What makes music "modern"

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What makes music "modern"

I'm trying my hand on a little essay here, hoping it will spark an interesting discussion.

What makes music "modern"? People of all ages have tried to answer that question, and depending on their positive or negative associations with the term "modern", their answers vary wildly - but giving an exact definition proves to be far from easy.

The main problem is that when talking about modernity in music, people are tempted to think in terms of stylistic eras and pivotical years, strapping all music written in a certain period to the procrustus bed of the "prevalent" style in that period and chopping everything down to size. For instance: the Romantic era ended in 1910 (didn't it?), so Elgar was a traditional composer, since he remained faithful to his "oldfashioned" style till his death in 1935. Right?

I grew to think that this approach doesn't do justice to the individuality of composers of our time - of all times, actually. It's a totalitarian way of labeling composers, branding them "conservative" or "progressive" based on very, superficial and simplified traits. I won't deny that the concept of stylistic eras can be useful in education and in order to give a beginning listener some anchors for determining the style and historical period of a piece. And yes, if you zoom out far enough, most composers in the past do fit in the general schemes: baroque, classical, romantic and ... modern?

It's in the 20th century when it goes haywire. And there's a connection between composers refusing to get branded with the traditional labels and the finally established individual freedom of artists (and of people in general) that's justly recognized as the most important achievement of our Western civilisation.

Still, composers in the 20th century get the same treatment from musicologists as their older colleagues from the 19th and 18th centuries: depending on their music being more or less "harsh to the ears", they're getting the "progressive" or "conservative" labels pasted to them like nothing has changed in one, two or three centuries. And those labels aren't exactly innocent. Specially in the 50's, 60's and 70's, when (broadly spoken) everything associated with modernism had positive annotations, while traditionalism reeked of mould and badly ventilated rooms.
So once branded "traditionalist", you got about the same stigma as a victim of the McCarthy witch hunts. It's nothing less than a form of fascism: conform to the norm or be expelled from the realm of Serious Music. See the propagation of serialism by the Darmstadt School. And didn't Schönberg, a generation earlier and in one of his more pompous moods, claim that his style would give German music direction for a thousand years?

Sadly, this attitude lives on to the present day. I remember my unhappy years at the conservatorium, where the composition lessons were given by a person who couldn't think past his own avant-garde doctrines, and who couldn't imagine good music being written in anything but the prevalent "modern" style of those days (I'm talking about the early 90's now, when "New Traditionalism" was a rising force, causing the old avant-gardists become traditionalists themselves, in a strange reversal of fortune.) Nothing I ever wrote was modern enough for him - and consequently it wasn't good enough either.

I saw other people in my composition class turn into clones of the great avant-gardists of the 60's and 70's, studying and copying their styles and truly believing being original and progressive by doing so, even if they produced nothing but pale carbon copies.

I was lucky enough to be exposed to another musical world, far away from the repressive incestual sect of the avant-gardists: the world of church music, choirs and organs. Writing music for everyday use has been a revelation: what's traditional in the eyes of one person, can be modern in the eyes of another.

Which brings us to the initial question: what is modern music?

To me, modern music is what the composer himself regards as modern. That sounds like stating the obvious, but it isn't. At first, we have to realize that every composer willingly or subconsciously sets certain limits for himself. Limits like "I won't use those kinds of dissonances" or more generally "I won't go part the stylistic boundaries I've set for myself." Limitations like these help you focus on your own style and give direction to your music writing. Without self-set boundaries, a composer is like a gummy ball, bouncing around in a room where suddenly the walls are removed: you're completely free, but you won't achive anything. Not limiting yourself in any way will effectually paralyze your creativity.

So we have this set of limitations that every composer applies to his own style. Some composers are very aware of this phenomenon, some even apply rigid "methods" to shape their music (like I did in my "mathematical" period in the 90's...) but mostly it's done unknowingly and by intuition.

Now, what makes a newly composed piece of music "modern"? To me the answer is clear: whether the composer has been able to step over his own boundaries or not. Or better formulated: whether the piece made him push his boundaries forward.

