state of noisy music, et al.

Let's start with some context. There's nothing new under the sun, and that's as true in the arts as everywhere else. It has been opined that due to modern media that indiscriminately preserve everything, contemporary culture is stuck on an endless round of recycling ideas, fashions, and just about everything else. We can no longer forget history or forge ahead properly in it, because the media keep history in our face all the time. Still, younger artists are often oblivious to the history behind what they do. Around 1999, I went to a program of new semi-improvised electronic "noise music." What it sounded like was Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1960s: squawk, snort, rumble, gleep. I wouldn't be surprised if that young composer never heard of Stockhausen. (The Beatles did, however, which is why they put Stockhausen on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. The main piece they knew was his electronics-and-voice piece Gesang der Jünglinge.)

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In music as in all the arts the struggle for the new is eternal, even if at times the "new" is some sort of take on the past, whether fresh or just oblivious. Bartók, to name one, could be so old, so primeval, that he was new. In any case, if you're a serious artist you're not interested in spending your life redoing something somebody else did better than you can. At the same time you also would prefer not to starve, prefer to have people like your stuff and pay you well for it, prefer for people to admire you and want to jump your bones. The tension among these forces is also eternal in the arts.

Through it all you're never entirely immune to the subtle and not so subtle pressures of fashion. The trouble is that these days, much of fashion is also recycled. On college campuses the styles of hair and clothes form a spectrum from about 1955 to the present, with a major contribution from the '60s. In the arts and academe, we have cycles and cycles within cycles, and trends and shibboleths and pendulums.

It can be tricky to separate out the truly new from the second-hand or shallowly trendy. Years ago a Manhattan friend and I went on a gallery tour of SoHo. The first place we went into featured an artist who did strangely juxtaposed triptychs: two colorful abstractions flanking a monochrome view of undulating hills. I thought that was reasonably interesting. Among the next dozen galleries we visited, roughly 10 of them featured strangely juxtaposed triptychs. It turned out to be The Year of the Triptych. In other words, there are vital trends and there are clichés, old and new. In an interview, filmmaker Sofia Coppola describes herself as having a "punk sensibility." That presumably makes her cool and current. As a pop-music movement, punk started in the mid-'70s. How many productions of Mozart operas or Shakespeare plays have we seen lately that are not set in the streets of Harlem, a bar in L.A., a fleabag hotel in the Third World? Updating is the king of theatrical clichés, and it's reigned for decades.

That's the context for a look at contemporary "classical" music, or whatever you want to call it. Here again, history doesn't advance so much as ooze, leaving a sheen behind. I heard my first minimalist piece, Terry Riley's In C, as a student in the '60s. I remember every bit of that moment, including the sensation of my jaw dropping. After years of most new music being of the cabalistic, chinscratching, "interesting" sort, here was a piece that started dringdringdring babblebabblebabble and kept going that way for about 45 minutes. It didn't sound like "classical" music, it didn't sound like pop music, it sounded like a Vermont hillside with a pretty girl and a joint. I thought it was about the coolest thing ever, and today In C still has a nostalgic residue of coolness for me—and for my students. Half a century later, there's still a lot of minimalism going around and around, the media tending to the techno now. There are also postminimalists and, for all I know, post-postminimalists. Nearly a century after Arnold Schoenberg invented the 12-tone method of composing, there are still 12-tone composers lining up their dozen notes and collecting checks from universities. Neoromanticism, named by my teacher Jacob Druckman in the '70s, is still used as a blanket term for pieces that are overtly emotional in some form or other.

To be sure, many artists despise labels, or anyway labels applied by other people. Debussy hated being called "impressionist," and presumably so did the painters he was grouped with. Schoenberg pointed out that "atonal" literally means "without tone" and is therefore absurd for any music. He preferred people to call his music "pantonal," but hardly anybody ever did. Beethoven didn't name the MoonlightSonata and would have loathed the title. (My music has been called neoromantic and I don't answer to it. Here's a sample, my memorial to 9/11, They That Mourn.)

All that said, I think there are more- and less-accurate labels. It's inevitable that we associate Debussy with his contemporary impressionist painters: Monet painted cathedrals; Debussy wrote a piano piece called The Sunken Cathedral. He also wrote La Mer and Iberia. "Atonal" may be ungrammatical, but it does imply something relevant about a wide swath of music.

So: Noting that in the modern world hot new trends tend to linger on over the decades, what are the newer directions in contemporary music these days, and what shall we call them? I'll nominate three leading trends. The first has a generally agreed upon title that is technical rather than descriptive: spectralism.