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Volkmar Klien
Contemporary Music and the Defence of the West
The text below is an abridged version produced for our website. You can download the original unabridged essay as a pdf here.

‘New Music,’ i.e. music rooted in the tradition of the European avant-garde of the 20th century, appears to have maneuvered itself into a rather awkward position. Once regarded as a radical force of innovation, reflection and expansion of long-established musical concepts, it now presents itself as a formation of defensive structures in close proximity to classical music schools and concert venues, while still claiming to represent the only genuinely ‘new’ item on the menu. How is it possible that music allegedly defined first and foremost by its ‘newness’ is performed almost exclusively on instruments and in concert halls from the 19th century?

All those who, willing to surrender to the grand happening, have ever experienced the worldly communion of a classical concert, are aware of the social importance of these events. Tickets for concerts by rock ’n’ roll legends may cost a fortune, but there is no other musical institution that provides a comparable opportunity for smartly dressed concertgoers to celebrate human beauty, therefore also their own beauty, together with other, equally smartly dressed enthusiasts in such an elegant setting. Classical music with all its institutions and insignia is indeed a pillar of society, and of the state, in Central European countries. And by getting sufficiently close to this pillar a contemporary composer, by employing just a little skill, may easily create the impression of also helping to bear the load.

As the self-styled only legitimate heir of the compositional heroes of bygone centuries, New Music also lays claim to their symbolic capital. Under the heading of state subsidies for the arts, this symbolic capital left by historical European art music, including its institutions such as symphony orchestras, concert halls and music academies, can be exchanged for a more tangible form of capital, namely cash. This is of essential importance to the protagonists of New Music, because no-one plays this music unless they are paid to do so. The fact that experts from the realm of institutionalized New Music are frequently appointed to the panels awarding these subsidies, does not fundamentally impair the effectiveness of the maneuver.

New Music is therefore tied up with the historical musical institutions of the West, but rather than actively founding or sponsoring the organizations that provide a venue for it, it profits from them. It does not lead a purely parasitic existence, but to some extent also forms a symbiotic relationship with these institutions by adding a measure of contemporary relevance to their reputation. Nevertheless, being first and foremost a beneficiary it has hardly any influence on the management of its (host) institutions, and therefore needs to adapt accordingly. As a result, New Music today is characterized not so much by any specific structural qualities but by a determination to produce backwards compatible music – in terms of media technology – that caters to the needs of existing structures like concert halls and opera houses, orchestras and sheet music publishers.

Therefore, to use a bold metaphor, New Music is a movement that defines itself as strictly revolutionary in nature but is forced, both by the articles of its faith and by the prevailing conditions in the music business, to recruit its revolutionaries exclusively from the Vienna Choir Boys and fight its battles in the Imperial Crypt. Nowadays there is no room for the performative experiments of the 1950s and 1960s. Which does not mean to say that these artistic endeavors have simply been abandoned, but they have moved elsewhere, now that New Music no longer has the capacity to allow for deviations.

The academy, formerly the New Musicians’ stereotype bogeyman, is now the backbone of the movement. The universities with their entrance examinations and associated competitions work as levelers and filters for upcoming young talents. Only the most well-behaved young composers are allowed to study for a degree and are therefore encouraged in their policy of compliance. Those who teach at the academies, on the other hand, are also members of panels awarding subsidies or jurors of competitions, are responsible for awarding commissions and hiring teaching assistants, and thus contribute their share to ensuring that New Music is gradually ceasing to be a music of revolutionaries and instead turning into a music of model pupils (often already in the third generation). If you imagine a young techno artist in the late 1980s having to audition with Mick Jagger, BB King or Udo Jürgens and ask for their approval you get some idea (despite the different contexts) of how absurdly these structures must affect the reality of (art) music. So, it is no coincidence that New Music, with its outmoded rites and gestures, seems somehow not of this time and that the actual New Music business is subject to the same constraints forcing it to merely affirm the status quo as a commercial radio format.

While all parties involved continuously struggle to adopt a pose of ‘looking to the future with fearless determination,’ it apparently goes without saying that such a way into the future is and must be limited to everyday music, social orders, media technologies and concert settings of times long past. In its ostensibly contemporary, strictly standardized models of resistance New Music therefore insists on implicit fundamental principles, such as the prohibition of rhythm and tonality or the necessity of scores and concert halls, while at the same time clinging to those remnants of eternity it believes to still be present in the classical music business today. With its rigid hierarchies and accurately defined scopes of possibilities New Music has a lot in common with a religious community, namely the determination to conduct its day-to-day business ‘in the imitation of,’ i.e. to have it governed by rules whose origin must not be questioned. Because even though these rules might limit your freedom, such a limitation also conveys an enhanced feeling of safety, and ‘in memory of’ it gives rise to a heart-warming sense of superiority. While the original motivations get lost in the mists surrounding the myth of the movement’s beginnings, we are left with a number of eroded, implicit rules, rules that are considered to be so essential that in spite of their impact they become invisible in practice. And so it appears that the actual and primary opus magnum of today’s New Music – whose outcrops protrude into this reality in the shape of orchestra and ensemble pieces – is what always used to be the noble duty of Europe’s religious communities when under siege: the defense of the West.


Volkmar Klien (1971) strives to extend traditional practices of composing, producing and listening far beyond the established settings of concert music. He works in various areas of the audible and occasionally inaudible arts navigating the manifold links in-between the different modes of human perception, the spheres of presentation and the roles these play in the communal generation of meaning. Volkmar Klien’s work has been awarded numerous prizes and awards, amongst these an Honorary Mention at the Prix Ars Electronica, the State Scholarship for Composition of the Republic of Austria, the Max Brand Prize for Electronic Music, the Scholarship of the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Prize for Composition. In his artistic work Volkmar Klien can draw on experience gained in academic research. Having received a PhD in electroacoustic composition from City University London he has held research positions at the Royal College of Arts in London, the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence (OFAI) and the University for Music and Performing Arts Vienna, where he currently holds the position of senior lecturer in electronic music and media.

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