Note that this has nothing to do with our traditional way of thinking in historical eras and the stylistic limitations that are imposed upon the composers who live in them. The limits I'm talking about are exclusively personal and individual, and everyone sets them for themselves only.

Seen in that light, the entire output of a composer like Stravinsky can be called "modern", the neoclassical pieces that got criticized so harshly by the avant-garde absolutists included. Why? Because he stepped over the boundaries he set for himself with "Le Sacre" and created a new personal style. It doesn't matter that this new style sounds "older", it's a modern style nevertherless, since it was modern (read: "different") for Stravinsky himself.

The opposite occurs as well, of course. A composer stepping back, leaving his stylistic limitations intact and producing something that's oldfashioned compared to the rest of his output. It happens a lot when composers write music for everyday use, for amateurs or for special occasions. Most of the music I wrote for church choirs falls in this category.

Seen in this light, there aren't any composers who can be called "modern", only individual pieces. And even those pieces can only be called modern compared to other works by this particular composer. Thus the definition of modernity is something that makes the rest of an artist's output look traditional in comparison.

There are no modern composers, just composers whose oeuvres have a high percentage of modern works and a low percentage of traditional pieces, all compared to each other only, and not to the output of his contemporaries. And those composers aren't necessarily identical to those who are called "modern" in the oldfashioned sense of the word. For instance: I'd call most present-day avantgardists "oldfashioned" since they often boast that stylistic limitations don't exist for them. That's nonsense to start with, since they wouldn't even be able to write any music without individual boundaries (see the gummy ball effect I mentioned earlier). And if you chose the most extreme avantgardist style as your personal limit, you end up never being able to cross that limit and hence never produce something truly modern. That's basically the problem with most music that's erroneously called "modern" today.

On the other hand, you have 20th century composers like Britten and Shostakovich, who set personal limit for themselves which were much more close to the 19th century style than their avantgardist contemporaries. Which in turn enabled them to continually step over their boundaries or push them further forward, continually producing works that are truly "modern", in a strictly individual sense.

It's time to change the way we look at composers and music styles, no longer with the desire to label them and pin them down like butterfly collectors, but in a way that does justice to their individuality.

RE: What makes music "modern"

A very interesting post 50m. I need much more thinking time about this, but I'm slightly troubled by your re-definition. In particular, I'm struggling to define the difference between 'modern, 'original' and 'innovative". Or perhaps there isn't any difference?


Chris A.Gnostic

RE: What makes music "modern"

I really don't know if I have to (and have the time to) go through this "thesis" of yours, 50m. To me, the question is almost redundant. The actual and only question in Art is: What makes Music/Art "great"? By answering this question, you come to what is Classic, perennial, diachronic. In this way, a "Classic" work is, in a sense, also modern (it fits in our time as well, like Beethoven's Ninth or Mozart's Requiem, etc.).

Otherwise, the term "modern" may apply just to indicate when the work was written and its composer lived, like in the cases of the other periods of music, Baroque, Classical era, Romantic, Post-romantic, etc. In this way, composers like Nino Rota, Bob Chilcott or Karl Jenkins are modern, even if they write in a very tonal and almost traditional way.

To use the term "modern" based on the features of the work is a very precarious operation, which, for the moment, I leave it to those who may be more interested in investing in this project of mind.


RE: What makes music "modern"

all is relative dear Parla, to day is possible to apply the term modern to Mozarts or Haydns music, who were -like we know- composers from the classical period, but Pinnock or Harnoncourt performances of his works, are considered to day "modern" performances!. Is the paradox of historicism movement, that considers obsolete  and "demodée" an interpretation with actual instruments and considers at the same time modern a performance with old and decrepit instruments, of uncertain authenticity...besides. The historicism is a movement that lack of an unique identity, every conductor thinks that his version is the adecuate, and the only one, in that way  happens with Handels "Messiah" versions, for example, there are minimalists versions (Pickett or Parrot), and in the other side  monumentalists versions (Rilling), and all they are valid performances, which is the real truth about this??oscar.olavarria

@Chris, the weight of these

@Chris, the weight of these words of course depend on their definitions. I've chosen "modernity" since it's a very value-laden term, which has only positive connotations to some people while it makes others to see nothing but red mist. It's also an obsession of many modern composers who keep asking themselves "am I modern enough?" (I think that if you come to the point that you're asking yourself that question, your "modernity" is already proven.)

