Thursday, 9 April 2015

Is "New Music" a Loaded Term?

In the community of classical musicians that I exist in there is a phrase that gets thrown around perhaps too often: "New Music". I love to listen to music written by living composers. It is so exciting to be invigorated by new sounds, and to be completely baffled by the endless possibilities of music composition.

But not everyone feels this way about music written in our lifetime. For many, the words "New Music" automatically draws an image of something altogether unpleasant. They are unsure what exactly it will sound like, but surely it cannot be considered music, nor will it sound anything like it. These people must think that 'New Music' is much like New Coke. It was obviously a mistake and eventually people will realize it is bad, and going back to regular coke will solve everything. 

Why does this prejudice exist? I think the simple answer is a lack of education and understanding. If you are never exposed to this type of music, or give it a chance, how can you expect to assess its value? But too many people make that assessment before they have allowed themselves to listen without prejudice, or to listen without having made a decision that it is inaccessible. The standard of what is accessible is really based on how closely the form and harmonic structure resembles that of the majority of music played in concert halls and on radio waves everywhere. Of course this is considered accessible, it's just more familiar. 

The words, New Music, are toted by the community of composers and performers who promote it. To them, this phrase is a flag that represents hope and progress for the future of art in the genre of western classical art music. But this push for better representation in the concert hall has been met with eye rolling and resentment from others with more conservative tastes. As was pointed out to me by a fellow I met in the airport, some people think "programming a Canada Council piece is just a funding requirement that has to be met." (I should mention that was not the opinion he held, and that he was very enthusiastic about new compositions!)

So what is to be done about this divide? As I mentioned before, I think the best way to combat prejudice is education. We need more representation of music in schools, and not just representation of common practice period classical music. We also need to dismiss the notion that modern music is inaccessible to broader audiences. This is simply not true. 

There are all kinds of festivals and events that are solely devoted to promoting new music. These go a long way towards broadening the audience for this type of music, and with their continued existence, "New Music" may not be such a loaded term in the future. 

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