A Guide To: Listening to Contemporary Music


I, like many people I believe, used to be averse to listening to any music that I thought of as 'atonal'. It's better to have nice tunes and lush harmonies, right? Sure, harmony and tonality is a wonderful thing, and the music of Bach, for example, is arguable some of the most genius music ever composed. Since holding this opinion, I had the opportunity to play a concerto that rather challenges tonality, and ended up really enjoying playing this new type of music. Building on that, I had a desire to appreciate contemporary music even more (not 'modern' music, which technically comes before contemporary music - i.e. music such as the Rite of Spring), and thus took composition classes at university, exploring music that's being written right here and now, and what the value of it is. Since then, I've composed, listened to and performed all kinds of contemporary music, and really think is has a lot going for it. So here's my guide to it, and some things to look out for or make note of when trying to listen to it.

1. It's not all atonal and horrible

Atonality can take many forms. There's Schoenberg's serialism (all 12 notes played in an order once before any one of them can be repeated, for example) and then there's just music that isn't necessarily in a key. But music that's being written now in the 'contemporary' genre isn't all like this. There's a lot to explore, and even where a home note can't easily be heard, there's some really great music. For example, Britten's cello suites contain a lot of what might be labelled as 'tonal ambiguity', but they're by no means unpleasant to listen to. Lack of chord structures as you know them doesn't automatically mean a piece will be unpleasant.

2. Arguably, new music has always seemed initially unpleasant

When Beethoven premiered his third symphony, the players looked at the music and thought it was far too difficult to play, and there was definitely the opinion that the music was far too loud and forceful. This is often a viewpoint some people might take towards today's new music, but look at the pedestal that we (quite rightly) put Beethoven on for his innovation, taking music to new places! Beethoven was contemporary once, as was Bach! Some things that are being written now could arguably become the new staple, and that's pretty exciting! Art, including music, is always pushing boundaries - and I think that's something to be embraced. Music is a contemporary art-form anyway - the creation of the symphony was one of the very first instances of abstraction in any art-form.

3. Contemporary music is not all the same

Although on first listen it might sound like a load of clusters of notes and not much else, there are actually incredibly creative ways in which composers put together their music, with incredible interesting concepts behind them. I played in a piece recently by Marc Yeats, who had the music on the page synced between an ensemble to stopwatches. Each player was totally independent, but the music coincided. This created some beautiful, complex, weaving lines, and knowing the composer's method really helped to appreciate what was going on. Another piece might ask its players to do something completely different, such as explore the different interesting sounds one instrument can make, or it might give performers some more freedom to explore and improvise. It really is a great way for musical creativity to be explored. There really is a lot of variation. In the concert below, every single piece I played in asked something totally different of me.

4. Contemporary music represents real life in the same way as all other music

Part of what makes music so universal and lovable is how it represents real life and emotion. There's an argument that contemporary music does this exceedingly well. Real life doesn't necessarily happen in neat, organised patterns but contains its own internal logic that might not be immediately apparent. There are often moments of absolute calm and stillness, and real, noticeable beauty - if you allow yourself to be in the right frame of mind. There's a piece at the end of the concert linked below by Scott McLaughlin that does this (in green lighting). Similarly, moments of pure dissonance can be jarring, just like real life can be! It is perhaps a slightly more nuanced and different way of representing the same ideas as other music - some may argue that stretching the definition of what the music can do even broadens this scope somewhat, so that even more can be explored. 

5. It can be very intellectually stimulating

One of the key things I've found about writing contemporary music is that it allows me to express really thought provoking concepts in more depth. For example, this semester I was able to explore the relationships between two performers in what I'd call a 'realistic' way, where each would respond to the other in ways which stretched beyond the 'normal' measure of 3 or 4 time. Not only harmony, but rhythm and even texture and instrument sounds can seem totally different, but there's often a very thought-out reason for this. The composer might be expressing something quite complex. This is why I love trying to find out a composer's motives behind their music when I can. 

6. It may take a bit of getting used to, but it's worth it!

Sometimes things can take a bit of getting into, and that's OK, but I promise there's a lot of juiciness waiting to be discovered. And you never know, you might hear a piece of really good contemporary music and go 'woah that's cool!' straight away. Sometimes the music can be quite experimental, but it's always interesting to note what the composer is experimenting with and which musical parameters they are stretching or re-defining. And once you can get into a new 'soundworld' the intentions of composers and all of the things mentioned above become all the more apparent. The subtleties of how composers have combined instruments to create unique sounds, for example, might be more noticeable. So I'd say, give it a go and persevere - what's happening now really is setting a precedent for the future! 

Of course, what we hear of 'classical' music from the past is the really good stuff - the stuff that's survived the test of time. The contemporary music we might hear today is broader, more experimental and there's a lot going on. Some of it may stand the test of time and some of it may not, but it's fascinating to watch the next stage of music develop in our lifetime!

Check out this concert of contemporary music that I played in recently - it really challenged my playing style in numerous ways and was one of the most beneficial things I've ever been part of. The programme is:

Mic Spencer/Max Erwin (Electronics) - Membrane I (attacca to...)
Jake Randall - Pistons Bourdon
Hannah Firmin - Stasis and Transition
Mic Spencer - Ungrund IIIb (After Boehme)

Marc Yeats - always the beautiful answer
Alannah Halay - Energy Cannot be Created III (Transferred States)
Scott McLaughlin - Variations and Repetitions Transform Each Other