Wednesday, 5 October 2016

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

Recently the contemporary music site on G+ closed down. There are some thoughts about resurrection and of course discussion about what the site should provide to the public.

The term contemporary should be easy enough to define, but these matters are often more complex than we think. The Thesaurus on Word suggests these associations, modern, current, fashionable, present-day, existing, up-to date and as an antonym, old. I am certain that reading that list will provoke very different responses and a number of questions as to what is “old”.

Many of us would agree that the modern age comes into being after Wagner, with the decade 1900-1910 being the pivot point. Let us take one composer active at that time and see what distinguishes Romantic and Modern in the hope of exploring the ‘new’ features of that time in relation to recent developments today, and so understand better the term “contemporary”.

Satie is loved for his alternative viewpoints on musical structure, use of harmony and his embracing of Dada, not all at once in one piece of course, we could take Parade as a good example of “new” thinking. It was a response to popular entertainment, the music halls, fairground and cinema. It “borrowed” unconventional sounds like typewriters and fog-horns (possibly Cocteau’s influence, but that does not detract from its modernism), and had associations with modern art with Picasso’s cardboard cubist costumes. Its use of ragtime shows contemporary links with popular dance, and more importantly introduces an element of modernism into Parisian ballet (though ragtime by that time was approaching the end of its ‘popular’ life). Satie is a complex character and is loved as much for his eccentricities (which can sometimes be read as modernism) as his art. One should not forget that he wrote a large number of popular songs, and drew on exotic material (popular in Paris at the turn of the century). I would hazard a guess that for him there was little distinction between art and popular music. To assess this you might like to try “Je te veux”, part of the second verse is quoted:

Que mon coeur soit le tien

Et ta lèvre la mienne,

Que ton corps soit le mien,

Et que toute ma chair soit tienne.

From that short assessment of the composer we might draw together some themes of contemporary music in 1917 and see if these trends still exist.

Contemporary music may:

Turn its face against conventions of the past or parody them.

Include aspects of popular culture in its content.

Make associations with developments in other art forms.

Make us of non-musical material.

Draw on different cultures.

Possibly the use of the term contemporary is not so different today as it was in Satie’s time, though of course the development in say the use of non-musical material far extends the resources and thinking of 1917.

The BBC runs a programme “Late Junction” which is promoted as:

"an eclectic mix of world music, ranging from the ancient to the contemporary", the programme has a wide musical scope. It is not uncommon to hear medieval ballads juxtaposed with 21st-century electronica, or jazz followed by international folk music followed by an ambient track.

Having listened to the programme regularly for a number of years there is little doubt that the content is always fresh, and shows how modern folk and jazz are just as capable of surprising and challenging its audience. Often in the context of the programme pieces of medieval or renaissance music take on a different identity or at least reveals the inter-reliance of old and new music. One might also note that certain features of the music played uses contemporary ideas within a context that is recognisably not 20th or 21st century biased, so a synthetic version of pentatonic music that could be of ethic origins using regular pulses can morph into complex harmonies and rhythms. One may hear similar features in the

“duet with LA modular synth fanatic Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and free-form drummer Greg Fox, of avant-garde duo Guardian Alien…” (BBC podcast description).

The difficulty of putting a label on such music often ends up with hyphenated terms and the word hybrid frequently used.  The programme hosts are well informed in diversity and their attempts at definition inventive, but even they struggle on occasion.

Is it the case that ‘contemporary’ should then consist of all music written after a given date? Should works that contain unusual approaches to harmony be thought of as contemporary, in which case is Gesualdo modern? If a work in conventional style introduces a novel progression, whether in rhythm, timbre, the use of space does it suddenly become something else other than Classical, or Romantic or whatever?

In the first sentence I explained that the G+ site offers opportunities to reach out to the public, it is a valuable service, and one I hope will continue to provide entertainment, discussion and education to a broad number of people. There are a number of different G+ communities dealing with music, so it is important to have a clear intention of what is expected to distinguish its content from similar or associated sites. Some would be happier with a community that featured only the most innovative “art” music, probably with a smaller audience. The BBC run a late night programme, “Hear and Now”, the fact that it is on Saturday night between 10.00 and 12.00 gives an indication of its appeal, yet the music featured is often accessible and always stimulating. I will admit to being thankful for the iPlayer feature which permits a month of opportunity to listen in, as the time frame is not suitable to me to get the best of the music, and of course repeat listening is often a must.

The other, larger audience, might be happier with a contemporary site that includes all music after a given date, the problem here is that the greater number of submissions is likely to dilute the potentially specialist nature of the site. Composer’s ears are always seeking out innovative approaches, we respond to novelty. Many of us appreciate qualities of design and use of language that are not immediately accessible, one could say challenging content. If only one post in twenty features such music and the others are overwhelmingly reproducing content more in keeping with tonal music and 19th century approaches that serves little to stimulate a new generation of exciting composing and composers.

I hope that this blog will bring responses from a number of readers as G+ should be a vehicle for debate, of which, in my opinion there is too little. I also hope that there is a future for a replacement site to the original contemporary music pages, whatever its title.