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The "Bubbles" experiment - What is contemporary music worth?

61946 Views 2164 Replies 70 Participants Last post by  Forster

I would like to introduce you to an exciting experiment that I discovered.

It's about the Dutch composer Alexander Comitas. He wanted to test whether the modern atonal art music, which is usually promoted nowadays, can be distinguished from hitting random keys on the piano.

For this purpose he "composed" a piece called "Bubbles" by letting his young children, who had no musical education, play random notes on the keyboard. In the end, the children only divided the notes among the instruments. However, the composer did not tell anyone how the piece was made.

And indeed: Alexander Comitas received a grant of 3000 € for this composition! The jury, which consisted of a composer, a musicologist and a conductor, found the piece to be of high quality and even better than the previous (mostly tonal) compositions by Comitas.

You can take a closer look at the story under the following links:

'Bubbles' and Beyond: An Ongoing Musical Saga (Aristos, March 2013)

And here the composition Bubbles:

What do you think about this? I find the experiment very exciting, as it confirms what I had been thinking for a long time: A lot of modern classical music can hardly be distinguished from random notes.
I have seriously studied the composition methods of modern composers like Boulez, but came to the conclusion: No matter how "structured" these compositions seem on paper, they are irrelevant to the listener, since these structures are simply not audible.

However, instead of criticizing these compositions constructively, advocates of atonal music are often amazed at the "complex" and "innovative" structures of the compositions - even if they do not exist, as the Bubbles experiment shows.

I think that such experiments should be performed more often so that it becomes clear that the avantgarde mentality is causing damage to modern classical music and hindering the development of new music that actually relates to the way humans perceive music.

What do you think?
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The bolded is mis-informed, sorry. The rule book is not Beethoven's and it is absurd to think that the functional constraints he worked with would still apply today, and absurd to hold todays composers to judgemental account with CPT. The rule book for composers today is culled from the last 100 years. You may not like it, but far from being random, todays music with its wider reach requires perhaps even more control than CPT in order to avoid randomness which is the enemy of the composers imposition of will onto music.
This I agree with. Since there isn't a rule book, people make their own rules – and how strictly they adhere to them varies. People often end up creating a world of rules for a single piece, and this also means it can take a lot of time and effort to create a piece. Because there aren't conventions for rules, creating something structurally coherent can be really quite hard, and I'd say most composers who I know are very, very aware of this.
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3 times in 10 years at the Proms, the last time being 5 years ago
I'm a little confused by this – there's been contemporary works at the Proms with far, far greater frequency than what you've just cited.

Looking at 2021:

30.7 – When Soft Voices Die (premiere) by Sir James MacMillan with Dalia Stasevska and BBCSO

2.8 – Cloudline (premiere) by Elizabeth Ogonek with Ryan Bancroft and BBCNOW

5.8 – The Exterminating Angel Symphony (London premiere) by Thomas Adès' with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and CBSO

13.8 – Spring's Shining Wake by Anthony Payne with Martin Brabbins and BBCSO

15.8 – Qhawe, As You Are, and Lerato by Abel Selaocoe with Clark Rundell and BBCNOW
15.8 – Bambara and Dounia Iafou by Simo Lagnawi (same concert)

19.8 – Many Are the Wonders by Ken Burton with the BBC Singers
19.8 – Birdchant (premiere) by Bernard Hughes (same concert)
19.8 – A New Flame (premiere) by Nico Muhly (same concert)
19.8 – Ave Verum Corpus Re-imagined by Roderick Williams (same concert)
19.8 – Aetherworld (premiere) by Shiva Feshareki (same concert)

23.8 – Several works by Ariel Ramírez with Sean Shibe and Adam Walker

27.8 – Where Icebergs Dance Away by Charlotte Bray with Sakari Oramo and BBCSO

31.8 – The Way to Castle Yonder by Oliver Knussen with Sir George Benjamin and Mahler Chamber Orchestra
31.8 – Concerto for Orchestra (premiere) by Sir George Benjamin (same concert)

5.9 – The Imagined Forest (premiere) by Grace-Evangeline Mason with Domingo Hindoyan and RLPO

