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by Sandeep Bhagwati

New Music: Towards a Diversity of Practices

1. New Music as an Overcommons

In Europe, the notion of “New Music” as a deliberate rule-changing aesthetic dates back to the early 14th century, when some French church musicians ignored a papal decree outlawing certain developments in church music which were deemed to be excessive in many ways. Not only did they continue to write this music, they also boldly declared it to be an Ars Nova: an articulate, self-awarely progressive alternative to the established sacred tradition (called Ars Antiqua from now on). Ars Nova music became fashionable amongst French nobles—and since then the incitement to never look back, to break new ground, to expand the zone of aesthetic combat became one of the central auto-narrative metaphors of European music-making.

Such articulate rebellions took hold in the European mindset at a time when the warring kingdoms of this Northwest Asian subcontinent were still a cultural, political, financial backwater to the rich and storied Asian civilisation in which the Byzantine Empire, the Yuan Dynasty, the Mamluk and the Tughluq Sultanates, the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanate, and the Chagatai Khanate were the major players. The concept of a learned rebellion against an established form of music-making thus became important to European musicians at a time when being a Byzantine, Mongol, Arab, or Mamluk artist came with much more historical awareness, theory, significance, and resonance than anything the powerless Church of Rome or the uncouth warrior courts of Europe could hope to offer. The Ars Nova impulse was thus a doubly minoritarian move: an apostatic music style in a culture at the margin of the civilised world.

Making a new kind of music was thus from the outset correlated with a keen sense of being marginal—and with a macho narrative of openly defying the established discourse, of flaunting conventions, of rebelling against the status quo. The militaristic overtones of this attitude have persisted deeply into the 20th century’s avant-garde movements and its notion of advanced musical technique and aesthetics.

The self-image of being minoritarian often comes with a certain insouciance towards and an unwillingness to acknowledge the marginality of others. This may explain the surprising and enduring reluctance of many New Music makers to even acknowledge that their own field has a problem with diversity and gender equity: to a scene that sees itself in a permanent struggle to be heard by those in power, the insinuation that it might be exclusionary can appear as just another ploy to weaken its purpose—from this perspective, the call for diversity may be shrewdly ‘unmasked’ as a diversionary, oppressive tactic of the powerful cultural mainstream. This is indeed a sentiment I have heard in many variations from my colleagues in the new music profession: “We are a small and beleaguered community, our calling is not to represent averages but to promote visionary art. Considerations of diversity will inevitably lower our quality standards and thus endanger our raison d’être.”

Quite obviously—and such a sentiment shows it—the Ars Nova type of newly made music has never been marginal in the sense of being oppressed or unseen. When Alexandra T. Vazquez argues that, “Music has always been a nurturing, shifting ground for the undercommons of the Enlightenment,”[1] invoking Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s powerful notion of the “undercommons,”[2] she explicitly excludes “New Music” from that argument: “When [music] is taken up as a primary object of inquiry, it can be made alien and technical. Some attempt to make a property of it. Such are the consequences of abandoning it to experts.”

And indeed, the Ars Nova type of newly made music in most cases cannot be part of the undercommons—for it has always been an integral part of what one could call the overcommons: an informal rhizome of elite artists, academics, and activists that reinforces existing social dynamics by over-accentuating them. For overcommons thinking, it is not enough to have inequality and competition in real life—the arts must be even more competitive and ruthless than society at large. It is not enough to aspire to the ecstasies of the moment; one must aspire to eternal truth. It is not enough that music-making satisfies the aesthetic desires of a certain community, it must enshrine universal aesthetic relevance. It cannot be content with competence; it must demand extreme virtuosity. And when it comes to negativity, New Music cannot simply be about sadness or loss; it must be about utter devastation. It cannot be about creating a voice; it must be primarily about the unspeakable.[3] Overcommons thinking is a thinking in hyperbole—and it is dead serious about it.

Just as the rebel musicians of the historical Ars Nova had been prominent and powerful men at the courts of their time, the rebels of New Music have rarely displayed a raging desire to topple the existing social order. They were quite content when the opera house, the symphony orchestra played their new pieces instead of some older ones. The anti-establishment posturing of New Music has always been more part of a court intrigue between the highly favoured and the slightly less favoured than a call for a revolution of the masses: playing the marginal was a tactical enactment that could be abandoned once the desired position of privilege had successfully been secured. And in modern societies, the position of this music often is indeed one of privilege: many public and private sponsors fund New Music-making with patronage, opportunity, and recognition, allowing it to build lasting institutions and inhabit the academy. That the music itself still does not command the interest and adulation of the general public allows this overcommons to re-use the narrative of marginality to suss out new support: New Music has always been an institutionalised top-down rebellion.

