Driven by Sound
The 20th century saw an unprecedented expansion of musical invention, the most notable of which were what I call the hidden and obscure arts of neo-medieval post-serialism derived from Webern and Varese. The great music of the 20th century is full of remarkable works that are sometimes frightening in their originality and daring. A new kind of beauty can be found in these works for the curious and persistent listener.
But what about the music of the future? If the 20th century raised questions about the relation of music to psyche, perception, number and social theories, will the music of the 21st century ask different questions? What about "New Music" in the 21st century?
When people ask me what kind of music I write, I say "New Music." I do not mean avant-garde, experimental, serial, neo-romantic, post-modern, minimal, maximal, etc. These are 20th century terms. No. I mean, "made recently." But we need more than simply "New" in a society dominated by marketing. My term for the new music of the 21st century is "New World Music."
At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian painter Kandinsky described three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value: The Personal, The Ephemeral, and The Eternal.
1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself (element of personality).
2. Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time (elements of style ...)
3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space.)"
[from W. Kandinsky: "On the Spiritual in Art"]
I believe there is a well-spring of desire among the public to hear new music that takes these responsibilities seriously, that engages with society through its expression, that has immediate impact yet sustains a lasting impression due to its intrinsic value. In short, music that ignites the flame within because it is a gift to listeners, music without borders, "world music." Popular music fanatics receive this gift from their artists regularly since good popular music so easily communicates personality and style.
It is the artist's sensibility to the third "mystical necessity" that has the potential to secure his work as art of lasting value. Kandinsky's "art in general" is what I would call "World Art," knowing "neither time nor space." "World Music" means music that transcends boundaries and cultures, that synthesizes the musics of the world into a global expression. This already happens in much popular music, where the mixture of musical personalities and styles, from within and among different cultures, is increasingly common. Yet this merging generally eludes New Music today.
The 20th century was a century of experimentation and reaction. The scary first 15 years of the century brought us unprecedented musical invention in the works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Varese, Ives and others, to which the rest of the century responded. The obscure hidden voice of the 20th century began with chromaticism, which begat atonality, which begat 12-tone music, which begat serial music, which (justifiably) spawned several reactionary movements of which three are the most visible: 1] towards improvisation and arbitrary musical organization (or none at all); 2] towards referential music, of which neo-romanticism was the first "ism"; and 3] towards music based on phenomenology, the study of sound organization ideas and sound itself and their effect on experience and consciousness. The third of these trends is a holistic path that embraces Kandinsky's three necessities, principally because it is based on sound perception and the psyche.
Most music of the world is organized with melody, harmony and rhythm. The New World Music I want to hear and to write will embrace the realty and potential of these powerful aspects of music and will also integrate those advances of the last century that best enhance and intensify cultural and musical experience. Audiences will listen for more than the traditional elements, to experience a music of many voices, rhythms, harmonies and textures, to experience the physical power of sound and the cultural power of events driven by sound. This will not be a secret society music. There may be hidden voices, mysteries, and obscurities within the music, but they will not obscure the music's power. Composers face a challenge: to give to the world the gift of music, the gift of culture - beyond the personal, beyond the ephemeral, toward the eternal.
Copyright © 1995 & 2008 John Oliver
[This article can also be viewed as the first entry in my blog]