So what’s the next big thing after neo post tonal?

So what’s the next big thing after neo post tonal?


norman lebrecht

January 10, 2019

Allan Kozinn, a voice silenced by the New York Times, has written a typically thoughtful piece in SFCV on the latest trends in new music. It’s the sort of piece you would no longer expect to read in a mainstream newspaper, which may be one of the reasons why newspapers are losing traction with their readers.

Here’s Allan:

Debates about new music have always focused mainly on styles that have caught listeners off guard. The high energy primitivism of early Stravinsky and Bartók, for example, struck some early listeners as too brutal for the concert hall, just as those who disliked (or still dislike) serialism find it ugly and unmoored, and those who disdain minimalism hear it as simplistic, and listeners puzzled by indie classical regard it as a species of pop music.

It is only natural that the fiercest arguments are engendered by music that sets aside the old rules and looks in new directions: that there are always those who react to avant-gardes of all kinds with suspicion, as either puzzling or fraudulent, even when the music they prefer was once greeted similarly.

But through it all, there have also been composers who stood aside from the aesthetic battles, because they prefer evolution to revolution and cherish what was once thought of as the “common practice,” or musical language rooted in tonality, as it has developed from the 17th century onward….

Read on here.




  • John Borstlap says:

    Well, the man is right – thinking that new works which ruffle feathers must THEREFORE be defining a time line in music history, results in accepting anything as long as it is awful, and in the end we arrive at this:

  • Terrific article, as always, Allan. Back in early 2016, I posted a term on social media which I coined ‘Neo-Impressionism’. It doesn’t apply to every style of our times, but one which reflects some music being penned. If you think about it, we have traveled through the ages with Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Romantic, Impressionism, Neo-Classical, etc, through Neo-Romantic and now, Neo-Impressionist perhaps. Just a thought.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      Real art music is timeless. The classical tradition never went away. Neither did the baroque elements. They’re just not as obvious or prominent at the moment. Or you’re just not paying attention to those composers. There’s no such thing as neo-anything, or post-anything. If it needs that, it’s junk.

    • Jeffrey, I have no problem with the idea of a “line of progression”, that being the natural evolution of music through time, as long as it is just that: “natural”. Problem is that it has been well over a century since that has been the case. This is why these terms, “neo-whatever”, really concern me. Who decides that I as a composer must now, having previously been neo-romantic, change my approach to neo-impressionist?

      I’ll now return to quoting Strauss, not least because I’m walking on air having heard a magnificent Rosenkavalier in Leipzig last night. Strauss said (late in life): “Once I was the avant-garde, now I am counted amongst the composers of the past. I do not care, in every moment I am true to myself.”

      Unfortunately, he was the last composer to be allowed the freedom to say that.

      • I totally agree with you. But history books have and will continue to label periods of time in every walk of life. That should never hold anyone back from doing what they feel natural to do.

  • Marianne says:

    While the NYT may have ceased to employ Allan Kozinn, the NYT did not “silence” him. The NYT has no obligation to employ anyone or give anyone a platform for speech. In this day and age, anyone can create his or her own platform from which to speak.

  • Anne says:

    I was glad to see that he spoke of “indie classical” as pop. I am not “puzzled” by it, I just don’t know why people think it is part of the concert music tradition, especially when there are many good composer writing music today. If you are not part of that “Brooklyn” crowd you are ignored by the NYTimes. This “indie classical” thing is not a reaction to anything. If anything it is a rehash of fusion easy listening jazz from the 70s and early 80, think Paul Winter Consort, Oregon etc, although often much simpler than those performers. I was speaking with a friend about this recently and she said she thinks it is out of ignorance, both on the part of the composer/performer and the listeners — not knowing what has come before. I would love to know your take on this “idie classical”.

