Back

Listeners often note that my music doesn’t sound like “modern music” (to their surprise, pleasure or disappointment...). Apparently, these listeners tend to mistake “modern music” for modernist music.
Indeed, my music doesn’t sound like the excessively dissonant, complex and cerebral music of the modernist tradition. I have nothing to add to that tradition. Although I greatly admire such modernist composers as Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis for what they have done, I feel they represent an aesthetic that has become old-fashioned by now, even conservative (one might ask, what is more conservative, a piece written in neo-romantic style or a piece written in neo-modernist style?) and quite unable to capture the spirit of our times or ‘zeitgeist’ (something which, at the current moment, only popular music seems to be able to do).

This brings me to an important problem in contemporary (art) music, namely that it is actually not ‘contemporary’ at all, for it doesn’t seem to speak the language of our time. At least, it fails to communicate something that has a lot of cultural relevancy today. Contemporary music has been in the cultural ghetto for some decades now. This situation is worrisome and cannot simply be excused by the supposed fact that ‘music has always been for the elite’. True, art, including art music, may always have been something for the elite, but even what can be considered ‘the elite’ today (i.e., the higher educated) mostly seems to have lost their interest in contemporary music. Even among classical music lovers (which is already an elte), there is very little interest in modern music. Nowadays, it seems that most contemporary composers only write for other composers, some musicians and a handful of modern music affectionados. Never before has the gap between composer and audience been so wide, never before has the situation been such that composers of the past are performed way more frequently than composers of the present and never before has the cultural influence of composers been so little (not to say absent at all). The only composers with any cultural influence of significance are now to be found in the field of popular music (and maybe film music).

Although society and education (or lack thereof) are definitely in part to blame for this situation, I believe another, often (wilfully?) ignored factor has to do with the music itself, which remains largely rooted in the modernist aesthetic; an aesthetic which was once fresh and relevant but has now lost its urgency and actuality. At conservatories, composition students are often told by their teachers not to write music that ignores the musical heritage of the 20th century. Then what do they mean by the musical heritage of the 20th century? Do they only mean the modernist tradition of Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, etc.? Doesn’t the musical heritage of the 20th century also include pop, rock and jazz music? Or house and techno? Or composers like Aaron Copland, John Adams and Arvo Pärt?

I’d like to stress that I’m not like those people claiming post-war modernism in music was one big mistake and one big waste. Once again, I believe modernism has produced some extremely fine masterpieces, which influenced my composing as well. But in the end, it turned out to be a rather limited, myopic and even intolerant aesthetic, dictating the unwritten rules of how modern music should sound (something which even to this day influences the ‘standard sound’ of modern music), without being open to any interaction with the vernacular. As a result, modern music turned into some highly specialized ivory-tower-practice by and for the tiny few “initiated” (not unlike science), dissociated from everyday life and culture.

Modern classical music cannot survive as a living artform if it remains stuck in this isolated box. Something needs to change, before popular music will take over the role of art music altogether. Or maybe that is exactly what needs to happen, so that a completely new and fresh kind of art music will finally emerge from the more artistic kinds of popular music. One can be very pessimistic and embittered about this, but it is more fruitful if young composers take it as a signal; a signal that stimulates them to look for something different - a musical language that is more communicative and more in tune with the present-day time and culture.