Music Australia News

How to Define Classical Music’s Pointy End

Graham Strahle
| September 11, 2017

Is there anything in common between Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet, a tango by Elena Kats-Chernin, a sound installation sculpture by Julian Day, or one of Erkki Veltheim’s violin improvisations employing electronics? Not a lot on the face of it, except that all might belong together as ‘art music’. Clearly, ‘new music’ and ‘contemporary music’ will no longer do, given how confusing these terms have become, and how mainstream music industry sectors have purloined them over the last few decades.

And therein just might be an essential defining feature. All the above-mentioned artists might share one – and perhaps only one – attribute, of belonging outside the mainstream and the purely commercial. One imagines that none of them are exactly driven by notching up chart success, industry accolades, or popular acclaim in its genuine wider sense. Yet it might be said that neither are all pop or rock artists seeking this: anti-mainstream proponents of alternative and underground ‘contemporary music’ (as that term is now taken to mean), all the way from 1970s punk to present-day indie rock and rap, would attest to that.

John Davis, CEO of the Australian Music Centre, which jointly with APRA AMCOS held the recent Art Music Awards, says that in Australia we face a unique problem in trying to identify this area of musical activity.

“The terminology is complicated,” he says, “particularly in the Australian context. ‘Contemporary music’ used in the European context is a common term that describes our sector. ‘New music’ in the North American (and maybe UK) contexts does the same. But these terms in the Australian context have been appropriated and used for other kinds of music’s – for example, ‘new music’ used in the ABC’s Triple J (and other) contexts means new rock music; ‘contemporary music’ implies what used to be categorised in many record stores as ‘adult contemporary’.”

Davis believes that ‘art music’ is a preferable term to use, because it circumvents all this confusion and takes in the highly varied creativity that lies within this sector. So for the purposes of the Art Music Awards, the term “covers activity across contemporary classical music, contemporary jazz and improvised music, experimental music and sound art.” One could argue that these areas are just too disparate to be realistically brought together under one banner, but Davis thinks not.

They all share in common a desire and an impulse to create art through music, he says. “So, whilst ‘new music’ or ‘contemporary classical’ as terms capture some of what we represent, we say ‘art music’ as a term that embraces these terms and more, across the spectrum of music creation that embraces a spirit of innovation, exploration, originality and new directions. Art making as intent, intent that differs from more commercial or populist expressions.”

“That’s not to say that some commercial music can’t be art making, or art music can’t have commercial applications or outcomes. It’s a way of embracing a fluid spectrum of creative activity in music and sound, spanning the concert hall and alternative venues, notated music, improvisation, sounds created via technology, or environments.”

Labels of course are only labels, but trying to find an umbrella term for this spectrum of activity is important for reasons of visibility among the wider public: people need to know what to call it. Is there a better term than ‘art music’?

“Perhaps,” says Davis. “But currently, with the way that artists engage in a diverse range of music making, across modes of expression, and even genre blurring that increasingly happens in the 21st century, we think that ‘art music’ does okay for the moment. And we’ll keep discussing such terminologies forever, to ensure that the words that we use can convey what we mean – or, at the very least, set a context for what we mean!”

The good thing is that the Art Music Awards are here to stay. It might be some time, however, before the term ‘art music’ catches on more widely. Composers themselves don’t seem to be using just yet.

Lyle Chan, who won Orchestral Work of the Year in this year’s awards for his Serenade for Tenor, Saxophone and Orchestra (‘My Dear Benjamin’), is philosophical on the subject, and points out “that knowing a thing and knowing a thing’s name are two different things.”

“ ’Art music’ is not a term we use amongst ourselves, is it?,” he asks. “And that’s very telling. We only use it when we’re talking outside our genre(s), for example to mainstream media. Even in this mainstream context, ‘art music’ is used only in relation to ‘new music’ – we don’t call Bach or Schumann ‘art music’, but rather ‘classical music’. Earlier this year I had the most interesting discussion with a musician from popular music, who was initially bewildered by the phrase ‘new music’ – he said, surely you’re always playing new music, unless you’re a cover band?”.

No, of course, but therein maybe lies the point. It still seems that we live in two starkly different musical worlds, and the only problem is how to define the pointy end of one of them.

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