A Short History | Contemporary | Classical

Contemporary music whose ancestry lies in the Western classical tradition finds itself in a curious position. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that we are not entirely sure what to call it. The label ‘classical’ seems anachronistic, especially when applied to composers who have challenged some of the fundamental assumptions of the classical tradition.

‘Concert music’ is similarly problematic, as many of the more radical expressions have overspilled the boundaries of conventional performance spaces. ‘Contemporary art music’ remains perhaps the safest term. But to use it is not to suggest that other popular music never aspires to the condition of art, nor that there is no art music that does not actively resist that label.

There has been an immense expansion in the variety, scope and influence of communications media since the end of World War II right up to the present day. The arrival of satellite links in the 1970s, the Internet in the 1990s and new social media in the 2000s further dissolved the barriers of space and time first breached by telecommunications at the start of the twentieth century. These developments, coupled with unprecedented population mobility through travel, emigration and displacement, mean that musical styles are rarely restricted to a single geographical location. Indeed, Western art music is no longer the exclusive preserve of the countries in which it originated and continues to extend its global reach. In mainland China, less than half a century after the Cultural Revolution had all but wiped out Western music, new orchestras are being established and one factory alone reportedly produces a piano a minute in order to keep up with the demand of an estimated 40 million students of the instrument.

But the effect of communications technology, broadcasting and recording above all, has been double-edged. While the greater accessibility of recording facilities after World War II created new possibilities for composition, potentially freeing it from both notation and live performers, it also fuelled a classical recording industry that concentrated not on new music as such, but more specifically on new interpretations of old music. The conservatism which had already taken root in the concert hall thus became still more entrenched, making the gap between contemporary composers and the concert-going, let alone the mass, public seem initially wider than ever.

But towards the end of the twentieth century, there were suggestions of a growing rapprochement between contemporary music and its audiences. While composers who had retreated from hard-edged modernism (such as Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener) won a new following, as did those (such as John Adams and Steve Reich) who had never embraced it, there were signs too that modernist music, like modernist art and modernist architecture, was becoming an increasingly accepted part of the cultural landscape, and the object once more of general public interest. The Rest is Noise, a book about music in the twentieth century by New York critic Alex Ross, became an unexpected bestseller on its release in 2007,...

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