Contemporary trends in classical music

Classical music—that small corner of the record store—plays the past, present, and future in a hundred ways. Whether for nylon strings or CPUs, it is a thrilling and eclectic universe. John Wykoff is a Chancellor's Fellow in music composition at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
April 5 th 2007

One of the questions I least like to answer is: "What kind of music do you write?" I think most composers have trouble answering it.

It's hard to decide how much detail to offer. I could give a precise answer: "My recent compositions arise from a post-tonal, non-serial hybrid of George Perle's twelve-tone tonal system and my own explorations of Klumpenhouwer network theory," which, for all its detail, leaves the question unanswered.

What most people are asking, roughly, is in what section of the record store my music would be found. The simple answer is "classical." And very often when someone asks me what kind of music I write, I tell them I write classical music. It's true that if a record store were selling some album of mine, it would be found in the classical section, in with John Williams, just after Vivaldi, before Xenakis. Now, my music is quite different from Star Wars, The Four Seasons, and Metastasis. In what sense Wykoff, Williams, Vivaldi, and Xenakis could be considered the same kind of music is hard to say. But it is easy to say that I don't write country and I don't write Hip-Hop, and I won't win an MTV award.

While the word "classical" does distinguish my music from a large body of more commercially inspired music, it suffers from the opposite problem that my technically precise answer presented. "Classical" is too vague a category. To conductors "classical" means Mozart, not Mahler. To movie producers it means Danny Elfman, not Randy Newman. To church-goers it means hymns, not praise songs. To guitarists it means nylon strings, not steel. To some vocalists it means singing with vibrato and no microphone. In university music departments "Classical" contrasts with Jazz. For many, it contrasts with "new." To most, it means music for instruments that don't need electricity. "Classical" is too broad a category to say what kind of music I write.

For greater precision, I add the qualifying term, "contemporary." I've gotten used to the apparent contradiction in terms: "contemporary classical." It might seem obvious that if I'm alive and writing music, I must be writing contemporary music. But the phrase is useful in distinguishing my music from that of composers who are strictly imitating an antiquated style. In that sense, "contemporary classical" is synonymous with "avant-garde." But I've long had the feeling that avant-garde is passé, so I don't like to use that phrase.

A small corner of the record store

"Contemporary classical" goes a long way to answering what kind of music I write. In the biggest and best record stores, it narrows it down to a small corner. And that's narrow enough for most people.

But for those who like contemporary classical music, or for those who would like to like contemporary classical music, that small corner of the record store presents a very large and thrilling universe in which they can hear the past, present, and future in a hundred ways. Each piece transports, each composer heralds an unexplored world.

The 20th century saw an explosion of the creative process. The arts evolved much faster than they ever had before. But from another perspective, some of the last century's most important musical developments were slow and needed a hundred years to mature, and the most significant trends in contemporary classical music today are still evolving.

Three 20th-century developments that pervade contemporary classical music are the advents of non-tonal music, electronic music, and ethnomusicology.

After 400 years, something truly new?

Non-tonal music does not mean music without tones. Although there is music written without tones, it is not called non-tonal music. Non-tonal (or "post-tonal") music is music written outside the tonal language. The most salient feature of the tonal language is its vocabulary of major and minor chords and major and minor scales. Virtually all Western music from 1600 through 1910 featured major and minor chords and major and minor scales. Tonality has to do with how these chords and scales relate to one another. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms—"the three B's"—all composed tonal music.

Around the beginning of the 20th century many composers began exploring the use of other music materials—other scales and other chords. Most of these composers loved tonal music, but they felt that after 400 years of use it was impossible to compose something truly new in the tonal system. Perhaps the most important of these composers was Arnold Schoenberg who invented a non-tonal language of composition known today as serialism.

Although serial music (also known as twelve-tone music) hardly gained any appreciative ears (and to this day remains one of the most misunderstood genres—even by scholars), the idea that music could be organized in non-tonal ways was the most radical musical development since the invention of equal-tempered tuning in the 17th century. By the middle of the century most composers were exploring non-tonal, if not serial, ways of creating music. Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt and George Perle all wrote (and at 90-plus years old, each still writes) non-tonal music.

In the latter quarter of the 20th century, some composers, particularly David Del Tredici, began to reaffirm the power of the tonal system by composing explicitly tonal music. In another arena, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and other "minimalist" composers were writing music that used the tonal vocabulary, even if it wasn't strictly tonal. Minimalism as a musical movement was short lived (it was essentially over by 1975), but its influence is obvious in the music of numbers of contemporary composers. Del Tredici, Reich and Glass, all of whom recently turned 70, remain leaders and models for young composers.

