Matt Jackfert Published

New Classical Music: Not your Dad's Classical Music

Igor Stravinsky, as drawn by Pablo Picasso

Igor Stravinksy’sThe Rite of Spring was a monumental work in so many ways: its size, its structure, and its ability to push the limits of what is known as music. The piece was so groundbreaking that at its premiere in Paris, France, on May 29th, 1913, a near-riot erupted in the audience.

This was partly due to the evocative nature of the ballet performers, but also due to the avant-garde qualities of the piece. Dissonances and pounding rhythms with quick tonal shifts and bursts of energy caused a discomfort in the audience, a discomfort composers would exploit in the coming century.

Today, The Rite of Spring doesn’t seem as wild as it did during its premiere. In fact, some would call it tame compared with some of the more modern works that have evolved since then. What The Rite of Spring did, however, was start a trend of composers who wanted push the limits of music and what audiences could handle aurally.

In the early part of the 20th century, Atonality, where there is no home key or pitch, emerged partially through the works of the Second Viennese School—The school of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. Atonality meant that all notes were equal so that the hierarchy of pitches and chords was eliminated, which would put audiences out of their so-called comfort zones.

To ensure the equality of pitches, the composers of the Second Viennese School created Twelve-Tone Serialism, where pitch order was predetermined by a sequence of the 12 pitches where no one pitch was repeated (as found in Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite). This continued to break the tradition of tonal patterns that was inherent in the works of the Romantic Era of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Serialism then evolved to include not only pitches, but an ordering of all parameters of music such as dynamics, articulation, and length of notes as we can see in Oliver Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensités from 1949. Here we can see the breaking of traditional patterns in several aspects of music: pitch, rhythm, and volume.

Soon, electronic music developed through the invention of magnetic tape. Through electronic music, composers could record anything they heard in the real world and make music out of it (Musique concrète). Thus, again, our definition of music changed to include all sequenced sounds that we can hear like the ones might hear in Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique in 1958. This idea was also captured in John Cage’s 4’33”, where a piano player goes on stage to seemingly play the piano, but only sits at the bench in silence. The noises of the room, nature, and the audience then become the music rather than using sounds from the piano.

So, now our definition of music includes all sequences of pitches or sounds, and even the lack of sounds. Thus, music has seemed to have stretched the limits of what is possible. Because of the achievements of these musicians, ANYTHING can be music. The new challenge is making music that is still new and creative but is still familiar enough to audiences so that they will want to come out and hear it.

This is where new composers today step in. Composers today have to build up from the stretching and decomposition of the definition of music, and now they can follow any number of musical directions that they so desire. Rather than following one or two trends (like serialism or electronics), composers today often will use and combine the experiments from the compositions of 20th century composers to create a new form of expression with them. Tonality, atonality, bitonality, serialism, Romanticism, Classicism, electronics as well as world and popular music—any of these can be used to weave together an individual perspective on music. Just like the trend in popular culture is becoming more focused on individuality, so too is music.

Dr. John Beall, composition professor at West Virginia University claims that, “We do seem to be moving into an age of hybridization in music. The boundaries, once so clear, between art music and all other kinds is becoming is becoming quite fuzzy. As [Samuel] Adler points out, experimentation is out now, except for a few. Music is more audience-friendly. Dissonance has been quelled and put back in its place. The internet and especially social media, has enabled all art music composers to reach an audience.”

Another point to consider is that many composers are now writing for audiences again. Many composers, instead of having ambivalence towards audiences, now HAVE to worry about what audiences will think or they won’t listen (especially with the rise of pluralisation of music). Classical music audiences have dwindled in the 20th and 21st centuries, partly because listeners were turned off by the avant-garde.

Don O’Conner in his article “What Took us so Long? 12-tone Music” says that many musically literate concert-goers “had no problem with say, Bartok, Ives, William Schumann, or Stravinsky, but simply could no longer stomach 12-tone work or its even uglier baby, serialism.” He also claims that, “Even the most ingeniously constructed row or series seems to most people merely a string of random pitches, and any variations or permutations of it are similarly perceived.” Thus, some composers are choosing to go the route of making music that is both creative and refreshing for audiences in order to connect with them, rather than blindly following a trend. Because, after all, if a composer falls in the woods and no one is around, will he or she actually make a sound?