"Innovative" sounds rather sterile and 19th century industrial revolution-like. I think we outgrew the concept that music has to be "innovative" after the discovery that there isn't such a thing as continuing quality improvement in music.

The siren-song of many critics that music has to be "original" can be silenced easily by giving examples of musical masterpieces that weren't original nor "innovative", but survived and are still admired because of their quality alone.

@Parla, that's the traditional view on modernity in music. In my "thesis" (as you call it) I'm proposing an alternative view, but since you haven't read it I think replying to your post is pretty much pointless.

RE: What makes music "modern"

50m, I know it's the "traditional view on modernity in music", but I don't see why we have to have different definitions or to change the traditional (see prevalent) one.

I didn't say I didn't read your "thesis"; I said I wonder whether I have to go through each and every point you make, since the question to me is almost redundant, if "modern" is going to be a way (a qualification) to define works as more "important" than those which fall in the opposite category. If a work is a great one, it has already passed the test of time. Therefore, the term "modern" is of little value or it might be even irrelevant. Shostakovich's Symphony no.5 or Britten's War Requiem are of the supreme works in the 20th century, regardless of their "modernity".

If other posters go through your individual points or the whole post, I may comment on them too.

For the time being, it's getting too late here...



RE: @Chris, the weight of these

I think the question depend on what we considers "modern", in my opinion there would be three principal applications of the term:

1) in one sense it means music from the actual era, that is "contemporary" music, but in that sense Sibelius s, Prokofievs or Stravinskys music wouldnt be modern musicians, because they are composers from the XXth century, and not contemporaneous musicians!!;

2) in a second sense, modern music would mean music "advanced" for his time, and in that sense Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique (1830),for example, would be a modern work, because like we know it is thirty years before Brahmss 1rst symphony (1860);

3) in a last sense (what I prefer) the term modern music would means a modern performance or conception, independently from the period from the music comes, and in that sense Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven or Brahmss symphonies could be designated moderns, if the conductors conception it is (Norrington, Gardiner or Harnoncourt conceptions of this music, for example). More over, this criteria permits explain that is possible to play music from the barroque period with actual instruments, not neccesarily using old and decrepit instruments, of uncertain authenticity....besides. Modestly is my opinion about this..., best regards oscar.olavarria

RE: What makes music "modern"

This is a huge subect, but here are my two cents...

First of all it's important to make a distinction between modernity and modernism, since the first is a historical epoch, and the second an artistic approach. 

The rise of modernity is closely related to the cartesian split between subject (res cogitans) and object (res extensa). This conceptualisation of the self as autonomous and distinct from the world around him led to the kind of self assertion we find in Kant's Sapere Aude. From christianity, we had already inherited the idea that history is a linear trajectory, a kind of moral drama starting with the creation and finding its apotheosis in judgement day (this is very different from the cyclical view of history of for instance the Greeks or Romans). When this idea of time as unstopably moving towards one single goal was combined with the modern idea of man as an autonomous being, the seed was sown for all kinds of later catastrophic utopian projects like communism, radical islamism or the free-market orthodoxy of neoliberalism. At their surface these all seem very different, but the difference is mainly in the end-goal they have in mind (classless society, a world ruled by Sharia, a market free of any goverment restraints). They are very similar in their intelectual structure: the utopian idea that there is a distant goal history is moving towards coupled with the idea that one can belong to a "vanguard" that shapes the world according to this goal.

