When it comes to the arts, catering to norms can be stifling.
Contemporary classical music is a little-known world that brings a variety of approaches to the creation of sound within time and space, and none of these approaches can be described as completely normative. Most notably, composers in this world are alive and able to interact with other intellects and musical voices — something that Mozart and Beethoven simply cannot do.
To most, this may not seem like a big deal when compared to popular contemporary musicians like Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and Kanye West. These artists are alive, if not accessible. However the world of classical concert music is plagued by nostalgia, where new music often slides back to include music from the late 19th century.
Whereas art museums advertise “new” as an exciting intellectual journey through visual art, new in the concert halls has been met with dread since the emancipation of dissonance. The reasons for this are varied, and a few are discussed in Alex Ross’ article in the Guardian, “
The point is that progress in classical music, while equaling the progress of other arts, is considered in the public gaze years after its creation. As Ross concludes, “modern composers have fallen victim to a long-smoldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music’s idolatrous relationship with the past.”
When an audience walks into a concert hall, the atmosphere is brimming with expectation. The music will be relaxing, like a spa treatment. They will be steamed in musical beauty and massaged by the genius of the composer. This can propagate a sense of moral superiority that can and has dissuaded new concertgoers. However, the idea that classical music breeds betterment in people is refuted time and time again, recently by the of star conductor James Levine.
Placing the classical music canon and its composers on a pedestal only draws concert music further back into the last century. Yes, to a degree this music is timeless. This music is beautiful, valuable and historic.
But it is not the music of today.
To focus purely on the classical music canon is failing audiences. The expectation of the concert hall is limiting the musical expression within.
So thank goodness for contemporary music. It has the potential to push these boundaries until they break. The experimentalism this music holds creates a freedom for musical creators of which the majority of the population is unaware. Contemporary music is a vast nexus of genres. Within the popular world there is exploration, but held within a market.
Supported somewhat by academic institutions, concert music is free of these restrictions and can push these boundaries a degree further. This experimentation can be fascinating to some and revolting to others; but even when going too far experimentalism expands the potential of artists in every field.
Beyond this expanded expressive freedom, contemporary classical music is relevant in ways that canonic musical literature, like Beethoven and Mozart, can never be. There is a misconception that contemporary classical music is so insular that it is uselessly obscure.
But composers today often engage with issues like gun violence, gender equality and racism, offering alternate perspectives to popular genres like hip-hop and rap. Notably John Adams has written operas about pivotal events of the past century including “” and soon to be performed at the Santa Fe Opera, “.”
Composer Jennifer Jolley has addressed , the internet’s obsession with , the , and the the Russian feminist punk band, , in her works. In Jolley’s article for New Music Box “,” she comments on how inescapable the social and political times can be for composers and artists alike.
“We should create beautiful and ugly music no matter what — that is our mandate. In fact, we composers and performers have always been commenting on everything and anything that inspires and influences us. Granted, we’ve been indirectly commenting on political things, too. And whether you know it or not, we are always creating a reflection and reaction to the political environment around us. I just want us all to be aware of it. I want us to be more woke,” she said.
The connection contemporary music has with our time is occasionally recognized on UNM’s campus. For example, the UNM Wind Symphony’s collaboration with Land Arts of the American West, the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences and the sustainability program for displays and a concert of works to heighten environmental awareness on March 21, called “This Beautiful Earth.” The works on the concert were mostly by contemporary voices that not only documented current events, but also reactions and capabilities. They embody the visceral content of our time, unsterilized for the history books.
These perspectives and creative imaginations can be exciting and freeing to listeners attending with an open mind. Drop your expectations at the door and consider these events as personal journeys.
UNM composition faculty members Peter Gilbert and Karola Obermüller strive for new music to be a renewal of the concert ritual.
“Contemporary music is at its best an art form that never stops searching,” Obermüller said. “It is all about being curious and making discoveries, very much like a science but in an artistic way. If you look at younger music history, there are quite a few instances where audiences heard something they had never heard before, and they were either greatly disturbed or had revelations. Contemporary music in the best sense can really be ear-opening, engaging our sense of hearing in the most fascinating way possible.”
Gilbert and Obermüller also said they hope concert venues will adapt to be more flexible in denying restrictive expectations. They strive for the production and transportation to new sonic worlds that not only free us of our expectations, but present yet unimagined thoughts and landscapes. What makes contemporary music so exciting is not the academic rigor behind it, but the questions and possibilities it presents to each individual listener.
“As an experience, a collective experience, a sonic experience, a theatrical experience, somewhere amongst all of those things we are looking for a moment that feels unusual, that feels extraordinary, that feels memorable. Something that sticks with you a few days later, or even better, a few months later. You remember that one thing, even if you don’t know who wrote it. You remember the experience. That’s what we are looking for. And by getting into those moments, those points of resonance, by finding those little resonant points in our bodies and our souls, then we are starting to learn about who we are. We are starting to learn about our own humanity,” Gilbert said.
It comes down to the experience, creating that exciting theatre, stimulating intellect and engaging multimedia show that dancers and theatre directors obsess over.
To a degree, that obsession has been lost in the impossible search for perfection in nostalgic classical concert music. But genres of contemporary concert music are pushing the envelope and moving toward an expansion and coalescence of popular and classical genres — dropping expectation at the door and making it genuine, exciting and nowhere next to normal.
Aubrie Powell is a culture reporter at the Daily Lobo. The views presented in this column are her own. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AubrieMPowell.