7.9 – Subito con forza (UK premiere) by Unsuk Chin with Sir Mark Elder and Hallé

Source: BBC Proms

Note, too, that I'm mainly focusing on music written within the last 50 years. If I were to include everything written after 1900, the list would be much, much longer.
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And following from my previous comment, we see a similar number of premieres this year, in 2022. I'm not going to break down the list like I just did, but you can check for yourself here:
That also applies to the likelihood that I’m not the only one around here that sees the connection between music without melody and harmony and an inability to tell good music from bad.
I think this ties into Chat Noir's point of "comparing monkeys hitting typewriters with composers who make deliberate choices for reasons." There are composers who put an incredible amount of time and effort into making sure every single note is what they want it to be, and I think this can definitely be heard in their work. Using the terms "good" and "bad" creates problems because different people define these in different ways, and everyone's got their own stylistic preferences. However, I think that there is quite a lot of contemporary music where there is a very high degree of artistic merit, imagination, skill, and craft.

Also, different composers have different priorities. Some people will be incredibly meticulous about some elements of their music and use randomness to determine other parameters. Others will use randomness to generate material, and then fine-tune that to what they want it to be. There's so many approaches that it's quite difficult to generalize, imho.

Avant-garde music is atonal. Atonal music is not necessarily avant-garde.
The word "atonal" is a difficult one – by atonal, are you simply referring to pieces that don't conform to common practice tonality, or are you talking about something that deliberately tries to move away from the concept of pitch hierarchy? "Avant-garde" is also a difficult term for me – I've outlined this in more detail in another post, but there are so many stylistic directions one can choose from that picking one that is "forward-looking" doesn't really mean a whole lot, in my opinion.

Most contemporary classical music that I'm aware of does not use tonality in a strictly common-practice way. However, I think saying that it's atonal in the sense of deliberately moving away from pitch hierarchy, or as something that "lacks melody and harmony" is erroneous. Sure, there is music that focuses on timbre and gesture, and not so much on pitch (this kind of music can be fascinating if it's well-written), but there is a huge range of music where pitch is incredibly important. It's true that one does not typically get melody in the common practice sense, but there is also quite a lot of music that is lyrical.
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the anything goes ethos of postmodernism.
This is a really important point to bring up. Postmodernism is a specific philosophy that grew out as a reaction from modernism, and there are specific musical aesthetics that are very influenced by this movement (think Cage, Cardew, late Stockhausen, and others – with the big caveat that there can be various degrees of influence as well). I also think this is a valid artistic direction, and respect it for what it is, although my own aesthetic preferences are different, and I think the music I write is more influenced by modernism, particularly Scandinavian and French modernism (again, it's impossible to summarize all of the influences, but these are some of the most important ones; I also think everything does invariably influence everything around it, whether that's in a positive or negative way, i.e. using material that draws on something, or rejecting it).

I think it's detrimental to discount other aesthetic directions, however, and I feel this has been happening earlier in this thread, with people lumping together contemporary music as something that is "atonal" and "avant-garde".

While we can question the pretentiousness and inanity of examples like this, it doesn't serve as an argument to try and reverse history and reimpose the ideological restrictions of modernism, let alone something from before then. I think that on the balance of it, its good that the walls and boundaries where demolished, and in a post-industrial world it was probably inevitable that they would be.
Going on ideological restrictions from something before modernism, there's the added historical context that one must also take into account here. The common practice era was an extremely different time in history than the world we live in now, for a number of reasons. This is not to say one can't write music that uses common practice techniques now, but the way we approach this language in the 21st century will invariably be different from how people approached it in the 18th or 19th centuries.
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I think there's too much energy put into building walls and trying to put things into boxes on this forum.
That's fair. The way I see the evolution of music, especially 20th and 21st century music, because of the many aesthetic and stylistic directions (and this is an ongoing process) is an incredibly complicated web-like structure, where different people connect and interact with each other in various ways. I think it's fascinating to look at the historical context and how people interacted – this is often reflected in the music of the respective composers in a variety of ways.

