Western Michigan University

When Is New Music Not New Anymore?

Over the past few months as I’ve been pursuing my degree at WMU, I’ve heard quite a few of my fellow classmates groan. What are they groaning about, you may ask? They are groaning about what they term as “new” music.

Enjoyment factor of the music aside, I never liked the term “new music.” The term has several issues. 1) What does “new” mean? 2) Does new mean “relevant?” 3) Is there a qualitative judgment going on?

The Imprecision of the Word “New”

In English, we have one word for something recent. Unfortunately, it is not always accurate when we use it. The ancient Greeks actually had two words for new. “Neos” meant new as in “something that happened recently rather than in the past.” “Kainos” meant new as in “something that is qualitatively different than what came before.”

So what does “new” mean when we are talking about new music in the Western classical music sense, new-in-time or new-in-kind? This is where it gets tricky. Sometimes, we mean that it was composed recently. But this usage is confusing, especially in the current climate. You currently have multiple ways of composing music. The major/minor scale system (tonality) that’s been used since the 1600’s is still wildly popular, and is probably the most widely used. You also have atonality, chance music, musique électronique, musique concrète, as well as other modern modes of composition.

It should be noted here that many of the modern ways of writing are no longer new (in time). Arnold Schoenberg was writing atonal music over a hundred years ago. John Cage’s most famous chance music was 4’33” (1952), which was written 64 years ago. Musique  électronique and concrète also originated in the 5o’s. The search for extended techniques has been happening since that time as well.

Often, however, we mean the type of music that is new in quality. It is different than what came before. The designation of “new” has occurred at least twice in music history: the Ars Nova (new art) from the 1300’s, and the stile moderno (modern style) from the 1600’s. These were drastic changes from the styles that came before. In much the same way, the modern “new” music refers not to tonality, as that was already in use before the 20th century, but to the newer (in time), more experimental ways of music-making. Since they are both being used at the same time, I believe that the term “new” to describe the latter kind of music is a misnomer. Instead, I am going to use the term “experimental music.” If someone knows a better term for this type of music, I would welcome it.

The Need for Relevancy

Part of the popularity of experimental music amongst intelligentsia, particularly after WWII, was a perceived need for music of our time. Tonality was considered too old, stodgy, and incapable of communicating the problems of the modern world. Music needed to be relevant.

In my opinion, this sentiment is wrongheaded.  “Music of our time” to me means “music that is written in our time.” If the music is relevant, people of that time will write and connect with it. People were still communicating with tonality; they still are.

Does experimental music usage count as music of our time? Yes, it does. Does tonality also count? Very much so. Tonality’s enduring popularity proves this. Frankly, the modern, experimental music never really caught on with the musician on the street. It is highly doubtful that experimental music will overtake tonality any time soon.

Avoiding Qualitative Judgments

A danger in modern music is that many modern composers proclaimed that it would be the new way in which all great music would be written. I once had a professor who attended a college in Indiana tell the class that his theory teacher, a student of Schoenberg, covered the tonal era (400 years worth of music) in just two days! The rest of his theory classes revolved around experimental music. This theory teacher thought that experimental music was the future, and took that belief to an extreme. One must avoid this kind of thinking and allow history to decide. Admittedly, this is hard to do for many people, particularly if they love a certain type of music.

March 2016 Life Update

Well, it’s been a while since I posted on here. I blame busyness. And boy, have I been busy!

It’s been a good kind of busy, though. (1) I have been diligently working through school at Western Michigan University. (2) I started a new job at Borgess Hospital. I’m still teaching voice lessons through Marshall Music. (3) My children’s choir in Coldwater is still going strong. (4) I direct church worship on Sundays. (5) I even had a gig singing Faure Requiem here in Kalamazoo!

WMU has been a great school to attend. My conducting prof, Dr. Kimberly Dunn-Adams, is awesome. I have learned so much from her! Under her direction, the Chorale this year has sung for the state ACDA conference, the Michigan Music Conference, and the regional ACDA conference. I sang solos at the latter two, which was a blast.

In January, I started a new job as a Patient Sitter at Borgess Hospital. For those of you who don’t know what a Patient Sitter is, it is what it sounds like. I sit with patients who need supervision so that the nurses can do their job of providing care. Needless to say, I have had some very interesting shifts, including one very eventful night in the psych ward.

I’m still teaching voice lessons at Marshall Music as well as privately. My students are learning. It’s always nice to see singers who are passionate about growing, singing healthily, and learning to read. I even have one student who regularly does her sight-reading practicing! That’s crazy, right?

My Coldwater responsibilities have kept me busy. The Branch United Youth Choir finished their first official Christmas program in December. We have a Butter Braid fundraiser coming up, and we are eagerly preparing for our spring concert in May. The kids are singing well. I have been especially pleased with my younger choir’s growth this semester.

My church in Coldwater has been very supportive during my time at WMU. They are wonderful people. Balancing school, work, and church responsibilities can be tricky. I am thankful for a loving church body that has shown patience and kindness to me.

Yesterday, I sang the baritone solos for the Faure Requiem. It was a great experience singing with the folks at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. They were very appreciative. We were able to sing some wonderful music together.

I look forward to singing the part of Pilate in Ars Voce’s upcoming performance of Bach’s St. John Passion (March 20). I will be singing with members of the Chicago Lyric Opera and other great performers in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. I would love to see you all there!

Anyway, so that’s it for now. Thanks for reading. I hope you all have a great day! I’m going to keep enjoying my Spring Break.

First Conducting Concert at WMU

This is an announcement that I will be conducting my first piece in a concert at WMU! I will be conducting a Telemann cantata with the Collegium Musicum. This includes choir, soloists, and strings! It has been very exciting to work with these talented and dedicated musicians.

If you are able/interested, mosey on over to the Dalton Center Recital Hall tonight at 7:30 pm. There is no charge. You’ll hear some great music conducted by Dr. Matthew Steel, Kristina Read, Ahmed Anzaldua, and yours truly. We would love your support!

WMU School Update and BUYC

With fear and trembling, I started my second master’s degree last week. It has been a whirlwind! I was a little worried since I have been out of schooling for a while. Add to that my choir duties and retreats (one this past weekend and another this coming one), and it has been a very busy week.

I look forward to the work this week. I will be conducting my first rehearsals of the Branch United Youth Choir (Tuesday 4:15-7:00), Campus Choir (Wednesday 7-9), and Collegium Musicum (Thursday 4-5:15). See you at the rehearsals!

New Choir Opportunity at WMU for Singers (High School Grades 11-12, College-Age, and Beyond!)

Along with Ms. Kristina Riewaldt, I’ve been given the opportunity to conduct a new choir at Western Michigan University!

Campus Choir

Rehearsals are from 7-9 pm on Wednesdays.

No Audition Necessary!

Age: High School Grades 11-12, College-age, and Beyond!

Only cost is music, and you keep your music when you’re done.

Collegium Musicum

Ahmed Anzaldua will join Kristina and me to conduct the Collegium Musicum (early music ensemble) for those ages as well. Time commitment is as follows:

Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-5:15 pm (Audition Required)

Questions? Contact us at:

kristina.l.riewaldt@wmich.edu

joel.f.snyder@wmich.edu