The crisis in new music is that there hasn’t been a real development since new complexity in the 1980s. Many young composers in academia and new music recycle the material and aesthetic of their teachers, while many of the older, pioneering generation of composers from the 50s and 60s have withdrawn from the avant-garde battlefield since the 80s (or before): Stockhausen, Penderecki, Kagel, to name a few, have all become established and regressed into musically safe territories, enjoying their success like pop stars.

A few others of the old guard, like Nono or Cage, kept on moving ahead into uncharted territories and got criticized for it. I remember the attacks on Nono in the 1980s in Berlin for his late-phase music: accusations of spiritualism, esoteric sound music, abandoning of form, abandoning of his critical political positions, etc. Although he simply continued to work as always, not letting himself be confined to approved techniques, artistic or political ideologies. In a discussion after the 1988 Berlin performance of Nono’s Prometeo, a new music composer told me that he didn’t like the piece, because he wasn’t able to distance himself intellectually from the music, rather the music and sounds sucked him in! Similarly Cage was strongly criticized for his number pieces, the argument being that they are too beautiful and one can get lost in them.

The new music of many young composers of the last decades often seems to be a paradoxical post-modern mix of modern music from the 1950s to the 80s. Is something avant-garde that sounds like from 20 or 30 years ago, using the same musical techniques, the same language in program notes, the same aesthetic? Today there is more new music written than ever, but it regresses into the 20th century.

If young art composers want to be successful, they have to write traditional new music. If they don’t, they do not win competitions, the traditional new music ensembles will hardly play them, and they are no longer part of the intellectual and financial save-haven new music scene. As a result, many younger composers seem to be more interested in writing for competitions and for commissions than for artistic expression, discourse and intellectual satisfaction. The new music scene has become a weird form of a self-fulfilling, self-replicating industry. The quality assessment of new music, which was very high until the 1980s, has seemingly disappeared.

Much of the older generation of composers (mostly born before 1965 or so) is still aesthetically and philosophically deeply embedded in the (post-)Adorno school of thinking. This includes a clear-cut definition of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. One part of this is the fetishism of material. Good and bad are defined by the material being used—the “what,” rather than by its use—the “how,” and the intellectual position behind the material—the “why.” Still in this day and age I hear from students that their teachers have problems with them using tonal material, grooves, repetitions and/or riffs—material that triggers the old fear of audience manipulation. Although there might have been good reasons for this position in the past, there should be no hierarchy of material today. Any material should be equally possible. The main focus should be on the artistry and intellectual refinement of shaping the chosen material.

Post-modernist music-as defined by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, a defender of the artistic purity of new music-includes: “minimalism, new simplicity, neo-romantic, tonal restoration attempts, and poly-stylistic patchwork.” Further he mentions: world music, style or genre pluralism, sound-for-sound music, reductionism, noise-and the American school, namely Cage and Feldman, as not fit for the European humanistic tradition, leaving only traditional European new music as the only accepted avant-garde music in the world. (German: Neue Musik am Beginn der Zweiten Moderne, 1998-new music at the beginning of the second modernism.)

I think he forgot or is this too far out of his reach because it is not officially dubbed art: experimental pop, avant-garde rock and metal, industrial music, glitch electronica, post-rock, freak folk, and krautrock and many more experimental popular music styles. All these styles were developed by a cross-pollination of new music avant-garde, avant-garde jazz and popular music and are inherently experimental or avant-garde in their own rights.

Here is a world view having to do with class: while art music always was the music of a social elite (cleric, aristocracy, bourgeoisie, intellectuals), folk music is the art form of the common folks. 20th century popular music grew out of folk and is a modern continuation of its practices. Attention: not everything popular is commercial, an often overseen distinction by art composers. Any culture needs high art, popular art and folk art. So how can we arrogantly dismiss anything that is “low” folk culture?

Simply to attest these “non-high-art” styles that they are uncritical and just commercial poser-surfaces is ignorant and shows an ideology that is deeply bourgeois, authoritarian, and top-down-and strangely unrefined. To think that one can or should apply-meaning: force-it’s values onto other systems is simply imperialistic. New music, having historically been politically sensitive, doesn’t see that it deals with other styles of music in an imperialistic way: new music is the top of the artistic and intellectual achievement and everything else is below. In the past, the West imposed its values, moral and philosophical criteria on the rest of world and we all know how this went down. So why is the same intellectual imperialism still being used towards popular and rock music without actually understanding its culture?

Of course these ignorant art composers didn’t even realize that in the 1990s, right under their noses, experimental popular music bloomed, like the experimental popular label Mille Plateaux, named after the French post-structuralism philosophy book by Deleuze and Guattari. Read the liner notes to CDs of Terre Thaemlitz and listen to his music or the writings and music of DJ Spooky, just to name only two well-know artists. We immediately see that refined use of material, critical discourse, deep philosophical reflection and socio-political involvement is not only the realm of art music, but also of contemporary experimental popular music. Popular music has its own techniques, rules, and ways to treat material—different lifestyles create different art!

In other fields we are already further along. Modern science, modern physics (quantum physics, relativity and string theory) have shown that the idea of one reality, of one right way, of one truth is not part of nature. It is all probability and stochastics until observed. The observer creates the truth—his or her individual truth.

No matter how politically important and revolutionary the bourgeoisie historically was (as seen for example in the French Revolution and difficult to imagine today), it still modeled itself and its internal structures after the authoritarian aristocracy. Our late-capitalist societies are still stuck in these authoritarian concepts; our democratic system still elects bullies and aristocracy-on-time as we see at this very moment. We still haven’t surpassed the time of authoritarian political representation. Our culture is based on a strict and strong hierarchy, based on a dual-world of clear and undisputed wrongs and rights and so is its art and tradition. Any hierarchical concepts of true and good music should be rejected. Just Say No! We need to go beyond.

That doesn’t mean there are no ways to tell good music from bad music. This is always possible within any chosen material and aesthetically beyond the material itself. The source material alone is never enough, otherwise every serial piece would be a good piecevand I have heard at least as many bad serial pieces as bad songs in C-major.
A post-modern multitude of approaches for example doesn’t mean anything goes and everything is right, actually quite the opposite. In order not to be arbitrary, the post-modern composer has the burden to be able to justify his choice of style (as material, not as quote and not as reference) and the way it is used. If a composer takes on this responsibility then every genre of music, every style, every material can be part of a critical artistic discourse. As I said before: It is not the “what,” it is always the “how” and “why”—the intellectual position behind the material.