WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ‘NEW MUSIC’?

Composer & Music Reviewer Neil March considers the question and why it matters.

You might not think it but the term New Music is something of a bone of contention. Taken literally, new music would obviously describe any musical work that has been recently conceived. But that is like arguing that dance music describes any musical work conceived with some form of dance in mind. In other words, a Mozart Minuet, an Argentinian Tango, Chubby Checker’s The Twist and any Techno, Trance or House track are basically examples of the same genre! No, they are not. In the way that any term takes on its own associations according to usage and context, so New Music, when referred to in the context of today’s music industry, media or academic community, does not simply constitute music that is recent.

When I was undertaking postgraduate study at Goldsmiths University in an environment where composing contemporary leftfield music was highly encouraged, I was in no doubt that New Music meant that which was groundbreaking, cutting edge and, at risk of relying on cliché, anti-establishment. Chronologically however, the definition of new was relatively open-ended. It was certainly seen as quite reasonable for music composed in the postwar period to be deemed new provided it was founded on harmonic principles and generative techniques that were non-mainstream and rooted in atonality. So what qualified music to be preceded by the word new had less to do with its age and much more to with its technical and harmonic character.

To some extent, this interpretation of the term New Music is echoed by certain BBC institutions such as Radio Three’s flagship new music show Late Junction. When Late Junction’s presenters refer to new music we instantly know they are talking about music that is either aurally challenging and pushing back the envelope by adopting novel techniques and alternative forms of musical [especially but not limited to harmonic] language or it is new because it is utilising sound art, electronic music, digital synthesis or some other cutting edge approach to the construction of aural concepts.

Where this question of what we mean by New Music begins to be less straightforward is when it is applied to multiple types of music including [in the broadest sense] Pop music. As a moderator and reviews writer for Tom Robinson’s Fresh on the Net Listening Post and website, I hear frequent references to new music. Of course, Fresh on the Net quite deliberately places no restriction on genre. Indeed we often receive track submissions drawn from a vast spectrum of musical styles and traditions. Yet it is primarily associated with what academics would call popular music. So when I hear fellow moderators talking about being surrounded by new music, I know they are not referring to, for example, Emily Hall, Tansy Davies or Mark Anthony Turnage. They are referring broadly but primarily to pop music artists.

All the same they too are not referring exclusively to recent music. Their chief criterion is music made by artists who strive to be original. That is usually original more so than radical though there are a few exceptions who seek to be both. All the same, having been embroiled in surprisingly heated arguments with some of the UK’s eminent musicologists, I am very aware that they would be appalled by the notion of music which they see as the product of Anglo-American Capitalist brainwashing being talked about in the same breath as that of intellectually robust exponents of atonal, ametrical and highly complex contemporary art music!

As author of the new music blog Trust-The-Doc, I try to cover as many bases as possible. The newest edition contains distinct sections about contemporary art or leftfield music [incorporating electronic, experimental and ambient music], Jazz, Folk and Pop. The Pop music section includes Alternative Rock, Grime [and Brit Hop], Urban Pop (i.e. pop that leans towards R’n’B, Soul, Hip Hop etc) and Dance genres. So the definition of new music in relation to my own blog is necessarily broad. It is also focused on artists and composers I have homed in on precisely because they are offering originality in some fashion. So broad it may be but I am still setting certain boundaries for what constitutes new music.

Not everyone agrees with this [and other aforementioned] definition(s). I was speaking recently to a friend who presents a BBC Radio show focusing on new and emerging artists. Her view was that new music primarily refers to any music by artists who are yet to attain wider recognition and commercial success. In other words the definition arises not from the nature of the music itself but from the current status of its exponents.

Of course one might question why any of these interpretations matter? Perhaps they don’t. For me though, I see a fundamental importance in being able to define that element of any genre or scene which  is focused on breaking ground and contributing to the evolutionary path of music. Why? Because it is the continuation of that evolutionary path that ensures music retains its role as a living breathing art capable of responding to the modern world, the environment and the circumstances in which is it conceived. That is true of all art forms, not just music. It is why academic music departments promote the importance of studying and participating in new music as opposed to limiting the study of music to the great composers of the past. Like any art with a long and fascinating history, we study the old in order to understand, contextualise and contribute to the new. That is a principle I often found to be lost on some of the music educators I had to study with in my school years.

