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  • Jamie McCarthy

'Contemporary Music' Cock.

25th November 2019.


Bit of a niche thing this … there’s this funny little sub-culture called ‘Contemporary Music’. It’s part of the ‘classical music tradition’, or as my students probably tire of me referring to it: ‘the Western European Art Music tradition’. As is sometimes the way in such traditional musics, terms get used very unthinkingly. So …. ‘contemporary’ can sometime be used to label music that was written up to a hundred years ago, or at least music that draws on styles that were developed at the beginning and middle of the twentieth century. In my experience it’s almost exclusively white and middle-class and pretty damn male dominated, but since those things are seen as some kind of ‘default’, it seems that they aren’t considered necessary to specify (perhaps I should also add the terms white and bourgeois when I refer to it to the students I teach).

I don’t have that much experience of the world that it exists in, but I do know quite a lot of music that falls under that category and whenever I’ve visited the very particular traditional sub-culture from which it comes I’ve always been struck by how self-referential it is. It also seems that although there has been a tiny bit of thought (nowhere near enough!) about inclusivity as regards BAME people and recognition of the women involved in it, it’s one of the worlds that has largely escaped critiques about access to working class people. Again, in my limited experience of that world, I have always felt it to be a real bastion of unquestioned class privilege.

So why am I writing about this today? Well it’s at a bit of a tangent to what I just expressed, but this morning I had a memory of a composer (I can’t remember who), talking about how he used the technique of serialism sometimes. It’s not that important to know what serialism is, but it’s a sort of pseudo-mathematical approach to composing music that at one time was incredibly dominant in ‘Contemporary Music’. (An old teacher of mine used to refer to it as part of that genre of music called ‘Squeaky Door Music’ … Actually, personally I like quite a lot of squeaky door music!).

I remember this composer saying he liked serialism, because, it being so hard to use in a convincing way, it ‘really sorted the men from the boys’. I remember reading this quite a while ago and my jaw dropping at the sexism and fucked-up gendered-ness of it. But that kind of talk was actually quite common as far as I remember. It feels like such a dick-waving thing to say and it’s something that I think is reflected in other styles of music too. It’s a sort of ‘look at the size of my musical dick’ approach. Now as many people know, I’m as fond of penis as any penis-loving next person, but isn’t there something about what you do with whatever ‘instrument’ you have, rather than just admiring its size? Isn’t there a danger that fetishising ‘musical dick’ also excludes other ‘musical genitalia’ and the music it produces?

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