Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Global Perspectives—Global New Music: From Avant-Garde to Rock, Korea to Estonia

By Gavin Lee

In the past few years, the Society for Music Theory (SMT) has seen the emergence of a global consciousness as evidenced in special panels organized by the Committee on Diversity (“Asian Influences” panel in 2013), the Post-1945 Music Analysis interest group (Pacific-themed panel in 2016), and the Committee on the Status of Women (Chen Yi panel in 2017). Like its sister society, the American Musicological Society (AMS), SMT is responding to a context in which world culture can no longer be ignored. Insofar as the global context is now embraced by growing segments of SMT and AMS membership, we are witnessing a historic convergence with the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), which has long been the home of research in non-Western music, transnational connections, and globalization. Along with this seismic shift of musical geography, we are witnessing accompanying methodological developments. The recent founding of the Analytical Approaches to World Music group in both SMT and SEM is telling, bringing music analysis to the discipline of ethnomusicology which has long been dominated by ethnography (and resistant to analysis), and world music to the discipline of music theory which has long been dominated by Western music. These geographical and methodological developments are surely both promising and require critique if we are to aspire to the highest level of scholarly and ethical commitment (see my post on “Rethinking Music Theory, With Syrian Aid”<1>). But the developments are promising nevertheless, and point to an ineluctably changing world which music theory is responding to.

The posts collected in this series on Global Perspectives are based on papers presented in the inaugural meeting of the Global New Music interest group of SMT in 2017.<2> The group was founded with the explicit aim of building a platform to support music theory scholarship on “global new music.” What is this nebulous term? Even with only seven papers presented at that meeting, the precise scope of this “global new music” came under scrutiny. “New music” is of course inextricably linked with Adorno and Schoenberg and musical modernism generally. But what about post-1900 music that is not “modernist”? The term “global” is also not precise—what about music from Germany, or the cultural margins of Europe such as Estonia (Amy Bauer has a post in this series on the Estonian composer Helena Tulve)? In the end, we decided to embrace “global” with all its ambiguities, while stating that our mission is to support understudied repertoire. The “new music” part we accepted as well, and I shall use the remainder of this post to outline its scope.

New music is a term that means “contemporary” or “modern,” but it also refers to the “cutting edge” music of every generation of composers since 1900, an implication we can easily draw from Adorno’s “The Aging of New Music” (for Adorno, Schoenberg was the original “new music” composer, who he critiqued in that article). Based on this definition, we can argue over which composers who were active since 1900 wrote “new music.” Romantic holdovers like Rachmaninov? The reformed late Prokofiev who was forced to return to tonality in his final years in the Soviet Union? Post-minimalists like Pärt? In today’s Western context, the principle of “new music” continues to be operative in music circles as a criterion of value: no one is going to take you seriously if your compositional goal is to write music that sounds exactly like Mozart. In a postcolonial, global context, however, the meaning of “new music” is slightly different. In societies touched by the West, it is often the case that most or even all Western music—ranging from Western art music, to Christian hymns and military band music—was received as “new” (contemporary, cutting edge) when it arrived in different parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. From a postcolonial perspective, then, “global new music” refers broadly to the context of Western empire building over the last 500 years, as well as to the accompanying hybridity and contestation across multiple musical genres (one of the posts in this series by Ya-hui Cheng is on the Chinese rock singer Cui Jian). Global new music is a critical category within the field of music theory that reminds us of the relations of power in which music finds itself.

Parallel to “global new music,” the term “global modernisms” in the field of comparative literature has come to encompass the literature, film, and general culture of multiple parts of the world, each of which contested and negotiated Western modernism in its distinct way—hence the plural global modernisms.<3> It seems to me that the key impetus in these new interdisciplinary formations in music and literature is a commitment to critique—to the fragmentations, revolutions, and reflexive practices of music makers, writers, and filmmakers who have not rested on the easy and appealing (at least not at first, and not in the main). Global new music goes beyond “global musical modernisms” in that it refers to not just global composers who adhere to the principles of canonic Western composers widely recognized as modernists (Schoenberg, Boulez etc.). I would want to include in global new music all music makers who contested and negotiated Western empire and its music through their own sounds. This body of music includes the Romantic-style Yellow River piano concerto by Chinese composer He Zhanhao, the Mexican death metal band Acrania, and the South African electronic dance music of Arthur Mafokate. The diversity of global new music is reflected in the membership of our interest group: we hail from Middle East, East Asia, Europe, and America. It is my fervent hope that over the coming years, with the ultimate aim of restructuring the Eurocentric discipline of music theory, we will re-articulate what familiar terms such as “tradition,” “form,” and “repetition” mean in the context of global new music, breaking out of assumptions about e.g. traditional non-Western music makers who imitate the West by assuming its aesthetic forms.


<3>Eric Hayot and Rebecca Walkowitz, A New Vocabulary for Global Modernisms (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).


Gavin Lee (PhD, Duke 2014) is Assistant Professor at Soochow University, China. He has chaired AMS, SMT, and SEM conference sessions, and resists forces that seek to re-inscribe disciplinary divisions.

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