Sunday, August 14, 2005

New music in Germany, nowadays

Since returning to Frankfurt after five years in Hungary, I've received a number of emails asking about the state of new music in Germany. I've only been back a month, so this is not a thoroughly researched report, nor is it an opinion that will likely survive without substantial amendments, but I can still manage a strong impression: All of the institutions that have traditionally -- and in institutional-bureaucratic fashion -- supported the cultivation, presentation, and preservation of making new art music are either retreating from these roles, are not meeting new challenges, or are abandoning new music altogether.

The pleasant entente between music for "entertainment" and "serious" music at GEMA has fallen, and the "entertainers" are firmly in control. While staking a strong claim to represent the rights of creative artists in new forms of electronic transmission, GEMA has yet to produce a convincing plan for realizing those claims. The new music committment of the German Music Council -- following a major financial scandal -- has now been reassessed, partially in favor of popular genres. When not eliminated, new music has been further marginalized in concert and radio programs. Private "classical" stations, offering popular classics and movie music have entered the market, with noticeable effects on the ratings and programming of the public stations. Radio station studio recordings have priced themselves out to minimal output, and electronic music studios in the stations are probably a thing of the past. Major festivals have only tenuous support. Music publishing has become a very different kind of business, to the disadvantage of new music composers. Only two or three of the traditional publishers can be said to have a serious on-going interest in young composers (and one of them continues to be a specialist in Eastern European imports). Reviews of concerts and recordings in nationally-distributed papers are no longer simply to be expected as a matter of course. The specialized new music press is dominated by necrologues and reports on music-making by the usual suspects of generations past and all as packaged in the familiar institutions. For many composers and performers of new music, the times are tough, and tough in immediate material terms. (One might even say that things are approaching the American state of affairs, but Germany has never had the number of academic posts for composers that the States continues to have!)

That said, I believe that it is premature to say so long to all of that. There is tremendous inertia in the system and much activity will continue as before. But, more vitally, in the ruins of the old institutions may well be the foundations for much more music-making, in greater quantity and diversity, and without the authoritative administrative and editorial figures of the past. There may even prove to be routes out of the music-content inertia that has widely accompanied the institutionalization of new music. It is really possible that more people are or will be hearing and making new music than in the past, but it will no longer be selected for and spoon-fed to them (with generous doses of imitation-Adorno commentary), and the old familar associations among pieces of the repertoire will give way to surprising, rhyzomatic, even anarchic connections. Increasingly, composers are publishing their own work, and the emergence of a cottage industry including Stockhausen on one hand and Thürmchen Verlag or Material Press on the other, is healthy. The internet steadily provides better means of distributing scores and sounds. If anything is clear to me in the emerging system of new music, it is that there will be more niche locations for a wider range of composers, but probably less room for the sorts of careers that "stars" had in past generations. I don't know if it will eventually add up enough to allow a large number of composers to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed, but on balance, the possibility of an end to musical inertia makes the risk appear worthwhile.

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