Seeing New Music as an integral part of an overcommons is the foundation of my argument on diversity in this paper. It is why I do not believe in counting heads when it comes to diversity and why I think that proportional representation is a smokescreen argument that hides deeper fault lines in the way our societies deal with diversity.

2. Representation as a Trap

Many discourses around gender and diversity focus on statistics, on counting bodies: how many women, how many “people of colour”, how many X or Y are represented in a certain setting. This can be an important focus, especially if you want to raise awareness for a statistically significant and enduring imbalance. Such a focus also helps to energise those who feel underrepresented and disadvantaged, by supporting their felt reality with the numbers that can serve them to confront discrimination deniers.

But in voluntary pursuits such as music, unequal representation is usually not a solution to a problem specific to that particular pursuit—it is, rather, an indicator of another problem elsewhere. Musical traditions are not state institutions with pervasive powers over life, death, and quarantine. One can engage with them—or not. And just like all other voluntary pursuits, those attracted to it flock to it—and those that are not, do not. Imbalances of all kinds (geographic, gender, social class, skin colour, religion, etc.) are only to be expected in such a situation. These imbalances become virulently problematic, however, when they are structural, enforced, and ideologised—and thus hinder or deter talented people from another demographic than the majority that upholds this particular tradition to pursue their interest in this tradition or to get recognised for their contributions to it.

The most proximate reason one could give, for example, for the fact that not many women or Muslims (or people who are both) attend and graduate from university composition seminars is that not enough women or Muslims apply to them. This problem may be momentarily assuaged (but not permanently solved) by selecting more women or Muslims for the seminars to achieve proportional representation in the seminar itself. The real problem, however, seems to be that not enough women or Muslims choose to even enter this course of study—and the reasons for this may lie in any combination of 1) in the social image of written music composition as a white, male, Judeo-Christian pursuit (with a concomitant rarity of role models and teachers outside this demographic); 2) the macho overcommons cut-throat atmosphere of new music seminars and festivals; 3) the lack of a sustainable career path—which privileges those with significant family resources; 4) viable and more attractive or more familiar alternatives (e.g., Hindustani art music in the case of musicians from India). Not all of these reasons are necessarily instances of systemic marginalisation or exclusion—they can also imply agency on the part of those who choose to simply not respond to an unattractive offer and decide to seek their education elsewhere.

The unique problem for New Music lies in the fact that the kind of music taught in these composition seminars has for a long time laid claim (and sometimes still does) to a definitive, universally acknowledged moral and technical superiority in musical matters, and that its overcommons narrative of expertise and elitism has tended to discount the essential validity and relevance of other musical practices for the cultural future of humanity (they do not do it for less). When Pierre Boulez admitted that he both admired the musical traditions of Asia for their perfection and, in the same breath, pronounced them dead,[4] he declared a future without any music that did not have its roots firmly in eurological musical thinking—and in this speech act, he condemned all other musical practices of the world to imminent oblivion. For too long, many in the field of New Music did not see anything fundamentally wrong with this pronouncement; even if they were attracted to other traditions, they liked them in a rather nostalgic manner: they would have loved to hear them before they were polluted by European music, when they were still “authentic”—thereby assuming that the contemporary state of these musics is some kind of illness, that their current hybrid practices are expressions of decay. For a long time, it has seemed self-evident to many in academia and the New Music scene that any music outside of European modernity had to be moribund. Any interest it still held had to be museological in nature.

Exclusion from the future is real suppression—or rather, it would have been, if Boulez and his peers then or now had had any actual power over the future of music. But they did not: the ideas about New Music that assume its inherent superiority must be regarded more as propaganda than policy, more aspiration than analysis. What nevertheless remains real, however, is the institutional, financial, and discursive clout that New Music-making has enjoyed in some regions of the world. With this clout, its proponents try to exercise some control over the inevitable flow of music into the future—and try to influence its narrative.

One of the tools for this control has for a long time been representation—first in the form of tokenism (where individual artists are taken to represent an entire culture/tradition/country that normally lies outside of New Music’s normal population), and now in the form of statistical representation. Both seem to be traps, but while tokenism has been deconstructed by subaltern and postcolonial studies many times already, the jury still seems to be out on statistical representation.

