Are you missing out on contemporary music? Karol Beffa gives you the keys

At the dawn of the 20th century, a division emerged within music over tone. On the one hand, the pursuit of tonal, impressionistic and symbolic music, as the French composers claim. On the other hand, the composers of the second Viennese school defended the development of the musical language after Mahler. The latter wish to transcend principles of tone in favor of involuntarism, dodecaphonism, and serialism. This radical vision, theorized by the musician and philosopher Theodor Adorno, will have the effect of transcending musical currents that are incompatible with the strict and dominant Adorno vision:

Before 1945, a Franco-Russian modernism followed in the wake of Debussy and Ravel. This modernism was more solar than twilight, more harmonious than dissonant… We were inclined to neglect it in comparison with the floral modernism of the Viennese Three, Berg, Schoenberg and Weyburn explains Karol Biffa, Franco-Swiss composer, pianist, academic and author of the book Other 20th Century Musicals (Pocket Shuttle, 2022).

Musicologist, philosopher, and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno
Musicologist, philosopher, and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno

© Getty
– brandstaetter photos

At the end of World War II in 1945, the world of music was shattered. The musical currents of the pre-war period were no longer compatible with the new generation of composers, deeply disturbed by six years of global conflict. 1945 also marks a symbolic turning point with the deaths of Bartok and Webern. This pivotal generational change opens a new path into the world of music, heralding profound reforms:

It became more complicated after 1945. There was a hardcore method, holding the drum, which for a long time was the only one taken into account in the history of music. This path imposed its own reading: after the integrated sequence revolution at the end of the forties, the revolution of open work and randomness could have taken place. And a little later, the spectral music revolution [basée sur le timbre du son musical, NLDR]roughly contemporary with Revolution Simplified Written by La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass*. »*

Synthesizing the evolution of twentieth-century styles in a linear fashion is clearly possible, but this approach risks adopting a reductive and cascading view: ” There is a tendency, in this view of history, to see each generation haunting the previous generation through violent revolution, which I find problematic. Karol Beva warns.

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Topography assessment of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

How has our view of the dominant figures and major musical currents of the past century evolved? The main currents have been identified. The main lines have been drawn. However, our perception of the 20th century music scene is constantly changing, according to our constant discoveries and reassessments:

With feminism in vogue, we have been able to rediscover a number of female composers. The arrival of the compact disc 40 years ago has allowed us to discover or rediscover rare repertoires and composers. But I don’t think we’ll work in the future for 18ᵉ music such massive re-evaluations as those that can still be played for a portion of 20ᵉ music – music that gets re-evaluated almost every year. “, confirms Karol Biva.

These massive reassessments are largely driven by the increasing number of recordings being produced, allowing the public to get an idea of ​​the composer’s work in a short time. The distribution of these recordings, combined with modern digital listening, allows a wider audience to rediscover and re-evaluate the musical terrain of the 20th century.

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Should we choose sides in the 21st century?

If it is easier now, in hindsight, to study the music of the twentieth century, its schools and currents with a critical eye, what about this new millennium? It remains difficult to objectively note the influences and movements of the 21st century music scene. However, it is already possible to identify some main currents:

I know a few composers today who claim pure, hard sequencing, but there are clearly some. Some write with a combination in mind that can evoke those of sequencing. I think that today there is a musical undercurrent that we can advocate for the lack of a better “out of tune”, which tends to reject harmony pure and simple. There is also a current that has perhaps become a little academic, which is the saturation current » defines Karol Beffa.

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So there will be no dominant style but rather a combination of different styles, sometimes adopted by the same author. Are there still stylistic and ideological chapels capable of uniting several composers under the same idea?

I would say that composers of very diverse styles live side by side today. I don’t think the chapels are gone, but let’s say the composer is no longer bound, no longer called upon to choose his camp. The simple fact of not having to ask that question allows, in my opinion, more freedom because one does not feel constrained by injunction to choose sides at all costs according to a musical establishment or according to critics. sums up Piva.

If there is now freedom to claim a musical identity, then music financing remains a critical factor in the commissioning and creativity of the work:” In the United States, for example, there is a certain kind of aesthetic pluralism, with many different currents. Evidently, the most penitential and least accessible music hardly contains any means of expression other than that found on campus. It is funded, like other arts considered experimental, by the art departments of some universities. In Europe as in the United States, the issue of financing remains central Beva adds.

Composer career and commitment to music

The history of contemporary music is constantly evolving, as is the composer’s career. A versatile artist of a century ago, he is edging towards a specialization in his craft, far from his counterparts from a century ago:

150 years ago, almost all composers were excellent instrumentalists. They were all pianists or perhaps violinists. Since 1945, some composers have acted as conductors, and similarly some conductors have embarked on composition, but it is very rare for a composer to also be a conductor. This is linked to a growing specialization in both areas, in the field of composition but especially in the field of interpretation. »

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Added to this is the autonomy of the composer, who is now able to exist and work independently, particularly in the music publishing industry, while in the past he had relied heavily on it.

Even if the publisher still played an important role, one can quite imagine today that a composer would not have a publisher – which would have been unthinkable 40 or 50 years ago. Today, the composer is able to promote himself through his website and send materials of his works to artists who need them. But we always tend to think, rightly or wrongly, that a composer that is published is better than one that is not published. »

The composer also became a public figure, more involved and attached to the social discourse of his time. Many are those who carry a social and political discourse linked to ecology, terrorism, feminism and discrimination.

The commitment to music has always been there. On the other hand, works composed in order to ‘save the planet’, so to speak—some already exist, and more to come—are a recent phenomenon, simply because awareness of environmental issues has not been as acute as 30 years ago.. Aesthetic issues aside, it seems to me that we should view with caution a situation that may arise in which an artist will not be taken seriously unless he writes committed music. Carol Beva concludes.

  • To review the College de France symposium entitled “Solidarity and Beyond” (2012).

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