Some thoughts on new Nordic art music

After visiting two of the concert nights at the Festival for Young Nordic Music, I Speak Music, in Gothenburg this week some thoughts on modern art music stroke me. There are especially two things I’d like to share my thoughts on here at The Lacunae.

The “new” protest movement
The first thing I have noticed is that many pieces included in the festival are written for a set of musicians that is strikingly similar to how an orchestra or chamber ensamble of the late nineteenth century would look like. Except for the addition of some more modern percussion, the setting is about the same; violins, viola, cello, contrabass, some brass, perhaps some wind and a harp. Not much have changed since the mid 1800.

Is this a problem? In itself, absolutely no. There is no real trouble in having the same orchestra setup now as 150 years ago. Actually, it is interesting that it has survived for so long, and the continued writing for such orchestras is indeed extremely relevant for their existence. So why am I bringing this up? Because, many of the new works I heard for such settings, seem to be a protest against the very setting itself. In most pieces, key elements include playing the instruments in the “wrong” ways, knocking on them, scratching the strings with paper etc. This could of course be interesting, but I get the feeling that the composers actually don’t like the setting and want to reach outside of it. The problem here is that today we have thousands of possibilities to go beyond the nineteenth century orchestra. One place to start could be with getting a computer and some decent sampling software. So why stay with the orchestra if you do not like the sound of it?

The problem gets even more underlined as it has been fiddled with since the beginning of the twentieth century. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern protested against the norm by composing music that did not fit the traditional harmonies. Others included emphasised folk music elements, or rhythms, in ways that were unthinkable back then, such as Igor Straninsky and Bela Bartok. But, what more closely resembles what I have seen at the UNM festival is the use of alternative, or extended techniques. That is, the use of instruments in a way that was not intended when the instrument was created. This field of music has been widely explored during the twentieth century by a variety of composers, such as John CageGeorge CrumbGyörgy Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki. And they have done it in great, interesting, exploring, good and bad sounding ways. And they have been very influential. Which is the root of the problem. For many of the things that I heard at the festival reminded me of explorations I have already heard, rendering them quite uninteresting. Why protest against the medium, when you can choose whether to use the medium yourself? As long as it doesn’t sound better than playing the intended way, and it doesn’t break new ground, why do it at all?

Our time – the most exciting time of art history
The second thought that came to me is that the art music composed today is not composed for an audience. It is not intended to be sold. Much of it is not even intended to be sellable. The most part of it is financed by donations, scholarships, or taxes. Which is a good thing. This situation, however, is very different from Mozart’s and Bach’s time, when compositions were made on demand, or a composer were employed by some noble person, like the royal court. It is also different from Beethoven’s and Chopin’s time, when the works of the composer was required to be well-received by the audience, otherwise the composer would earn no money from it.

This practice of writing for an audience that has to receive and like the music has not disappeared today. Instead it lives on, but not in art music, but in popular music, and in movie soundtracks. In popular music, the settings and moods is very different from that of the the nineteenth century, but in the movie music, most such elements are similar, or even just the same. And this kind of music sells. Not only the movies itself, but also CD:s with the soundtrack, and even more strikingly, albums with music that is neo-romantical.

The twist
The unexpected twist in the story is that while art music struggles on the edge of its own existence, because of the economic pressure on the composers, movie composers sell their work for millions. This makes me sad, but is at the same very interesting, as this may be the first time in the history of music that we can hear music that is not intended to make money. And what we decide to do with that opportunity is indeed an exciting issue.

I will try to attend to the last concerts of the festival on Monday evening, featuring more electronic and alternative settings. Maybe this will be more like the modern art music I long for. If you have the time and opportunity, please take a look at the programme yourself. It can be found at unm.se All concerts are free, so there is no reason not to go!

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