It’s not uncommon to see articles both decrying the sad state of affairs in classical music as a whole as well as celebrating the new opportunities that are available for both composers and performers with the right amount of musical and entrepreneurial skill, luck and perseverance. A prime example of one that covers both issues was recently published as a transcript of a speech given by the Guardian’s Tom Service with the intentionally controversial title “So long, and thanks for all the noise: 2010 and the end of musical history”. Well-spoken and thoughtful (and without the acidity of many critics from across the pond), Service writes:

My sense is that many young composers now realise that the game is up, that the conventional paths to fame and, er, fortune in contemporary classical culture just aren’t worth the candle. Instead, they’re better off on their own, not least because their music doesn’t fit the line-ups of an orchestra, or even the 1 to a part ensembles of the Sinfonietta, or the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, or Liverpool’s Ensemble 10:10, or Manchester’s Psappha – a line-up and repertoire whose time has probably also come, has also become a living history more than something genuinely contemporary. Composers still need to make choices, of course; being open to the rest of the world does not guarantee the creation of great, or even good art in an of itself, and they will have to find their own limitations, draw their own lines in the shifting sands of musical culture. But composing without the fear of traducing the absurd unwritten laws of modernist composition will only be a good thing. Like Reich and Glass before them, today’s composers have the chance to build their own communities of listeners and audiences – whether in the flesh or on-line – and make the music that matters to them for people who care about it – and actually enjoy it.

Service brings up many good points and pulls no punches, laying responsibility on the future of new/concert/art/whatever music (rightly so) at the feet of the composers both young & old as well as the performing and academic institutions that help to foster contemporary musical art. In my own opinion, the idea that it’s perfectly legitimate to use whatever medium/style/technique that allows a composer to bring his/her voice into being has been growing and gaining momentum for years now, and more articles like this are surely in store. What has not yet been discussed nearly enough – and this may take quite some time – is the ramifications of our ever-increasingly “big-tent” art form on both those who create and those who analyze and interpret those creations. I can see where Service is coming from with his suggestion of the “end of musical history” as it has been characterized up till now, though I’d prefer the “beginning of a new musical history” myself.

Read the rest here.

17 Responses to “2010 and the end of musical history”
  1. Nate says:

    Great article! So easy do the rebels become the established.

    I was listening to the radio last night on a long car ride home and I came across a Parisian group called Something A La Mode, a VERY poppy group featuring a violin and cello. SALM (they call themselves) is when a big time pop studio meets classical instrumentalists. Maybe there is something to be said for the love of old instruments rather than the great composers. Or! Great composers with new instruments! ie Switched on Bach

    Iungisman and Joo have also done great things to stir up the traditional classical world.

    Thanks for the reaffirmation of my instincts to go my own way searching for what works since all the good ideas of the past have already been used up!

  2. j combs says:

    Maybe I did, hmmm “flimflammery” after looking it up I may have misinterpreted, but I still believe Goodwin’s law was invoked too soon! 🙂

    Hey where’s the delete button anyway 🙂

  3. j combs says:

    Good God, thanks again to Rob Deemer for paraphrasing! Most of us with a life (musical life as well – and those who have a lovely sonic one) wouldn’t have time to go through the actual paper.

    “labelling flimflammery with new names such as sonic art and creative practice – that’s his agenda. And it is a disturbing one.” Samar

    Unless I’m misinterpreting the above quote, it strikes me as reactionary. The above poster also invoked Goodwin’s law really early into the discussion, which is a red flag to exit outta here. Thanks again for some good paraphrased reading and nicely thought out replies.

  4. j combs says:

    A very interesting post. Thought I would mention that and very good catch by Rob Deemer. I could throw my 2 cents into the wind, but I think if I combined Paul Muller, David Toub and Steve Layton’s replies and mash it up into a sort of mix and/or collage 🙂 the result would capture my exact thoughts!

  5. (OT re comment #3) David, I recall meeting a number of composers here for the first time on the Midi list “La Musique Petite” in 1994. With connections speeds so slow (although 1994’s 4K speed was almost 40 times faster than my first Internet venturing in 1981 at 110 baud), Midi was at the time the only way to exchange music online. (RealAudio, TrueSpeech and MP2 didn’t pop up for another year. We still have some of those old RealAudio 1.0 files on Kalvos & Damian’s site.) And Midi didn’t help those of us with electroacoustic music to make available.

