Do you think there is a new common practice in contemporary music? Stephen Hartke



Stephen Hartke
Photo by Robert Millard

The very idea of a “common practice” style in musical composition today is a curious one in that it evokes the image of a deliberate transmission of accepted stylistic practices from composer to composer, and yet I think it is fairly safe to say that we actually live in what surely must be the least ideological and least proscriptive aesthetic climate in the history of Western music. The most noted college and conservatory composition programs can rarely be pinned down stylistically nowadays, with composition students being left to work in whatever musical language appeals to them provided they do it well. This isn’t to say that all styles exist in equal measure, because there are questions of stylistic fashion at work here, and it is fair to say that the fashion at present in America is leaning towards a more tonal, rhythmically propulsive, brightly colored mode of musical speech usually strongly influenced by elements of vernacular styles from world music to jazz to rock. At the same time, though, there are any number of very strong voices speaking in a post-modern version of modernism, and the wonder of it all is that it is not uncommon now to hear both sorts of pieces on the same new music program, whereas 20 years ago the idea of programming minimalism with serialism might have provoked a fist fight.

The really interesting question is, ‘How did we come to this point of being so relaxed about musical style?’ I think the answer to that is in the Zeitgeist. There have been several crucial moments in music history when a treatise or an article has played a role in shifting the evolution of musical styles, and, in the main, these writings tend to take on the prevailing philosophical tone of the period, as is only natural. When Philippe de Vitry formulated his notational reform in the treatise Ars nova, he placed it alongside a companion treatise, Ars vetus, thus setting up his bold innovations as a complement to the old, in the same way that theologians of the time spoke of the New Testament as the complement to the Old Testament, not an overturning of it. In the Renaissance, the musical and dramatic innovations of the Florentine Camerata and radical tuning theories of Nicola Vicentino were couched in terms not so much of seeking the new but rather of restoring the practices of antiquity, as was the general intellectual trend of the time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s condemnation of the intricacies of counterpoint in favor of a simpler homophonic style is expressed in the language of Enlightenment philosophers, as a striving for what is most natural. Wagner’s polemics take up the tone of 1848 revolutionary firebrands, and in the 20th century artistic positions have most often been staked out in manifestos, combative rallying cries echoing the rhetoric of Marxism. Finally, in the post-War period, the writings of both the post-Webernian serialists and the Cage school have a ring to them similar to the then-prevalent political idea of perpetual revolution, and it is in reaction to those camps’ insistence that the artist must do such-and-such that composers of my generation and younger have, in essence, embraced an aesthetic philosophy of “anything goes.”

Further, if there is one prevailing philosophical trend that defines our time now, it is the idea of the primacy of tolerance, diversity and inclusion. While Schoenberg may have emancipated dissonance, in the process tonality and its trappings were dismissed as outmoded. But today’s music is the product of recently emancipated consonance as well as emancipated dissonance, coupled with a general aesthetic tendency towards stylistic inclusivity. Whether or not this really means we are on a path to a “common practice” musical language with the appeal and durability of the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven style, it is too soon to say. We do seem to be in a period of relative stylistic stability, as has happened several times in music history following periods of intense innovation and change. It makes me wonder what sort of counter-style the future generation of composers will formulate in their inevitable reaction against our era’s embrace of eclecticism.