TRAP 1 Statistical Representation can promote both liberation and oppression

Representation compares percentages in a reference population with percentages in the focus group. When comparison shows a large sector of the population to be underrepresented, militating for equal representation can indeed have a liberating and emancipatory effect. But what happens when a small sector of the population is perceived to be overrepresented in the group? Perceived overrepresentation of Jews in the arts, journalism, and finance has been one of the most persistent anti-Semitic tropes, and I have heard similar observations expressed with regard to queer artists. So, statistical representation can—and often is—put to work both ways. It is not a panacea.

Moreover, who decides on the reference group? Representation as an argument works most convincingly with gender—the general distribution of gender does not wildly vary between any general population samples. But the same method is not so clear-cut with ethnic or skin colour or cultural populations. Should a festival in Aix-en-Provence proportionally represent Chinese musicians in Aix vs. non-Chinese musicians in Aix, or Chinese people in Aix vs non-Chinese People in Aix, or Chinese musicians in France/Europe/the world with non-Chinese musicians in the same sample, etc.? Such questions are obnoxious precisely because they are indeed legitimate—and thus can be (and often are) used to distract and deflect from the issue at hand. Discussions about the statistical reliability of any number can trap us in fine mathematical sophistication, when our real concern must be about awareness and counter-action.

TRAP 2 Turning representation into a discriminatory act

While many emancipatory impulses arose from situations of formalised exclusion (women, race, queer, postcolonial), other impulses protest the (in)visible systemic societal, economic, moralistic residues (or causes) of formalised exclusion in situations of formally established equality. Recent debates have, moreover, introduced concepts of self-identification and dis-identification,[5] primarily of gender and aesthetics, to express and claim subjective experiences of exclusion and marginalisation.

One of the inherent conundrums of cross- and inter-sectional emancipation is the question of a moral hierarchy between these different histories of exclusion. If there is a hierarchy—do we then not repeat the same discriminatory classifications that we wanted to abolish on this level? And if there is none—how do we then assess how relevant each of them is to any given diversity context? This can lead to curious situations: Afro-American musicians observing quite naturally on a panel in Germany that all musical genres are always expressions of race—a term and a means of categorising people that German public discourse studiously avoids because of its Nazi overtones. Or: Indian classical musicians describing rampant misogyny in their own music tradition and praising Western music for its openness to female performers—to the visible discomfort of their postcolonialistically woke European audience. Whataboutism of any hue can find ample grazing ground in this quagmire terrain.

Surprisingly often, I have heard representation being touted as a way out: one could assess the relative importance of emancipatory agendas by their proportional importance in the population or in history. Apart from the statistical problems outlined in Trap 1, this hierarchisation by numbers presents us with an emotional and moral impossibility: musicians know that the resonance and the emotional impact of a sound does not depend on its statistical frequency but on its relational connections within a complex stream of events. Likewise, the different emancipatory agendas cannot be quantified, they can only be parsed—like a polyphony in which everything that happens in one voice influences all the others, and where background and foreground constantly shift in complex entanglements of relevance and urgency.

TRAP 3 Counting heads becomes a problem of identity

People, especially artists, are not necessarily representatives of a statistically definable group. In a famous passage of his book Identity and Violence,[6] economist Amartya Sen describes how “the same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a vegetarian, a woman, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings out in space whom it is extremely urgent to talk to (preferably in English).”

If diversity is viewed as a matter of counting heads or bodies, how do we account for the many gradations of gender that have been introduced to this debate? And with increasingly complex biographies that span the globe, how do we curtail those into a statistical category? Under which diversity category do we count a heterosexual composer born in India, half part of a local minority and half foreigner, who went to school in different parts of Germany, studied music in Austria, Germany, and France, is now is an artist-researcher in Quebec, an ensemble leader in Berlin and in Pune and a poet everywhere. Do we go by name (Indian), religion (none or several), training (eurological concert music), everyday language (Dengliçais), passport (German), or taxes (Canada)?

Add to that the observation that many artists become artists precisely to redefine their ascribed identities, or to disidentify with certain aspects of an identity they grew up into—and it becomes clear that simply counting heads here is an oversimplification of reality—which seems to be born out of a desire to domesticate and control the discourse on diversity, not to promote it. In New Music, representation by numbers all too often is a handy way of going through the motions, to not address the harder questions about diversity.

