north east scotland's festival of new music

sound lecture 2010Tom Service

So long, and thanks for all the noise: 2010 and the end of musical history

It has already happened. Musical history spluttered to its demise somewhere near the start of the 21st century. The questions are: how? why? and can we do anything about it? There are few great compositional figures who aren't already vastly aged, from Steve Reich to Elliott Carter, from Philip Glass to Pierre Boulez, there's no single path for younger generations of composers to follow, it's all been done before in every context you can imagine, and there are no sounds to discover that haven't already been heard. All that, and you can hardly make a living from it. The doomsayers were right. Or - were they? Tom Service will be looking for symptoms and solutions in an era of musical post-history. Perhaps living at the end of time isn't such a bad thing, after all…

Tom Service first worked as a critic for The Scotsman. He now writes about music for The Guardian, and presents BBC Radio 3's Music Matters. His PhD was on the music of John Zorn, and he was Guest Artistic Director of the Huddersfield Contempor2005. His book on conducting will be published by Faber next year.


Saturday 23 October 2010, 2.00 pm

Cowdray Hall, Schoolhill, Aberdeen, AB10 1FQ

Ticket Prices: Free

Also see: Less is More


So long, and thanks for all the noise: 2010 and the end of musical history
1: how did we get here?

Good afternoon – I want to start with an anthropological description of a potential experience of an average contemporary classical music concert – as ever, there's a health warning around that term, but I'll come back to that later – you say contemporary, I say 'new'; you say, 'serious music', I say 'art music'. There's one more health warning, too: having lived down in London for the last decade, this applies more to events down there than they do here at the Sound Festival! You'll see what I mean.

The scene: the South Bank Centre, new music's concrete-bound HQ in London; the performers: let's say, the London Sinfonietta; the occasion a concert that includes a new piece by a vaunted young composer. Now, one of the extraordinary things – and the first that would strike any newcomer to the scene – is that the audience which has turned up by for a world premiere by much-feted composer X, touted as one of the big hitters of new music, someone who everyone agrees is important for the potential future of the art-form and therefore, at some distant level, for world culture – is so vanishingly tiny. The numbers of empty chairs far outnumber the bums on seats at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and there's an atmosphere of - well, there isn't really an atmosphere of anticipation at all, as one of our great composer-conductors shuffles onto the podium to conduct the Sinfonietta, in this supposedly epic premiere. The audience's response to this 20 minute work for one-to-a-part ensemble is as tepid as the composer's bows are awkward; her gestures to the players are charmingly unschooled, and her looks to the audience of a combination of bewilderment and pleading please-like-me naivety.

Unfortunately, the cognoscenti in the audience at the interval doesn't like the new piece. It's too derivative of her teacher's style, or: it's too ambitious and too poorly realised, or: it's monothematic and miscalculated, or: it's tonally regressive – did you hear that C major chord in the middle of the climax?, or: it's a bold/conservative/adventurous/reactionary mixture of influences that fails to transcend its source material. And didn't Lachenmann do something similar in 1975? Etc. The critics are lukewarm – resorting to that typical trick – and I should know - of attempted description, bits of cribbed programme note, and a sitting on the fence judgement like: 'interesting' or 'there were moments of drama but the whole structure failed to cohere' or 'it continues where her previous piece left off' – and this much-vaunted new work sinks back into oblivion. The players didn't like it much, the ensemble doesn't programme it again, the conductor doesn't promote it with other ensembles, and a year's worth of composer X's life is adjudged a relative failure. What on earth was it all about?

