what’s wrong with art music

By art music I mean contemporary classical music. I could say that everything is wrong with it, but that’s probably too glib. Instead I’ll break it down into progressively deeper reasons.

1. The soundscape
Noise, texture, gesture over pitch, rhythm, harmony. You thought serialism was information poor. Well contemporary music is possibly worse.

2. Process over outcome
John Cage was a brilliant artist, but as Schoenberg says, he’s an inventor, not a composer. If he was a composer of anything, it is of art, his art form being some sort of syncretism, most often sonic performance art. It’s not music per se. However, somehow people took him to be a composer of music. Big mistake. A lot of modern music is actually more conservative than Cage’s ideas, but the key philosophical change took place when his work came to be considered “music.” Now a particular outcome is no longer important, and the composer’s role is intentionally diminished. It’s an alluring idea, because not only is less work required, but more seemingly innovative work could pop out. It’s really the easy way out though, because the innovation is fake. It’s not an innovation of sound. The composer has abdicated the responsibility to fully realize the intended sonic idea in mind. It could be argued that some parameters are not important, because it’s a new language of expression. But I haven’t seen a theory of contemporary music that convincingly demonstrates what is important and what isn’t in this language, and why. It also begs the question of why we’re stuck with instruments that are built to realize a different language.

(gesture music with archaic instruments)

3. Academicism
The reason that the title of “legitimate heir to classical music” is important is that whoever holds the throne inherits the trappings of elitism. With it comes the tradition of authorship and the enforced boundary between composer vs. performers. Unlike jazz or other improvisational arts, the trajectory of classical music by the time it got to be an academic discipline was toward a fully literary tradition. That means culturally performers are not equal partners in composition and have no compositional independence and only performative independence. The distinction may seem slight but it makes a big difference — the performers have the limited freedom of interpretation but not the full freedom to innovate from a blank slate like the composer. They will always feel that leash of censorship given the unequal power relationship. And this stratification is especially enforced by the habits of academia where credit is a highly valued commodity — i.e. any innovation is still credited to the composer. As a result, real innovation is neither forthcoming from the performers who are not incentivized, nor from composers who abdicate creative responsibility with impunity. The secondary problem is in-group perspective bias. Academia is the small, specialized in-group of music creators who will always be more enamored by the “process endeavor” of generating literature than the outcome because they derive their professional value from the former, the latter having been put into the hands of other professionals. But to an audience, it is the outcome that is important. The two sides are difficult to reconcile when they are spending their time thinking about different things as music, with attendant different goals.

(bad minimalist music)

It’s sad that the rightful claim of classical music has passed on to this — or any — specialized group. There is a lot of sound to explore yet, or else all music (including pop — which is innovating) would have stopped. Wouldn’t it be nice if the title were held by more deserving offshoots? Classicizing/fusioning non-classical influences is very much in the classical tradition. Philip Glass’s minimalism and the inspired electronica certainly form a legitimate branch if intended as timbral expansion rather than a process gimmick. Avant-garde jazz (but not free jazz) is a legitimate branch in terms of harmonic expansion. Similarly, polyrhythm/microtonal are legitimate branches in terms of prosodic and scalar expansion, respectively. These forms are all expanding the information-bearing components of sound itself, hence music. Aleatoricism/indeterminacy/gesture art is not an expansion of the music language. It’s an expansion of the process of music making. It does make sound, but it doesn’t attack sound directly and therefore no surprise that it fails to innovate on that front. Process is always a part of composition as a precursor to outcome, but conflating the two is dangerous, and leads to a dead-end.

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