Not-belonging to a statistically definable grouping can be precarious in New Music, too. Universal and open-minded aspirations notwithstanding, its funding, its attributions of respect, and its support networks still rely on articulations of belonging: for any sustained resonance of your work, it seems to be supremely important that you and your work can be claimed by or attributed to a lineage, a community, an aesthetic school, a place, a city, a country. It is important to note that such incorporations do not have to be correlated to the artist’s own sense or absence of identity—they are, by definition, social personas that others concoct around the artist. Not always, though, are they unwelcome: indeed, many artists surf on such attributed identities throughout their careers, some even sincerely believe in their own. Others, however, evade these re-possessions of their biography; they have become what in another text I have called “Native Aliens.”

“Native Aliens are curious creatures: they are always alert, master the lingos of many locales, have learnt their implicit, unspoken codes, and thus can move and feel like the locals [...] We Native Aliens can fit into many places, and each may sometimes feel just like home to us—and yet, at the same time, uncannily alienating. And we, therefore, are always aware how this native intimacy relates to a wider, alternative world [...] to be a Native Alien does not mean to be free of the desire to belong, nor to shun the pleasures and amenities of a home—but it does mean: to not be a home-addict. For we have observed how ‘belonging’ so often will slide into vicious addiction: how it must be enjoyed in moderation. The loneliness of Native Aliens is that of the sober guest reveling with drunken friends—ready to blend in and enjoy the fun, but always on edge for when the mood turns sour, prepared to leave the feast at any hour.”[7]

Try to proportionalise that!

3. Towards a Diversity of Practices

It is obvious that the institutions championing a heavily subsidised art form such as eurological New Music are not capable of changing their modus operandi overnight. In organisations centred around a specific artistic praxis, diversity can perhaps indeed only be perceived as a question of bodies and personnel.

All musical practices are somewhat unbalanced in their personnel makeup—as mentioned above, belonging to them, interacting with them, learning them is not pervasive in the same way citizenship is. Accidents of geography, gender, aesthetic fads, role models, political questions, etc., influence the complexion of any tradition’s roster of practitioners. Many artistic practices have indeed become gendered and differently hierarchised—and this often according to the value system in their home culture. In Japan, aesthetic expressions involving textiles, pottery, furniture-making, etc., are part of the traditional artistic mainstream, and we thus know of many male artists, while in the West, the same activities are rarely considered to even be artistic—they have largely become associated with female practitioners,[8] and have therefore often been classified as crafts. Or is it the other way around…

In music, the social hierarchy between composing, conceptualising and theorising music on the one hand and playing and organising music on the other also shows strong evidence of gendered art-making, where women are much more visible as players and organisers than they are as composers and theorists—roles that, as a matter of course, are also more esteemed, even if that esteem rarely translates into money.

Similarly, musical practices are heavily hierarchised in the current academic climate: Eurological musicking is at the top (the most ‘advanced’ music), while so-called “primitive/ethnic” musicking is the most backward, and all other practices are positioned somewhere in-between. Then: Western music is supposedly universal (anyone can learn it), other musics are frequently ethnicised (you must have this music in your blood) or at least portrayed mainly as generators of identity. Such curious hierarchies and their resulting sense of empowerment directly influence who thinks of themselves as a potential composer, and who therefore dares apply to a university seminar in composition. Especially if the music you know best is not on offer…

We, therefore, do not only need more diverse heads and bodies of our kind encroaching, infesting, infiltrating, investing old and existing institutions: we actually need new kinds of New Music institutions—ensembles, networks, festivals, academies, venues, summer courses—which are built not around one or a few particular, historically and geographically circumscribed practices involving newly made music, but on an explicit acceptance of and active interest in a rich diversity of practices.

Such practice-agnostic artistic institutions would acknowledge the fundamental artistic equity (not equality) of all practices, regardless of their gender, social, and ethnic connotation and regardless of their place in the aesthetic hierarchies of the West. It would view “new” practices equivalent-in-principle to “traditional” practices. And it would understand hybrid practices (inter/trans-disciplinary, inter/trans-traditional) as emerging “new” practices, not as a series of individual ephemeral “tradition-less” experiments that have to make their case anew each time.