Basically, a composer can do what he or she wants. I'm all for critical thinking about everything, including music. However, if that is part of some sort of agenda or to argue a winding back of the clock, then its no better than what's apparently being argued against. Again, better to try and just do what you want as an artist rather than put energy into what amounts to something like raising the Titanic. It's fruitless and absurd.
Also, fair enough. I agree with this sentiment, and I'm sorry if my earlier reply came off as me attempting to peddle an agenda or argue a winding back of the clock. I was just trying to say that if someone wants to write music in an older style, there's nothing stopping them, but this will inevitably be a different process than someone writing such music in, say, Mozart's time. There's so much that's happened in both world history at large, and in music history, between then and now, that writing this music will mean something different (at least in my view).
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Also your assumption about the avant-garde is a distortion of the reality. I have interviewed dozens of young composers, many that could be described as working in an avant-garde style, and none have expressed the idea that the music of previous eras is irrelevant. All have completed a traditional music conservatory training, often with doctorates, and many are professors themselves at world class institutions.
This is consistent with my experience as well. Most composers I know have conservatoire training, although there are some who come from other backgrounds as well. I can't think of a single one who would call the music of past eras irrelevant.
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What I find boring and odd is the fixation on the idea that somehow there is a cabal of 'atonalists' and 'avant-gardists' with a nefarious plan to sideline and silence the history of music and 'proper composers who ideally will sound something like Mozart/Schubert/Bruckner/Mahler. It's fake news.
This I agree with. Most contemporary composers who I know respect the composers of past generations such as Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, etc. They don't want to write music that sounds like these composers, but that doesn't mean they're not influenced by them, and they're definitely not trying to silence them.

If anything, I find the idea of "proper" composers today sounding like these past composers to be a very strange concept. As I've said, we live in a completely different time, and there's a lot of music out there that didn't exist in these earlier eras. Not to mention, the instruments are different, instrumental technique has developed since then, ways of listening to music have also evolved and changed, and so on.
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Talking about aesthetics is interesting because it encompasses so many things - a combination of art, history, philosophy, technology, ideology and so on. On this forum, what should be a rich and varied conversation inevitably ends up in people trying to convince eachother that they're right and the other side wrong. Its easier to discuss things like repertoire and recordings, which is why those areas are better served here.
It does seem to be this way, which is unfortunate. Talking about aesthetics without it being a question of right or wrong is such a fascinating topic. I find it particularly interesting to discuss post-1900 aesthetics, because of how rich and varied that landscape is. It's an incredibly complex web of influences, with people borrowing from each other, learning from one type of aesthetic and incorporating that into something completely different, and more. For instance, you can trace certain influences in how composers think about time from Ligeti to Messiaen, Scelsi, Murail, Grisey, and other French Spectral composers – but a parallel influence can also be found in composers like Feldman, Tenney, and Lucier, even if their approach is quite different in some other ways.

I agree with you, and is what keeps music alive from period to period. It is a futile desire to wish to stop musical styles from evolving/changing, or to limit the progression from style to style from previous periods. Composers follow their artistic goals with or without referencing prior styles, or referencing them as indirectly or overtly as makes sense to them.
Indeed, and this freedom is an incredible thing. It means composers can take things they like and recombine them in all sorts of imaginative and incredible ways. However, it does create a challenge for composers too: there isn't a set of rules to follow, such as the conventions of common practice tonality (this is not to say that composers can't use these parameters if they want to). Composers now often choose to create restrictions or their own sets of rules in order to help them find a sense of coherence in their work.
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Do I have to conclude that many modern composers ONLY want to compose horror music? If it's so, then they are limiting their expressivity. Where are the love themes, like the famous ones of Tchaikovsky? Where are the sad/melanchonic themes? Where is the happyness of Mozart? Do you want to say that our era deserves only horror?

If the horror would be alternated with the many other emotions I woldn't have anything to say. I simply wonder why is practically considered a disgrace to compose BEATIFUL classical music today.
No, modern composers don't only want to compose horror music, and this is incredibly reductive. And it's certainly not a disgrace to compose beautiful classical music today – there's plenty of music being composed today that is beautiful, at least in my view (and I know a lot of people agree with me on this). Yes, aesthetics are subjective, but again, there's a huge range in the various styles and aesthetics people are writing in today.

