New Music, New Rules

25/07/2016 11:30 | Updated 25 July 2016

This week I find myself on the secluded island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Here my orchestra is performing at La Mortella, a spectacular haven created by the composer William Walton and his wife Susana whose opulent gardens hang off a cliff in ways the Babylonians could only have dreamed.

It is a place for dreaming and here, amid the voluptuous frog ponds and palms, the great British composer was inspired to write his most lucent music.

It newly reminds me of music's power not to depict the world in which we live, but to scoop up its elements and cast them back at us like the mirrors of a kaleidoscope, drenching our ears and minds with thoughts both familiar and strange. (If this sounds overly poetic, blame the music I'm listening to as I write. In its boundlessness, music makes us feel more boundless too.)

At this remove from the everyday world, I nonetheless find myself drawn to a recent Guardian article by Philip Clark posing that the age of great composition is over. On social media, friends and colleagues are already decrying this notion louder than the frog chorus here in the Waltons' lagoons.

I don't blame them: Clark's view is tremendously bleak and out of touch with the restless, bubbling, fertile culture in which we work. But maybe we just aren't doing enough to trumpet what an exciting age of musical invention this truly is.

Clark's article measures Harrison Birtwistle's ascension to greatness as the moment he featured on BBC Newsnight. The fact we've not heard more composers on that show isn't their fault: it's the producers who don't trust themselves to give new music the airtime it still deserves.

That said, we've moved on. Though it's fun to see Evan Davis verbally kickbox the Labour leadership wannabes, music is finding other outlets through which to make its presence felt, in unlikely venues like pubs and car parks, and of course online where the next generation passes its time instead of watching telly.

I admit in my career I've occasionally felt pangs of what Clark feels wholesale, wondering in 2013 when this century's Rite of Spring might erupt (it being 100 years since Stravinsky's gamechanger knocked Paris, and indeed all of Europe, sideways). Then I realised I was looking at this in entirely the wrong way.

It was the firebrand young cellist Oliver Coates who set me right on Twitter, suggesting this mantle had already been assumed by Andrew Hamilton's 2011 piece music for people who like art. I found it on that tremendous modern aural treasure trove Soundcloud and admit I was initially flummoxed, wondering how this seemingly modest novelty - sounding almost like the Swingle Singers stuck in a revolving door - could possibly be a contender. A hundred listens on, it is still beguiling me; packed within its compact form are multitudes.

Of course it's no Rite, but music doesn't stand still. Stravinsky frankly wouldn't have written the ballet he did in the age of Hiddleswift, Brexit and Pokemon Go.

The masterworks of modern times may not disarm a well-heeled Champs-Élysées audience as they did a century ago, but they work their magic in stealth ways, accruing a cult following liked and linked by one keen geek to the next in cyberspace, or off-map in places like the crawlspaces of Southbank Centre where Coates' performances draw avid enthusiasts.

I urge journalists like Clark to keep pace with that. Doubtless we could all do better in this regard. My gut feeling is it's not really contemporary music that's falling short of greatness; it's the way we package and communicate about it.

In my years of blogging for the Huffington Post, I realise I've seldom written about contemporary music because I often doubt I'm up to the task.

Here I think we're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Many of us proprietors and caretakers of music assume that if we - with our stolid undergraduate music degrees - struggle to understand a new piece, then the uninitiated will truly flounder. Yet, if we try to talk about it in everyday terms (as I blithely did above with Andrew Hamilton), we'll be accused of dumbing down, trampling the nutritional value by saying it tastes like Cherry Cola mixed with licorice (even if that's what we actually feel).

I feel we're yet to achieve the openness that Tate Modern brought to contemporary art where all comers may freely relish the likes of Cornelia Parker at their own level, be it to ponder the post-Duchamp futility of found media or simply to lift their imagination in any way possible beyond their leaking gutters and tax returns.

Some say contemporary music requires a more sophisticated vigil. That may be true but it also limits its innate scope; certainly each time I've staged contemporary music in Tate Modern, the unsuspecting visitors have been more transfixed by it than what hangs on the walls.

May we please loosen the ways in which we share what makes contemporary music so relevant and special? Much as its harmonic debt to Alban Berg intrigues me, can it be okay for me to dig Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto purely because it punches my solar plexus in ways I cannot name? Equally, need we trouble ourselves how Anna Meredith's renegade spree into electro-pop affects her classical oeuvre? And if nobody's yet emerged as the heir or heiress apparent to Benjamin Britten, might we dry our tears and rejoice that ours is a culture where things need not be the new something else?

Music constantly shakes off its shackles. It's time to shake off our own.