What is New Art Music?

by Derek Carter

     Turn to the nearest composer, instrumentalist, or conductor and ask them, “What is New Art Music?” After a bit of squirming and thinking, they’ll probably start their answer with, “that’s a really hard question to answer,” and generally, although the answer that follows is accurate, you’ll never get the same answer twice. I am here for you, reader, I feel your frustration and confusion. But I will not necessarily attempt to answer this question either[1], rather I will try to explain why it is such a hard question to answer.

     So when people talk about “Art Music,” we are generally talking about Western Classical music, thinking of Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. You might notice though, that all four of these composers are dead. So when we talk about New Art Music (often just called New Music), we are talking about music that is being written by living composers, and the “art” label is made to differentiate between “popular music,” like Beyoncé or Justin Bieber. You may wonder though, what makes this music “art” but Beyoncé’s music[2] merely just “popular”[3]? Well, you’ll find the new music world to be imperfect and often tinged with unjustified elitism[4]. Luckily, you will find plenty of discussion within the new art music world about elitism and plenty of other cultural dilemmas/phenomena and how they manifest themselves in music and musical communities[5].

     This is perhaps the most important/fascinating thing about New Art Music: there is constantly discussion happening about it and through these interactions, a community arises! After a new music concert there will always be discussion happening after, but these conversations continue into the internet through publications like I CARE IF YOU LISTEN[6], NewMusicBox, and the budding Chicago publication Cacophony, or through social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. The concert hall is not the only place where these discussions originate, either: there are of course informal coffeeshop meetings, but there are also large organized events such as New Music Gathering, and the famous International Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstadt where people from all over the world come to learn, discuss, and listen to New Music.

     The New Music community[7] is truly a global community with a home for new music aficionados in any major city. There are hundreds of widely respected New Music ensembles and composers that it would be a struggle to locate any sort of leader of the masses. Here in Chicago, we have music festivals like Ear Taxi and Frequency Festival, concert series’ like the Frequency Series and Fulcrum Point’s Discoveries series. We have record labels like Parlour Tapes+ and Cedille and dozens of ensembles and soloists dedicated to performing new music. Each city has its own flair and sub-communities within new music: if we try and look at the whole of New Music, we will not find a unified goal, ideal, or aesthetic that must be followed. What we will find rather, is interesting people with interesting stories, collaborating with more interesting people to tell much more interesting[8] and complex stories through music and art[9]. Perhaps we are all painfully aware that none of it would be possible without each other and we learn to share a give and take. Perhaps we are all excited to see what others can bring to the table and how others can push us to make better, to be better. Most importantly however, the New Music community affords artists a place to try new things and think outside the box.

     It is this collaborative nature of the New Music diaspora that links us[10] all together. New Music allows and encourages the intersection of performance art, sound art, noise art, and an all-encompassing non-sound-based art. There are so many ideas to explore and build upon, that it works advantageously to have a community so large and flexible. New experiments and inventive programming are the norm here; no longer must we sit through our twentieth performance of a Beethoven piano concerto[11] if we wish to listen to art music. It is this collaborative nature that makes New (Art) Music so hard to define. With a communal nature and a global playing field, the state of New Music is constantly changing, warping, and expanding. The line between art music and pop music is constantly being explored and deconstructed by composers[12] while there are composers writing completely different music on the other side of the globe that still falls under the category of New Art Music. Because of this wide range of expression, not many lay claim to what New Music is and what New Music is not. What we have is our own interpretation and others to challenge those interpretations. It is the community that gives rise to the art, not the art that gives rise to the community.

[1] An attempt by Joan Arnau Pàmies to describe what New Music is can be read here, but there’s a lot of name dropping going on: beware. I’m trying my best not to do too much name dropping, but I have plenty of recommendations.

[2] Lemonade is a cultural masterpiece and Beyoncé’s entire career could be labelled as a piece of art.

[3] Also a very good question, reader!

[4] There is a bit of hypocrisy too, because many composers today are writing music heavily influenced by pop music or composers writing straight up pop music. (Du Yun, who recently won the Pulitzer for music(!!!) has a GREAT pop album, check it out!) The times are a-changing and this elitism seems to be on its way out.

[5] Essay on elitism in New Music, essay on issues faced by women and empowerment in New Music, essay on the intersection of motherhood and composing, essay on racism in new music, I could keep going but you get the point.

[6] This name is in reference to a famous article written by serialist composer Milton Babbitt in 1958. Babbitt was concerned with the future of New Art Music and its break with popular music. He said composers should no longer write music for the audience’s benefit, but rather for their own benefit, to truly express themselves, though in a very rebellious tone. Check it out here, it’s a famous piece of writing in the new music world!

[7] Often you’ll see it described as “the new music world,” because it is so big it feels like a world of its own, often with a degree of isolation.

[8] Interesting.

[9] Don’t get me wrong, I love a good solo recital. But even there, there is an interplay between performer and audience (and critic!).

[10] Us: the critic, the performer, the artist, the patron, the audience, the blogger, the curator, the musicologist, the collaborator, the theorist, the board member, the soundboard operator, the composer, the student, the teacher, the bartender (maybe, ok probably not).

[11] There is a time and a place for everything, but I don’t think every performance of Beethoven I’ve been to has been the time or the place.

[12] Vague, I know, but check out Du Yun, Bjork, Mica Levi, Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, David Longstreth, Merrill Garbus, etc, and ask yourself if this music is pop music or classical music (and why/why not)?

Derek Carter is a composer from Chicago currently pursuing his MM at the University of Louisville.

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