    On topic, I agree that Service is way late to the party–unless the UK situation really is that retrogressive.

  6. Preaching to the choir! But, of course, this situation is only recently arriving across the pond, thanks to the wave of right wing, anti-art indignation that is sweeping across the continent. The governmental infrastructure for artistic support in Europe is disappearing without a proper replacement being in place. It’s going to be disastrous for all but the most entrepeneurially savvy European composers.

    I think, as Garret and Rob point out, that we over here in the U.S. have been ahead of the curve on this matter for some time (notice that Service, at least in the passage quoted by Rob, doesn’t mention Steve Martland, Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman, Cornelius Cardew or other Europeans who gained their “fortune and glory” by forming their own ensembles). It is essential to survival in the contemporary field to be able to navigate these waters on one’s own, either through recording (I’m still uncertain about where the dust will settle on commercial recordings myself) or composers performing themselves, or creating their own ensembles.

    As to history: I think Mr. Service doth protest too much. History will take care of itself. Francis Fukuyama declaimed “the end of history” in 1989 (and again in 1992) when the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended. The last 21 years have certainly proven him wrong. Music history is no different (and doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’m loathe to write about it as a separate entity, but it will have to do for our purposes) and it will get sorted out. The challenges to a life in art are too big for artists to lose too much sleep about their place and role in “history.” Composers of concert music are too peripheral in contemporary SOCIETY for us to worry about HISTORY. History will not remember the place where we fell, let alone our music, if we don’t start (re-)carving our place in SOCIETY (whatever that place might mean. I’m open to various possibilities).

  7. Garrett Schumann says:

    Steve makes a good point. I’ll supplement it by saying we can’t underestimate the role technology can play in the future of our art. Part of my initial reaction to Service’s lecture was that it reminded me of the general sentiment – at the turn of the 20th century – that imagination had reached its full potential (physicist Lord Kelvin quipped in 1900, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now”).

    No one can say where recording technology, the increasing ease at which high-quality recordings can be achieved and the infinite distribution potential of digital media will take contemporary music. Web sites, for example, allow anyone to access your music effortlessly, something that was not possible 15 years ago. Steve is totally right; the way to grow our audience is twofold: write great music and then give it to them. CDs and web sites make that easier then ever before.

    I’ve even thought the enhanced connectivity of the internet age may disband the idea of traditional “cultural centers”, insofar as new communication technologies eliminate the need to “be” somewhere in order to make your presence known. This is a more radical and inchoate concept than the others I’ve proffered, but not totally unfounded. After all, we’ve all just debated the same text and its ancillary issues without interacting face-to-face. That’s cool, and along the lines of what I’m getting at.

  8. Steve Layton says:

    Sarmad wrote: “I am beginning to think that making albums by oneself and releasing them via a website is going to be an unpleasant necessity.” — Necessity, yes probably, but unpleasant? Eh… Aside from the rarest .0001%, CDs make a composer virtually no money. But they (or their digital-file counterpart) *are* vital for promotion. Recordings reach not only curious listeners, but also performers/ensembles, critics/reviewers and radio stations. Most people don’t find or get excited my someone’s music by looking at the score or reading their bio; they *hear* something that makes them want to know more.

  9. Sarmad says:

    We kind of need an infrastructure, but the evidence as I read it suggests we are all doomed. I can’t see a comparable situation in historical terms. Admittedly the vast amount of new music is woeful, and the performers really can’t seem to be able to discern the trash. Well known musicians who play awful music for non-musical reasons! (They know the composer is one of the most common.)

    I am beginning to think that making albums by oneself and releasing them via a website is going to be an unpleasant necessity.

    The situation in England, particularly with BBC commissions – such as the proms – is completely corrupt.

  10. Service does mention Glass and Reich and their early activities as musical entrepreneurs operating outside the institutional performance framework. Is that still the best way forward or is the musical establishment likely to become more nuturing of new music?

