Do you think there is a new common practice in contemporary music? Jeffrey Mumford



Jeffrey Mumford
Photo by Al Fuchs

As I grow older and hopefully wiser, the concept of “isms” as a defining element of aesthetic philosophy becomes more and more curious. I suppose they can be facile catch-alls in helping to make tangible that which is very difficult to make concrete, namely to codify streams of artistic expression.

For instance, Schoenberg proclaimed that he saw the future of music as a consequence of the legacy of 12-tone music. True, his work and that of those that followed has had an enormous influence in any number of ways including the freeing up of harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm. Jazz has also provided a framework for us to re-examine harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm. For this we are all grateful. But can an “ism” be justly attached to works that derive their inspiration from the attempt to develop a personal language that speaks from a composer’s heart and hopefully to all those who listen? Is there a hierarchy of “serialist” works that results in a common practice?

Similarly, does there exist a common approach relative to any “ism” (minimalism, aleatoricism, primitivism, new romanticism, etc.)? These labels are guides to general tendencies perhaps, but thankfully cannot address that which words are incapable of expressing; i.e. the soul of the music; that essence which the composer uses towards his or her expressive ends. When I listen to music, I try to assess as best I can what it is that the composer is actually trying to say. I suppose I am more interested in what is being said than the processes that are employed or which particular school of thought a work belongs to. I want my experience of music (or any art form for that matter) to transport me to somewhere else more vivid, immediate, and rich in substance. The more we can endeavor to understand the intentions of those composers who interest us (and maybe even those who don’t), the more I feel we can make intelligent and insightful decisions in our own work. Of course, this journey presumes an ongoing questioning of that which we as creative artists are trying to say in the first place. This can be a messy and wonderfully inexact process, but one which I feel yields essential insights.

Is there a current common practice at all?

A given “minimalist” work may owe significant debts to many different kinds of music from profoundly divergent parts of the world. This piece may furthermore use all twelve chromatic pitches in cycle. Can Berio‘s “points on the curve to find. . .” rightly be called “minimalist” considering its surface elements? Does that or any word even begin to characterize what the work is about? Does it embody a particular “common practice?” It is definitely a piece by Berio with all of the stylistic earmarks that make his music so compelling. So maybe there is a common reference point within a particular composer’s approach. Perhaps a composer’s individual style defines his or her own “common practice.”

It is often said that whatever notion of “common practice” that may presently exist is defined by another “ism”-eclecticism. The landscape is wide open.

As an African American composer, I take my position and responsibility seriously. When I teach, I encourage all of my students to speak with their own voice, and not succumb to the limitations others may try to give them. I believe that for too long, African Americans (and many others) have been pigeonholed (both by their own constituency and by others) by limited assumptions of the scope of their creative activity. I want to explode this. I believe that the artist must be a citizen aware of the context in which he lives both politically and culturally. Then he or she must define his or her own world with frames of reference unique to them and invite people into that world at appropriate times.

I feel that there is now very a healthy diversity of approaches to musical expression. I sincerely hope that this diversity is celebrated and reflected on concert programs.