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16 Jul 2021

Beneath the Complexities of New Music

This piece is a translation of the original Mandarin article by Zhang Heyang, ‘何志光 vs 连汶华: 别让“听不懂” 阻碍探索现代音乐’, which was published by Lianhe Zaobao on 8 July 2021.

Has new music fallen out of touch with the Singaporean public? 

When one mentions classical music, the chronology many would know of begins with the Baroque and Classical periods (marked by Bach and Mozart respectively), followed by Beethoven who championed the transition into the Romantic era, leading on to Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and many more artists who channelled intense emotions and nationalism in their music. Over the last four centuries, the world of Western classical music stemming from Europe has seen the creation of numerous key works such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Für Elise.

Yet classical music since the 20th century seems to have taken a sharp turn from tradition, with “non-existent” melodies and abrasive sounds. This contemporary compositional style still prevails in Western academic settings today, leading one to wonder whether the classical music of today has lost relevance to the public.

This interview brings together Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Vice Dean and founding Head of Composition Assoc Prof Ho Chee Kong (CSS Full Member), as well as YST conductor and Artist Fellow Dr. Lien Boon Hua (CSS Associate Member), to explore the creative processes behind new music and how audiences can better appreciate contemporary music.

Zhang Heyang (Interviewer): When did music evolve into something more obscure and no longer “intuitively comprehensible”, and what sparked this change? 

Ho Chee Kong: There are two layers to this perception – ‘intuitive’ presumes a naturally occurring aesthetic response, while ‘comprehensible’ seems to imply a fundamental receptivity toward the music and an understanding of what it is. Without getting too much into philosophies of aesthetics, let’s approach the question in terms of the relationship (and divide) between music that is widely-accepted and music that is exploratory in nature.

Firstly, contemporary music is not a recent phenomenon. In the history of music, classical music, avant-garde jazz, punk rock and other styles alike have all previously been deemed as ‘contemporary music’ – musicians’ explorations of new sonic possibilities of their time. These explorations are shaped by technological developments, such as changes in instrument design and the invention of electronic instruments, as well as influences of musical styles on one another.

Eventually, each of these new styles gained their respective audiences. For these specific circles of listeners, they would not find the music “incomprehensible” – perhaps less the result of instinctive aesthetic perceptions, and more due to conscious effort to learn about the music, be exposed to it and thereby comprehend it. 

20th-century recording technology and commercialisation of music played a crucial role, and usage of AI algorithm feeds on the Internet has heightened the role of distribution and exposure (though also influencing what gets distributed). At the same time, the presence of lyrics in popular music also makes it easier for audiences to understand the songs.

Purely instrumental music is another matter. Throughout much of Western classical music history, elements like melody and harmony were key to the musical content; the music of today has seen explorations of new sound dimensions, such as texture and timbral qualities of instruments. These new musical approaches simply have not been widely disseminated and embraced at this moment.

Lien Boon Hua: I believe that the best artists are always eager to stretch and reinvent themselves, because they will never be satisfied with their existing achievements. In the process of stretching their boundaries, listeners are also being pushed to the limits of what is “intuitively comprehensible” for them.

Take Igor Stravinsky as an example – one of his early works, The Firebird, was regarded a masterpiece in all aspects, especially in orchestration. A few years later, he wrote The Rite of Spring that was so controversial that a riot broke out during its premiere. For most of the audience present then, this was “intuitively incomprehensible”, but it has left an indelible mark in music history and people have embraced it over time, eventually making it an important work in today’s orchestral repertoire.

However, we cannot simply leave the role of ‘pushing boundaries’ to the audience, because people listen to music for different reasons – some listen purely for enjoyment, while others listen for intellectual or even spiritual enrichment. I think it was mainly during the 20th century that certain strands of music started becoming more challenging to the regular audience, but let’s not forget that what we are describing is a generally conservative audience base; for each person who might be turned off, there is always another who may be attracted to novel concepts or simply interesting sounds.

