What Does New Music Teach Us?

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To many, the avant-garde of music comes across as an impenetrable, pretentious wall of noise. What makes this music? And, why should we care about it?

It is perhaps best to first define the term. It comes from French and translates to vanguard or advance guard. In medieval battle practice, the vanguard would travel ahead of the rest of an army unit, and scouts would be chosen from these members. In the fine arts, the avant-garde has a similar connotation. Avant-garde artists push the arts beyond the status quo and what is traditionally acceptable. As such, it is often provocative! I use the term here colloquially to include radically new musical works. 

What makes this music important? First and foremost, while change can be scary, it keeps our tradition alive. People with radical ideas about music moved us from Gregorian chant to polyphonic music. They invented opera. They decided symphonies should be four movements long, and orchestras should no longer have continuo sections. They responded to the complex serial music of the post-WWII era and created minimalist music. It is, in part, a reason we develop new musical traditions.

Additionally, composers and performers push each other to new extremes of possible sounds and techniques. There is a long tradition of composer-virtuoso performers, including Corelli, Vivaldi, Paganini, Liszt, Dizzy Gillespie, and Coltrane, who pushed music to exciting new extremes by writing and performing music only they were talented enough to play. This encouraged performers to learn a new level of virtuosity, and composers to explore these new performance possibilities. When computers and synthesizers were developed, composers took the logical next step of creating new sounds with technology.

The avant-garde makes us challenge our concept of what music is, and gives us new ways to think about music as organized sound. The serialists gave us the tool of set theory to analyze their music (i.e., the music of Boulez). Spectralists used technology to create music based on neat timbres (for example, the music of Grisey). The atonal composers of the twentieth century emancipated the dissonance to create some wonderful and lovely music (see, for example, the Berg Violin Concerto). Composers like Ades are using irrational time signatures to push rhythm in new directions. Ferneyhough, and his colleagues in the New Complexity movement, are creating densely nested tuplets to create a sense of rubato in their music. Others draw on old concepts in new and exciting ways, including sounds from musical traditions around the world.

To conclude, I would argue that supporting new music by a diverse group of living composers is a positive way to drive our craft forward and create new and exciting sounds. We ought to embrace new sounds, and let history sort out whose music will last. And finally, wouldn’t it be cool to perform music by a young, talented musician who history goes on to revere? Keep exposing yourself to new music, and expand your artistic horizons!

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Jason uses his experience as a music educator to create fresh and melodic music, drawing inspiration from popular styles like rock and metal, as well as the avant-garde of the past century.