New Sounds: Classical Music in the 21st Century

Instructor: Nathan Shields
This is an online course.

What is New Music? The diversity of “contemporary classical music”—to cite a perhaps oxymoronic designation—is evident in the very use of the moniker “new.” In one sense, the label is almost as old as music itself, seized on by the many movements that defined themselves in terms of their contemporaneity. But to past movements like modernism, “new music” was a battle cry, representing a positive aesthetic program, a style, an ideology—the music of the future, as against that of the outmoded past. Now, in the 21st century, it is commonly thought to signify the opposite, a musical postmodernity defined by the lack of any dominant style or agreed-upon canon of taste. We call it new because we can’t say what else unites it. How, then, should “new music” be understood today?

This course is at once a survey of the new classical music of the 21st century, and an attempt to discern the deeper unities, both artistic and social, beneath its bewilderingly diverse surfaces. Through an examination of the major compositions and movements of the past two decades, we will explore the kaleidoscopic landscape of contemporary music both from the inside, documenting its stylistic developments and artistic triumphs, and from the outside, examining the ways in which it reflects the deeper cultural, political, and economic transformations through which we are living. We will listen to works by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, Laurie Anderson, Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, Kaija Saariaho, John Zorn, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, and others, considering their relation to the divergent tendencies and tensions shaping the contemporary music world—from the influence of technology and popular music, to its often contentious relationship with the classical-music establishment, to its confrontation with the legacy of modernism. Through readings by Fredric Jameson, Jacques Attali, Carolyn Abbate, Simon Reynolds, Lydia Goehr, Alex Ross, Marianna Ritchey, and William Robin, we will place this world in the context of the institutions and ideologies that have formed it, from the Romantic orchestra to the neoliberal academy. And finally, we will attempt to synthesize these diverse strands of art and commentary into something like a musical history of the present, one that illuminates the ways in which contemporary music reflects—and perhaps also addresses—our own situation.

“New Sounds: Classical Music in the 21st Century” is being held in partnership with WNYC’s New Sounds, a “daily showcase of weird and wonderful music from artists, composers and traditional musicians — all gleefully oblivious of their genres.” Listen to new and archived episodes here.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
July 20 — August 10, 2020
4 weeks


Registration Open

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