Sunday, May 1, 2011

Composing a Better World, Part II: Why do we need new music?

Natalie:  Our most recent discussion in this series addressed the topic of whether or not music has the ability to influence political or social change. Although we concluded that music can have an important political and social role, it was harder for us to determine to what extent art music can really make a concrete difference in creating change. As composers who are interested in what’s going on in the world outside of the music sphere, this disconnect can be frustrating, which brings me to our current topic: Is new music vital to our cultural health (I think it is) and, if so, how and why is it vital? I feel strongly that new music is important, but sometimes it’s hard to believe, especially when art music is largely an esoteric unknown for the average American. Sarah, what do you think?  

Sarah: I struggle with this question all the time, and not because I'm not sure of the answer, but because I find it very difficult to articulate why music (including new music) is vital to our culture. First of all, I'm not sure it's a valid argument to say that something is not important simply because many people don't know about it. But let's leave new music for a moment, and just think about music. How many people would say that music is unimportant? Very few, I would imagine. New music, while not popular, is simply a category of music, and if we agree that music is important, then new music must be important as well. If we assume that everything outside of the mainstream is unimportant or not vital to our culture, I think our world would be a pretty dull place to live in. I could even take it a step further and compare new music to some kind of minority (you can choose, insert race, religion, ethnicity, etc). Would anyone argue that people in a minority group are unimportant? Of course not, because not only would you be racist, but I think most enlightened people agree that diversity is important to a thriving, healthy world. So, really, new music is contributing to our cultural health. How's that for a good argument? 

Natalie: I like it! Here’s another angle in the defense of new music. One time I was talking with a friend and offhandedly dismissed the idea of ever caring about high fashion (admittedly, I usually wear basic, cheap, practical clothing). My friend pointed out to me, though, that whether I notice it or not, certain trends (colors, patterns, cuts, etc.) will creep into my wardrobe and my subconscious clothing “taste”…and nine times out of ten these trends come from the runway, even if other aspects of the clothing have changed significantly as the clothing trickles down into more affordable stores. Anyway, I think this “trickle-down” theory (don’t worry, I’m not applying it to economics!) is incredibly true with new music.

That horror music that you heard in the thriller flick you saw recently was probably composed using atonal, serial, or chromatic harmonic material (or some other harmonic palette with lots of potential for dissonance). Schoenberg may sound terrifying or incomprehensible to some in the concert hall, but his music can work wonders in creating suspense and drama in movies, etc. Or, to take another example, maybe you’re a fan of Sufjan Stevens or Bjork and aren't aware of how heavily influenced they are by Steve Reich and Meredith Monk, respectively. New music is all around us—affecting our auditory palates on a regular basis. And as I believe that most curious people in the world want to understand their lives better, why shouldn’t we want to get to know a little bit more about our musical responses, tastes, reactions, etc.? If nothing else, at least we might find a new artist/composer to listen to! 

Sarah: I think your point about music in movies (especially horror) is a really important one. When I tell someone I'm a composer, often his/her first reaction is to ask if I write film music. This makes complete sense, because the only truly famous living composers (to the mainstream) are those who have written for movies. Everyone knows who John Williams is! I don't even have to link to him! Perhaps film music can be like a gateway to new music- once people realize that they listen to "new music" all the time in movies, maybe they would be more open to the idea of going to a concert of new art music. And once we get people to expand their cultural palettes a bit by going to new music concerts, who knows what else they might become open to.

I know we discussed political music last week, but perhaps as people become more open to hearing new and perhaps strange sounds, they may be more open to listening to and debating new and strange viewpoints, ideas, etc. Maybe that's a stretch, but I do find that as a group, people involved in new music tend to be more open-minded than the general population about things other than music as well (I apologize for the broad generalization, it is merely anecdotal evidence based on my personal experiences). But maybe it's not such a stretch- people who have a tendency to seek out non-mainstream music (think about other non-mainstream genres as well) also have a tendency to seek out other non-mainstream ideas, opinions, clothing, political views, etc. And of course I'm not saying that only people in new music do this- of course not all open-minded people are involved in new music. But if new music does, in fact, create open-mindedness, I think we could all use a dose of that. It would open up lines of communication, start dialogue, maybe help us in our current culture wars a bit. But now I'm back to the political. Let's pipe some Schoenberg onto the Senate floor and see what happens.

