Despite the high-art cultural dominance of new music, more experimental music is being created, in many different genres, than ever before in history. Just to name some again: reductionism, noise, drone, ambient, extreme metal, post-rock, experimental pop, (glitch) electronica.

But it seems that these types of music don’t stand up to the new music curator’s purist judgment. The problem is simply that many of these experimental popular styles use material that is considered unworthy. As a result, these styles are not officially sanctioned and therefore not financially supported. This is a view from the ivory tower of a small intellectual elite, defining what good and what bad experimental music is.

Today many new music composers cannot bear and endure, or at least cannot understand and value, real extreme radical artistic positions—it seems they are afraid of them. One part of constant new music criticism is interestingly volume. There is much talk about refinement—but the detailed subtleness in a soundscape of 110 db (noise) or the refinement of one multiphonic repeated 20 times in ppppp (reductionism) is never discussed nor acknowledged or accepted; it is not understood because it doesn’t fit overcome ideologies.

Rock music and noise music are always considered being too loud, too aggressive, too dense, to daring—which means: too primitive, too archaic for those who are afraid of powerful, authentic expression. I heard avant-garde composers come out of a noise concert and shout: “This is fascism!”

The same composers found reductionism aka quiet music (aka Stille Musik) unbearable, too quiet, too sparse, formally unconnected and only existing to tell you that one cannot write music anymore. Although reductionism seems to be a continuation of the new music tradition there is a strong opposition to and rejection of it within the new music scene that helped create it. It seems that the reductionist’s further deconstructed abstraction of material is not being approved of.

Noise and reductionism are just two of the art forms today exploring the frontier of perception: the very soft and sparse and the very loud and dense—the flip-side of a coin. This is music to be experienced, not so much to be analyzed intellectually while hearing—but there is enough depth, complexity and critical content making it worth to be analyzed after hearing. To explore the outer limits of perception and experience is not a “sleep of reason.” It is reason in its most exploratory, curious, exciting form—and it takes an open mind. Much of the arts-bourgeoisie is afraid of exploring their limits, is afraid of new territories. Only a few new music ensembles have understood that a real exploratory music ensemble (let’s drop the “new”) needs to go into many different directions today and shouldn’t be afraid of unexplored, strange, untraditional, extreme and frightening territories. New music concerts used to be a place to do this, but are no longer, instead presenting approved neo-20th century, conservative neo-new-music.

An avant-garde is a group that is ahead of the rest of society at a given historic moment in time. After a while society understands, progresses, catches up, and then continues to develop the former avant-garde material in its own way, leading to a diversification of the mainstream, and finally absorption of the avant-garde. At that point the avant-garde ends being the avant-garde and becomes part of the new mainstream. Elements of the former art music avant-garde can be found everywhere in today’s music. The popular and the experimental overlap more and more—slowly even in mainstream, commercial pop productions, just listen to Kanye West’s Yeezus.

Lachenmann complained that his sounds had already been touristic developed („bereits touristisch erschlossen“). This position of owning sounds is rather capitalist than avant-garde. He should be happy that he was ahead of the curve, that he was right, he lead the flock. Not only young art music composers are interested in these sounds, also popular music is using “Lachemann’s sounds.” You can find soundscapes produced with similar instrumental techniques in electronica as well as in many rock bands these days. A victory of the avant-garde! He helped to produce more interesting, richer popular music. (Although he never intended it nor was aware of it and…rock music would have gone there anyway…but, that’s another discussion and, hey, he was there first). Compare todays popular music with the popular music of the 1940s or 1950s and you hear the difference. Now these noise sounds, this “musique concrète instrumental”, can be heard in reductionist improvisation, glitch electronica, hip hop, experimental pop, post-rock, etc. Today’s popular music is so much more abstract, explorative, dissonant, sound refined and experimental.