    • adista says:

      If you look at the bios of the Brooklyn crowd and all the other “indie” classical composers, you’ll find that virtually none of them have any real background in classical music. Almost none of them are skilled at any particular instrument, and most don’t know the repertoire very well at all. They’re basically failed pop musicians who figured out they could just start calling themselves composers, put out a few bits of watered down indie rock mixed with a little minimalism, and get careers out of it. So that’s what they did. In short, they’re actors playing a role.

  • Jaime Herrera says:

    Music we “prefer” was NEVER greeted “similarly.” Today’s classical music is nothing but extremely complex, minimal, atonal, percussive, ethereal, and senseless noise. Composers nowadays are more like engineers than musicians. The ultimate test of music is staying power. It is that simple. No amount of hype can boost art to a level that makes it stay in the public eye (and ear) for two hundred years. Compare the number of performances of Tosca to that of any opera written between 1940 and today. Elgar’s first symphony received more than a hundred performances in its first year. Who can do that today? Nobody. Why? Because contemporary classical music stinks. Without all those composers who lived prior to Shostakovich, Classical music would be dead.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      I’m sure that has much to do with the influence of computers.

    • Classical PR Pro says:

      Hmm. Lots to unpack here.

      “Music we ‘prefer’ was NEVER greeted ‘similarly.’ ”

      None of it? Ever?

      “Today’s classical music is nothing but extremely complex, minimal, atonal, percussive, ethereal, and senseless noise.”

      All of it?

      “Composers nowadays are more like engineers than musicians.”

      All of them? And if so, in what way are they engineers and not musicians? Can you name no living composer whose music you enjoy?

      “The ultimate test of music is staying power. It is that simple. No amount of hype can boost art to a level that makes it stay in the public eye (and ear) for two hundred years.”

      Perhaps true. And yet there are works that have fallen out of the repertoire that we would agree are “great” but perhaps have fallen victim to changing tastes, or the natural succession of forms over time. And I seem to recall that even JSB was not highly regarded as a composer in his time, yet his music SEEMS to have some staying power, though some might regard it as having been written by an engineer. /s

      “Compare the number of performances of Tosca to that of any opera written between 1940 and today.”

      Any new work must compete with established works to be programmed. With great works like Tosca and other operas still being performed, it’s natural that an opera that has been in the repertoire since 1900 will have accrued more performances than anything composed in 1940 or later, even if the latter work had the same degree of popularity. Perhaps you have some stats to help us understand your point?

      “Elgar’s first symphony received more than a hundred performances in its first year. Who can do that today? Nobody.”

      Is Elgar’s first still enjoying that frequency of performance? And remember, orchestral performances were more widely enjoyed at that time, and did not complete with other forms of entertainment invented in recent decades. Orchestral music as a whole has become less popular, and it’s not just because of any perceived change in quality of the music itself, it’s increasing competition from other forms of entertainment, and general decline in music education that leads to the creation of a classical music audience.

      Is it possible that there were more orchestras, and more orchestral performances, and that with a fewer number of extant works, those works might have received more performances? I’d have to look for some stats on that.

      “…contemporary classical music stinks.”

      All of it? That’s a pretty broad brush. And how do you define ‘contemporary’? Music by living composers? Music composed after a certain date? What are you trying to convey

      “Without all those composers who lived prior to Shostakovich, Classical music would be dead.”

      DS died in 1975. Are you suggesting that there is not one composer who has been writing between 1975 and 2019 whose music you can enjoy or admire or endorse as “classical”?

      lots to think about!

    • Thank you James, mostly I agree. . I however don’t think your answer to the “why?” is all that useful . The real answer is highly complex, as it will always be. You list very reasonably a couple of works from the standard repertoire. My comment on that, and only as a conversation starter,would be to point out that Germany, whilst investing at least €10 Billion per year in the arts (the great bulk of it in our art-form), has not added a single work to the meaningful standard repertoire since the “Vier Letzte Lieder” in 1948 (premiered in 1950).

