Tuesday, 31 January 2012


Stand by for a nerdy rant about nomenclature...

‘Audiences flock to 'difficult' contemporary classical music’, by Alex Needham in today’s Guardian, is a rare case of good news - about how audiences are finally waking up to the “sonic adventure” of modern music.

He quotes Gillian Moore of the Southbank Centre on this welcome development. “Moore says the increased audience for these works is the result of a campaign to reach people interested in the cutting edge of other contemporary art forms, rather than those who prefer to hear Beethoven.”

One way this happened was through the borders between this and the fringes of popular music becoming more porous, if no eroding entirely. She cites a festival she put on: “we wanted to make the connections between Aphex Twin and John Cage, Squarepusher and Stockhausen.” (That was in 2003. By this point you’d need to remind me where the gaps were.) which I’d add the growth in interest in contemporary visual art, with the Tate gallery turning into two and the Tate Modern itself now growing an extension. Why would you want to spend the day looking at the art of the Twentieth and Twenty First centuries, only to go home and plonk on a CD so rooted in the Nineteenth it might as well wear a top hat and tails? When we open our eyes, what we see is our times. Why not have a soundtrack to it?

And I should know! For a fairly good example of someone who got into modern music by the congruence of these routes would be me.

So, having established what excites people about modern music is the modern bit, why oh why call it by the oxymoronic term ‘contemporary classical’? Or even, at one point, ‘avant garde classical’? Classical music, by any real definition, should have died sometime early in the Nineteenth century. Would you call Jackson Pollock a contemporary classical painter? Yet he used the same tools as classical painters (oils, brushes, canvas) so is closer to them than Berio or Varese (above) are to classical music. It suggests that everything that isn’t ‘frivolous’ pop music, all the ‘serious’ stuff, should get shoehorned in together.

Admittedly, I can’t think of much of an alternative! ‘Modern’ (which I used above as a catch-all) smacks of Modernism, which covers a briefer period of history than we need. ‘Avant garde’ is too associated with Modernism, not to mention dodgy political notions of vanguards and linear history. Some people use ‘new music’ (most often in connection with minimalism), which seems too vague and unspecific. Jessie J could be called new music, at least when she has a new single out.

Perhaps the span of this sort of music is so broad that it will stretch any umbrella term thin. As a stop-gap, I’d suggest dropping the ‘classical’ and keeping the ‘contemporary.’ If follows fuzzy logic, but it gets there. And I doubt Jessie J gets called that so often.

...okay, it matters less what it’s called than how it sounds. The afore-mentioned Gillian Moore suggests five starter pieces at the end of the Guardian piece. (Though frankly she’s on her own when it comes to Conlan Nancarrow!) But, as I suspect the third main way people get into contemporary music is by film soundtracks, here’s Ligeti’s ’Requiem’ as used in ’2001’. (Just stills, but hopefully enough to jog the memory.)

...and if that didn’t give you the shivers try Pendercki’s ’Polymorphia.’ (Sharing partly because of the fantastic visuals, perhaps a little horror-filmish but which still work well with the music.)

Pleasant dreams!


  1. I'd hardly call Varese contemporary either, for that matter (the present-day composers may refuse to die, but Edgard unfortunately gave up the ghost fifty years or so ago...)

    I must say, I quite like a bit of Nancarrow myself - I like the playing with mechanical technologies thing. Reminds me a bit of Ives or Harry Partch.

    When I was studying popular music at university (only did one year, unfortunately) the term that was used to cover 'classical' was Western European Art Music (as opposed to jazz, which was Art Music but not Western European). Of course, that term is useless as well - Partch or Ives were not Western European, and plenty of pop/rock is created with the intention of being 'art'.

    I think we're stuck with 'classical' frankly, even though that means using a useful label to distinguish one period from the baroque or romantic eras...

  2. Andrew, that must be the quickest response to a post I’ve ever had! You almost came in under ten minutes!

    I like Ives and Partch, but Nancarrow just doesn’t do it for me. It sounds the way naysayers of contemporary music seem to think all of it sounds – detached and cerebral. (Whereas the two clips I posted, to me they sound absolutely involving.) I even don’t like the bits of Zappa when he sounds too much like him...

    Well, Berio is dead (alas) as well as Varese. I’m using quite a broad definition of ‘contemporary’ really, pretty much from the onset of Modernism to now. Stravinsky is contemporary to my mind. (Allright, maybe you could call Stravinsky transitional...)