Right – as I said, this kind of thing never happens in Aberdeen, self-evidently, but I want to draw some conclusions from this sociological and musical happening. Firstly, there are the strange features of the communities of contemporary classical music, its performers, audiences, and composers, and how they judge and value each other. If a band that you like has a new album out, your dominant emotion when you download is one of potential excitement – OK, the XX or Napalm Death's latest might not live up to the standards of their early oeuvre, but you approach a new release with a basically positive sense of anticipation. With a few august exceptions, it seems to me to be often exactly the other way round with our little world of contemporary classical music, where the expectation and even the desire on the part of the audience is that the new piece won't be any good. That's because the audience are often the composer's competition, since the majority of people who attend contemporary classical concerts are also composers, performers, or even writers. Any new piece has to get through a thicket of expectations that are as much political as they are musical, as personal as they are aesthetic – as often happens with small communities that perceive themselves to be under threat from the rest of the world - and so there's an active sense of non-enjoyment. This non-enjoyment has an aesthetic dimension as well, since to enjoy yourself in any case probably means the music had too much of the things that most people value in other kinds of music – tunes, recognisable harmonies, maybe a bit of a groove, all things that for complex and often absurd cultural-historical reasons are deemed to be beyond the pale for contemporary classical music – which means that how much you didn't enjoy yourself is a badge of a new piece of music's potential value.

It's at this point you realise that the whole idea of 'having a good time' and ' contemporary classical music' are, alas!, phrases that are seldom found in the same sentence together. We're through the looking glass here. Contemporary classical music is often – a culture – sub-culture is really more accurate – that consists mostly of people who want to criticise more than celebrate, and in which assessments of value and importance are made in exactly the opposite way to that which they are made in the (most of) the rest of the musical world. It's a topsy-turvy never-never land in which the ugly is the beautiful – and not in a good way - in which musical communication, conceived as the active transmission of sonic-semantic phenomena to as great a number of people as possible, is frowned upon (you can only 'get' this music if you're clever enough, if you're part of the club), and in which if you enjoy yourself, you ain't doing it right.

As I suggest in my title today – it's over. The situation of new music is systemically shot through with contradictions, in terms of its institutions, its communities, and possibly its composers. So let's look at some of them in more detail.

2: the new…

Before I do, though, a word on my title. Appropriately enough, there's nothing new in the idea of the end of music history. Indeed, it's one of the privileges of modernity – any modernity – to imagine that your particular generation is dancing at the end of time. So to be clear: what I'm talking about is the end of what some call the 'master narrative' – with all the patriarchy that suggests – of music history, the idea that each generation of composers steps on the shoulders of its gigantic predecessors, processing in seamless consequential order to a panacea of musical paradise and betterment. And that's not a new idea either: I remember reading Anthony Hopkins's Understanding Music when I was about 12 and reading how the single stream of western music had become a delta of many currents and rivulets in the twentieth century. And after decades of new musicology and new history, we all realise, if we didn't know it already, that all of those grand teleological ideas of how music progressed from Palestrina to Bach to Beethoven to Brahms to Bruckner to Schoenberg to the Beatles – something like that anyway – are all bunk. What I'm not saying, so it's there for the record, is that music is over in 2010. Just the opposite, even if it'll take a few minutes to get to how that could be true.

The problem I'm dealing with is that there are still some composers, institutions, and ideologies out there who are labouring under the misapprehension that what they're doing is the single true path, the way of the future, the sole route to enlightenment, and the real reflection of our times – and I think that those ways of thinking can perniciously permeate contemporary classical musical culture.

'Contemporary classical musical culture': that's one of the problems right there. 'There's nowt so old as new music', as a wiser man than me should have said. What is 'new music'? It's not 'new' at all! We can all agree on the literal definition of 'contemporary music', which ought to mean things that are current, being written, today – but even that label is more elusive than it seems. At the Proms this year, Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic – you may have seen it on the telly – in a concert with a second half of orchestral pieces by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, the Op 6 set. It's music that still struggles for a popular audience, and it took Sir Simon and the Berliners to make all three sets an attractive proposition for a sell-out crowd. Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg still makes the noises of 'new' or even 'contemporary' music – despite the fact that all of these pieces are nearly 100 years old.

A century old – and still having difficulty in being accepted in orchestral repertoires by conductors, performers, or audiences. An example of how slipperily anachronistic this 'new' label is: earlier in the season, Shostakovich's 10th Symphony made its almost inevitable Proms appearance, music composed 4 decades after the Schoenberg Five Orchestral Pieces, but a piece show big-boned expressivity no-one would call 'new' or even 'modern', despite the fact it's newer and therefore more contemporary – if that's not too much of a tautology – than the Schoenberg.