The conceptual framework, the practical logistics, and the aesthetic complexity around such institutions seems to be mindboggling—much more strenuous, obviously, than choosing a few Latino and Iranian women composers for a festival program that otherwise remains within the audience’s white, Western expectations. But here, I take solace in the most prototypical Euro-logical music institution: a symphony orchestra comprises instruments that came from Central Asian horse cultures (the string instruments), from Central European metal cultures (brass), from Asian and African percussion and from West Asian river cultures (reeds), etc. It is a very expensive multi-rooted community of instruments that needs an inordinately high number of highly specialised musicians who practise and rehearse almost every day and who must train at expensive universities. And all this for jobs at an institution that despite attracting mid-size crowds cannot usually sustain itself—for all orchestras heavily rely on sponsors who replenish their sizeable deficits season after season. If someone were to pitch the idea of an orchestra to funders today, no one would see such an enterprise as viable, neither logistically nor aesthetically. And yet it exists—and its existence also is a living example of how heterogeneity of origin and purpose can nevertheless come together in an inclusive format—and in the process give rise to a new kind of world-making through sound.

All arts, and especially music, have deep roots in a history of elitism, discrimination, and exclusion. We are rapidly becoming aware that our present world is one of incontrovertible diversity, but as musicians and cultural workers we still struggle to give this insight shape, meaning, purpose—and nonchalance. I believe that, in order to do that, we cannot count on representation—because we would perpetuate categories, divisions, and discriminations that increasingly lose relevance for our lives. Rather, we must learn quickly how to let newly made music arise from a diversity of practices.

In 2013, I set out to do precisely that with three ensembles based on a diversity of musical practices, in Montréal, Berlin, and Pune. These are still early days, but the first run of experiments in such wildly heterogenous ensembles seems promising. It would be time for festivals and venues to engage with such kinds of post-exotistic project—not as curiosities, not as an “orchestra of minorities”, but as a matter of course: as a first step into an inclusive and diversified future of music-making.

Sandeep Bhagwati is a composer, conductor, poet, theatre-maker, and researcher. Born in India, he has lived in several European countries before moving to Montréal in 2006 as a Canada Research Chair in Inter-x Art at Concordia University, where he founded and directs the matralab - a lab for research-creation in the performing arts. His compositions and comprovisations, among them several experimental operas and large-scale orchestra works, but also many chamber and vocal compositions for musicians of many cultures, are performed worldwide by leading performers and at prestigious festivals and venues. He leads ensembles of trans-traditional music in Montréal, Berlin, and Pune and has published widely on transcultural music. He is also a leading researcher and developer of music technologies, especially new score formats that allow musicians to interact with their environment and audiences in real time.



[1] Alexandra T. Vazquez (Princeton U, Prof. of African American Studies), Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2013), 94: “Music is often relegated to anecdote, used to fluff one’s prose, or made to propel a decided-upon argument. When it is taken up as a primary object of inquiry, it can be made alien and technical. Some attempt to make a property of it. Such are the consequences of abandoning it to experts, of leaving it at the door of the conservatory in the middle of the night. And yet, for all attempts made for its quarantine, it does not stay put. Because of music’s capacity to be many places at once, it walks through the academy’s walls. Josh Kun writes, ‘music does not respect places precisely it is capable of inhabiting them while moving across them – of arriving while leaving.’ Like a stealth party guest that can be at once there and not there, any space is irrecoverably altered by music’s traverse. Even if it is undetected and erased, corralled and controlled, music turns up in locations, disciplines and archives without a proper visa. Music has always been a nurturing, shifting ground for the undercommons of the Enlightenment.”

[2] A distributed social layer of activists, artists, and academics that provides the educational resources for necessary structural societal change, see: Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Wivenhoe, 2013).

[3] The trope of voluntary and heroic mutism, of refusing to communicate, of withholding intelligibility that runs through new music is a particularly insidious expression of privilege: only those who feel naturally entitled to have a voice may refuse to speak—and still expect to be heard!

[4] “The music of Asia and India is admirable. It has reached a certain level of perfection. But otherwise it is dead.” This is quoted as a personal conversation in: Jean-Claude Eloy, "L'autre versant des sons: Vers des nouvelles frontières des territoires de la musique ?" in La Musique et le Monde, L'Internationale de l'Imaginaire, nouvelle serie 4, ed. Françoise Gründ (Paris: Babel, Maison des Cultures du Monde, 1995), 193-231.

[5] José Esteban Munoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[6] Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence (London: Penguin Books, 2006), xii-xiii.

[7] Sandeep Bhagwati, “On Native Aliens,” in Seismographic Sounds - Visions of a New World, eds. Thomas Burkhalter, Theresa Beyer, Hannes Liechti (Berlin: Norient Books, 2015), 119-121.

[8] Just recall Oskar Schlemmer’s infamous remark on Bauhaus textile artists: “Wo Wolle ist, ist auch ein Weib!” (Where there is wool, there is a woman, too!)

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