OPINION: Contemporary music is bigger, broader and weirder than you thought

Disgruntled Garden Owner - Sam James / By Reuben Penny

Words by Sam James / Pics courtesy of Reuben Penny

Last week, Ed wrote about his journey to overcoming what he called the ‘Michael Nyman Syndrome’. The piece was a call to arms – composers are still writing music and you should listen. He’s right, you should. But there’s more to the story than the film score/concert hall dichotomy he describes. For starters, let’s talk about the purpose music serves, has served and can serve.

In many cultures, the words ‘music’ and ‘dance’ are synonymous; you can’t have one without the other. And elsewhere across the world there is no divide between performer and audience – this is arguably a western construct, and a recent one at that.

While music for the concert hall has been pickled and preserved (and often taken wildly out of context – did you know a large quantity of Mozart and Haydn’s music was meant for dance?) most countries have had a vibrant culture of folk and traditional music. Oral traditions passed down ballads and jigs and epics that ordinary folk would sing and play and dance to.

And in the last hundred or so years, we’ve had an explosion of new music, predominantly in the guise of popular music (which, I would argue, has taken over the mantel of folk music). Much of this music has been music of the common man, by the common man.

Styles have come and gone, genres have arisen and died, and an entire industry has built itself around the mass-production of marketable three-minute chunks. Protest songs, gay anthems, a seemingly infinite supply of love songs; there appears to be no end to the scope of human expressiveness through sound.

But where in all this does ‘contemporary’ music fit – and not just when used as the emotive accompaniment to an Art House indie or Hollywood blockbuster? Contemporary music, broadly speaking, is the continuation of the western classical tradition. It is being written by living composers for all sorts of reasons and for all sorts of settings – from works for full on symphony orchestra, to intimate works for solo piano; from bizarr-o electro-acoustic music for enormous speaker arrays, to frogs playing potted plants.

The genre is more amorphous than world music, and more multi-faceted than jazz (There is a fascinating history that has brought us to this rather eclectic point, that is too long to go into here, but I can fully recommend Alex Ross’s book The Rest Is Noise if you are curious about the backstory).

All these disparate ways of producing sound has birthed an equally large number of ways to listen to it. Some composers prefer to stick to the safety and tradition of the concert hall, while others have transitioned to presenting their music almost solely digitally.

But by far the most exciting strand, to me at least, is the movement sometimes known as alt-classical; composers and ensembles out in the ‘real world’. Club nights like Nonclassical in London and Birmingham’s very own Night of the Unexpected bring the very best of music being written today and place it slap-bang in the middle of regular bars and coffee shops.

I hasten to add, this is not from some sort of contrived educate-the-masses-about-classical-music sentiment, but rather from a much more relatable we-like-bars-and-cool-music-let’s-mix-them sort of place.

In fact, it was at Night of the Unexpected that I first saw the aforementioned frog-playing-the-potted-plant, in the Yardbird (R.I.P.) of all places. The bill also included a ska band, a solo piano piece that involved the pianist being essentially molested on stage while playing, and a piece for a string quartet.

Eclecticism is the flavour of the day, and it tastes so good.

And while this movement is not a rejection of the old way – many of these composers would be over the moon to get ‘proper’ commissions – it is an embracing of the new. And perhaps of the very old.

Re-contextualising music opens up so many possibilities for how you get to experience it. You would never dream of getting up for a boogie in Symphony Hall, but you just might in The Actress and Bishop (Bach had his harpsichords, Leon Michener has his mental amplified, prepared techno-piano – you can totally dance to contemporary music if you want to).

We might not be at the point of exuberant, total body immersion in music that other cultures enjoy, but we are certainly poking our heads out of the concert hall and blinking in the bright light of day.

And I’m not saying that we should all start getting down to the sublime tones of Eva Maria-Houben; what I‘m getting at it, in a rather roundabout sort of way, is that music can have multiple purposes. It doesn’t end with its original function.

So it’s totally fine that THSH season ticket holders enjoy the works of the masters, in total silence, from the comfort of a plush red seat – just as it would also be totally fine to bust a move to the same jam if you heard it elsewhere (Mozart’s No40 anyone?).

And as a slight rebuttal to Ed’s Michael Nyman Syndrome, I believe it’s totally fine to enjoy a piece of music originally intended to accompany a movie or TV show; it may have been envisioned as part of a larger work of art, but that doesn’t make its expression any less valid.

Basically, everything’s just fine. Composers are still writing music and you should listen.

Sam James is a Birmingham based composer and musician. He has just released his debut album Sleep. Find him at  www.sam-james.com or on twitter @SPJMusic