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,
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