Opinion: "scientific and conceptual art composers are killing classical music because they claim what they are doing is the new classical music"

By Dave Flynn

Have you ever tuned into RTÉ Lyric FM, or attended a classical concert, and found your enjoyment rudely interrupted by a strange modern composition? If so, it's likely you've been told you are hearing contemporary classical music. You may wonder if you're wrong to dismiss it as "thumps and bangs and squelches and belches", like David Norris once did in the Seanad.

What if I were to tell you that the music your ears disagree so violently with is not contemporary classical music and is better described as experimental music? True, it is mostly performed by classically-trained musicians, but that doesn't mean it is the modern evolution of classical music - or that it should be played during classical concerts and broadcasts.

From RTÉ lyric fm's Lyric Concert with Paul Herriott, Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, winner of the Best Contemporary Classical Composition 2015

There are three main styles of experimental music distinct from contemporary classical music: scientific music, chance music and conceptual art music. In a previous Brainstorm piece, Daragh Black Hynes discussed algorithmic music. This is an extension of methods developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples in the early 20th century. They created a new kind of "scientific" music called 12-tone serialism. Scientific music tends to replace intuitive composing methods with mathematical ones. It is usually very dissonant and, unsurprisingly, most people can't bear to listen to it.

The development of chance and conceptual art music can be traced to John Cage. He gained infamy in 1952 when he convinced David Tudor to sit at a piano for 4 minutes 33 seconds, whilst reading sheet music with no notes on it. Cage declared the composition was any ambient noises that occurred whilst the performer sat motionless such as coughing, laughter, traffic etc.

John Cage's "4' 33'" performed by Dead Territory

For better or worse, Cage created new ways of thinking about music that have been influential. The reaction to his 1960 US TV happening Water Walk demonstrates how a general audience thought he was a comedy act. I think Cage was in on the joke (the rubber duck is a dead give-away!). However, he maintained his deadpan seriousness and now Water Walk and works like it are taken seriously in certain circles.

Cage's influence is evident in the work of people like Johannes Kreidler and Jennifer Walshe. Both are award-winning composers with influential composition lectureships, yet neither composes what most people would consider to be music. Kreidler is a master of the attention-seeking gimmick and gained worldwide press for several actions, such as smashing a cello and violin at an orchestral concert. Meanwhile, Irish Times critic Michael Dervan described Walshe as an "attention-seeking soloist".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Abie Philbin Bowman speaks to Jennifer Walshe about "Historical Documents of the Irish Avant Garde", a fictionalised account of the avant garde movement in Ireland

It has been argued that Cage and his followers are not composers but "conceptual artists". I agree. They are, at best, conceptual artists; at worst, con artists.

Scientific and conceptual art composers are killing classical music because they claim what they are doing is the new classical music. As a result, every composer who works with classical musicians has to fight against the notion that modern classical music is "difficult to listen to". However, a lot of modern classical music is quite beautiful or exciting. In fairness to Cage, before he turned to chance music, he composed some strangely beautiful modal piano music like "In a Landscape" (1948). 

In this way he foresaw developments in the 1960s and 1970s when composers like Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt and John Adams revived the long tradition of composing tonal and modal music with repetitive structures. By the 1980s, they were composing operas, symphonies, concertos and string quartets. They are much more connected to Bach and Beethoven than experimental composers. Their music is innovative, yet obviously connected to past classical music. They invoke the ire of experimental composers who view tonal/modal music as regressive, even though their Godhead Schoenberg once stated that "there is still much good music to be written in C Major". 

Experimental music advocates infest music academia, funding peer panels and competition juries

Nowadays composers of tonal/modal classical music are an almost radical minority. Experimental music advocates infest music academia, funding peer panels and competition juries. They receive lucrative orchestral and opera commissions. Experimental music is no longer avant-garde and it exists in a kind of self-preserving mainstream. Yet the general public do not want to hear it in classical concerts. What other genre so alienates the audience it is intended for?

For example, the Berliner Philharmoniker, perhaps the best in the world, has only two living composers in their recently announced 2019/20 season and they are both white, European males over 65. No women composers feature. If modern classical music was a vital, thriving art form, the Berlin Philharmonic would programme lots of diverse new music.

If classical music is to survive as a living tradition, experimental composers need to follow the example of Milton Babbitt. In his notorious 1958 essay, Who Cares if You Listen?, he stated "I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media."

READ: Who wants to listen to an algorithm?

Experimental composers often celebrate, but rarely live by, Babbitt's words. They are killing classical music by exposing the classical music audience to their experiments.They need to follow Babbitt, exit the classical music stage and let composers of tonal/modal music get on with saving classical music from oblivion.

Dr Dave Flynn is a PhD composition graduate of the TU Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama. He is a composer and founder of the Irish Memory Orchestra


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