Juhani Vesikkala, Master’s student in composition at the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki, and freelance musician considers the future of contemporary music. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
Composing, performing, and teaching contemporary music in the 2020’s
Many listeners including myself are discontent with what is being portrayed as essentially new classical music. Either the composed sound substance itself or its presentation is often lacking in quality. When I hear such music these deficiencies make me reluctant not to join in the applause – and this doesn’t come from a simple prejudice towards fresh-sounding ideas.
To clarify a bit, in my compositional work I haven’t yet found effective incentives that change the situation for the better, either.
However, one good thing is that by the mid 2010’s a single stereotype of contemporary music certainly no longer prevails. At the same time, identifying quality music is perhaps becoming more difficult than ever, even arbitrary as there are fewer aesthetic authorities to draw on.
We have a continuous need for new music as a vital expansion of the human experience. And composers are being drawn towards other art forms and stimuli, thereby finding creative outlets for their sounds, exploring the subtleties of human perception, and even neuropsychology.
Yet the reasons why people continue to compose or perform new music seem to remain much the same – and relate to highly individual goals.
Interdisciplinary artistic collaboration is still very much a growing field, despite the challenges posed by the differences in the creative processes that characterize even time-based disciplines: film, theatre, sound art, and music, to name just a few.
Furthermore, in collaborative work, those who previously were positioned as listeners may now become active observers or even participants. For composers in these contexts, questions of professional identity, autonomy, and genre arise and may lack resolution. In a recent interdisciplinary performance by Jennifer Walshe I saw music introduced and connected to gastronomy by throwing food at and into the audience. This composer seems to be doing well and hasn’t needed a course on musical gastronomy, but how can we prepare future students for such uncharted ground?
Audio recordings became a first step in locally democratizing the listening experience, and the internet has had a similar impact worldwide on academic music education.
Global accessibility, peer learning, sharing audio and digitalized sheet music indeed open up alternative and unforeseen paths into composition studies from previously unconnected parts of the globe and spheres of influence.
The possibilities to produce high quality audio at home further dismantle the dominance of academia, enabling autonomous study and music production without academic intervention. This is less true for instrumental and vocal performers of new music, as they need to develop a more physical craft.
Nevertheless, the academic path still holds strong appeal for young people in conservative activities like classical composition. The question is, how long will this last?
In order to lure audiences and prospective students alike, contemporary music will have to become more inclusive. In education, this implies challenging remaining orthodoxies and re-evaluating some academic conceptions of the “basic skills” necessary for composing and rehearsing music. Biases against “noise” as music, preferences for conventional instruments and venues, mindsets about instrumentation, fixation on the 12-tone tuning, imposing linear form and narrative, and separating harmony from instrumentation and acoustics, will all eventually give way to more open-minded curricula all over Europe. We will discover that indeed contemporary music subjects can be approached from many directions simultaneously.
What happens to the teacher’s role in all of this? Academics remain indispensable in evaluating and presenting the most recent information and organizing it into digestible bits that can enable students to build cumulative understanding. Finances permitting, academies could end up with a multitude of small informative modules that the students can make use of independently or in hybrid combinations.
Composers don’t necessarily specialize in just one area anymore. Related fields of activity such as teaching, working as a critic, improvisation, arrangement, publishing, and cultural management will also have to find their way into curricula as options. Further courses in acoustics and ear training, music technology, conducting, notational practices, open form, visual elements of performance, societal and political issues in music life, and strategies for professional identity or workflow management could provide valuable insights.
One of the best assets of academia is the stimulating atmosphere it offers; regular dialogue between the entire composition department is an essential part of opening up perspectives early on as a student. Such activity also helps everyone to articulate their compositional motivations and ways of crafting music – this is an invaluable skill when later you want to present your ideas to an audience in speech as well as in performance. Most probably though, students in the future will be flocking to curricula whose core priorities focus on artistic freedom, career prospects, skills in both producing and rehearsing compositions, giving inspiring composition lessons, and writing that contributes to new compositions or interdisciplinary art with emphasis on sound. The only types of music that may not get visibility in academic contexts are those that are largely commercially oriented, as these are approaches most efficiently supported elsewhere.
Intention and strong concepts lend meaning to music and bring social impact too, when successfully executed. Hardworking, established performers have been able to earn good standing even with the most ambivalent repertoire, and have succeeded in making it significant and accessible to conventional venues and audiences.
Now that we’ve found the opportunities for audiences to interact through their own digital technology gadgets or (pseudo-)social media, national borders are disappearing (the recent ruling against foreign musicians in Basel counts among cautionary exceptions), and performers are making all kinds of difficult decisions about which sounds can be heard in these new contexts. In a vibrant music life where everything can be recorded for later recall, and meticulous evaluation can be conducted while at the same time also moving on, new pieces are less and less likely to thrill audiences permanently or gain enthusiastic support from the performers. At the same time performing and composing continue to take a lot of skill – the processes of active practising can easily estrange composers from experiencing music in the same ways as their audiences do.
Perhaps we should concentrate less on the music and more on its delivery? Informed audiences’ ears and minds ask for both.
To my knowledge, study opportunities for performing contemporary music exclusively are scarce. From my time studying in Graz, Austria, I remember that contemporary music performance practice is offered as a full Master of Arts curriculum. Although it does not yet address the problematic relationship between musicians and audience, it is successfully connecting young composers and performers and initiating crucial skills for lifelong learning in a fairly unpredictable field.
However, unless our efforts of engaging new and growing audiences pay off, contemporary music organisations will gradually run out of funding. Although more artists from more diverse backgrounds are now being commissioned by and involved in these organisations, few feel attached enough to take ownership of the organisational goals. We need to go further – as previous structures of exclusion inside musical life crumble, so composers and performers need a broader professional toolkit to enable them to reach audiences globally and make the kinds of successful collaborations they need.
For many listeners, an experience of hearing new acoustic music will be extraordinary. For reasons of style and independence, it’s vital for contemporary music to steer clear of trends that start to become mainstream and to continue to react and counteract. Contemporary music itself does best when it seeks out the unusual, marginal, and unglamorous themes that may not be presented in other media.
The ongoing commodification of sound and, on the other hand, public aversion to intense concert situations will escalate. Questions about whether an organized sound was made through active human intention or through mechanized production becomes secondary, if it is important at all. This applies equally to composers and performers. Questions like “which ensembles will survive?” also remain hard to answer. As in any rapidly evolving field, short-term success (if that’s anything to go by) depends on creativity and chameleon-like adaptability, and less on the platform of expression.
I would aspire to a next decade that values individuals’ and collectives’ flexibility in attuning and reacting to recent tendencies. Academia should follow suit when composers and musicians adjust their artistic practices, while maintaining open discussion and aesthetic diversity.
Juhani Vesikkala will soon complete a Master’s degree in composition at the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki, and currently freelances across various professions in contemporary music.