Mutatis Mutandis! Contemporary is the new “Old School”

The day came for the contemporary music concert whose news have been circulating for a while. New pieces written by upcoming prospective composers and those relatively more familiar with the process were to be performed. I went to the concert venue ten minutes to the starting time because it was unlikely for me to be unable to find a seat for this concert. The concert hall was empty as I suspected it would be; only composition teachers, students from composition departments and the families of the performing musicians were there. I chose a seat in the middle section, keeping my distance from the other audience members, and started to wait for the concert to start.

The lights went dim and the first performers to get on the stage were a flute-piano duo. They saluted the audience, signaled to each other that they were ready and the first notes started to flow. Merely ten seconds had passed when the jet whistle, a contemporary music cliché, exploded like a bomb in the flute. What was it used for? Where did this sound find place in the story, as the program notes were written in a language only those with the knowledge of music theory would understand, the musician was trying to tell? A cluster tone arose from the piano as I was thinking about these. Okay, that is acceptable as well; where will it lead?

I wasn’t able to place the music in my mind as the first piece drew to an end. It was a mixture of many intricate harmony patterns and many contemporary flute techniques, but the friends, teachers and families of the musicians applauded nevertheless. We started to wait for the second piece.

It was a violin-piano duo’s turn. I gave the music being performed a chance due to it being a piece that was never played before, even though the first chord told me what was to follow in the next 5 minutes. It wasn’t any different than the previous piece; contemporary violin techniques had replaced the flute. Scratch tones, playing behind the bridge, Bartok pizzicato, bow the bridge, tap the instrument etc. It was clear that the composer knew these techniques by heart and wanted to show their knowledge. The complex piano chords had already pulled the harmony carpet from under my feet and I wasn’t able to place this music anywhere. There was a breeze of applause when the piece ended, but it was a small one due to the low number of people in the audience. 

I felt the need to focus on the lighting system, the seats, who is who in the audience when it was time to listen to the third piece because the music on the stage did not speak or reach out to me.

I quickly got out when the concert was over but there was already a block of people at the door and it wouldn’t be acceptable to skip greeting the acquaintances. Everybody was concerned with praising the concert organization and the quality of the works performed as a success story. I mentioned the students were well versed in their lessons in kindness.

This isn’t my first contemporary music experience. I have been writing music in the same medium for about 25 years. However, I have realized that everybody, myself included, writes the same things and the compositions have not progressed one step further from what was written in the 1960s. The contemporary music of that era created its own aesthetics and aesthetic rules, which went on to infect composition departments in turn and found its footing there. It gave birth to its own order and conservative followers within several generations as all new situations do. However, it then withdrew internally in time and transformed into a weird situation that only composition students would listen to, and I am not even sure if most of them can succeed in doing so. The first signs of this found body in Milton Babbit’s article ‘Who cares if you listen?’ in 1958. The article suggested the idea that experimentation carried an importance that transcends being musical and the situation had become a constitution in itself in 60 years and didn’t allow other genres to rise in academia anymore.

However, another genre was rising outside of the walls of schools already and it was taking the scene by a storm. These genres weren’t allowed within the doors of these schools. Composition departments were ultimately imprisoned by their calligraphy fetish and their excitement of creating what was never heard before. Those outside of these doors knew which knob to turn but not which notes to press; those inside who taught themselves which knobs to turn searched for an opposition against the tonal harmony they were taught for years through contemporary techniques. 

I am one of those who think composition departments need an urgent update. The sonic palette should be expanded by familiarizing students with DAW and synthesis techniques, as well as allowing other music genres to mentally permeate within the school walls.

Amsterdam Electronic Music Academy

Two prestigious music schools, Berklee and Amsterdam Conservatoire, both opened a new music department in the name of electronic music academia in the past two years. I believe that a new understanding of composition, which combines the disciplined education system on harmony of these two prestigious schools with electronic music, will become more commonplace. A new style of composer will arise in the upcoming years who know which note to press in which situation, and even which frequency to use in this situation; those who are in the pursuit of innovation, which is the soul of academics.

The other music schools that want to keep up with the times need to hear the inevitable footsteps of this change and get ready. It is necessary to accept the technical knowledge on electronic music as a criterion while selecting members of the faculty. Students who are more open to change and know the electronic media should be raised and be provided with digital equipment.

The goal of the composer is to plan the human power to move in synchrony within an allocated time slot. Composition students should still be encouraged to write music for people to perform. This could be acoustic instrumentalists or new style of electronic musicians (we recently see such examples on social media as music phenomena).

If a student was responsible for writing solely for acoustic instruments traditionally, now his other goal should be synthesizing the sound he thus created, whether it is live processing or during the post production stage.

If a student is writing compositions for electronic instruments, then he is faced with the technical responsibility of automation and regulation. Think about this situation; there is a keyboard player who can play arpeggios in 256-note speed and not every instrument has a voice range. This musician can create very complex structures by himself because he can create loops.

Long story short, if you are making jet whistles with a flute, then you are old school. I am looking forward to working with a hybrid ensemble featuring musicians who play electronic instruments.