Roebroeks, E. (2008). Stage, A Final Frontier. Leonardo Music Journal, 18, 41.
Stage, A Final Frontier
Why was this text written by a music researcher instead of an artist? Well, why not? After all, it is not completely clear what kind of work the “contemporary” music artist creates. From a quantitative perspective, the work of the “contemporary” music artist is not exactly an omnipresent phenomenon. For example, “contemporary” music royalties for the whole of Europe amount to approximately 200 million Euros—a mere 10% of Paul McCartney’s private capital . From a qualitative perspective, the most prevalent means of presenting “contemporary” music—the good old concert—offers no enlightenment on the supposed signature characteristic of contemporary music, that is its connection with present-day society.
Furthermore, as the avant-garde dispelled a classic musical narrative, listeners were denied the “pleasure bonus” , which, according to the narrative, lies in the satisfaction it gives one to know how the narrative ends. Where advanced forms of actual art music concentrate on their material implications (mathematical structures, geometrical configurations, algorithmic instructions for sound production), it is not clear whether listeners are compensated with a different kind of pleasure. It is not surprising that, for many listeners, “contemporary” music is shrouded in a veil of metaphysics (without the physics or the meta).
Thus, in terms of production, distribution and reception, we do not know exactly what we are talking about. Yet one notices how “contemporary” music practice is still captivated by the ever-dominant paradigm that is the Romantic order. The 19th century’s concept of musical autonomy is a tenacious anachronism. It was with the late Karlheinz Stockhausen that the historical figure of the composer—since the 19th century, the priest-artist—died out. In present-day society, music is mainly a commodity with a high rate of circulation. Therefore, “contemporary” music operates in a vacuum.
Why not, then, simply examine the problems? Not in a diagnosis-treatment way, but through cooperation of artists and scientists working together on equal standing and for a common goal: to develop new music paradigms. Of course, many so-called art-science initiatives do already exist. If they are examined more closely, however, it can be said that most such initiatives—even IRCAM —reserve a role for science that seems subservient only to music. In a post-bourgeois society, there should not be such hierarchical order. Whereas it seems to be a hallmark of Western music culture that science is needed to understand music , I argue that science is needed to elaborate music’s new perspectives themselves. Both artists and scientists have a new chance to transgress the 20th century’s super-specialization and reductionism because of the fact that both science and art are in a process of nonmetaphysical interdisciplinarity.
Let us take a look at history’s most stunning music laboratories: the 16th century’s Florentine “academies” (Camerata, Corsi, Alterati), which finally brought forth opera itself. Of course, these laboratories cannot be reanimated in contemporary society, again because of the fact that the social coordinates involved do not exist any more. Its fundamentals still stand, however. The main requisites for a 21st-century Camerata are a cultural vision and an aesthetic ideal, which includes socio-cultural research into new means of music production and presentation. Research has to be conducted with a dialectic approach to (the examination of) music from its own internal premises and dynamics as well as its place and role in modern society. Only with new position-finding can a desperately desired radical (intelligent and sensual) new music possibly arise.
Fundamental differences between art and science in logics and methods should not be blurred but emphasized. What binds both “disciplines” together is a shared longing among the most curious artists and scientists for a dynamic but critical relationship with a technologized, commercialized and globalized world—allowing them to boldly go where no artists and scientists have gone before together.
1 K. Boehmer, “Politisation de la sociologie musicale,” lecture, Musique et politique, Paris, 13 January 2007,
2 J. de Mul, “Doom—Or the Continuation of the Avant-Garde with Other Means,” in Saskia Bos et al. (Eds.), Modernity Today. Contributions to a Topical Artistic Discourse (Amsterdam: De Appel, 2004) pp. 21–29.
3 Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique.
4 Compare B. Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1983) p. 135.
Erwin Roebroeks is a Dutch music adviser and publicist. He is a Ph.D. student at Erasmus University Rotterdam with Jos de Mul and Konrad Boehmer. He is also a critic for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.
© Erwin Roebroeks 2008