Skirting the Post-Classic Stretch



Elodie Lauten

In the beginning of the 21st century, there are almost as many new styles as there are composers. Some musicologists have managed to describe the major trends of new music of the late 20th century and early 21st century as minimalism, post-minimalism, totalism, neo-romanticism, high-tech, and experimental music. This explosion of musical styles, if I may make a light-hearted comparison, is like the evolution of skirt styles for women: for centuries and up until recently, women’s skirts were one accepted length and everyone followed the fashion of the time. But now, if you look at the women passing you on the street, each has claimed the right to choose her length, from the ankle length to the mid-calf to the knee-length to the mini or even the super-mini! Or to reject skirts altogether and wear any kind of pants in any circumstances, including jeans with evening wear. This is exactly what happened in new music. Composers no longer feel compelled to follow a dominant style or follow in their mentor’s footsteps and they are creating new styles as they compose.

Yet back in July, Artsjournal.com hosted a revolting blog discussion on whether there is anything new in music… Who is really able to make an informed judgment on this issue, when a fear of new music pervades institutions, and our society’s general lack of interest and apathy make not only composing but presenting something really new and original nearly impossible? Most importantly, what is ailing all of us—from performers to composers to presenters and organizations—is the fact that the music being created is not recognized as having sufficient cultural value. Integrity and originality remain undiscovered in an underground largely ignored and kept outside the institutions entrusted (and funded) to promote American culture.

I reacted to the NewMusicBox issue on grants, which I felt was an excellent and informative reflection of our present reality, with a nightmare: only the composers with the correct gender, ethnicity, political, or professional affiliations were encouraged while the others were placed in a Kafka-esque metropolis, kept busy day and night with paperwork in a race against time so they couldn’t get to their instruments, and upon reaching the age limit of 35, were discreetly phased out.

This is a recent American phenomenon. In the post-Jesse Helms era, culture is treated as a by-product. In other countries, culture is recognized as a national asset. I am shocked to find that many American symphony orchestras are barely keeping themselves afloat. How can we let this happen?

In economic terms, over the last twenty years as the demand (number of composers) increased, the supply (funding) decreased, which has led to a fragmentation of the scene, pitting composers against one another. Composers need to unite, and may greatly benefit from an official or unofficial union of sorts. The current structural inadequacy has created class divisions, the Ôhaves and have-nots’ of the post-classic era. It has also lead to tokenism, i.e. highlighting support of a few singled out members of minority groups in lieu of supporting the entire group. The results easily lead to various forms of frustration and negative reactions from all sides of the music community.

There is also a widespread tendency to treat any kind of creative activity as a business, which can only lead to a degradation of culture and a subordination of aesthetic values to marketing goals—if not commercial marketing, then political marketing to the funding organization’s goals.

How can we show the value of our musical culture? This is usually done by history, but how can we do it without having to wait another hundred years? I do not subscribe to the myth of the dead composer. I think music has a role to play in relation to world events in the here and now.

For a moment, I would like to put everything back in musical terms, instead of socio-economic and political terms. Using the post-classic concept as a unifying device, let’s shift the emphasis from the practical business of composing to what I consider the real business of composing, i.e. dealing with pattern and texture, tonal color, rhythm cycles, events, outbursts and silences, noise and sound, playing instrument(s) and/or singing. This requires a shift in focus from a set of values based on financial success, to a set of values based on the appreciation of culture.

Fact: In a lot of places in the U.S. and elsewhere, no one really knows what minimalism is. They may have heard the word, but only have a vague idea of what it actually is.

So here is an attempt to dispel the pesky and pervasive FEAR OF NEW MUSIC and tell the truth (and nothing but) about neo-post-minimalism in the post-classic era…

What, in essence, is minimalism? It’s a musical style in complete opposition with its predecessor, serialism, a radical change from the music that prevailed over the previous 50 years. The most important element of minimalism is the return to tonality and steady pulse based on a fixed tonal center, remaining either unchanged throughout the piece or with few modulations (mostly to the third, fourth, or fifth). It is a style made of simple, repetitive building blocks, and basic rhythms, with no counterpoint.

Post-minimalism is an evolution of minimalism. It retains the strong tonal center and the modal aspects of minimalism, but it is more complex in terms of texture, melody, and rhythm. Now that some time has passed, critics have begun to identify ’80s post-minimalism as a new style.

Neo-post-minimalism, a further evolution of the style, born in the ’90s, is freer with chord changes. Neo-post-minimalism retains the elements of simplicity and clarity that made minimalism so fresh, and it is essentially tonal music, but it no longer relies on an unchanged fundamental, and includes varied chord changes alternating with semi-repetitive sections. There is still a strong tonal/modal element, and the integration of elements borrowed from a variety of other music, from early music to ethnic and pop music, all within a freedom of form that does not rely on formula.

Just like the bride’s outfit:

  • something old—the modal/tonal elements
  • something new—freedom of form
  • something borrowed—occasional references to other musical styles
  • something blue—root elements of blues and jazz

In the mid-to-late ’80s, nearly all the program descriptions in New York sounded like variations on “a blend of ethnic rhythms, rock, jazz, experimental, and classical music”. It was the height of cross-pollination. This phenomenon spanned all different styles of music, from commercial pop and new age to experimental and classical styles. But this phenomenon of cross-over has already taken place. Now is the time to harvest, to define our styles, which is rather difficult as we are in the midst of a stylistic explosion. This is sometimes called the post-classic era.

Even style names have a degree of relativity; they don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. For instance, the word “jazz” means something different in America and in Europe. Whereas Europeans view jazz as a living and evolving form including many styles, in America, jazz is viewed as a classic American form. After all, jazz came out of America. It is the ultimate purely American musical form relying on African-American culture as well as American folk culture, and there is a tendency to freeze it, as classical music from the past. A lot of the music that would be called jazz in Europe might be called either experimental or classical here.

The expression “new music,” created in the late ’70s, was very convenient until it was co-opted by commercial music. We still refer to our music as “new music,” or more recently “post-classic,” when at a loss to describe the new style we just came up with. Just like clothes—we cannot do without the all mighty label. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go tagless? No, actually, tagless is dangerous! If people don’t know what it is, they will not appreciate it. We are in a culture of cultures. Every creative thought is a reference to something else. Remember how the Dadaists, despite all their absurdity and playfulness, explained themselves very clearly and their culture was immediately identified?

A couple of years back, a festival cleverly named itself not the “Arrière-Garde Festival” (arrière being the opposite of avant) but the silly Derrière-Garde Festival (derrière meaning the Ôbehind’ as in the body part), dealing the expression “avant-garde” its deadliest blow. Avant-garde is now as retro as the Victorian corset. But what we want is stretch, freedom of movement. Have you noticed lately how all the clothes are stretchy? Can’t find a single shirt that doesn’t have some sort of stretch in it. What we are doing now is stretching styles to fit individual expression. Stretch is a defining element of the post-classic era.

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Elodie Lauten is a Paris-born composer who has been based in New York City since the 1970s. Lauten has composed works ranging from operas and theater pieces to orchestral, chamber, solo, and electronic works, many of which employ alternate tunings. She describes the music she has been writing since the mid-’90s (works such as Deus Ex Machina for Baroque Ensemble, Orfreo, Waking in New York, Symphony 2001) as neo-postminimalist. Recordings of her music have been released by o.o. Discs, Nonsequitur, Tellus, Polygram/Point, Lovely Music, Silenzio, Frog Peak, and New Tone.