Category Archives: Music

‘New Music’ is not a genre

I feel like the words ‘new music’ have come to mean a specific genre of music. Yes, it’s mostly synonymous with ‘Contemporary Western Art Music’, but I think the definition is often a bit beyond even that.

A newly written piece of music using more traditional musical ideas from Western art music is often ascribed a weird place of limbo; It’s a newly written work, but one in a well established musical style or genre.

Well, technically ‘new music’ is just new + music. Music written recently.

But because a lot of musical scholarship has tended to focuses on the times when composers did something unexpected, pushed the boundaries, and unintentionally pioneered the new, we have come to, with the Art Music genre, place a lot of emphasis on this as a defining feature of a great composer. It’s good to remember, however, that probably 90% most of Beethoven’s works were fairly conventional, traditional and classical, if still distinctly Beethoven. Perhaps too much emphasis has been put on the times where composers deviate from the norm, rather than seeing the greater whole of their output.

Regardless of why, ‘New Music’ in the art music genre, is often not simply categorised as newly written music. A piece written in 2013 that very convincingly sounds like Mozart, is unlikely to be thought of as ‘new music’ by a lot of people despite its recent composition date.

A lot of arguments happen about what ‘new music’ ought to be – for example, whether it should be tonal or atonal – and I think a big part of this is because a lot of different sub genres are trying to stake out their claim to bad terminology.

Bad labels lead to bad thinking.
If you’ve ever studied music from a cultural foreign to your own, you have likely had to revise your definitions of music to accommodate music that is very different to your own. Even more telling perhaps is when things that sound clearly musical to you are not thought of as music in another culture.

While it’s ridiculously unlikely that the way people think of new music is going to change just because I speculate that it’s a bad name, I nevertheless think we need a better bracket term for all kinds of recently written music in the Western Art Music genre… A ‘New Release’ type of title, which covers the multitude of sub genres without stylistic preference.

‘New Music’ shouldn’t be a style or genre, but primarily description of composition date of the work.

Some better ways of categorising sub-genres would be helpful too…

Is the composer living?
Does the music use traditional harmony – Triadic or Non-triadic?
Does the music place the most emphasis on: Melody & Harmony; Timbre; Process; Soundscape; etc.
And so forth.

Obviously there are not going to always be clear answers, but it’s still better than trying to lump everything into ‘new music’ where it can get a bit rowdy without assigned seating.

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Wont Somebody Educate That Composer!

In 2013, I had the opportunity as part of a research project to put a series of questions about teaching and learning composition to thirteen of Australia’s finest composers. While they did so anonymously, they were all composers deemed by the AMC ‘Full Representation’ artists; Composers that are not just professionals, but whose work the AMC has ‘identified as representing a significant artistic contribution within their specific field and community of practice.’ In other words, some of Australia’s ‘creme de la creme’ where composers are concerned.

Here’s an excerpt on what a good education for a composer might mean:

Chapter 6 – Creating a Balanced Curriculum

….

THEME APPLICABLE ACTIVITIES
Cultural, Historical and General Knowledge
  • Historical knowledge (C2, C8, C10)
  • Aesthetics (C1, C2)
  • Study of music outside the Western art music tradition (C1, C8)
Technical Mastery
  • Learning to interrogate material (C4, C12)
  • Composition exercises (includes composing set model-piece “in the style of…”) (C2, C5, C7, C10)
  • Counterpoint & Harmony (C5, C6, C9) & Orchestration (C9, C10)
  • Master every other form of musical material organisation that everyone around you practices (C11)
  • Study of musical form.
Learning Interactively
  • Composer-performer Workshopping (C5, C7, C11)
  • Learning on the Job (C11, C13)
Engagement with Technology
  • Analogue and digital electronics / Music technology (C1, C2, C13)
Experiencing Music-Making
  • Developing an instrumental proficiency
  • Performing music in public or semi-public situations
  • Improvising (alone and with other musicians)
  • Playing as much music as possible (C10)
Developing Uniqueness
  • Thinking, “what am I trying to say” / Improvising and experimenting / Sketching broad ideas. (C8)
  • Reading books, watching films, going to contemporary concerts, theatre, dance, art.
  • Develop original ideas, try to be unconventional in generating ideas.
  • Improvising
  • Self-reflection
  • Challenging students to rethink what he or she is doing (6)

Table 3. The categorisation of responses into applicable thematic groups.