    And if performances in any venue are becoming more difficult to stage, perhaps the real question is whether new music can continue to wait for a shrinking number of opportunities to be heard live in an age where millions download what they hear from the Internet.

  11. Sarmad says:

    I based my comments on this blog and the comments that follow. I have now read Service’s speech and withdraw my former remarks. His thinking is clear, precise and accurate. His is a well-written piece. In many ways he supports my vies about the danger of abandoning history/craft. I interpret this article differently, I guess.

  12. Sarmad says:

    as a 34 year old composer I’d say Service doesn’t have a freaking clue what he’s talking about. Ignorance of history, the eschewing of technique, labelling flimflammery with new names such as sonic art and creative practice – that’s his agenda. And it is a disturbing one. (I have met Service, by the way.) In general, the English are trying to reposition high art as something unhealthy. This reminds me of the Nazis. Finally, anyone who thinks Glass and Reich’s recent works are ‘good’ are musically thick.

  13. Garrett Schumann says:


    No worries! I am happy other people saw it and found it as moving/interesting/provocative as I did (it set my brain swirling I couldn’t sleep until 5 AM when I read it!)

    I totally agree with your point about how the significance of the piece is where it is coming from. As I wrote my comment last night, I thought about the context in which Service gave his lecture: probably not to composers, but to patrons of the Sound! Festival or non-composers. With that in mind, he sheds a lot of fairly delivered light on the psychosis of our profession and portrays the work we do so dramatically (the future of music hangs in the balance and it is up to the composers who “get” it to push this culture forward lest it wither away), I imagine Service’s description could draw someone into approaching new music who thought it was rather dull beforehand.

    I suppose the three of us (me, Rob, David) and others who agree with our comments should feel validated a little that we already understand the shortcomings of academia (I say in the midst of my MM…)? Maybe after decades of being looked at as second-rate by European contemporaries, American composers are on the cutting edge of building a new world and infrastructure for art music?

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  15. david toub says:

    I agree he’s a little late to the party. But I’m glad that even across the pond, there is a realization that those of us who are out of the academic mainstream (and intentionally outside of it) are perfectly legitimate and have ample opportunities to create music and performance opportunities ourselves and online. Many of us post our scores and MP3s and no longer need be derided as amateurs or people who can only use MIDI. Even better—most of us could care less if we’re derided by the establishment musical community.

  16. Rob Deemer says:

    Hi Garrett – apologies for the duplicate posting! Nothing that he says would be groundbreaking to someone in your particular situation – Michigan is one of the better schools as far as keeping an eye on the current pulse of our little slice of the world. There are, however, plenty of other examples of academic and non-academic institutions both here and abroad where the wheels of progress turn quite slowly (when it comes to acceptance of other musical ideas). When you add in arts critics the lag time is much more and a good portion of the general audience is light-years behind them as far as understanding and accepting of where we’re at both stylistically and aesthetically today. The importance of the article is less on the content and more about the messenger and the (hopefully) increased acceptance of these concepts beyond our own little village.

  17. Garrett Schumann says:

    I put the link to this up in the composer’s forum section yesterday because, like you, I was pretty enthralled by what Service said.

    Like I said in my other post, his witty and glib writing adds a nice touch of frankness to what he says, but I don’t feel like anything he said was groundbreaking. Maybe the environment of composers I’m around (at the University of Michigan) is unique, but the ideas he asserts – principally those in the paragraph you quoted – are commonplace among my colleagues.

    Perhaps the state of affairs in Europe and/or England in markedly different than it is in the States (I have heard that we move at a different pace than our brethren across the Atlantic) but I think Service is a little late to the party. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by a British mind overlooking the self-evidence of certain truths, but I is not revolutionary – in my mind – to suggest a composer in his 20s shouldn’t take on Boulez or Carter as a role model.

    I read the piece late last night, so maybe I missed the point. His writing is exceptional and he casts his thoughts in a light as dry as the Sahara, but I’ve already confronted his “prognosis” more than once in my education and the more the lecture stews in my head, the less impressed I am with the innovation of his concepts.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, hopefully more of a discussion will brew on this page.