Modernism can in some way be seen as the artistic expresion of this idea of modernity. Again, it has to do with a kind of self asertion and a feeling of autonomy, as opposed to being part of a tradition. Thus, the first stirrings of modernisms can be seen in the fourteenth century with Philippe de Vitry and Guillaume de Machaut boldly announcing their music as Ars Nova. However, it fully develloped in the late eightteenth century. In early romanticism we already find the seeds of what would in the late-nineteenth century sprout into full-blown modernism: the idea of the artist as an individual genious, always finding newer ways of expressing oneself, always carrying music further into the furure, and the idea that one can never go back to older forms or older harmonic languages (see Adorno's scathing reviews of Stravisnky's neo-classicism, for instance). As I said in this thread, this pre-occupation with doing something "new" is a form of insanity, and artistically speaking, a dead end. That does not mean there have not been any amazing pieces of music written since the advent of modernism. But I think we have come to realise by now, that within this paradigm, there comes a point where the vanguard is no longer able to carry us forward, since there is nothing to surpass. This is something that most artists nowadays have come to accept (in music for instance, the ban on tonality of the postwar period is all but over). I think the main peril for the arts nowadays is not so much modernism, which to a large extent has become a thing of the past. The main problem today is that we no longer have modernism's quest to go ever forward into the unknown, yet we also lack a shared tradition, and thus are left in the mire of post-modernism's anyhing goes. 

These are the Scylla and Charibdis the contemporary artist/composer has to somehow traverse between. Limitations are a neccesity; originality is only possible whitin a tradition.


aquila non captat muscas


RE: What makes music "modern"

Based on the replies received so far, it seems to me there is a sort of "dead end" (to borrow an expression of Brumas' very interesting post, by the way) in the perception of whatever is or might be "modern" in Classical Music. I trust we'll escape from any "form of insanity"...(again from Brumas' post).


RE: What makes music "modern"

This is probably a storm in a teacup, dear "Brumas est mort", because would seem that the problem is more simple than we think, because we must remember that music doesnt exist really without the interpretation, in that way is only ink and paper, a written text or "dead letter". Because of that, in my opinion what determines modernity in music is the interpretation, and in that sense modern music is what is performed in a "fashionable" way. We must remember also the old adages: "art doesnt have frontiers", "the music is an universal lenguage", "music doesnt have age" (havent you heard that people says that "Gardel is singing better than in the past"??), all that phrases what seems only "clichés", sorrounds complete thruths. They explain v. gr. that a picture or a musical work created by a russian composer could be aprecciated by a caribbean, spanish or japanese listener; they explain also that Correllis, Handels, Vivaldis concertos grossos are playing until to day, dating more than 5 hundred years ago; explain also that the "Concerto de Aranjuez" s best version doesnt be of a spanish guitarrist, but an english guitarrist: Julian bream, or an australian guitarrist like John Williams (in this case, besides, with an USA Orch , Philadelphia Symphony Orch, conducted by an hungarian conductor like Eugene Ormandy), or that Beethovens symphonies conducted by Daniel Barenboim should considered old and obsolete versions, because they are simply imitations from Furtwanglers versions, etc, etc. At last modern music is that performed in a "fashionable" way, and that explains the conductor s relevance. Modern music is that is "in fashion". Excuse my english, please. oscar.olavarria

RE: What makes music "modern"

I enjoyed the author's reminiscences of his conservatory and subsequent experiences. However, as an audience-oriented reform advocate and sometime activist, I suggest that, in spite of mention of religious music, etc. he remains trapped in the elite conceptual ghetto that characterizes the serious music establishment today. 

It makes understanding the systematic decline of relevance of classical music in society, and many of the complex ideas that are advanced, much clearer is we consider a simple observation. 

Prior to the revolution in music and other arts in the early 20th 
Century the prevailing paradigm was that composers created music to communicate with, inspire, and entertain sponsors and audiences. 
Consumers were the ultimate arbiter of quality.

This was replaced by the "autonomy of the artist". It remains establishment doctrine that a composer's highest duty is self actualization - with his or her artistic value judged by peers qualified to render judgment.

Earlier outrageous, in-your-face styles may have mainly faded [the author's dismissal of serialism and other confrontational styles is often heard]. Even tonal music can be acceptable to the establishment with certain qualifications. But one inflexible requirement remains for composers to gain formal recognition as a serious artist: they must avoid composing music that pleases audiences. 


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