This definition is important because, where the prevailing view amongst an influential group of musicologists seeks to exclude a wealth of exciting and original new music, this acknowledges the principle that there can be progressive forces within any genre. A good example is the contemporary folk music scene. For many years I have tended to ignore Folk, mistakenly considering it to be a haven for traditionalism and authenticity, a term I invariably take issue with. I was wrong and more recently, I have realised that there are a significant range of Folk and Folk-influenced musicians who are breathing fresh air into this long-established genre. Jazz, another relatively old genre, is kept relevant by a similar desire amongst its progressive elements to focus on new ways of working.

Another reason why definitions of new music can be important is where they affect opportunities for funding. Anyone who has faced the unenviable challenge of applying for grants from the principal arts-funding bodies in the UK will know that, aside from jumping through hoops and attempting to fit square pegs in round holes, there are contradictions between the principles these bodies claim to postulate and the rules they impose on applicants. For example, where applications relate to genuinely innovative projects it is surely obvious that forcing applicants to fit what are, by definition, unique ways of working into rigid procedures based on a tired status quo is not going to work!

I spoke recently to a talented young composer who works with a lot of disabled musicians. She pointed to how an obsession with conventional instruments and a bias against the utilisation of digital tools and methods was leading to discrimination against people with mobility issues. Who gets to decide that new music is only worthy of funding if it is performed using old instruments?

It did not take much digging to discover through a contact in one of these leading grants-making organisations that the main problem lies with the constitution of the composer-dominated committees who determine what awards are made. At best they are allowing a deep conservatism to cloud their judgement in relation to what is legitimate new music. At worst they are cynically self-serving and protectionist. Either way nothing will change until they are removed and replaced by less blinkered individuals.

It is not only funding bodies but an influential lobby within our academic institutions who also cling to outdated attitudes. One of these relates to how music should be scored for others to perform. Just a few weeks ago I read an article by a highly respected musician and musicologist passionately arguing that music cannot be seriously considered unless it is notated in traditional format. For an individual whose wider philosophical outlook is significantly anti-establishment it seemed an odd contradiction. But it is a contradiction that is at the heart of the debates around what deserves the mantle of new music.

Just as, in pre-digital, pre-electronic times, musicians had no choice but to play hand-crafted acoustic instruments such as have become the staple of orchestral and chamber music, so a universally recognised system of notation evolved to support that process. But in an era when so much music and sound art is being produced using digital processes and, in many cases, not really involving conventionally notated music, it is a nonsense to suggest only a system of notation based on an entirely different means of construction can have relevance.

It is also a nonsense to cling to the notion that music [and sound] is only of value if it can be written down for others to perform. This is a highly traditional classical ethos. It is also a discriminatory one which excludes those who play and compose by ear and effectively relegates all Sound Art to an inferior level of cultural significance. It also assumes that, in a time when we purport to champion diversity and celebrate difference, it is somehow still acceptable to present the Western Classical tradition as superior to all others.

This issue speaks to a wider problem of why, even in our most culturally and ethnically diverse cities, the demographic make-up of students undertaking higher education courses in music composition comes nowhere near to reflecting this diversity. The gatekeepers in music academia ought to be concerned that they are presiding over a culture that alienates vast numbers of talented youngsters from across our communities and fails to speak to their experiences. Yet such concern is certainly not in evidence.

There is an argument that says we should not be discussing what new music means in the twenty-first century at all but instead we should be talking about new sound. It is a valid position which recognises how much Sound Art and Electronic or Digital Audio is not significantly [if at all] based either on pitch or rhythm. Does that take it outside the remit of music? That in itself is arguable. After all, where is it written in stone that music cannot be purely noise-based?

Certainly any method for rating the cultural and evolutionary importance and potential impact of music and sound has to be genuinely inclusive. At a time when respected Sound Art practitioners are publishing books and articles postulating a separatist movement that rejects any relationship with music, that inclusivity is threatened by influencers from opposite ends of the spectrum (i.e. from extreme Sound Art separatists and from musicologists steeped in a culture of elitism and protectionism).

To the average man or woman in the street [at the risk of relying on another stereotype!] debates such as these must seem utterly pointless. Yet, if one is involved in a world where definitions of new music matter, they will continue to rage. The likelihood of there ever being a stable consensus is paper thin. For now the best we can hope for is a great deal more tolerance and open-mindedness especially among those whose decision-making materially affects the lives of others.