“Just as the finest song in the world is vulgarized beyond all bearing once the public has taken to hum it […], so the work of art that has appealed to sham connoisseurs, that is admired by the uncritical, that is not content to rouse the enthusiasm of only a chosen few, becomes for this very reason, in the eyes of the elect, a thing polluted, commonplace, almost repulsive.”
Do these words or the viewpoint they convey sound familiar to you? They were translated in 1931 from Joris Karl Huysmans’s A Rebours (Against Nature), a novel originally published in 1884. Yet they sound like many of the conversations I have with people about most of the music I care about: whether classical, jazz, alternative, or our nameless field of contemporary music. The reason for this becomes clear as soon as you do a quick etymological analysis of each of the words (except for jazz, a word that most people who play this music hate). Each of these genre monikers is defined in opposition to things that don’t meet its criteria.
Classical music is the music that has lived on or will live on. The implication here is that there’s lots of other music that hasn’t or won’t live on because it isn’t as good. Contemporary implies having a quality of newness, which is impermanent at best. Once something becomes familiar, by being around for a while and people getting to know it, it can’t really be contemporary anymore. So the more out there and inscrutable the music is to an audience, the longer it can stay “contemporary.” Hence, some of the other names for this music that used to get uttered more frequently but still getting trotted out from time to time—”avant-garde” music, “experimental” music—or the more recent “alt-classical,” which references alternative. Despite its misappropriation in recent years by marketers, the word still proves my point without needing to define it here. Might the exclusionary quality of all of these words and the exclusionary fervor we cultivate as its audience be partially to blame for this music being, well, excluded from most people’s experience.
The history books frequently cite the riot at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps as the moment when contemporary music was born. Wanting to out-punk the punks at my high school in the 1970s, I still remember wearing my fandom for Stravinsky, the Second Viennese School, Cage, Stockhausen, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, and all the rest as the ultimate uniform of nonconformity.
Yet, as an adult, not wanting the majority of the public to like the music you’re into seems like teenage rebellion at best and a recipe for irrelevance and failure at worst. I still love all this music—all I need to hear is a couple of measures of Sacre and I’m physically and mentally transported—but nowadays I want other people to like it too.