A l'Ircam (Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique) en 1996
A l'Ircam (Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique) en 1996 © Getty  /  Raphael Gaillarde

True or false statements about contemporary music

Contemporary music is haunted by many clichés: it is elitist, impossible to listen to, rigid… But is there any truth in all this?

Contemporary music. The moment we pronounce these two words, there’s controversy all around. What is contemporary music? Most often, the term designates all post-1945 musical forms. But can we really put the music of Ligeti, Takemitsu, Glass, Escaich, Boulez and Dutilleux all together?

The diversity of “contemporary” music would require creating dozens of different categories, and also making a distinction between music written after 1945 by the composers who have died since then, and new music, created by musicians who are still alive.

Behind this debate there are also some clichés hiding, therefore it is high time we put a stop to it to finally provide an accurate picture of contemporary music.

Contemporary music is not harmonious

TRUE AND FALSE. To address this cliché, we need to define “harmonious”. For many, dissonance is one of the causes of this. Harmonious is supposed to mean “pleasant to the ear, tuneful, melodious”. Some composers, since the beginning of the 20th century, move away from the principles of harmony of previous centuries. This process leads to a break with what we are used to hearing.

New sounds, scraping sounds, noise… In some contemporary works, harmony does not exist anymore. Yes, this may seem strange, but that is also the purpose of some composers: to cause surprise.

And you must not believe that those composers of the 20th century were the first ones to write in conflict with their predecessors. Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky… All of them were avant-garde musicians. So yes, maybe some pieces really lack harmony since the criteria of pleasant sound, classical harmony and melody are no longer relevant.

Contemporary music is missing in popular culture

(A little) TRUE. In commercials, TV series or films, classical music reigns supreme. All the most famous works are used over and over again to sell a car, coffee or perfume…

Contemporary music is much less used…or sometimes totally absent in commercials. Only some films are an exception with the use of Ligeti such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or 2001: A Space Odyssey (with Lux Aeterna among others). We can also find Henri Dutilleux's Symphony No. 1 in Under the Sun of Satan by Maurice Pialat.

Contemporary music is very diverse

TRUE. Narrowing down contemporary music to just one style, a single stream, would be a mistake. For nearly a century, composers have been taking place in various subgroups, sometimes opposite to one another. Spectral music, minimal music, serialism, concrete music, neoclassical music, repetitive music… Each approach is unique: sometimes it is inspired by the composers of the early 20th century, and sometimes it causes a rupture with so-called classical music.

Therefore, it is not easy to find some similarities between Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet and Philip Glass’s piano works or maybe an opera by Péter Eötvös. And this is where the strength of contemporary music lies: there is something for everyone. And even if the various groups differ from each other, some forms of music are mid-way between different musical styles.

Who inspired whom? Thierry Escaich, for example, says he feels close to Bartók but also to Dutilleux, as stated in Arnaud Merlin’s le Magazine de la contemporaine for France Musique:

When I was a teenager, his very sweet, Ravelian tone would irritate me. But I gradually moved towards works such as Métaboles and I appreciated his work on sound and spatialisation.

Contemporary music is elitist

FALSE (but a little bit true, too). If on one hand music is not intellectual since it is governed more by feelings, occasionally some works require further thought or some knowledge before addressing them. Especially music guided by a distinctive approach: dodecaphony, serialism, minimalism…

To avoid falling into the cliché according to which contemporary music is just a bunch of noise, we need to understand the composer's’ approach. And forget about what we have been used to hearing for ages…

When we go to a museum, we just do not compare Picasso’s crayon drawing with Rembrandt. Two styles, two radically different periods. It’s the same with music; you need a new ear and you also need to be guided by feelings and emotion.

Contemporary music scares people

TRUE. It scares for two reasons, it scares the audience who is too afraid to open the gates and listen to it. And it can also be scary because some works express a scary feeling. They use unfamiliar, mysterious sounds… real horror stories told by music. Some works scare people, but sometimes it’s just their purpose, like for Polednice by Ondřej Adámek performed during the Présences Festival at the Maison de la Radio.

As for the public, we must continue to support contemporary music, we need to relocate traditional concert halls that are often inadequate to listen to some works. And we must also spread contemporary music, too!