All of this is confusing enough if you're 'in' the worlds of new/contemporary music; from the outside it looks positively insane. I remember talking to a non-new-musical friend about 'contemporary classical music' and being met with a vacant expression. How can classical music be 'contemporary'? Good question.

New Music is really an ideological conceit, one that's concerned with a perceived relationship between musical material and social or political situation. As for so many of the canards of scholarly criticism, we've Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno to thank, in the main, for making 'new music' a critical category. To compose 'new music' is to be involved in the creation of a music that at once resists one side of society – the commercial, the populist, the meretricious, the false - to paraphrase some of Adorno's phrases – and to reflect, through a convoluted process of dialectical reasoning, the truth of your times, its inhumanity, the false consciousnesses that afflict our lives; in other words, to resist the seductions of late-capitalist society and at the same time to reveal their vacuity by offering an uncompromising, ethically superior musical vision. Which, by the way, most people don't want to hear.

3: the old masters…

So how are our erstwhile – but still living - composers of 'new music' getting along? What has happened to the prophets and products of 'the new'? Well, they're getting very, very old. To take a handful of examples: Pierre Boulez – 85; Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies – both 76; Hans Werner Henze - 84 Steve Reich – 74; Philip Glass – 73, and even what used to be thought of a younger generation of composers like George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, all in their 50s; even those young turks, the bad boys of English and Scottish music respectively – Mark-Anthony Turnage and James MacMillan –

have recently turned 50, too. But the granddaddy of them all is Elliott Carter, who continues to turn out composition after composition in his 102nd year, and who shows no sign of slowing down, writing music that, far from going gently into that good night, is an increasingly rebarbative two fingers to the inexorable tread of time and the increasingly theoretical prospect, it seems, of his own demise.

Carter's and Boulez's careers have much to tell us about how 'new music' has changed over the decades. Both formed their musical languages just after the war, and both continued to develop their languages through an increasing complexity to different kinds of consolidation. In Carter's case, he has conjured a sort of modernist classicism – the hard-won creation of a personal style and a language over three decades which he is now so fluent in that he is more profilic in his second century – well, he was when was a mere slip of a thing in his 90s too!... – than he was in his first. With Boulez, it's different. His mania for revision and for continual expansion of germ-like ideas – pieces like ...explosante-fixe…, Dérive 1 et 2, the Third Piano Sonata – means that his catalogue of pieces in the 90s and noughties looks tiny by comparison with Carter's. Boulez's music itself has become – to my ears at least – more and more shimmeringly beautiful and decorative as time has gone by. Where the austere aesthetician of the 50s and 60s called for the burning down of opera houses and anyone who didn't believe in the development of serialism as inherently 'useless', Boulez the octogenarian is now turning out pieces like the orchestral amplifications of his Notations that are positively indulgent in their orchestral excess. This is new music as ornament, as beautifully crafted bauble – or possibly sports car: Boulez has described one of the Notations as the equivalent of driving a Maserati down one of those vertiginous alpine roads.

When I interviewed Boulez for the first time a few years ago at the Proms, I – perhaps somewhat naïvely! - accused him of selling out. Where, I asked him, was the genuinely new music on the programme he was conducting with the worlds' great orchestras, from Chicago to Berlin, Vienna to London? Not my job, guv, was his reply: I have the Ensemble (Intercontemporain) as my 'gallery', the orchestras as my 'museum', and the one subsidises the other. So much for the great revolutionary: instead of seeking to change institutions from the inside out, as he did in previous decades at the BBC when he was Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and at simultaneously at the New York Philharmonic, Boulez is now content to teach the world's flashiest orchestras how to play Mahler, Bartok, and Stravinsky, and to let the Ensemble pick up the pieces of the genuinely 'new'.