Cage was avant-garde in this way too, he charted ahead and then the rest followed. Already early on many rock and pop musicians showed an interest in Cage’s work and started to include elements into their experimental popular music. But he didn’t influence artists stylistically as much as he helped them to open up to new possibilities and to re-evaluate their aesthetic positions and tools, which is one of the primary tasks of the avant-garde. Rock bands like Faust and Sonic Youth are just two of many popular avant-garde/experimental rock bands that process experimental and avant-garde ideas and distribute them to the masses. The same way the Beatles channeled Stockhausen’s music into the pop world via Sgt. Pepper and the White Album, or Frank Zappa’s rock music did with Varèse.

Musical genres and styles have to be judged immanently, not using value criteria from a different (sub-)culture. And that is what new music in the end really is, it is a small subculture believing to be the avant-garde of society—and might have been that at some point in the past, but not anymore.

Rock music, coming from folk roots, continues the folk practice today: oral tradition, flexible, personal interpretation, individual artistic variations, and no notation. This makes it part of contemporary folk music and culture—as odd as this might sound for some. Rock music is not about triads and tonal harmonies, these are just the carrier waves for the actual content. If one only hears triads in rock music one doesn’t listen. Rock is full of conscious microtonality in guitar tunings, vocal harmonies, melodies, and guitar soli. Sound in rock music is very elaborate, refined and sophisticated, given a lot of attention. In addition to that, rock needed not even 15 years to develop from three-chord teenage-bopper-angst music to abstract avant-garde experimentation. Over the decades bands like The Velvet Underground, Grateful Dead, Can, Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, Public Enemy, Underground Resistance, Scott Walker, Meshuggah, Sun O))), Animal Collective and many more have developed their individual approaches based on popular as well as avant-garde material.
Lou Reed, obsessed with sound, said: “One chord is great, two chords is pushing it, three chords and you got jazz.” This implicitly summarizes what rock music is about: not harmonies, but sound and rhythm, or in Edgar Varèse’s words: “Music is: organized sound—timbre and rhythm.” Avant-garde art music and advanced rock music arrived at the same place. How very promising for the future.

In the field of popular music, extreme metal should be especially interesting for new music composers due to its avoidance of traditional tonality, favor of dissonances, rhythmic, metric and formal complexity. A professional, serious musician should be able to hear the refinement in some of these bands, the tunings and sounds they use, innovative guitar and drumming techniques. The complex compositional formal layouts, unique concepts of harmony and dissonance, and the nearly exclusive use of extended vocal techniques are not appreciated. Why? Because, it is in your face, loud, aggressive, dirty and smelly, meaning: lower class social music (new music concerts tend to smell of lavender and Chanel No5, rock music concerts of sweat and beer.)

Neither noise music nor death metal is commercial music. These styles, and many more, were born out of a cross-pollination of art music and popular music. The result is—probably for the first time in history (!)—a popular music that is heavily avant-garde art music influenced, and values experimentation highly. In this sense the new developments in advanced metal, glitch electronica, freak folk, etc. are not post-modern, but constitute a way out of the dichotomy of modernism vs. post-modernism into a second, reflective, critical, abstract modernism. Arbitrary or unreflecting, superficial material and style quotation don’t belong here, but are being replaced by transcending style as serious material, considered with all the responsibility that comes with it. This happens by re-working style-characteristics—not even necessarily style-material—from within and re-shaping the aesthetic subtext of a genre, which is only possible with an intimate knowledge of the material being used.

Therefore, composing in the second modernism, if we like to call it that, doesn’t get easier, it actually gets much harder and the responsibility gets bigger. Experimental popular music applies avant-garde compositional approaches to popular styles, hence creating something new that is neither modern nor post-modern. This popularization of the avant-garde—exactly what every avant-garde wants and intends—has not been welcome by the spearheaded musical group. They do not want to accept that noise, reductionism, and avant-rock are exiting, valid new aesthetic positions, which reflect our existence in the early 21st century much better than 20th century new music.