The Lonely Planet of contemporary music

“A small history of music from here and now” aims to guide the curious music lover through the worlds of contemporary music. The book highlights the most important movements up to the present day. Moreover, a strict format has been chosen so that not only the hesitant beginner is relieved of his cold feet, but also the seasoned adventurer is presented with a wealth of new ideas. 

By Wynold Verweij

Until now, those interested in this subject have had to rely on such classics as The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music (Cook and Pople), Modern Music and After (Griffith) and The Rest is Noise (Ross). What these works have in common is that they look no further than the year 2000. But initiator MATRIX (Centre for New Music, Leuven) and editor Mark Delaere (Professor of Musicology, KU Leuven) have provided a relevant addition. In the first place, the horizon is extended to today. This movement invites to look ahead and allows unbounded interpretations to have free rein. Moreover, it becomes clear how much new music still refers to the past, even if it is sometimes close by. Furthermore, extensive attention is paid to new music from the Low Countries. And finally, this book stands out because of its practical approach, for instance with reading and listening tips. The authors have clearly put themselves at the service of the average music lover: academic grandstanding has been left out.


After a short historical introduction (Filip Rathé), two parts are presented. The first part is an overview of the most important developments. In eight chapters, the most important perspectives are described: serial music, electronics and computers, sound composition, coincidence, minimal music, new complexity versus new simplicity, political activism and post-modernism. In principle, these aspects are treated chronologically, but in practice they are often juxtaposed.

The second part consists of a description of seven key concepts, such as the role of multimedia, open forms, sampling and physicality. All chapters are in a fixed format: context, overview, examples and reading/listening tips. The added value of this approach is twofold. Not only does it benefit the unity in the diversity of the theme, but it also promotes cross-pollination. The usefulness of the latter becomes apparent in the chapter on serial music (Maarten Quanten). His treatment of serial composition processes, in which the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg plays a central role, is preceded by the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s views on connections between music and politics, in themes such as emancipation and oppression. He saw in Schönberg atonal systems a stimulus for the critical listener to arm himself against totalitarian systems. Adorno went far in this. When he heard the Sonata by his young Flemish pupil Karel Goeyvaerts, he said he missed a “theme”. Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, classmate and later famous, came to Goeyvaerts’ rescue: “Professor, you are looking for a chicken in an abstract painting”. Connections between music and politics appear in many places in the book.

Synthetic sounds

The chapter on electronic music (Rebecca Diependaele) makes it clear, among other things, how important Goeyvaerts was even then (1950) for the application of these techniques in music. He realised that his need for a detailed “soundscape” was only possible with the synthetic sounds of a computer. A single sine wave, such as a constant beeping sound, cannot be extracted from a conventional instrument: a staccato on a violin has a start and dies away. Diependaele outlines the developments that came after Goeyvaerts’ first steps: digitisation and the emergence of home studios, interaction with live instruments, the role of ‘consumer electronics’ and the importance of the internet in allowing composers to easily share their work.

Electronics also play a role in so-called spectral music (Filip Rathé). This specialism relies on spectral analysis of melody and harmony that is used to create sophisticated transformations. In this way, the computer makes an infinite deepening and broadening of timbres possible.

This increased precision could not, of course, remain without a response. That response consisted of creative processes whose outcome was no longer fixed but rather uncertain. Ann Eysermans describes the view of the American composer John Cage (1912-1992) that the most important characteristic of an experiment is that the outcome cannot be determined in advance and can therefore never be considered a success or a failure. According to Cage, all music is experimental. He went furthest with his composition 4’33”, in which during that period – the average time of a pop single – only environmental sounds could be heard. In doing so, he wanted to demonstrate, among other things, that the concept of (absolute) silence does not exist.

Minimal music

After Cage, the pendulum turns back and minimal music enters the picture. This is music that aims to spread minimal means over a relatively long period of time. Maarten Beirens describes the three phases of this genre: avant-garde (La Monte Young), via John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass to Bang on a can. Here too, interesting cross-pollinations occur. It is striking that many American composers, for example Glass and Cage, found it useful to follow part of their training in Europe, so that they could continue their careers in the US with mature music-historical baggage. The European counterpart of minimalism (Michael Nyman, Karel Goeyvaerts, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Simeon ten Holt) also flirts with phases of music history. Examples are series of variations from the Baroque period (Nyman), the use of medieval instruments (Goeyvaerts), or references to Chopin (Ligeti). The author also mentions Louis Andriessen, who was granted the patent for the Dutch variant on minimal music.  According to some, the combination of saxophones and electric guitars and bass guitars results in typical Dutch characteristics such as impertinence, dramatics and dissonance.