However you interpret it, this amounts to a tacit surrender to the forces of the old rather than the new. If Boulez can't make new music – even his own music – part of the orchestral repertoire, he may as well spend his time doing his best for the repertoire of the early 20th century that still needs, in his view, a leg-up in orchestral programmes. So has Boulez given up? He may or may not be writing an opera on Beckett's Waiting for Godot as I speak, but aesthetically and politically speaking, really he has long ago rescinded any pretence of being at the vanguard.

The Carter situation is subtly different in terms of his reception. Unloved or unknown for the vast majority of his life by the vast majority of his fellow countrymen, he has been championed by starry conductors like James Levine and Daniel Barenboim in Boston and Chicago, and at last seems to have achieved some meaningful recognition in his own country (time to roll out one of my favourite statistics: that Carter is nearly half as old as America). But there's no question of Carter's being at a leading edge any more. He has found his style, and he's sticking to it, for just as long as nature gives him. It's music whose uncompromising grittiness and authenticity is both rock-hewn and playful, the ongoing song of a composer who has lived uniquely long enough to created his own 'classical style', a fully-fledged yet completely personal musical universe in which he can create whatever kind of expression – rage, terror, love, anger, loss, vitality – anything apart from nostalgia! – he chooses. Carter isn't a composer – he's his own epoch.

4: manners and mannerisms…

In their own ways, Carter and Boulez embody the journey that all avant-gardes and revolutions end up taking in the end – if they're even moderately successful – and have become part of the establishment, even if they're not part of the mainstream. But there are schools of composition whose dominant mode is of a continuation of a high modernist stylistic language that, whilst it was once new, now threatens to become a parody of itself. Far from being 'new', the ideas that this music expounds, its practices, the institutions it's indebted to, are old-fashioned in the extreme.

There are many examples of this trend, what I think of a general shift and direction in today's composition towards mannerism: the point at which a music, a language becomes affectation instead of style, a point of aesthetic redundance and expressive emptiness. If I mention individual names, I'm only using them as examples of a more general tendency, and I don't mean to pick on egregious individual examples but rather talk about wider principles. There are two divergent areas I want to highlight: a kind of contemporary post-British-modernism, but the first is what used to be called 'new complexity'. I know, 'new complexity' is yet another musical neologism and a slippery critical label that used to be applied to Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon, and Michael Finnissy – three more different creative personalities it would be difficult to conceive – but which now embraces what can be termed a school of heightened notational possibility, and – supposedly – one of the last bastions of uncompromising and uncompromised modernity. Or so some of the newer generations of its practitioners seem to think. Tied up with the baroque complexity of notational possibility of this kind of music - and there are countless examples from Harvard to Berlin, from Freiburg to Huddersfield – is an ideology of elite musical practice that excludes all but the most fiendishly gifted practitioners, but which ironically purports to exemplify supposedly Marxist or Adorno-isch tenets of resistance to the status quo, the revelation of social and cultural truths that require difficulty and abrasiveness to be expressed, and which exists as an extreme and rarefied attempt to rouse audiences – and by extension, populations, classes – out of their liberal/capitalist torpor, to shatter conventional languages and modes of production and reception, and to reconfigure a new world from out of the rubble.

You'll find this sort of thinking as über-orthodoxy in some German compositional and critical circles. I remember being asked to write an article for a new-music journal in Germany about what the editors called the 'British populism' of Thomas Adès, George Benjamin and Michael Finnissy. Now they may have been compared to many things in the past, but for all their occasional use of – shock-horror! - melody in their music, I don't think any of them belong in the same category as Simon Cowell. You can trace this kind of intellectual and critical approach to composition to the post-war avant-garde, and the necessity of connecting social, political and musical renewal. Its continued existence today is a different and more problematic proposition, though.

You see, while there's an admirable and conscientious idealism in this sort of strategy, there's a problem, too: the same dilemma that generations of politically engaged composers faced in the 20th century, from Hanns Eisler to Cornelius Cardew. The question is simple: is it enough to write music that ultimately will probably only ever be accessed by a tiny minority of new music nerds, as opposed to even attempting to communicate with a wider public, and having a genuine chance of changing people's minds or influencing their approach to the world?