For awhile, it seemed that post-tonal composition and neo-tonal composition were mutually exclusive. The issues that divided the two camps often resembled modernist v. postmodernist arguments in other disciplines and arts. But the young 21st-century generation of composers simply isn't interested in those issues. As the inheritors of the styles, not the inventors of them, young composers aren't bothered by the differences. The styles we have inherited present a bountiful table of choices. I love Babbitt's music and Del Tredici's music. I don't feel the need to prefer one over the other. Young composers feel no pressure to choose between tonal and non-tonal languages. They can love and write in both.

Music for computers

Another 20th-century development that bears a distinct mark in contemporary classical music is the advent of electronic music. Technological advances made it possible for some composers to radically redefine the boundaries of music. The foundations were laid for music whose materials were not notes and pitches, but sounds either recorded and manipulated or created on computers. At first, the technological and aesthetic challenges of electronic music left this kind of composition in the hands of a few enthusiastic pioneers, including Hubert Howe and J. K. Randall. As technology advanced in the latter part of the century, more and more composers began exploring the possibilities of music composed for and performed by computers.

While many of the technological challenges have been met, electronic music still presents aesthetic challenges to most listeners and it still commands a very small audience. But there are signs that it is finding wider acceptance. Music departments in many universities are hiring electronic music composers to their faculties, and they are including electronic music classes as elective courses. The younger generation of composers is generally more computer-savvy than the older generation, and it is significantly easier for younger composers to overcome the first hurdle of electronic music composition: learning or creating software.

The music of Paul Lansky serves as a good introduction to electronic music because it is easy to find, and Lansky bridges some of the aesthetic distance between new listeners and the music. Lansky, a professor at Princeton University, is a leader in computer music. Recordings of his music are easy to find online.

Klezmer, Chopin, and a computer in a blender

A third major development in the 20th century is the advent of ethnomusicology. The main goal of ethnomusicologists is scholarly interaction with music that has not received such attention. Ethnomusicologists study music from non-western cultures as well as folk and popular music from western cultures. One of the main achievements of ethnomusicology as a postmodern discipline has been to declare all musical styles equal, or at least equally worthy of attention. Young composers have instantiated the new perspective in their art through extreme eclecticism and fusion. Composers have incorporated foreign and folk elements into their music for centuries, but never as extensively or with the same attitude as in recent music.

Extreme eclecticism is one of the clearest trends with younger composers now. The programs from the past few years at many of New York City's new music venues offered premiere after premiere characterized by extreme and almost baffling fusion. Different from the careful style juxtapositions and musical collages of older composers like George Crumb and George Rochberg, some younger composers seem almost flippant. Their music seems to ask, as if in jest: "What happens when you put klezmer, Chopin, and a computer in a blender?"

As prevalent as the trend toward extreme eclecticism is, it figures little in my composition. As exciting and important as electronic music is, I don't compose it. From one perspective my music is fairly "traditional" because pitches are the most important element in it. Pitch is only one among many domains in music, including rhythm, texture, timbre, form, and so on. Traditionally pitch has been the most important domain (with rhythm a close second) because musical identity is so tied to pitch: "Ode to Joy" is still "Ode to Joy" whether played by a violin or a xylophone, fast or slow, in counterpoint or solo. But today, many composers intentionally obscure the pitch domain in order show artistry in other domains. Listeners often don't appreciate a piece of new music because they are too focused on the pitch domain, which may be an insignificant part of the music. In my music, however, pitch remains the most significant domain.

My music is sometimes tonal, sometimes not, and sometimes both. When I write concert music, I am exploring the possibilities of my own musical language, and it usually isn't tonal. But when I write music for the church (which is harder), the music is no longer my own—it belongs to the church. And when Christians sing my music in church, it must seem to them to be their own music, coming from their own hearts and minds. I haven't yet discovered or created a musical language that serves that purpose better than tonality.

I write contemporary classical music. I inherited the past. I am writing for the present. I am trying to create the future.

Here are a few prominent composers, in addition to those already discussed, whose music embodies the issues presented. Information about these composers and their music is easy to find on the internet.

Some noteworthy composers whose careers are just beginning should be mentioned:

  • Michael Karlson is a talented young composer of post-tonal music;

  • Paul Riker is a wonderful young composer of electronic music; and

  • For an excellent example of genre-defying, culture blending, performance-composer, distinction-blurring music, look up the talented Kinan Azmeh. He is an up-and-coming Syrian clarinetist and composer who blends electronics, jazz, Syrian folk music, and his classical education into some very creative works.
Topics: Arts

John Wykoff is a Chancellor's Fellow in music composition at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He also teaches music theory at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, where he earned his M.A.