But I digress...  I think we need to remember that new music isn't only important for what it can do, but is extremely important just for what it is. It always bothers me when people say how arts education is really important because when kids experiment with the arts and music their math and science test scores tend to rise. I suppose it can be a good argument because it helps in dissuading school districts from cutting funding for arts education (sometimes), but it doesn't take into account music's intrinsic value.

Natalie: I'm not a fan of that math/science argument either. As a society we really need to be able to appreciate the arts and humanities for themselves, not just as some other means to an end. We can only make positive (and ethical) progress as a society if we are able to reflect, and it is through the arts and humanities that we learn to do this. Moreover, we need to reflect on our current society, not just the societies of centuries long gone. As a little anecdote, so much music from the 17th-19th centuries involves high dance forms, which makes sense when you think about how much dance was a part of aristocratic life. One of my composition teachers once noted that new music doesn't really incorporate high dance forms anymore (unless in post-modern pastiche or neo-classic/romantic aesthetics), because, quite frankly, our lives aren't like that any more. If we want to use music as a form of current, honest expression, we need to reflect on today's politics, today's rhythms, today's landscapes, today's cultural fears and struggles. And, as a side note, in an increasingly technological and isolated society, musical ensembles and performances are one of the few remaining ways for people to come together on a regular basis to create, work, and have fun as a community.

Sarah: Although sadly, music-making isn't really a community endeavor for the composer, which is one of the reasons I really enjoy working with performers. To bring this debate to a more academic level, I want to add that musicologists and ethnomusicologists differ on whether the ability to make/listen to/appreciate music is  an evolutionarily adaptive trait. Without doing a huge literature review, it seems that if music wasn't somehow important to our development as a species, we probably wouldn't have held onto it for all this time. That's a somewhat weak conclusion from a scientific perspective, but I'm okay with that for now as our debates continue.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful discussion. I thought it was so well put, especially when it comes to experiencing art for its own intrinsic ethical value, that it brings humanity to our world and allows for reflection; or in many cases forms a collective voice to express fear, despair, joy or collective resistance.

    Speaking of which, the Smithsonian Folkways ( has been a really amazing resource of a huge variety of grassroots music traditions. It's so incredible that there is such a strong history of music (and art...) reflecting the political/social/environmental conditions of their time...

  2. Thanks for the website, Hana! I'll definitely check it out.


  3. I don't agree with Sarah that most people would say that music is not important. I think the average non-musician probably listens to more music every day than professional musicians do. Many of them identify very closely with their (pop) music icons. Also, they may not realize that much of the music they hear in the movies or on TV is New Music, but they certainly would recognize its importance to the emotional landscape of the film.

    There is a lot of literature on the intrinsic value of music: Meyer-Emotion and Meaning in Music; Reimer-Philosophy of Music Education... The ability for us to experience a wide range of emotions through music is unique. Art can be very powerful. It can change us. It can be therapeutic. It can be renewing, relaxing. It's value to society may be difficult to measure, but it cannot be ignored.

    Throughout history new music (music of the time) has met with mixed reviews. It is fun to read reviews of Beethoven and Stravinsky premieres, etc. (see Slonimsky-Lexicon of Musical Invective) Composers of our time share experiences common with all of us...we experience time much differently that did audiences of Mozart's era, communication happens almost instantaneously, information overload creates an inner business unknown to our grandparents. New Music has the potential to touch us much more profoundly than music of other times.

    Can we get more people to value a wider variety of musical experiences? Does the future of New Music depend on it gaining more listeners? Or will it continue to be a part of our culture due to its intrinsic value alone? Music has been a part of life for thousands of years; it's probably not going away anytime soon.

  4. Hi Jonathan - Thank you for your response and your literature examples! In our discussion, Sarah was actually making the argument, as you say, that music is vitally important to most people. As a separate, but related, topic we were also addressing to what extent the subcategory of "new art music" is vital to society (and the average person), and basically came to the conclusion that it is incredibly vital (influencing film and pop music, allowing for current expression, etc.), even if we can't measure it directly. There is no doubt in my mind that people will continue to make (perform and compose) new music, as it is an innate need. Yet, when we turn to culture and economics, so few people understand what the composer does and so few music ensembles program new works. I'd like to say that I think that John Adams will become a household name a hundred years from now, just the way Beethoven is...but honestly, I have a hard time believing that and I don't think my lack of faith is pure cynicism. New music is a relatively marginalized area for the average person. In these discussions we are trying to understand to what extent it is marginalized, why it is marginalized, why it absolutely shouldn't be marginalized (this post), and how to advance its role in society as best we can. Thanks again and hope you will keep reading!!