Fanfare for the Uncommon Practice

I wonder if a discussion of a contemporary common practice will in not too many more years seem rather quaint and curious. The discussion of this on these pages is quite wonderful, and I think assists our self-knowledge both as individuals and as a community, but I tend to think it is a discussion whose days are numbered. I certainly am among those who tend to have the fault of historicist thinking, and as a performer and presenter, I adopt historicist attitudes from the need to redefine the “canon” and advocate “great works” on more progressive terms. But it is not so much what I envision on the horizon, as what I see in our midst, that gives me the sense that we have a lot of imminent surprises coming.



John Kennedy
Daguerreotype by Robert Shlaer

For starters, our creative community is not a monolithic group of people who share the same kind of composerly education, much less the same set of historical assumptions. At the AMC and here in the Box, we can see how the profile of those participating is becoming more diverse all the time. Aside from the wide range of musical backgrounds and perspectives which are at play among creators of new music, there are numerous examples of composers who may fit the profile of someone with a finely distilled education as a traditional composer, whose work nevertheless has elements closer to pomo jazz or non-western musics than whatever we might call mainstream new music. Lumping that into “totalism” doesn’t always seem adequate.

Speaking of totalism, did anyone as recently as 20 years ago see it coming and have a facile description for it? My point is that the most interesting and enduring music is that which takes us by surprise, and that given the range of influences and possibilities at play in today’s world, the next surprises do not seem likely to come from common practice.

Also, the speed of technology seems to always accelerate, and the options for individuals of widely varying musical abilities to do digital sound editing seem to turn new corners every few months. Many new Macs are packaged with Garage Band software, and while it may not be your professor’s idea of composition, if the usage of such softwares is a trend for the future, then the manufacture of creative musical product is going to skyrocket—no matter what we may think of the quality and nature of the music produced. How this impacts whatever center or common practice exists in new music is going to be fascinating, but I can’t imagine things are going to stay in the same place for very long.

Various sectors of the music community, such as orchestras and publishers, will surely continue to advocate certain kinds of work which forge a “common practice” sensibility for their audiences, regardless of the reality in the streets. But I think Jeffrey Mumford says it all when he notes the incredible diversity in our field, and asks that it all might be better represented in our concert programs. Only then can we really answer the question of what common practice exists.

Surely you have some uncommon thoughts on all of this. Let us know what you think.