Klaas Coulembier gives a concise description of another catalyst in the new music. This is the so-called new complexity, a collective name for complicated scores that contain such a wealth of information that they only become more accessible after repeated study. According to one of the numerous interpretations, it is not actually the intention that these pieces be completely unlocked, but rather a test for the performer. The musician is supposed to try to get as far as possible, to push the boundaries.

Political influence

That the development of music can also be attributed to extra-musical circumstances we have known since the Council of Trent when the cardinals established rules for polyphony. More than 400 years later, the authority of the church has made way for police-societal influence on music. Melissa Portaels mentions the Italian composer Luigi Nono (1924-1990) and the duo Louis Andriessen and Misha Mengelberg as striking examples. Nono is known for his serial and electronic techniques on behalf of a clear, communist message. His goal was to create a new, more conscious way of listening. Andriessen, Mengelberg and Peter Schat (among others) joined the student movement of 1968, culminating in the committed opera Reconstruction. A year later, the same group of composers disrupted a performance by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. This “Nutcracker Action”, in which the orchestra was portrayed as an elitist instrument of the ruling class, was a traumatic experience for conductor Bernard Haitink.

The title of the final chapter (first part), ‘The apples that fall into the hat’, is not stolen. Yves Senden deals here with post-modernism, a period that began in the 1960s and 1970s. The limits of the concept of progress are in sight, the urge for expansion in music (“everything must be possible”) has reached its peak, antithesis and synthesis bring about connection and co-existence. Elements of the past such as “euphony, tonal suggestion, traditional genres and the romantic gesture” have a future again. The author quotes composer Boudewijn Buckinx, who lets representatives of three movements enter an orchard. The moderate-modernist picks apples at arm’s length, the avant-gardeist wants one apple hanging in an impossible spot, and the postmodernist lays himself to rest under a tree and lets the apples fall into his hat. The message of the latter is: don’t bother, don’t fanatically search for new means to find the story. From Eastern Europe, Arvo Pärt, Pēteris Vasks and Mikolay Górecki pass in review, from Belgium it is Buckinx and from Great Britain Max Richter.

Key concepts

The second part of the book deals with a number of key concepts that can lead to a deepening of the material from the first part. A surprising subject is the chapter on music and physicality (Mark Delaere). An example is the conductor who with his gestures not only directs the musicians but also helps the spectator to “breathe along” with the cadence of the music. Delaere also mentions Luciano Berio’s composition 14 Sequenze for solo instrument and voice, in which each instrument is provided with appropriate expressive gestures (double grip for violin, glissandi for trombone, etc.) and 44 vocal gestures for female voice that express the entire spectrum of human emotions. The German composer Helmut Lachenmann even uses action notation for the performers’ gestures and movements. Stefan Prins’ work on the blurring distinction between real and virtual bodies is topical. In his work Generation Kill (four musicians, four performers with game controllers, live video and live electronics, 2012), he presents the American invasion of Iraq, in which the war is fought by soldiers who have been brought up in gaming. Who is real, who is virtual? Who makes real music and who makes virtual music? We do not know because the real sounds are manipulated by the game controllers.

Other topics in the second part include the degree of freedom that a score can offer (Yves Knockaert), the creative potential of acoustics (Kees Tazelaar), the role of the Internet as a sound archive (Christine Dysers) and the question of whether music can also be a conceptual art form (Joep Christenhusz).

Manipulations, teasing and fake expectations have filled the composer’s bag of tricks for centuries. Historical awareness, agitated curiosity and a healthy need for adventure determine the vitality of new music. Delaere and MATRIX’s book is an inspiring and reliable Lonely Planet for anyone who wants to know more about the musical attractions of here and now.

WHAT: Een kleine muziekgeschiedenis van hier en nu (in Dutch only)

AUTHOR: Mark Delaere (ed.) on behalf of MATRIX, Centre for New Music

PUBLISHER: Pelckmans Pro, ISBN 978-94-6337-268-8, 270 p., €40 (paperback)

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