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An Essay on New Consonant Music

Pierre-André Boland
Pierre-André Boland

by Pierre-André Boland
(translated by Dafydd Bullock)

New Consonant Music. This is the name of an aesthetic movement which we are going to try to describe to you, very briefly. Focus is essential, otherwise New Consonant Music is simply far too general a concept.

In the course of the history of music, you can easily find movements or aesthetic trends that deserve to be called “New Consonant Music” – and at regular intervals. Let’s think, for example, of the Ars Nova at the end of the Middle Ages, or of the aesthetic of the Counter Reformation as represented by Palestrina. More generally, it could be argued that J.C. Bach’s classical music and that of the Mannheim School were a ‘new consonant music’, for they sought to be simpler, clearer and more pleasant than the music of the contemporary baroque aesthetic, which by then was in a state of some stagnation.

But each adjective – ‘new’ and ‘consonant’ – can lead someone who is not familiar with these ideas onto a wrong track. We won’t deny it.

With ‘new’ there is no need to look for revolutionary aesthetic discoveries. This word does not mean, in this context, a sudden revolution which can end all discussion while producing a definitively new way of musical composition and rejecting all previously developed styles. As for ‘consonant’, 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.

New Consonant Music is much more an attitude of serenity and humanism after the cataclysmic upheavals which the art of music has endured during this century.

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, alas, an almost unbearable incomprehensibility 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 as well take into account 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. It is surely a good thing that we can now have at our disposal everything which the human ear is capable of catching!

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!

So this trend has a unique aesthetic objective … not to prescribe an aesthetic! It is true that ‘barbarity’ based on nothing more than the desire for novelty is not welcomed. 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’.

New Consonant Music hopes instead that each composer might scatter in the air something of resonance and charm, something truly of himself, whatever the form and language of his composition.

In contrast with commercial music, made for mass-consumption and dishearteningly accessible (and devalued!), and in contrast to music destined only for a few initiates in rarefied, oxygen-free environments, New Consonant Music can be thought of as an approach which is open, and which ‘tastes’ – no matter what the style or framework. Of course, such musics are conceived of as communication with the listener, as a result of the formal dimension and in the context of concerts and formal and informal contacts between composer, performer and listener.

In this way, innovation is an opportunity and not an end in itself. Indeed, is innovation really so essential, given that our creations are already as different as are we ourselves?

12 February 1997

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