5 Challenges to Creating Classical Music in the 21st Century


It’s been a while since I posted an article and I’m hoping that this one will be worth the wait. In this article, I’d like to look at five challenges I see for creating classical music in the 21st century. Let me know what you think.

New Technology

First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way: new technology. The biggest challenge is getting used to new technology and learning how to use it (this is quite different from learning how to write classical music).

Let me use writing music on a computer as an example. In order to write music with a software program such as Finale or Sibelius, you must first learn how to compose using traditional notation software and then get used to using your computer for this purpose. It’s not easy getting used to something new, especially if you’ve been used to doing things one way for most of your life.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak on the topic of creating classical music in the 21st century. The specific question was, “What are the challenges?”

My first thought was that I’d put together a list of five, and maybe even a PowerPoint presentation. But then I realized that list would be so long it would be hard to draw any coherent conclusions from it. So instead I’m going to look at one aspect in depth: the relationship between classical music and technology.

Classical music is a traditional art form. It is a music of the past, and as such it is fundamentally out of step with modern society. Most people today live in cities, work in offices and shops, watch television, use computers, and get around by car or train. Our lives are fast paced, noisy and crowded, our possessions numerous and disposable. We expect instant results; we want things to be easy; we want to be entertained. And we don’t have much time for other people’s problems or successes unless they are presented in an engaging way that captures our attention immediately.

The world has changed almost beyond recognition since Beethoven wrote his 9th Symphony two hundred years ago. And perhaps most importantly, our expectations have changed too. To be relevant today

In the 21st century, many classical composers are searching for new ways to create music.

There are 5 primary challenges that classical composers face in the 21st century:

*1) The challenge of creating a new musical language

*2) The challenge of creating a new musical form

*3) The challenge of creating an audience for new musical language.

*4) The challenge of creating a career as a composer.

*5) Creating music that is both good and unique.

I will briefly discuss each one in turn below.

Here are some of the challenges facing composers in the 21st Century.

1. Classical music is (still) a niche market, and one that is shrinking in size.

2. The “classical” music listener is aging, and not being replaced by new listeners at anywhere near the rate that older listeners are dying off.

3. “Classical” music is not something most people listen to on their own, but rather something they passively attend as an audience member. The classical industry has turned classical music into a spectacle, like sports or opera or live theater, and that requires a huge investment of time and money to do properly. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success because it’s ultimately out of your hands. The performance may be good or bad; the audience may be receptive or not; it may rain or snow; you may lose your voice; etc..

4. We are surrounded by noise, more so than ever before. Just turn on the TV for an hour or two and listen to how much sound is constantly being pumped into the ether: dialogue, commercials, trailers for upcoming movies, game shows, sports commentary… It’s almost non-stop noise! And this isn’t even counting all of the ambient sounds we hear

I’m afraid I’m going to have to do one of those “in my day” posts. And some of you probably think it’s a little ironic coming from me, since I also talk about using technology to make music. But honestly, it’s not really my fault.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blog posts recently that are all about “challenges of classical music in the 21st century.” And they all seem to be written by people who are much younger than me and have no idea what it was like back in our day.

So I thought I’d share a few of my observations with them, because they’re probably still too young to remember when things were different.

There are many challenges facing a composer in the 21st century. The principal difficulty is one of time and size. Composers today have to make a living, and composition has a very low income ceiling. To increase their income, composers take on other jobs such as teaching or becoming a church organist.

Jobs like those have the potential to consume a lot of time, leaving little left to compose. At the same time, composers can find themselves under enormous pressure from agents and publishers to write pieces that are small enough that they can be performed by amateurs or school children.

The effect is to reduce the size and scope of compositions so that they may be performed by amateurs and school children with minimal rehearsal time. As an example of this trend, I quote from Igor Stravinsky’s book ‘An Autobiography’, Chapter 22 – “Choral Works” (page 309):

“They were for the most part smaller works, on smaller subjects, written for my own pleasure between larger ones.”

The last 20 years have seen an explosion in electronics used in contemporary classical music. These range from the traditional live electronics of the 80’s and 90’s, where electronic devices are used to process acoustic instruments and voices, to more recent work involving computer generated sound, as well as hybrid pieces that combine both techniques.

As someone who has worked with electronics in my own music for a number of years, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss some of the technical and aesthetic challenges I’ve encountered along the way. This list is far from exhaustive and is by no means meant to be a definitive guide on the topic. Rather, these are some of the problems that I have found to be particularly interesting and thought provoking over the years.

1. Managing Latency

2. Keeping Computers Quiet

3. Interfacing With Digital Audio Workstations

4. Interfacing With Synthesis Software

5. Designing Custom Controllers


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