Why New Music?
by Caitlin Frasure
Republished from Deus ex Machina, June 22, 2019
It’s a question that is so familiar to those of us involved in and passionate about new music. By “new music” I mean that genre of newly composed contemporary classical music made by living composers that seems to uproot and defy so many labels, so for now please accept this term as an oversimplified but necessary tool for discussion. And to be honest, we know: It is a fair question! New music is not always as “easy on the ears” as other genres. For Christians, the question compounds itself with moral concern. Should we be drawn to this type of music that can be strange, erratic, and harsh? Why would we stray from attractive sounds or traditionally ordered melodies and rhythms? ...Is it even right to do so?
Possible answers stretch past any one response, but perhaps I can offer a few from my own journey. As a pianist and a follower of Christ who fell in love with new music years ago, I find it not only worthwhile, but used by God in my life as a vocation and a calling. Here’s why:
1. It’s exciting and challenging.
I was not introduced to new music until well into my undergraduate studies, but once it happened I was taken immediately. To a young classical pianist laboring daily over appealing curves of melody, delicate shapes of phrase, and subtleties of dynamics (volume levels), here was an intriguing change of pace! Abrupt melodies, seemingly nonsensical phrases, and dynamic shifts I couldn’t predict! The technical challenges peaked my interest also. Extended techniques for the piano (those ways of playing, plucking, muting a piano’s strings, drumming its case or singing into its soundboard, to name a few) gave me a world of new ways I could use my instrument. Never before performed pieces, some impossibly difficult, sent me into new thrills of what was possible. By the time I entered my master’s degree, I knew I’d always be hooked.
2. It is the future of “classical” music.
My fascination with new music in no way separated me from my beloved Bach or Beethoven. On the contrary, it strengthened my affection for them by taking me back to their beginnings. I started to truly consider the creative process behind music’s inception and learn from composers around me. In doing so, I realized my part in extending the heritage of art music into the future. What new pieces would join this canon? How would any piece stand a chance if it weren’t promoted and performed? I grew excited to serve as ambassador for the music of living composers and champion the future of music for my instrument.
3. It is uniquely relevant to today.
New music is, well, music that is new. It is the music of the world as it currently is. The fact that classical music (“classical” defined broadly here), exists primarily from composers long deceased and usually European is an issue already at large, but the artistic implications are important here. When I play a piece composed by someone living or active within the last few decades, I have a much closer understanding to their perspective. But wait, you may say; surely art transcends time! And aren’t human elements universal? Yes. But. That never negates the reality that art, to create, must always be moving and seeking. (Just imagine the tragedy for us pianists if Chopin hadn’t strived to create past what he’d heard before!)
4. It impacts culture.
A crucial aspect of art is its ability to reflect and provide commentary on culture. Culture wears the garb of the everyday, the here and now. When I work with a living composer, I know their culture, history, and time, intimately because it is also mine (even international composers are relatable more than ever before in our global age). Furthermore, if they are seeking to impact or comment on our culture, I can join that conversation easily. For Christians, this should stand out immediately. Are we not called to be working and making an impact in our culture as witnesses to the love of Christ? Today’s art composers have real questions, relevant ideas, and significant things to say. Shouldn’t we be joining this conversation?
5. It is Powerful.
After a recent concert, I was approached with refreshing honesty from an audience member. “It was wonderful, I loved it! But…” she trailed off, searching for the words she needed, “Some of it was annoying, and made me feel upset. But I still loved it... Does that make any sense?” I assured her that it did! Relieved to see me unoffended, she concluded smiling, “It was even, cathartic.” Cathartic. Isn’t that just what music should be? Somewhere along the line we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of music as purely “feel good” in function. We use it for entertainment, for lyrics, for background, for worship. These are great functionalities for music, but they close the door to listening to music for its own sake and on its own terms. Music is sound. New music challenges us to experience a range of sounds that often evoke emotions, when listened to actively. We may be pleasantly surprised. Or “annoyed,” like my friend. Either way, we’ll be met with a genuine response every time.
6. It Reflects His Work in Our Lives
God has always worked within our broken world. Making “beauty from ashes” (Is. 63:1), He steps into all that is wrong here and brings His beauty as Creator among it. The finest music has always reflected this attribute (intentionally or not, directly or indirectly), by seeking to do the same: to touch with healing beauty (art). Many Christians point to the example of so many classical composers who lived tragic lives yet created masterpieces that uplift us today. New music, if well crafted, does the same.
Whether looking outward to world events or inward to my personal life, struggle and chaos coexist alongside moments of peace and joy. Bringing new a score to life that has sharp turns of mood, at times chaotic, at times serene, feels quite familiar. It is vividly depicting where I am. But if the piece is artfully made, I know it won’t leave me there. It may never sound harmonious in the traditional sense, but it will offer deeper beauty in meaning. In so doing, it offers a picture of God’s work in us. Fellow believers know that while here on earth, the beauty He brings is not always the “pretty” of this world (a perfect life, miraculous healing, quick fixes), but something far better: Himself, Perfection, to walk alongside us and bring deeper meaning. New music may not always bring those “pretty” chord progressions that soothe the ear, but often enough if we’re listening, it enriches and warms our hearts by bringing art that meets us where we are.
Caitlin Frasure, Pianist & Co-Founder of “Ascending”