WHAT IS NEW CONSONANT MUSIC?
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
For many music lovers, contemporary classical music conjures up ideas of ping-pong balls bouncing on pianos, pieces only comprehensible to post-doctoral math students, a dentist appointment or a huge public subsidy swindle. And unfortunately, history bears them out: after World War II, musical creation was hijacked by a small group of people who gave into the modernistic temptation of turning away from the past and developing totally artificial compositional systems like serial music. Unfortunately, these composers gained the favour of the authorities which meant enormous financial resources that enabled them to take up any space available for contemporary works.
Music is a language, and of course all languages evolve, but the effect of substituting an artificial revolution for a natural evolution was to empty the concert halls of all but a few musicologists, plus the master's friends and disciples. For the first time, music-lovers were forced to look to the past, which they tended to overly idealize.
Fortunately, we are now reviving the fundamental tie between composers, performers and the audience. New Consonant Music is a movement that makes the issue of language secondary. The essential thing for us is to transmit an emotion by any means: it doesn't really matter whether the music is total, repetitive, hypercomplex, minimalist or polystylist. What does matter is that beauty has a chance to reach the audience without needing hours of prior explanation. We don't want to be inventive at all costs. Our approach is resolutely post-modern.
The label New Consonant Music was named in 1989 in Schaerbeek (Brussels) by three composers: Boudewijn Buckinx, Dominique Lawalrée, Piotr Lachert and the publisher Alain Van Kerckhoven. We liked the idea that this movement is an attitude of serenity and humanism after the cataclysmic upheavals which the art of music has endured during the modernist phase.
We quickly understood that the adjective consonant could lead someone who is not familiar with these ideas on to a wrong track: it can be misleading in its apparent evocation of an aesthetic that would keep any musical bumps or dissonances well away from our ears. In fact, this is not the case.
The history of music could - as a caricature - be summarised as a very long struggle between two trends: on the one hand the will to incorporate what has been found beautiful into a formal structure and, on the other hand, the inextinguishable impulse to go outside that context and to produce freedom of expression that explodes the frameworks and their rules.
So, with the passing centuries and in the course of some thrilling adventures, the second trend got the better of the first - without the first finally giving way to the second for all that! Several compositions have pushed one or other of these tendencies to the very limit. Perhaps the most amazing example is John Cage's 4'48'' for Orchestra (only an absolute silence during this precise period of time), or on the other hand, some post-serial works which again go to the limit, demonstrating crystal clear symmetry on paper, but that are, alas, almost unbearably incomprehensible for the ears. It must of course be said that many composers have produced works of genius without necessarily going to such extremes.
The point is that through the centuries music has been enriched by sounds which have enabled it to express the very depths of sensitivity, if not in universal terms then certainly in a relevant and contemporary way. Therefore, we must place ourselves in the context of what has gone before and also take account of the amazing accessibility of music and sounds, along with the technical possibilities of acoustics, some of which surpass by far the possibilities of human hearing.
This spectacular explosion of possibilities has its challenges as well: the fact that the listener gets saturated and can lose interest in an art that has become too accessible. Additionally, as a composer one is inhibited from composing in a spontaneous manner because all that is spontaneous is deemed to be trivial and uninteresting. Has everything not already been said, after all? It is precisely this attitude which New Consonant Music seeks to oppose!
This trend has actually a unique aesthetical guideline... not to prescribe an aesthetic! It is true that 'barbarity' based on nothing more than the desire for novelty is not welcome. Nor does New Consonant Music embrace the merely 'attractive' if there is no mystery, delicacy and inventiveness. It is very sceptical in face of commercial demands, or music 'made to measure'.
So, to young performers who start to quake when they hear the word "contemporary", I would say, just take Apollinaire's advice: make an effort to sympathize! Every prejudice you can rid of will open up a new world.