Too often, composers give the kind of answer to this sort of question that's like having your cake and eating it: they say something like 'the idealism is the point of the music', so if you don't get the piece – if you don't understand it, or think it's just a load of mindless adolescent gestures - it's because you don't get the political idealism behind the composition. That strategy protects ideologically minded composers from any meaningful criticism. The excuse for the music's appeal, performance, and broadcast to a mere scintilloid of the population becomes its raison d'être. QED: if a new piece of new-new-complexity doesn't make it out of the new-music ghetto, that's because of its authenticity and 'idealism'. To criticise a piece that say, attempts to resist contemporary capitalism – or, like a handful of orchestral and chamber piece a few years ago, the Iraq War - would be to criticise the solid left-wing principles that lie behind it – and even to align yourself with warmongering governments rather than the oppressed victims of the Iraq occupation.

But it's a hollow strategy, in my view precisely because that connection between the musical material and political refusenikery is so opaque as to be incomprehensible and even meaningless to audiences when they're presented with the reality of this kind of music's premiere at, say, an orchestral concert. The essential problem is that the musical gestures of thousands of 'modernist' orchestral or ensemble pieces is that their voice of protest does not carry any expressive power in and of itself. In fact, the idiom of the abrasively dissonant and fractured orchestral instrumentarium has become a cliché. It hasn't been 'new' for about 60 years, in fact. So instead of cutting through or resisting received opinions or modes of production, this kind of approach to orchestral composition actually shores them up. There is nothing more predictable than the angular unpredictability of a modernist orchestral work – either when it's played at a contemporary music festival in Donaueschingen or Huddersfield, or a London Symphony Orchestra subscription concert.

The solipsism of this way of thinking about contemporary composition is by no means the sole province of the extreme ornamentation of a post new-complexity. It's part of many other of the dominant modes of writing as well. There's a peculiarly British strain of decorative modernism, for example, that has its roots in a brilliant generation of composers and teachers, like Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews, George Benjamin, and Julian Anderson, many of whose pupils, however, do not have the same flair or imagination as their professors. The result has often been music composed by composers who are now in their late 20s and 30s that sounds like a watered down version of the music they are influenced by. In the noughties – again in London at least – there were a slew of pieces that were perfectly pleasant, perfectly technically competent – this is a generation of composers who knows how to rotate a hexachord - and perfectly inoffensive, perfectly incapable of expressing any definite position relative to today's society, to music history, to audiences. It's music means only what it is: a well-crafted sonic ornament that fulfils the terms of its commission. That's really a definition of redundancy.

In fact, the dominant mode of both these modes of contemporary composition – the anodyne British post, as in 'after', modernism, and the new-er complexity – share a common expressive flaw, whatever their superficial differences. A contemporary post-complexity merchant, no doubt imagines him- or her-self to be a different composer than one of those immaculate hexachord-rotating nice guys of new music, but I detect the same fundamental feeling in both.

That feeling is fear: a fear of the world. Luciano Berio once said of Morton Feldman that Feldman's continual use of quiet dynamics was like those medieval travellers who didn't want to explore off the map, those regions marked 'here be lions'. But Feldman is positively leonine in his fearlessness next to the terror that seems to be experienced and expressed by some of today's young composers. The fear for the card-carrying left-wing complexity ideologue is to ever appear to be part of any perceived mainstream, which means, in musical terms, refusing (so-called) conventional modes of expression – tonal chords, repeated rhythms, anything that smacks of the superficially 'pleasant' – in favour of a blasted musical landscape of supposed violence, rupture, and dislocation. The fear is that if any of these features should find their way into a piece of music, they would inevitably represent the enemies of capitalist conservatism, like finding Coke on sale in an organic café. For the nice-post-British-modernist, there is a similar fear of tonal reference, but a terror, too, of dislocation or rupture: the idea is to create an entirely self-referential world of compositional coherence such that the piece has a sustaining, organic life of its own: the compositional and pedagogical mantra here is 'I know where every note comes from'. There is also, given the contexts in which these kind of pieces are played, in which teachers are more often than not in the audience - if they don't actually comprise the whole audience - the fear of upsetting your mentors.

