The Guardian launches a new contemporary music blog

Having ommitted classical music from their series of booklets on contemporary musical genres last year (was it last year?), the Tom Service and the Guardian are going all out with a 52-week blogathon on contemporary music.

Count me looking forward to this.

Comments and advice are currently invited on directions, composers to feature, and so on. Some suggestions have been made, falling into two broad camps: greatest hits requests (Messiaen, Xenakis, Glass, Pärt, MacMillan, etc.) or calls to be a bit more challenging (‘play something new!’). Of the latter, I like best this comment from embird:

Sounds like a good idea, However, I’d go myself for “has produced significant work within the last 50 (?40) years” as an important factor.

ajo1 also asks:

I would like to veer away from the stock standard ‘contemporary’ composers and find out about new music. Music that speaks both emotionally and intellectually. Music that is challenging and requires you the listener to pay attention and give in return. If you can do this it should be a worthwhile endeavour.

So far Service has stipulated two rules to a composer’s inclusion: they have to be alive, or born within the last 100 years, so embird and ajo1 may not completely get what they’re after. I’d agree with the ‘has to be alive’ rule, just so we can move things on a bit. But for the same reason I’d also tighten up the ‘born in the last 100 years’ rule. Elliott Carter will be the subject of the first post, apparently, but as much as I admire the guy, it’s a bit odd to include him just because he got to live much longer than his peers. If that also means leaving out Stockhausen, Messiaen and Cage, then so be it. “Contemporary music” needs to move on from the postwar decades sooner or later. Why not start now?

Photo by mediateletipos on flickr.

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7 comments

  1. But isnt Carter still producing “significant output”, and didn’t he not start composing until he was 50-odd? I think that in order to be considered for a list of contemporary music, you at the very least have to be making contemporary music (i.e. music, now[ish]). Personally I would go for no age restriction (100 years is so arbitrary anyway), but I would insist on some measure of significant (whatever that means) output in the last *10* years.

    I mean even 10 years ago we were still just about in the “Cool Britannia” Blairy period of British culture and had not yet invaded Iraq, people were broadly sympathetic to George W and US foreign policy, The X Factor had not been invented and Lady Gaga was still in nappies (possibly). So even music composed around then could barely be called “contemporary” now could it?

    On the other hand, don’t forget the performers. “Contemporary music” in performance could include all kinds of old music, so long as the performers are “now”…

    “Messiaen, Xenakis, Glass, Pärt” – all old hat, really, especially the first 2. Nothing’s even been written by them this century ;-)

  2. I’m trying to imagine what my own list of 52 would be, and how much it would overlap with yours or anyone else’s.

  3. I reckon you and I might overlap more than some, Jennie, but I’d bet still only 50% crossover…

    I’m intrigued to see how this pans out, as it’s an exercise I’ve performed/wanted to perform in various guises over the years. (And my “52″ would change all the time in any case.)

  4. In response to Tim’s comment. Is the case not arguable that contemporary classic music is a much slower moving field that the politics and pop music you are comparing it to? Or is it much faster moving that I think?

    I’m not, by the way, trying to make that argument myself as I don’t feel qualified, but that is my gut feel as someone who only watches from the perimeter and is still busy discovering post-war music.

  5. @dangusset I assume you mean me and not Tim R-J :)
    Well, this is an interesting point and one that I wrote about academically at one stage… In the past, “classical” i.e. “Western art music” has developed approximately as fast as whatever the current means of distribution was, i.e. printing presses and availability of orchestras for most of the time, but by rote-learning and on foot before that (think travelling monks, Buxtehude walking miles to hear Bach, etc). This changed radically with the advent of radio because people were able to get to hear things (if not perform them) much sooner. Now we have the internet and digital distribution and this, I argue, is also having a profound effect. Not only can we get to hear things much quicker on YouTube etc (if we so choose, and if we can find them – perhaps thanks to blogs like this one), but we can often get at the scores themselves a lot more easily – composers can email PDFs or Sibelius files about very easily.
    So, if the speed of distribution does correlate with a “speed of development” of music, then I think a 10-year horizon is appropriate.
    There’s another complicating and related factor, which is the extent to which new music reflects the culture it is born out of. I think culture itself is developing at an accelerated rate, again linked to the means of distribution of culture. So for example the rapid changes of taste in pop music, this is obvious, the huge (and continuing) fracturing of dance music styles since around 2000 for example. Ditto in fashion, and even ditto in language itself (especially in a cosmopolitan language like English). Composers generally don’t live in ivory towers and their work is affected very much by their culture.
    I think we can test this by looking at the contemporaneous cultural influences on notable works of 5, 10, 20, 50 years ago. This is much harder in “contemporary classical music” (what are the cultural influences on Birtwistle’s “The Minotaur” for example?) than it is in pop music, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible or that we shouldn’t have a go. Would a piece of music written by an American composer before 9/11 be very different from a piece written afterwards? How about after the Iraq War? Look at John Adams (say, “Short Ride…” (1986) through “On The Transmigration…” (2002) to “Doctor Atomic” (2005)) and I think the answer is clear, at least for him. It is of course harder for composers who don’t use such overt programmes (not that his subtexts are immediately obvious by the way). Anyway, I could go on, but this is only a comment on a blog post and not a thesis ;-)

  6. Pingback: • BBC Music Magazine ‘The Great Composers’ « Adrian Thomas

  7. Interesting stuff, thanks Tim (B). To skim over other fields in a similar way, one could argue the case, for pop and dance music especially, that they are primarily technology driven and as the rate of technological change is increasing so is the speed with which pop and dance music genres go in and out of fashion. I take your point that sharing of scores with Sibelius allows greatly accelerated change compared to paper based scoring, so I will look into some of the pieces you referenced with interest.


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