Contemporary Music:  Change or Repetition?

by Lon W. Chaffin

When considering contemporary music, several old clichés come to mind. The first two are: "The only thing constant is change" and "History repeats itself".  Which of these is really true?  Well, actually, both of them are when it pertains to contemporary music.
Even though the same could apply to popular music, I'm going to deal strictly with what we consider "art music" -- those pieces that are composed for their artistic value with no intent for commercial success.  To borrow another phrase, they are "art for art's sake."
Let's consider those first statements.  If change is inevitable, how could history repeat itself?  To answer that question, let's look back briefly on the way music developed.  It has constantly changed through the ages, as every living language must.  Each generation of musicians inherited a tradition, an established technique, a recognized system of doing things.  They enriched it, molded it, "improved" it, put their mark on it and passed it along to the next generation.  Change seemed a lot slower in coming than it does now. But, there have always been those who feel an urge, a drive, an obsession to speak the language of the day; to find a new voice; to "march to a different drummer".  Those voices at the time were often labeled as heretical, blasphemous, and revolutionary.
Arnold Schoenberg, a musical innovator of the 20th century wrote, " I hold that it was an error to regard me as a revolutionary.  If one only need break habit in order to be labeled revolutionary, then every artist who has something to say and who in order to say it steps outside the bounds of the established convention could be considered revolutionary."
Through every age, there have been those who relished and pursued change and those who have planted their roots even deeper into the soil of tradition.  From this we can see how history marches forward and stays in place at the same time -- through the attitudes and actions of people.
The musical development of the 20th century has had both the new, avant-garde voices, and the traditionalists, but probably more so in this age than in those gone before, more have chosen to seek change, innovation, and a musical language that speaks to modern man.  This, I believe, is not a trait isolated to the musical arts, but a common tendency typical of our century.
It seems that in 20th-century music, with every innovation came a reaction and a new direction.  Like no other period in music history, our century has spawned a more diverse range of developments than ever before.
As a brief overview of some of the major developments, let's look at which composers have shaped our musical world.  Reacting to the German Romanticism of the late 19th century, Debussy found new ways to use harmony and alternate scale forms to create his "impressions" of the world around him.  Ravel did the same but found more daring ways to use dissonance.
As a reaction to the Impressionists, Erik Satie became a prophet of simplicity and began a movement away from pretentiousness and sentimentality.  Stravinsky also reacted to the Post-Romantic chromaticism and reached into the past, pulled out traditional tonality and found new ways to use it with his technique of polytonality.
Arnold Schoenberg discarded all sense of tonality and developed his 12-tone system in which every pitch within an octave is of equal importance.  With his music, there was no distinction between consonance and dissonance.
John Cage went so far as to do away with conventional compositional technique and allowed some parameters of the music to be left up to chance.
Stockhausen somewhat abandoned traditional instruments in favor of electronic sound production.
Philip Glass, Steve Reich and others attempted to "wipe the slate clean" and initiated a movement called minimalism in which a limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary is used to create music with slow subtle changes.
Along conventional lines, some composers worked with a more traditional harmonic vocabulary and incorporated the original American style - jazz.  George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein were two that fell in this camp.  The list and the  innovations continue to grow.
With contemporary music, as with so many other things in our world today, change is inevitable.  We take what was once history, reinvent it and make something new, and what was once new then becomes old and the cycle continues.