There are ironies upon ironies here. Firstly, there's the old-school romanticism of both positions, the attempt at continual fracturing or total coherence, both of which are extreme versions of 19th century aesthetics of originality, on one hand, and organicism on the other (those hoary old myths that a generation of so-called new musicologists have tried to debunk). And then there's the face that boxing yourself in as a composer to such a narrow range of musical territory means you can only end up sounding like everyone else who is trying to exist within those limits, and that you create a style that's driven by a necessarily conservative acceptance of the rules of the game. And that's where what starts out – or what started out, more than half a century ago – being something new or unprecedented or shocking becomes instead dated, anachronistic, clichéd, and, small-c conservative and - mannered.

5: institutions…

Poor composers. They're damned to prestigious but virtually assured anonymity if they succeed within the rules of the club – whichever particular compositional club they belong to – and they're damned to exclusion from the game if they try and do anything genuinely different and shocking for their respective style-police.

But it's not just the composers, obviously, who have to take responsibility for this situation. The institutions, too, have their part to play. Take the London Sinfonietta, for example. Set up right at the end on the 1960s, its function through the 70s and 80s was clear: to play the great chamber and ensemble repertoire of the 20th century that conventionally conceived line-ups like orchestras or string quartets couldn't – pieces like the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, the ensemble works of Stravinsky, scored for large-ish 1-to-a-part ensembles – and to be a blank canvas for composers to write for new combinations of instruments; to establish a new repertoire of music by the most important figures in new music. And they did it, too, playing and/or commissioning music by Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Xenakis, Berio, Ligeti, Cage, Lachenmann, Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Messiaen, Boulez, Steve Reich – and scores of others. That was a time when there was a pretty clear consensus on who the big names of the new music world were, and when there was a sense of mission and purpose about the Sinfonietta's existence. They were doing something that no-one else was – or at least, very few people in this country.

Times have changed now. If you look at the Sinfonietta's programme for the last couple of seasons, you get an impression of a wide-minded eclecticism, with projects involving electronic artists, education projects, young composers alongside events that fuse new styles of presentation – with visuals, at different times, in non-concert hall situations – that suggests, positively, that the Sinfonietta is itself now a delta of many streams, or negatively, that it's trying to be all things to all people and doesn't have a clear sense of purpose any more. It's the same with many new music ensembles founded around the same time, as well as events like the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: 'new' in their day, but what happens when they become the establishment themselves? Is it their job to reflect what's now a long history of 'new' music, to build up a performance practice for that repertoire, or to engage with contemporary creativity in a much broader way than they did when they were formed? The questions are not dissimilar to the ones that composers have to face: to persist with the idea that music composed 50 years ago or longer – Stockhausen, Cage, or Boulez, for example – still qualifies as 'contemporary music', or to reject those traditions for – well, something else.

A word on the BBC and Radio 3, as the nation's biggest commissioner and most regular promoter of today's composers: according to one interpretation, the focus of new music, through most of the year, on a weekend slot – the programme called Hear and Now on Saturday nights – is either a good thing because it means you can find new music when you want it, or a bad thing, because it ghettoises that 'difficult modern' stuff away from more popular slots like the breakfast or drivetime shows. One argument runs that Radio 3 ought to be more confident with the new music it commissions – it's an expensive business, after all, and surely worth celebrating after the outlay for a composer and, say, an orchestral performance – and there should be more new music across the schedule; to which the counter argument is: people don't like it much, let's keep it where it is.

6: real life…

Composers are indebted to institutions like the BBC and the Sinfonietta – and the Sound Festival! – for their survival. The simple economics of being a composer of new/serious/art/sound art music are pretty brutal, as many of you know. Without the support of either large grants – at least, relatively large and admittedly now dwindling grants – from the state, or large-scale institutional support, new music as we know it wouldn't exists in this country, or in many continental countries. Some of you may well be thinking this is a hard-nosed and gloomy enough talk already, in terms of my potential prognosis – hang on, though, I'm coming to that - but I have a still more hard-edged thought about funding and the state. One way of looking at it is there is just enough support to keep the project going – occasional commission for composers, enough money to keep some ensembles ticking over – to ensure that composers will never really a threat to the dominant modes of thinking in society: sequestered in the state-sponsored ghetto, they can be kept safely within the tent, and allowed to continue to write music that no-one really cares about, because they never have to try and really communicate with a wider audience for their livelihoods. I know that's too cynical a view, but it's a truism to say that keeping everyone just about the breadline is a good way of ensuring that the niche remains a niche.

