Yours, Mine, Ours: Embracing the Enormity of New Music

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by Hannah Rosa Schiller

When I was ten, I wanted to become a professional dolphin trainer. No joke. I loved going to the zoo to watch the dolphins do tricks, seeing how the trainers bonded and communicated with the animals. When I turned 11, I found out that my quest to become a dolphin trainer would involve learning all about marine biology; about other fish and sea creatures, bodies of water as ecosystems, and a whole lot of other things that didn’t feel like they had much to do with dolphins. 11-year-old me was not excited by the idea, and, sadly, I never pursued dolphin training as a profession.

This is a recurring theme I’ve noticed in myself. I become invested in my passions, but once I realise all the things I have yet to learn, I get overwhelmed. Being told what to expect after I was accepted into a workshop at the Darmstadt Summer Course 2018 was no exception. Needless to say, all my friends and professors were very supportive of my impending European new music adventure. But one of my professors also explained that the new music I would find at Darmstadt, and in Europe as a whole, would be quite different from the kind I knew in Chicago. I was worried. It felt like dolphins-meet-marine-biology all over again, but this time I was dealing with the prospect of a whole new swathe of music.

Let me explain. My introduction to the world of new music was through a vocal group called Roomful of Teeth. Before I went to university to study music theory, before I knew what “new music” even was, a friend of mine showed me a video of the group performing William Brittelle’s High Done No Why To.

I was hooked immediately. This music was complex and constantly shifting between distinct timbres and techniques. To engage with it required an intense focus, yet often I found myself grooving to it. The tunes were catchy, which made the music feel approachable to me at 17.

As I began my formal education in music, I sought any and all opportunities to find more. I discovered Ted Hearne. I got into the Bang on a Can set: David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon. I felt inspired by Roomful of Teeth’s many composers, including Missy Mazzoli and Sarah Kirkland Snider. I sang in a new music vocal ensemble, through which I worked with scores by composers like Anna Thorvalsdottir – an absolute badass who manages to make harmonically ambiguous choral pieces sound both completely new and as familiar as a pop ballad at once. Slowly but surely, I developed an understanding of what “new music” meant in my small corner of the world. It meant music that blended genres together seamlessly, that didn’t care which conventions it was breaking as long as it created something you hadn’t heard before, that could trick you into thinking you knew what to expect before throwing you for a loop. I felt excited to be a part of the innovation that was happening all around me, and to engage in the bigger sociopolitical conversations surrounding the music.

I knew this wasn’t the only type of new music that existed. I knew composers had been messing with tonality, instrumentation, and the limits of “classical” music since the start of the 20th century. But in my mind, all of this evolution had led to the type of music that my university called “new music”. Little did I know that when I was accepted to spend two weeks in Darmstadt, I was opening myself up to brand new definitions of what “new music” could be.

My two weeks at the summer course have been challenging, eye-opening, and filled with big conversations about the future trajectory of the global musical community. And with each concert I attended, my confusion grew. My professor’s forewarning certainly rang true: this music felt nothing like the type I worked with back in Chicago. Performances ranged from a cellist sitting alone on a stage with no music in front of her, playing a through-composed piece that felt completely improvised and free of tonality, to fully-staged avant-garde theatre with a cast of 12 actors and a giant clownfish balloon.

And yet. Here we were calling all of this “new music,” just like we did back home. It occurred to me that there are multiple “new musics,” each with its own identity and set of aims. I have spent many of my 14 days at Darmstadt – each of which has been jam-packed with concerts, lectures, and workshops – wondering how these vastly different iterations of “new music” can co-exist.

The cons of the enormous nature of the umbrella term were immediately evident to me. How were we supposed to communicate clearly if “new music” could mean so many different things? How were we supposed to promote our art and market ourselves as “new musician practitioners” if we weren’t even sure what that term meant? I cycled through a number of solutions. Maybe we could give new music a topographical makeover by designating a few distinct sub-genres which, in turn, would allow us to define more specifically the different sound-worlds and historical lineages in which we exist.

The pros of new music’s enormity were less obvious to me. But as the festival continued, I did begin to notice what our different communities had in common. For one, many of us stem from a shared “classical” history, even if the resulting sounds are completely different. And, for better or worse, because of these shared roots, we inhabit many of the same institutions: universities, museums, concert halls, and the trademark “music of today” slots in orchestral seasons. Perhaps because of our shared spaces, we also have many of the same important conversations. How do we become more inclusive in our programming? How do we use music to address the big politics of the day?

Between seminars and lectures, I found myself beginning to think: maybe the idea of “new music” doesn’t have to have any stylistic or aesthetic implications. Maybe it doesn’t have to matter that new music sounds vastly different depending on where you go or whom you listen to. Sure, my new music might care more about groove than yours, and your new music might have more clownfish balloons than mine. But what if this plurality is new music’s greatest strength?

Until Darmstadt, my performance experience had centred around the more “pop” composers: Lang, Wolfe. Friends I met at the summer course had exclusively studied works by more “intellectual” and “abstract” composers: Lachenmann, Ferneyhough. All of us were interested in discussing similar sociopolitical topics and exploring the cultural implications of our music, but we realised we hadn’t been given many opportunities to collaborate with those in the other camp.

Now I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in various new music communities, I’ve also come to realise there can be a tension between them. And yet there is enormous potential for shared space. Since 2006, Louth Contemporary Music Society in small-town Ireland has been ignoring aesthetic cliques in its programming. The festival brought in Terry Riley, whose works often feel like smooth and endless unfoldings of patterns, but it has also programmed Sofia Gubaidulina, whose whirlwind pieces often have no clear form but hold you in suspense for their entire duration. In this setting, the sounds give each other new contexts and allow audiences to discover a broader scope of new music.

I believe this should be an aim for festivals and concert series worldwide. Imagine the incredible interaction that could happen between our many communities if we were to release the tensions between our camps. We live in era of political polarisation, in which individual views are increasingly entrenched. We have seen what can happen when this close-mindedness goes unchallenged. As a musical community, we should lead by example by inviting each other in and opening ourselves up. Each new music community could use the perspectives of others to challenge itself. Every dolphin needs a full ocean ecosystem.

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