December 2000

What price new music?
Sam Hayden


Cage once asked whether music can be 'art' or was it always 'show-business'? An updated version of this question might be to ask whether contemporary music has value beyond a middle-class extension of the leisure and lifestyles industry. It is true that all music is a commodity, mostly experienced through recordings. So what is it that distinguishes new music from commercialism?

A solution to uncertainty about the value of new music has been the inclusion of the obligatory education project (as far as funding applications are concerned) with most new music performances. But a purely utilitarian justification of the music could imply that new music performances cannot be justified in themselves.

An alternative marketing strategy is the fashion for presenting new music in a multi-media context, with video, dance, theatre, technology etc). A visual element certainly makes music more consumable although there is a risk that this is at the expense of the music itself.

Despite some reservations, the use of multi-media in non-classical venues (e.g. clubs, art spaces, theatres etc) was one of the ideas behind [rout], an ensemble that I formed with Paul Newland and Paul Whitty in 1995. It is certainly an effective strategy as our first performance was a sell-out, bringing new music to an audience educated in the contemporary arts but rarely present at traditional new music venues.

I find the tendency for English new music groups to define themselves against each other uninteresting. [rout] attempts to avoid an association with any particular category of music through the programming of pieces identified with opposing new music 'tribes'. To this end, [rout] does not have a fixed instrumentation but a pool of musicians available for our diverse requirements. An agenda is to deconstruct the opposition of modernity and postmodernity, identified in music by 'complexity' and 'crossover' respectively. [rout] perform compositions with uncompromising approaches to material and tries to avoid the 'middle-men' of new music, as well as the several stereotypes of new music that have been established. Indulge me:

The stereotypes of new music:

(1) 'contemporary classical', a.k.a. 'middle-of-the-road modernism': Polite, tasteful and very well written, this fits well in a classical or romantic chamber music concert. Without being too alienating, it is 'difficult' enough to appeal to the vanity of an audience that likes to think it is hearing something challenging. This makes it highly marketable.

(2) 'crossover' Often misleadingly linked with 'post-minimalism', this was trendy in the 1980s but dated quickly. It was dubiously referred to as 'music from the streets' because its performers wore trainers and baseball caps, used amplification, electric guitars and synthesisers, and performed in non-classical venues. Just don't mention the public school education or the independent income. The fatal flaw of 'crossover' is that in spite of its popular cultural references, it presupposes the division of 'high' and 'low' culture that it tries to subvert.

(3) 'complexity', a.k.a. the last bastion of the avant-garde: Performances traditionally take place in acoustically inappropriate venues such as churches, community centres or school halls, on impossibly small budgets. Everyone must wear black and smiling is illegal. The audience consists of the composer and his (usually) friends - a gritty, macho clique convinced of its own self-importance.

(4) 'festival music': Heard in any European contemporary music festival, this confirms the institutionalisation of the avant-garde. These festivals are massive bureaucratic events paid for by large amounts of state and corporate sponsorship. Festival music is full of modernist clichŽs without the radical edge of the music it emulates. Such music forms the basis of a career structure so any rebellion, iconoclasm or critical thinking is removed.

Paradoxically, while marketing creates these sub-categories ad-infinitum, the categories of 'art' and 'popular culture' are both reduced to the same commodity status, as marketing ignores the actual content of the music. For example, the mass-marketing of 'classical music' is becoming indistinguishable from that of 'popular music'.

I maintain that there is still the potential for new music to resist commodification and assert the possibility of difference. If music can resist categories on a structural level, so it can resist the labelling essential to its marketing. Ideally - and idealistically - marketing should be irrelevant to the individual act of creation, which surely also cannot be consistent with a generalised socio-political perspective.

Sam Hayden

Sam Hayden is Fellow in Composition at Leeds University

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Previous articles:

November 2000
Composing for dance
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October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
Joanna MacGregor

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
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April 2000
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March 2000
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February 2000
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January 2000
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December 1999
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November 1999
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September 1999
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July/August 1999
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June 1999
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