Do you think there is a new common practice in contemporary music? Augusta Read Thomas



Augusta Read Thomas
Photo courtesy Northwestern University

As Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1997 (a job that I adore, and for which I feel wholly blessed and thankful every day!) many scores and CDs of very recent music land upon my desk or in my home mailbox each week. Over many years, this develops into to a library of fantastic riches which all of us at the CSO use and appreciate.

Listening to the music of our time-the music of all my colleagues and students-is one of the great joys of my work for the CSO and in my life in general. The music of these composers has taught me many important lessons. The scores I hear are wildly diverse and in all kinds of distinct musical styles. There are so many exceptionally talented composers working today! There is enough great music to keep our noble tradition very healthy and ever growing. People talk about “the death of classical music” but on the evidence I see and hear, I think art music is varied, wide-ranging, imaginative, inspired, and bursting of hope and promise.

But this is slightly tangential point, so turning now to the question at hand, and in exploring the question of whether or not a “common practice” has emerged in new music that draws freely from seemingly opposing stylistic orientations (e.g. serialism, minimalism, new romanticism, jazz improvisation, indeterminacy, electronics, etc.) my vote is: no, not really. I think there are certainly categories, for instance: styles, aesthetic positions, clichés, patterns, dogmatic inspired stances, and so forth, into which many composers’ works could be categorized in general terms. But the excellent composers, in their best compositions, dating say between 1975 and 2004 are searching for something deeply personal, creating a moment of exquisite humanity and raw soul, born of love and recklessness and desperation. Such music (of any style) that is alive and jumps off the page and out of the instrument as if something big is at stake is usually not “adhering” to a “common practice” and, in some fashion, cannot melt into the comfort of a common practice by its very uniqueness.

In short, I hear each single work as its own totally special and distinctive galaxy. Music is multifaceted and nuanced in infinite measure, such that, for my ears, I hear the beautiful specificity of each composition, with all its exclusive shadings and gradations, and I do not dwell on the “category” of it; nor can I make a nice neat box in my mind or ear called “common practice.” Forgive me, but my listening is at once too varied stylistically and also too close and granular to make such large generalizations.