Musings on New Music

The goal of new music is to bring something new to the table and step past conventions, which doesn’t automatically mean that listeners are going to like it.  The important thing to be aware of is, what’s not for you may be a feast for someone else.

Typically, some of new music is more well done than others, and therein lies the rub and the snub of whether the listener fully comprehended what they were listening to.  This is why new music is probably the only genre that produces formal, academic explanations for itself as if to make sure the listener knows that a method and some thought has been put into what may sound like madness.

This subject actually very hilarious timing given the debate I’ve been going through personally about how to release my next album in the context of asking myself, “How much do I need to explain because I KNOW that some jackalopes are going to react over certain thematic elements that will sound like an engineering oversight when actually, they’re intentional.  For example, I have fuzz layered over an entire track that some will find startling but the point of it is to evoke hearing the music through a sandstorm.  And releasing my album using CD Baby’s distribution is not going to allow me to spell that out on the iTunes download.  An artist friend of mine whose work has seen a number of gallery exhibitions said to me, “Art doesn’t need to explain itself.  Let people see what they want to see.” 

The inherent problem with new music is that there’s no middle ground because its entire purpose is to not be middle ground.  As a result, it tends to fall in polarizing camps of being either intellectually brilliant or puerile, as in “How well can I piss you off by whacking a wooden spoon at randomly spaced intervals against a cheese grater and get away with calling it music?  Jabbing at bourgeois sensibilities is an attitude that’s unfortunately as old as the hills, not groundbreaking, and does not make any composer a protégé of Stravinsky.

I once sat on a panel with composer Arthur Kampela at a new music seminar and was admittedly feeling like a deer in the headlights as audience members sparred heatedly with panelists in the same struggle to define new music.  One panelist said something along the lines of, “I could write my music in Chinese, but if you don’t understand the Chinese language, that’s not my problem—it’s your problem.”  I understood what he was getting at, the delivery was brusque, dismissive and insider v. outsider exclusionist, which didn’t win any converts.

I mentioned Kampela because he articulated it most diplomatically and unforgettably that the ultimate goal of new music is to guide listeners into perceiving the ordinary and commonplace in a brand new light.  If I remember correctly, he pointed to a chair and said, “If I can get you to see that chair as a piece of music, then I will have succeeded.”