The various types of contemporary classical music

Zhang: Could you share about some types or schools of thought in contemporary classical music?

Lien: What fascinates me the most about contemporary music is its diverse range of styles. While one can broadly categorise them based on time and geography, each school of thought has an interesting story and is essentially a response to what has come before.

In the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg proposed a new compositional method that arranged the 12 chromatic pitches in equal temperament in a systematic manner, which became the famous twelve-tone technique. By the 1950s, some composers took this idea further and applied this systematic technique to other aspects such as rhythm and tempo – this school of thought was prevalent in many academic institutions in the 20th century, and was broadly termed Modernism.

Postmodernism was then a reaction to this systematic approach, manifested in several different forms; John Cage used chance elements in his music, Gyorgy Ligeti experimented with microtonality to create unique sound colours, Krzysztof Penderecki redefined sonic possibilities with extended techniques of playing the instruments, and the list goes on. With music becoming highly complicated, Minimalism and New Simplicity came into being, with the intention of reining in the esoteric superiority of the composer and rebuilding the connection between music and audiences.

All in all, these aesthetic phases were not as clear-cut as the preceding eras of classical music; many of them surfaced at the same time and existed in dialogue with one another.

Zhang: What kind of social impact does contemporary music have in our modern culture?

Ho: This depends on both the intent behind the music, and the awareness of the public. If the composer aims to express personal and/or societal issues in their work through the exploration of new compositional techniques, then the work indeed has a social impact as it demonstrates society’s ability to accept new things, and challenges people to break cultural conventions and explore new ways of listening and thinking.

Public awareness and attention is also important in providing a space to support new ideas and new art. Over time, some works will rise to prominence as key emblems of our culture and times, while others will not transcend the passage of time; Nevertheless, this is a natural process of artistic evolution.

Creating a local music identity

Zhang: Given that Singapore has had a relatively short history as an independent culture, does this mean we can take contemporary music as a ‘shortcut’ to establish our own musical identity?

Ho: We do not need to rush to create a unique musical identity; European and Chinese music, for example, have developed over an extensive period of time, even with a relatively high degree of cultural homogeneity.

In a country like Singapore, it takes time to integrate multicultural elements into a single identity. Therefore, we really cannot take shortcuts to find our identity. One day, we may have our own musical identity – or we may not. If other cultural or social influences outpace the development of our musical identity, we may share a collective musical identity with the world.

Lien: I agree with Prof Ho’s point of view. I also wish to add that a country’s musical identity is often pegged more to individuals rather than a general regional aesthetic. For instance, one often associates the sound of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s music with being “Japanese”, but it is surprising to find that many Japanese artists reject the notion of his melodies sounding ‘Japanese’. Likewise, the music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is often associated with snow-capped mountains and grand lakes of Northern Europe, but in fact many of his works were written on a sunny day in Rome – he himself was amused by this association!

It is important for us to support the new creations of local composers as much as possible and let their works speak on the international stage, because their works carry the DNA of what it means to be Singaporean or to have grown up here, even if it is not outwardly shown.

Cultivating an appreciation for contemporary music

Zhang: As non-music professionals, how should we cultivate our appreciation towards contemporary music?

Ho: It is important to have continued public attention and patronage, and remain committed to developing our contemporary arts scene in Singapore. Articles like these go a long way in helping more people understand contemporary music, and showcasing the creative process and effort that goes behind the work of our local artists.

However, because contemporary music may indeed be “harder to understand”, providing guided introductions for the works can help audiences to adjust their expectations and discover the beauty of new music. The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music also holds music courses that are available to the public.

Lien: I think the most important thing is to keep an open mind and not rush to conclusions – there is no shame if something does not appeal to you right away. Just like some people who could not tolerate the smell of durian or stinky tofu, only to be pleasantly surprised after tasting them, I hope that audiences do not let the fact that things are ‘hard to understand’ be a barrier of entry to exploring more interesting music they have not heard of!


Translated by Toh Yan Ee and Ong Shu Chen