But this state- or institutions-supported art form makes a mockery of ideologies of resistance. Resisting – well, what, exactly? Every composer is indebted, somewhere along the line, to the establishment, to systems of organised cultural power. And accepting their money as your lifeblood somewhat pollutes any notions of idealistic purity.

Universities have their part to play too, in giving jobs that allow composers to compose for themselves – and if their students and their communities are lucky, for them too. Things aren't as bad here as they are in America, where contemporary music is a ghettoised competition for tenure, and where there's no pretence to even try to make 'new music' appeal to a wider cross-section of the population than a coterie of students and professors – that's Milton Babbitt's dream come true, for those of you who have read his notorious article, 'who cares if you listen?' (even if the title wasn't his!) – which basically says that only an elite can understand this stuff, so only an elite will ever be able to access it, so it doesn't matter if nobody else hears it apart from your doctoral students and fellow professors.

None of which makes it exactly an attractive proposition, being a young composer. One thing is for sure: the old model of getting a high-profile commission from a leading orchestra or ensemble, getting a few good reviews, maybe even a recording, and then a publisher to look after your interests in perpetuity – makes no sense at all any more. Publishers are struggling with the transition from being bearers of the printed score to owners and negotiators of composers' rights and intellectual property, and the idea of achieving notoriety or even fame through a well-placed commission is well-high impossible any more. (One of the last, incidentally, was James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie when it was televised at the Proms in 1990). The whole idea of spending months or years working on a large-scale piece premiered to an audience which is really there for the rest of the programme anyway makes no sense economically or socially, especially since the piece – as in my putative example at the start of this talk – may never be performed again.

7: assessments/futures… doing it for themselves…

Ok. By this analysis, the institutions are unsupportive, the ideologies that composers are labouring under often counter-productive, the music unappreciated and unknown by the vast majority of the listening public, and you can't make your living at it. The prognosis isn't good. And yet – as I said a while ago: music is still goingon, even if the historical models – and the composers who are labouring under those historical models – are becoming more and more redundant.

The whole reason you're all here this weekend is for Sound's celebration of minimalism. And aside from the continued brilliance of the music – when the real histories of 20th century music come to be written, minimalism, understood as an umbrella across many different genres, or maybe an octopus with consequences in a huge range of musical culture, to juxtaposes some metaphors – will, I think, come to be viewed as the most influential innovation of the epoch. I'm not going to go into questions of musical value here, whether Steve Reich is better than Schoenberg or Stravinsky. My point is that the lessons to be learned from minimalism are as much about how the music happened as what it sounded like.

What I mean is that Steve Reich and Philip Glass didn't just make their own music, they created their own musical culture of performers, performing spaces, and audiences. They also, by the way, worked together in Glass's removal firm, Chelsea Light Moving, in 1967. Less lucrative than an Arts Council Grant, maybe, but a better work-out… Drumming, which we'll hear tonight, is a paradigmatic example of the organisational as well as musical genius of Reich's minimalism. This was the work, which evolved between 1970 and 71, which cemented Reich's group Steve Reich and Musicians, which still exists today, and, naturally, has been the fountainhead of Reich's performance practice for four decades. In this group – as in Philip Glass's ensembles as well - and incidentally, the ad-hoc group of composers and performers (including Reich and Pauline Oliveros) who first played Terry Riley's In C in 1968 – there's none of the compositorial angst that usually attends any first run-through of a piece, that nailbiting sense of will the players – the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, let's say – like the piece? What about the audience? The critics? By the early 70s in New York, Reich and Glass had already evolved their own, loyal audience of artists and avant-gardistas without relying on any of the pre-existing conventional spaces or situations for musical performance, making their concerts in lofts and galleries. In the best sense, this was a self-sufficient musical scene, one that sustained its performers, composers, and audiences through mutual interest, enthusiasm, and support.

