Tuesday, 31 January 2012
DON’T GO CALLING MY CONTEMPORARY “CLASSICAL”!!!
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.)
...to 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.)