Letters: Contemporary Music?
Desmond Fennell, Anguillara, Italy, writes:
Ronan Guilfoyle (‘Contemporary Music?’, November-December) opened my eyes to a number of things. So-called ‘contemporary’ music is merely one kind of contemporary music. It is by the ch oice of most of its composers out of touch with contemporary society and contemporary musical sensibility. Its self-distinction as ‘contemporary’ is part of this out-of-touchness. The same is true of its other self-designations as ‘art music’ and ‘new music’. It is not the only kind of contemporary instrumental music that has composers and is art and is new; new jazz is another such. And finally, it is publicly funded to a much greater degree than jazz, although jazz has a much larger following.
Thus far Ronan Guilfoyle. A few pages later (p. 17), John McLachlan explains that public privileging of ‘contemporary’ music. He writes: ‘…contemporary music… is seen as part of “classical music” which, as everyone knows, is “establishment”.’
And that leads me to the following. Given that ‘contemporary’ music grew out of ‘classical’ music but in rejection of it, there is both truth and illusion in that common view, cited by McLachlan, that ‘contemporary’ is part of ‘classical’. But it does explain the privileging of ‘contemporary’: ‘classical’ is a prestige word. And it is the sharing of this same illusion by ‘contemporary’ composers – that their music is somehow a continuation of ‘classical’ though a rejection of it – that leads both them and their fans to regard the privileging of their music as justified and to call for more of it. This, despite the fact that their music is far from being the mainstream music that ‘classical’ once was, and is simply one kind of contemporary music among others, appealing to much fewer serious music-lovers than ‘classical’ or jazz.
So the obscuring of the real state of affairs is caused, basically, by that prestige term ‘classical’. It was applied to the music in question long after most of it had been composed; probably, I would guess, around the beginning of the last century. It refers to baroque music and the European art music that followed it from the middle of the eighteenth century to the early twentieth. Unfortunately, that latter music, after baroque, has no overall name. But we know that its New Orleans was Mannheim and its main creator, both as composer and orchestral organiser, Johann Stamitz.
Essentially, it was (solo pieces excepted) German ensemble music, which subsequently spread to, and was composed in, all the countries of Europe. For the sake of argument, call it Gem. So-called ‘contemporary’ music would then be New Gem, all persisting aura of the ‘classical’ gone. And New Gem could then take its place proudly, along with jazz, blues, Brazilian, Gem, rock and techno, as one of the musics appreciated by various publics in our time. But that is to imagine a clarity which the persistence of that term ‘classical’ does not allow us to have.
Published on 1 January 2006