Tuesday, 12 March 2013

So, What's New?

I have a feeling that things in contemporary music are changing.  A great chunk of what was written and published in the last 100 years has been somewhat difficult to get to grips with, either because composers weren't necessarily writing with the desire to captivate an audience or were pushing the barriers of convention to the extent that the music became incomprehensible. It seems to me that attitudes to all this are shifting. I may be wrong and my objectivity may be somewhat clouded but I detect that contemporary music is gaining ground and it is surely an inevitable process that what is new and shocking becomes at some point accepted and conventional. There are three particular events that have prompted this and all are to do with the way that the BBC is able only now to look back and make clear sense of - and present clearly - music's progress through the 20th century and into our own.

First, there is a whole series of 50 short podcasts which were broadcast on Radio 3's "Here and Now" show.  Each, lasting between ten and fifteen minutes, discusses a particular piece of new music, nominated by a commentator or composer who judges it to be a seminal and highly influential piece of work. Dipping in and out of these musical earthquakes reveals how necessary it is to understand what lies behind them before the music can be appreciated, while significantly the explanations themselves are brilliantly concise and clear. In each case, relatively few words immediately bring each piece of music to life. An equally important function of these verbal portraits is their challenge to incorrect commonly held prejudices, such as, Harrison Birtwisle's music is violent and aggressive.

Coupled with this has been the sublime TV series on BBC4, "The Sound and the Fury", a history of contemporary music putting it all in a context of its logical development starting with the reconstruction of music at the beginning of the last century to its disconnection from audiences in the middle and finally to its refound power to inspire at the end. A passing comment by Howard Goodall (my third "event") in the last of his own personal takes on the history of western music, to the effect that classical music would have died away in irrelevance had it not been rescued from extinction in recent years, made the whole process of music's revolution clear. I suppose I picked up on this insightful comment because of my own particular interest in what he was saying, namely that the source of classical music's rescue came from a crossover and mutual interest between pop and classical in electronics and the ubiquitous technology of the digital age.

Not only was the technology shared, but audiences, too, began to overlap when tonal music once more became appropriate for modern composers and Michael Nyman coined the term minimalism. The process is continuing and here is something for you to try out yourself which will demonstrate how the two fields have merged and fed off each other. In pop culture's electronic music, particularly developed in hip hop styles, writers no longer use conventional means of composing but take small clips of digitally prerecorded sounds called samples and join them together in a process called sequencing. Classically trained composers use this technique too and my own interest lies at the borderline between the old ways and the new. You can try out a "sequencer" on line, a project set up between the Philharmonia Orchestra and BT.

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