    I guess the nub of my contention is that Classical (in the narrow historical definition) has enough in common with Baroque to warrant giving them an umbrella term. But this music, that’s a definite break.

    Another point is that Classical as a term is now inextricably interwoven with notions of ‘high’ art. (Which may be a post-era development for all I know, certainly at the time Classical composers were always borrowing folk tunes and the like.) And I dislike notions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, partly because of the way they underpin class society, but mostly because I just don’t think art works that way. I quoted in an old post from an Eno lecture I went to, where he said different art forms work in an ecology rather than form a hierarchy.

    (Though let’s not go too far the other way on this. The concerts I go to that programme Stockhausen together with Aphex Twin, I don’t think they draw a massive working class audience.)

    Also, and this may well be a purely subjective thing, I tend to like art works that are either modern or primitive and don’t mess much with Mr. Inbetween. (With exceptions, despite the quote I used I enjoy listening to Beethoven.) When every single art mag was going mad about the Da Vinci exhibition coming to London, it just didn’t raise a flicker of interest in me! Now Miro on the other hand...

  3. Yes, as if it weren't difficult enough trying to figure out what we mean by "folk music", "classical" is maybe even worse. Then again, it's impossible to defined "jazz" and even the boundary between "rock" and "pop" is pretty much non-existent. In the end, music exists in a n-dimensional space of which age and artiness are only two dimensions. n is pretty high. Trying to slice of sections of that n-space and give them names is a tough art.

  4. I think Frank Zappa managed pretty well to define all music in a binary classification system : "If it sounds GOOD to you, it's BITCHEN; if it sounds BAD to YOU, it's SHITTY."

    Although he did qualify that somewhat:
    "The more your musical experience, the easier it is to define for yourself what you like and what you don't like. American radio listeners, raised on a diet of _____ (fill in the blank), have experienced a musical universe so small they cannot begin to know what they like."

  5. You think music is harder to pin down into genres than other mediums? My immediate answer would be "dunno", closely followed by "maybe." I'll have to go away and think about that one.

    There is the argument "it's all like nailing jelly." There's also the Wikipedia worldview, where you can go to any musician's page, click on the genre name and see a list of his bedfellows. But there's surely a midpoint to be found. It's less like a zoologist naming species to stick in cages and more like a colour wheel where everything is a mixture on a spectrum; "Jazz with shades of rock, and subtle tones of soul", that sort of thing.

    Words are handy little pointing devices. It's only when people fixate on them, at the expense of what they're pointing at, that the plot starts getting lost.

    PS 'Contemporary' also covers a vast range, significantly vaster than any of the other genres you name above. Perhaps I didn't do service to that with the two vidclips I picked. Scelsi, for example, sounds absolutely nothing like either of them.

  6. Funny you should mention zoologists naming species. I was going to use that analogy in my own comment.

    I'm not sure whether you're aware of this, but in my spare time (ha!) I am, among other things, a zoologist (specifically a vertebrate palaeontologist), with a side-line specifically in zoological nomenclature. My publications include one in which I nominate a new type species for the genus Cetiosaurus, one explaining why the species "Brachiosaurus" brancai is not in fact a species of Brachiosaurus, and others involved with names.

    My point is just this: unless you're doing maths, taxonomy is always hard and never rigorous.

    It turns out that naming biological taxa, and delineating the boundaries between them, is complicated and fuzzy stuff. There is an whole long, boring legalese Code on how to do it, and mailing lists where zoological nomenclaturalists while away the long winter evenings debating the interpretation of the Code. Species (and genera, and families) grade into each other gradually -- that's evolution for you! Most zoologists would now feel that there is really no such thing as a genus or family (though they are retained in nomenclature as a convenient legal fiction), and some have gone so far as to doubt the reality of species.

  7. Yeah, was gently ribbing you a bit about the zoology thing!

    You're right of course, my comparison's flawed because species essentially work like a colour chart anyway, with nothing standing still and everything blurring into everything else. I should have specified zoology as it's currently thought of.

    But like I said, these terms can be useful as tools. We just shouldn't expect the world to conform to our neat little categorisation systems.

  8. "These terms can be useful as tools. We just shouldn't expect the world to conform to our neat little categorisation systems."


  9. If we're agreeing we need to start talking about Doctor Who again!!!