No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents



Benjamin Piekut
Photo by Megan Wolf

When I initially spoke with friends and colleagues about the notion of a new “common practice,” I became aware that the concept is not nearly as widely-recognized as I had initially thought. Is it a set of performance techniques? Is it neo-romantic symphonic music? Or could it be defined as an “international style of post-Lachenmann dirty sounds,” as one friend put it? In a discussion group at Music2001 in Cincinnati, one topic under consideration was whether John Adams’s Phrygian Gates could be said to represent the beginnings of a “new common practice.” In the November 2001 NewMusicBox, Kyle Gann has also fantasized about a common musical language based on minimalism that will endure until the end of the 21st century. Indeed, some version of minimalism is usually part of any discussion of the new common practice. Another reference point is Alvin Curran‘s 1994 manifesto on the subject. In his poetic portrayal of the contemporary compositional landscape, he manages to refuse the pre- and proscriptions, the exclusions and omissions, that mark the instituting of a “common practice.”

It’s helpful to begin an examination of the new common practice by looking at the older common practice. It seems to me that issues of commonality are fundamentally social ones. What were the social worlds that supported the European common practice period? And how “common” was the music placed under this banner, exactly? Was there ever a “common practice” in the first place? The label itself is highly problematic because of the vast musical differences subsumed under the term, as well as its questionable “invention” of a common audience that, in fact, probably didn’t exist. By the end of the 19th century, capitalism had divided the social body into several potential audiences, and furthermore, had expanded on a global scale, making a single, unified European culture impossible to imagine.

These economic and social changes continued to make it very difficult to form a common practice in the 20th century. The rhetoric of internationalism and universality linked to serialism in the 1950s seemed to point to an imaginary “commonality” of musical experience that was already a distant (or even invented) memory. Now, as multinational capitalism has extended its global reach, commonality is out, and we are encouraged to celebrate difference under the auspices of the unquestioned, naturalized power of world markets.

Hence, the recent claims of “totalism” having common-practice status. This stage of minimalism is certainly more in line with the economic and social realities of late capitalism than serialism was, but the real matter is whether or not this is to be applauded. The problems of re-canonization, the erasure of history and cultural difference, and the misunderstanding of the demise of the original “common practice” period make current fantasies of a common musical language more dangerous than auspicious.

If there is a difference between Alvin Curran’s visionary celebration of “life at the top of the food chain” (as one friend put it) and Kyle Gann’s fantasy about the future of “our” music, it is in Curran’s steadfast refusal to translate his utopian manifesto into a set of codified practices. While Gann has already begun eagerly assembling his canon for future totalists, Alvin is a musical wanderer, content to revel in the rubble. I remember asking him once about the new common practice. He replied with a characteristic freestyle riff on the subject, and then concluded, “New common practice? I’ll tell you what the new common practice is…The new common practice…it’s no common practice.” One can only hope his wide-eyed embrace will be a model for others in the contemporary moment, and that talk of re-creating a common musical language will remain an uncommon practice.


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