View From the West: The Next Big Thing



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

We appear to be due for a new musical style to make itself known. It has been a long time since the last ‘big thing’ in music, and I have been waiting for the next big thing to come down the pike, whatever it might be. Major upheavals in musical style are few and far between, and we seem to be overdue for some kind of revolution, revelation, or paradigm shift. As was noted in the November 2001 NewMusicBox, the previous major shift in music style was minimalism which came into being as early as the late 1950s with La Monte Young‘s first forays into minimalist territory, but certainly no later than 1964, the year that Terry Riley‘s In C was composed. Prior to that, Cage ushered in a musical revolution with his use of chance operations that he and the so-called New York School—Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and eventually David Tudor—embraced in their own idiosyncratic ways. Of course, the 20th century has also seen the advent of neo-classicism and serialism. There have been other schools, styles, and conventions, such as the colorists Ligeti, Penderecki, and Crumb, at least a couple of generations of neo-romantics ranging from George Rochberg and David Del Tredici to some works by John Adams, and various other styles, but nothing appears to have captured the imagination of a generation of composers.

In what way is the time ripe? As in the past, a once revolutionary style became time worn, depleted of possibilities, or simply fat and lazy. Certainly, minimalism has, at the very least, transcended the appellation. Composers such as Glass, Reich, and Riley all feel that the designation minimalism has long since lost any relevance to the work that they do. In fact, since the mid-’70s if not earlier, their work has been postminimalist if not maximalist. And while many composers retain minimalist techniques, it is really not a young composer’s game anymore.

The visual arts have tended to be more in touch with evolving philosophies and aesthetics, experience, and ushering in many more stylistic changes. Since World War II, art in America has flourished, if not led the way for the rest of the West, beginning with the advent of Abstract Expressionism and its two sub-sets, Action painting and Field painting. In the 1960s alone, one can find Pop Art, Happenings, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Performance Art, Video Art, Photo Realism, Earthworks, and more. Of course, there were minor stylistic tangents, side bars, cul de sacs, detours, and dead ends, including Op Art and Kinetic Art. One can also fine such mini-movements in music, some of them profound, others incidental, as in John Zorn‘s fast cuts, stylistic juxtapositions, and games which have been enthusiastically embraced by listeners, as well as the aforementioned work of the colorists and neo-romantics, but no major school appears to have emerged other than minimalism.

If the past century is any barometer of trends, it is likely that the new music will emerge out of a larger, dynamic cultural milieu as discussed in last month’s column. Of the so-called impressionists, Debussy is associated with likes of Monet and Renoir. And while he thought that the term Impressionism was utterly inaccurate, even ill conceived, one would be hard pressed to deny that his treatment of timbre was analogous to the Impressionist painters’ treatment of light. Moreover, one could argue that Debussy drew more inspiration from the symbolist poets and writers than he did from his musical contemporaries. Ravel was a member of the Apaches, a confederation of artists, musicians, and intellectuals who gathered together to discuss the arts and idea. Think of all of the neo-classicists who were part of the Parisian cultural milieu in the 1910s and ’20s, with Stravinsky leading the way for the composers. At that time, the arts community included composers, painters, writers, filmmakers, choreographers, theater artists, photographers, and others. This community included the likes of Picasso, Picabia, Duchamp, Cocteau, Diaghilev, Satie, Massine, Antheil, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, René Clair, among a host of others. Not only did they meet and talk, they often collaborated with one another. Schoenberg was a member of the Blue Rider along with Kandinsky and Marc. Similar communities were the breeding grounds for Cage and the New York School and the Minimalists.

Stan Shaff of San Francisco’s Audium, a small venue with 169 speakers in a specially designed theater which features Sheff’s electronic composition which is broadcast and splayed through an elaborate sound system in which sounds are choreographed and sculpted, moving through and defining space. The work is at once music as well as a kind of abstract dance (movement through space), sculpture (defining space through sound), and theater. Sheff believes that the use of sound moving through and defining space is the next step in the evolution of contemporary music, and there is certainly great potential for the genre given the advances in computer technology, which is moving at a blinding clip, as well as home surround sound entertainment systems and other advances in audio. However, whether composers pursue three-dimensional sound as the next major step in musical trends remains to be seen. Certainly what Sheff envisions is a medium rather than a style. If indeed composers pursue three-dimensional sound, there is no guarantee that a new school of music will emerge defining an aesthetic and style. Remember electronic music? Some composers saw it as a kind of savior in contemporary music, but it has certainly not dominated developments in new music. Indeed, it remains an area of great potential, but as a genre rather than a style.

One might argue that eclecticism is undercutting or thwarting the development of a new musical style, but one could certainly have made a similar claim in the 1920s as the serialists pursued a path quite divergent from the one taken by the neo-classicists, or in the 1950s and ’60s as the ultra-rationalists did battle with the experimentalists. It may simply be that the current eclecticism is obfuscating an emerging style whose profile will crystallize as time passes.

Minimal music was a product of its zeitgeist. We are now in an entirely different era which is awaiting a new musical emblem and new style. Just what that might be is very difficult to say. In all likelihood, the new style will begin as a reaction, perhaps against minimalism, perhaps against eclecticism. It may be that the new style will avoid pervasive dissonance, as it has been so thoroughly investigated in the past century.

What is certain is that the new musical style will confound a host of composers, theoreticians, critics, historians, and journalists. At the same time, it will stimulate and inspire generations of composers, musicians and intellectuals. It may very well be that the new "new" music is already being written. Whatever it might be, I only hope that I have not become too entrenched and jaded and will embrace the new style with an open mind and ears wide open.