It's the exact opposite of everything I've been talking about in the aspects of today's contemporary classical music I've looked at. It also happens to be the exact opposite in terms of its approach to the sound the music makes as well – but that's for another time. Suffice to say that Reich's minimalism is unafraid of pulse – obviously! - and as it developed later, of harmony and expressivity, too.

Unafraid: being fearless is I think the key for the future for younger composers, whatever field they're working in, from sound art to music for acoustic instruments. Being unafraid to look outside the usual sources of financial support – Arts Councils, Creative Scotlands, foundations, grants – there's so little money around anyway, it's often hardly worth the effort of filling out the form, being unafraid to upset their teachers with music that dares to refer to something else in the world apart from what's often taught as a hermetic history of musical modernism; being unafraid to make noises, beats, harmonies, or melodies that breach the ivory towers of high modernism and connect with musics and audiences outside of that tradition; being unafraid of communicating with different communities of listeners apart from those who are already signed up members of a pseudo-Marxist club of complexity; being unafraid of going it alone, of setting up their own ensembles, finding their own audiences, outside the institutions and the stylistic languages and mannerisms of contemporary music that have ossified around them.

And there are signs everywhere of musicians doing just that. In London, groups like the Camberwell Composers Collective have found new audiences in church crypts in South London – I mean they've attracted living people there, not just played to the denizens of the crypt – Gabriel Prokofiev's Nonclassical nights have spearheaded a wave of classical club nights that are really rather better than that alliteration suggests; in Manchester, Larry Goves' ensemble The House of Bedlam goes where his music wants to take it, Claudia Molitor's Soundwaves Festival in Brighton is an excitingly eclectic counterpart to established new music festivals, you heard Graham Fitkin and his band right here in Aberdeen on Thursday night; Warp records has created a stable of electronica acts with a large and loyal following for their records and their gigs; across the pond, Nico Muhly's musical world in New York takes in English contraputalists, Björk, Antony and the Johnsons, Philip Glass, and commissions for the Britten Sinfonia and English National Opera; John Zorn is one of the main figureheads of a resurgent downtown scene, then of course, there's a certain festival in Aberdeen!

My sense is that many young composers now realise that the game is up, that the conventional paths to fame and, er, fortune in contemporary classical culture just aren't worth the candle. Instead, they're better off on their own, not least because their music doesn't fit the line-ups of an orchestra, or even the 1 to a part ensembles of the Sinfonietta, or the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, or Liverpool's Ensemble 10:10, or Manchester's Psappha – a line-up and repertoire whose time has probably also come, has also become a living history more than something genuinely contemporary. Composers still need to make choices, of course; being open to the rest of the world does not guarantee the creation of great, or even good art in an of itself, and they will have to find their own limitations, draw their own lines in the shifting sands of musical culture. But composing without the fear of traducing the absurd unwritten laws of modernist composition will only be a good thing. Like Reich and Glass before them, today's composers have the chance to build their own communities of listeners and audiences – whether in the flesh or on-line – and make the music that matters to them for people who care about it – and actually enjoy it.

There are dangers here, of course. One of this year's Proms commissions got into hilariously hot water when Mark-Anthony Turnage thought that no-one would notice that his piece, Hammered Out, was a transcription of Beyoncé's hit, Single Ladies. Alas! Mark had mistaken the cool-quotient of the Proms audience – and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – most of whom (although none of the critics) heard what was happening immediately. That's the point: we're a more connected musical culture than any of the old ways of thinking about 'new' music suggest. Blimey – this a bit like this year's Labour Party conference – but 'new music' really is now a historical phenomenon. What happens next is up to us, up to you. I'm looking forward to it: no labels, no rules, and no fear. Thankyou.

Reproduced with kind permission of Tom Service