High art? On the staleness of “New Music”

In my first semester at Williams, I have received an introduction to music culture at the College, which has pushed me to think about the way our community evaluates music in all of its different forms. Consider the following: Imagine that at dinner, the person across from you tells a bad joke. Not just any bad joke, the worst joke you can imagine. A joke so bad that you aren’t even moved to laugh at the person for telling the joke because it is simply that bad. Twenty seconds later, he tells the same joke again. Once more, you are not moved. Then, after he’s finished laughing, he tells it again. And again. No, this situation is not a nightmare. You can wake up from one of those. Rather, this situation is the cliff on the edge of which music – which deems itself “High Art” – is perilously teetering and ready to fall.

But I get ahead of myself. I shall start with a bit of a background. In the 1950s, art, music and literature headed towards postmodernism. For convenience, I shall refer to the music that emerged from that movement as “New Music.”
As in art and literature, musical postmodernism rejected the conventions that had come into place in the modern era. The problem that music faced, however, is that almost all conventions had already come under question: meter, key and tonality itself. All that remained was melody and harmony – even those concepts revolutionized from where they had been a mere 30 years before – and purpose. As nobody is quite willing to destroy melody and harmony to produce sheer cacophony (or, I correct myself, any composer with any sense of decency to his audience), evidently purpose had to go. Enter ars gratia artis: music for the sake of music.

This artistic shift did not all start out as nonsense. It made perfectly good sense at the outset. Minimalism seemed like the perfect solution to the problem of the 1950s and later years. You see, when you have to write music for a movie, it takes an incredibly long time, unless you write most of it by repeating the original theme and simply moving it around or varying it a little. To write movie music of a massive scale for the cinema, because of a limited amount of time and a limited budget, it is necessary to cut some corners. Nobody notices the musical transitions in the middle of a fast-paced action movie enough to realize whether it was identical to the one 20 seconds ago or completely unique. So why bother wasting time on creating truly new music when one has already written a small set of themes, which can be moved around, juxtaposed and played backwards in an infinite number of permutations?

The problem with this method is the minimal range of emotion that it allows. While there remains the ability to create “happy” or “sad” moods by altering the original theme slightly, composers cannot provide the effects needed to create “downtrodden,” “elated” or even “depressed” tones. However, minimalism is, undoubtedly, the optimal means for conveying the emotion of “narcolepsy,” as the audience invariably becomes bored and begins to nod off.
What does this music say? Does it move the audience (and I don’t mean to the exit)? What good is music, if not for conveying emotions, thoughts or ideas? Of course, that question is open entirely to your personal interpretation. Perhaps you enjoy listening to the same bad joke a thousand times over. Perhaps you find it clever. Or perhaps you approve of art for its own sake, but I simply do not see the point. Nature may create beautiful things, but we do not call a termite or a dung beetle an artist. Art should be a human creation capable of conveying human emotions in a new way.

Indeed, New Music should be exactly that: new. In order to be truly new, it must reject the conventions of the old, including contemporary conventions. Without doing so, music will conform, solidify, fossilize. The intent of postmodernism was to prevent such a conformity and solidification in favor of perpetual change. One cannot become trapped in a tradition, no matter the age of that tradition, if one wishes to create something truly new and original.
There is, indeed, a hope for the future of New Music. Many of the composers demonstrate an incredible talent and the potential to develop something that is entirely new and never heard before. However, if we let ourselves become stuck in our current mode, conforming to our own ideals, we risk disappearing from history before we have ever even entered it.

Ian McLean ’13 is from Liberty Township, Ohio. He lives in Williams Hall.

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