Many universities already include various aspects of the above to different extents; in particular cultural, historical and general knowledge is often a compulsory part of tertiary curriculums in Australian universities. Beyond this, however, an ideal education might consist predominately of intense technical training in musical materials and techniques, combined with the ability to learn interactively by doing. For example, a composer might be expected to master counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, form and compositional techniques through exercises, while developing the application of these to their own music through actively writing for ensembles with workshopping opportunities that allow dialogue and performance outcomes. With regards to the latter, an ideal educational program may in fact cater for exactly this by providing the conditions of a professional engagement through the mock commissioning of works for student or staff ensembles, combined with periodic workshopping opportunities, resulting in real concert performance outcomes.

Also of importance in a composition curriculum is the creation of occasions for the student to be involved in the performance of music and to experience music from this perspective, as was identified in the composers’ questionnaire responses. While it may not be essential to attaining eminence as a composer, and some may already find themselves prepossessing an understanding of musical nuance and musical performance, for the purposes of education, it seems best to err on the side of skill-acquisition whenever possible, rather than depending on pre-existing ability.

The composition teacher’s role will of course vary depending on the student and their individual needs, but generally applicable roles may include:

  • Providing direction, stimulating discussion and encouraging imitation and experimentation
  • Encouraging self-reflection
  • Teaching composition techniques (both historical and contemporary)
  • Suggesting listening/score reading examples
  • Providing the student a tangible developmental pathway – for which Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development could serve as a model
  • Assigning or encouraging the use of technical and compositional exercises to develop technical mastery.

Of utmost importance is that the teacher encourages a supportive environment amongst students as is discussed in The International Handbook on Innovation which states “the presence of a supportive social system including appropriate rewards for creative behaviour, and the like are considered to be instrumental for creativity” (Shavinina 638).

The student’s role will likewise vary, however, from the research of Ericsson and Charness, a daily engagement with relevant composition activates of around four hours, broken into hour-long periods, should serve as a platform for composition students seeking to develop eminence in their domain  (741).

Opera: But does it make any money?

I’m currently reading a very humorous book by Sir Terry Pratchett, namely Maskerade. As a book, it’s many things – a comedic fantasy; centred around an aspiring opera singer; and a great parody of Phantom of the Opera. As all Sir Terry’s books do, behind the mask of comedy is a witty and insightful commentary on people and society.

I’ve often heard people lamenting things about Opera not being ‘profitable’ or art being a waste of money.

Here’s a funny, but startingly good response to the issue, excerpted here for your enjoyment:

Bucket's jaw dropped. 'Is it important?'
'Because,' Salzella went on, smoothly, 'opera doesn't make money. Opera never makes money.'
'Good grief, man! Important? What'd I ever have achieved in the cheese business, I'd like to know, if I'd said that money wasn't important?'
Salzella smiled humourlessly. 'There are people out on the stage right now, sir,' he said, 'who'd say that you would probably have made better cheeses.' He sighed, and leaned over the desk. 'You see,' he said, 'cheese does make money. And opera doesn't. Opera's what you spend money on.'
'But. . . what do you get out of it?'
'You get opera. You put money in, you see, and opera comes out,' said Salzella wearily.
'There's no profit?'
'Profit. . . profit,' murmured the director of music, Scratching his forehead. 'No, I don't believe I've come across the word.'
'Then how do we manage?'
'We seem to rub along.'
Bucket put his head in his hands. 'I mean,' he muttered, half to himself,'I knew the place wasn't making much, but I thought that was just because it was run badly. We have big audiences! We charge a mint for tickets! Now I'm told that a Ghost runs around killing people and we don't even make any money!'
Salzella beamed. 'Ah, opera,' he said.

Seriously though, it’s a really good point. We whinge about art not being profitable. It’s not true, the return for your money is just not fiscal…