      Why? The German education imperative is why. Richard Strauss was an almost entirely self taught composer, certainly not the product of any formal academic program and as such wrote music as a conversation with audiences, unfettered by the need to please his teachers or their gate-keepers. Elgar, ditto. The more I investigate this, the more obvious the source of the problem becomes. Music in every respect exists to serve the interests of it’s education system, whereas obviously, it should be the other way round.

      Ideas , both new and old in music, therefore have become useful only insomuch as they serve the interests of the dominant forces controlling the art-form, here’s just one example

    • Oh dear sorry, Jaime!

      • buxtehude says:

        You can add Martinu to your self-taught list, notwithstanding his very brief late apprenticeship to Roussel. The young Martinu flunked out of first-year conservatory twice as well as private study under Joseph Suk. His Harvard & Yale were the concert halls of Prague and Paris.

        Nice to see your name again David!

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    There should be NO TRENDS in classical music. It’s supposed to be an art, not a product. Trendiness is NOT an artistic value. I didn’t make that up, it was said 120 years ago in France. I wish the critics got it. But they’re not musicians.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    There are young composers — Kevin Lau comes to mind – who have come to general attention by writing not just concert music and music for theater or films, but music for video games and anime. Some of that music is surprisingly sophisticated, and it represents a world of media that “needs” music that did not exist a few decades ago. Whether it is “neo” something or not I cannot say. It is tonal and expressive. His “Joy” for violin and small orchestra is one of my favorites. Conrad Chow recorded it.

  • One value of this article is that it also looks at new music beyond the confines of the Northeastern establishment. So much good work around the country is being neglected because it is little reported.

  • I highly recommend ROCO’s archive of recordings, one of the best collections of more traditional (for lack of a better term) new music on the web, all beautifully played and recorded. So much great music to listen to, and a good way to catch up on what the more conservative sorts of composers are doing. It’s here:

    The musical life of Texas is extraordinary. They have the best public music education system in the country, both at the secondary and tertiary levels. They put the public systems in other big states like California, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Illinois to shame. The rest of the country should study what they do.

    The ROCO recording archive does give me pause in a way. There’s something a bit disturbing about so much very traditional new music all in one place. It speaks to a worldview. I think of the nature of Texas which is beyond conservative, and listen to all of that harmonious, regimented, relatively unquestioning music conforming so much to a white, bourgeois sense of order, and I get visions of “The Handmaiden’s Tale.” I wonder if I’ve just been brainwashed, or if I’m being too cynical, but the haunted feeling remains. I think their view of the world is maybe a little too simple.

    • Hello! I appreciate your referencing ROCO and our listening room. I am the Founder and we are in our 14th season. I hope you keep scrolling through the archive because there are plenty of works there in our 79 world premiere commissions that would not be considered traditional at all. (Some premieres, such as for our Day of the Dead musical ofrenda each season, were not able to be recorded.)

      The ‘worldview’ you reference would be that ROCO focuses on a personal relationship between audience and musicians (half of whom are from around the world and fly in to Houston) But the goal has never been for a faceless audience. I see the composer as the matchmaker between audience member and musician. (Yentas are not always successful…but their goal is always for connection.)

      I would welcome a moment to visit with you about all of the layers to ROCO. The most elegant and ‘simple’ concert experience can actually be the most complex where the best possible team of musicians, staff, administration, and board make it all seem effortless.

      Check out:
      “Legendary Love” — based upon a punk rocker and translated into improvisation
      “Maternity” — based on writings about evolution
      “Teen Murti” — based upon Indian ragas

      Half of our season this year is female composers. In November we had an all-female composer concert (two living, two not so living — equal rights for the living)

      Handmaiden’s Tale? Hmm, I believe I have to challenge that with Bandersnatch (frumious or otherwise) — many outcomes and endings possible ahead.

      • william osborne says:

        Thank you for your comment Alecia. I also appreciate your sense of humor. I’ll check out the pieces you mention, and continue exploring your remarkable archive of recordings. So much great music. I hope the whole country will take more notice.