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

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

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.)


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.

What is spectralism? Um, wow, it's …


OK, imagine this: A composer pores over computer images of spectra, the acoustic waveforms that give sounds their colors. For example, the sounds of each vowel, A E I O U, arise from the distinctive spectra of each. A sitar has a different spectrum than a banjo, which is how we tell one from the other. A computer can turn those spectra into a visual representation. Using computer analysis, the composer can then shape pieces around the unfolding of tone colors in a sort of, um, you know … scientific way or whatever. The two recognized godfathers of spectralism are both French: Tristan Murail, now teaching at Columbia, and Gérard Grisey, who died in 1998. Here's the beginning of Grisey's Partiels.

All this, once again, is nothing entirely new. Spectralists trace their ancestry back to the intoxicating perfumes of Debussy's harmony, via the livid colors of Varèse through Stockhausen, a pioneer in electronic music who called himself a "tone-color composer." But until spectralists with their charts and computer models there was no real method of tone-color composition.

Our composer poring over computer images is a bit the cliché of spectralists, but it happens. Thus spectralism has the frisson of the trendy and cool yet technical that so much appeals to university tenure committees. But the early spectralists like Murail and Grisey did not use computers much; they did it by ear and instinct. Boston composer Joshua Fineberg, who studied with Murail, says this music is in part a reaction against the avant-garde of the '60s and '70s, and its often private, inaudible arcana: "Pieces like (Stockhausen's) Stimmung, are fundamentally static, from a harmonic perspective. … For [Grisey] it was about reestablishing …, harmonic change that was … directly perceptible." (Here's an interview with Fineberg.)

Which is to say that after Schoenberg and his fellow modernists exploded the old scales and harmonies and delved into more complex sounds, the ensuing music tended, whatever its virtues, to have a sense of drifting moment to moment without a discernable path. Spectralists want to use the kind of free harmony that composers (maybe even audiences) have gotten used to, but to imbue it with a sense of forward progress that it has rarely possessed before. Fineberg insists that the essence of spectralism is to find new ways way of achieving an old-fashioned virtue: music with an audible feeling of direction. Back to Mozart, say, but Mozart on another planet—as in say, Murail's Désintégrations.


Our other two current trends are nicely complementary, one aggressively noisy and the other aggressively pleasant. For the noisy sort, I propose the genre aesthetic brutalism. Since this music tends to have a certain punk sensibility, and authentic punks aren't given to explaining themselves other than with blows to the head, let's listen to a defining example, a cut from "Eight Songs," by Jefferson Friedman. These are arrangements of pieces by the noise band Crom-Tech, played here by the Yesaroun' Duo, Eric Hewitt on baritone sax and Samuel Z. Solomon on drums:

Here we have a real colonoscopy of a piece, and I mean that in the best sense. Yes, that was a sax and drums, run through a little mixing, but played live it sounds just as invasive. The person doing the howling was the drummer, who is called upon to scream a lot. Aesthetic brutalism is not so much in the gestures as in the frame of mind. I once went to a lecture by a young academic brutalist. It consisted of incomprehensible mathematical jargon illustrated by slides of cigarette butts on the street.

Aesthetic brutalism actually has a long ancestry. One precedent is Iannis Xenakis, the leading Greek avant-gardist of the 1950s through the '70s. Here's Xenakis' solo percussion piece Psappha, which features earsplitting explosions on a bass drum. In this piece the composer does not aspire to move you; he wants to hurt you.

In fact, Xenakis is often cited as a forerunner of spectralism, because he was much involved in new sounds—mainly sounds of the loud and hairy variety. There is a general overlap between spectralism and brutalism; the difference is mainly in sensibility. Xenakis was highly individual but still within the orbit of the midcentury European avant-garde, the generation of Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Boulez. Brutalists often have a background in heavy metal or punk and an often ahistorical sensibility formed in a riotous milieu.


The pop/ classical circuit is nothing new, either. As of 50 years ago a number of high-modernist classical composers came out of a jazz background. Among them was Mel Powell, who once played piano in the Glenn Miller Band. As a rough guess, more than half of current new-music composers started in rock. The most unreconstructed, ultra-academic 12-tone composer I know used to play lead guitar with a band called the Ohio Express, * who were leaders of the '60s "bubblegum" genre and whose hits include the immortal "Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy."

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.)