New Music

Kimo Johnson

09 May 2006

I went to a discussion yesterday entitled "What is New Music?" The point of the discussion was to attempt to define New Music; I left less than satisfied. Some of the proposed definitions included "any music made by a computer" and "we can't define New Music." The former is clearly untrue and many counter-examples come to mind: the music of David Cope is an obvious example, but I would propose that most music made by a computer is not new. The computer is just the latest tool for making music and while it can play many roles in the process, the computer can make any style of music, including old and new.

The second definition, proclaiming the impossibility of a definition, is a cop-out. Sure it is true to some degree, and there will never be a definition that satisfies everyone, but we can still attempt a definition. The process of seeking a definition will help clarify our thoughts about what is and isn’t New Music.

To me, New Music is music that pushes the boundaries of what is considered music. I don’t agree with anyone who claims that everything is music: if everything is music, then nothing is music and the discussion is finished. The boundaries of music can be arbitrarily broad and vary person to person, but I believe that there are things that are and are not music. New music challenges the audience to consider sounds (or silence) that are not generally considered music as music.

But new music isn’t new for long. In the early 20th century, Schoenberg’s serial music was considered new. In contrast to tonality it was a new idea in many ways, though form, instrumentation and orchestration still borrowed from the past. Schoenberg attracted many followers and a school of music developed around his ideas. I would argue that the music was no longer new at that point. It could be labelled by scholars as serialism and therefore lost the “new” label.

There are many more examples from the 20th century, of course. Early computer music and the music of John Cage pushed boundaries and caused many people to rethink their own concept of what was and was not music. For a time, these types of music could be labelled as new, but now they are part of the canon and have been labelled as something other than new. So I suppose the best definition of New Music is music that pushes boundaries and challenges the system of labels. Without an obvious label, the music is called “new” and once there is enough similar music, a new and more descriptive label is coined.