From personal experience, how people view modernism and various strains of contemporary music often does have quite a lot to do with how it's marketed. If it's framed as "this is a difficult piece of new music that you're probably not going to understand," then that's what audiences will take away from it. However, if a new piece isn't framed in that light, and audiences are offered some insight to certain aspects of the piece, i.e. it explores these kinds of textures and this type of harmony, I find they are often much more receptive.
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I'm honestly baffled at this idea of there being some sort of conspiracy to brainwash people into thinking that contemporary music is art. Modern artists (and this includes composers) aren't creating to try to "reduce everyone to a homogenous mass of laborers and slave workers" – they are creating art that they feel is meaningful, and contributing to a greater, ongoing artistic discussion. Again, this is such an incredibly reductive viewpoint and completely discounts both contemporary art and the huge range of art being created in this day and age.
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I find it ironic that one would reject ambiguity in a forum about classical music, when many of the most revered composers made music in abstract forms.

If anything, explicitly programmatic music is more associated with Modernism and Post-Modernism than classical forms, which tend to be more abstracted.
Indeed, there is a lot of programmatic music in post 1900 music. However, there is also lots of music that isn't programmatic, and there is a huge range of abstraction. I'd say there is an incredible range in the types of music that have been written since 1900 and in the types of music being written now.
Both contemporary music and avant-garde music are contentious terms. The term avant-garde has been continuously rehashed in several threads, but it is a difficult term to define at best, and different people seem to have different definitions for it. If I speak of contemporary music, I'm typically speaking about music written within the last few decades or so. However, I think putting post 1900 music into boxes is a somewhat impossible task – I've said this before, and I'll say it again, there's such a web of influences across this period that trying to separate things out ends up missing the context of the ongoing conversation.
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There's been an interesting discussion recently about avant-garde (link at bottom). My view is that in terms of the 1950's avant-garde, there's different aspects to it, although the main strands of serial, aleatoric and electronic music had some common points of departure (Webern was one of them).
I suppose I should clarify: labels can definitely be useful. And yes, there is a very particular movement (or set of movements) that could be classified as 1950s avant-garde. As you've said, there's a strong link to serialism: you see composers such as Boulez, Babbitt, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Nono... all of these composers are individual, and all have different characteristics, but they were around at the same time and did influence each other to a greater or lesser degree. The thing with labels is that having a discussion about them can be difficult if different people have different definitions for the same label, and then use that to try and make broad generalizations... again, labels can be useful for describing things or seeing the relationships between different types of (potentially related) music.

And yes, I am familiar with that discussion – I've posted a few replies there as well!

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to avoid politics, when certain factions will stop at nothing to censor, revise and corrupt some of our favorite works (especially when it comes to German Opera works).
Where do we have people here looking to censor or corrupt older works? All I have said (and I think the others arguing the case of contemporary music being a valid art form would agree) is that our current time period is different from the time periods of the past, and classical music has evolved alongside the evolution of our larger culture. This is not the same as invalidating the music of the past, and I enjoy a good deal of older music as well.
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Added to that, definitions which go back too long to have current application. What has passed for debate around here is often more related to aesthetic debates of the 1950's, or even the latter half of the 19th century (e.g. the role and nature of art as expressed by Wagner and Hanslick). In this context, some of the broad generalisations do make anything amounting to normal conversation almost impossible.
Somehow I missed this earlier. This is exactly the problem I have with the label "avant-garde" – people use it to generalize a wide range of different philosophies into the same category, claiming that these composers have an aversion to consonance, pulse, and melody. Yes, these composers are often thinking about these terms in a different sense than how common practice composers approached these terms, but I don't think they have an aversion to these things at all.

It is true that there was a time in the 1950s where composers were trying to deliberately distance themselves from earlier music to a degree, and there were a number of historical and social reasons for this (including WWII). I think the attitude has changed quite a lot now, however.
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Can you give an example of a modern piece that you think it's beatiful in the same way as Mozart's music?
I can give plenty of examples of contemporary and modernist-influenced music that I think is beautiful for a number of reasons. This music is all quite different from Mozart's – some of the reasons I think these pieces are beautiful are the same as why I enjoy my favorite works of Mozart, and other reasons are different. The easiest way for me to sum this up is that Mozart's music is very much music of its time, and these composers prefer to write in a different idiom.

Just to be clear, I'm not trying to say that other people have to like this music – I appreciate that these are my own tastes, and everyone has a right to their own aesthetic preferences. However, a good deal of thought and care has gone in to writing this music, and to discount it as something where harmony, pulse, and melody don't matter is short-sighted in my opinion. This is a dismissal I've seen earlier on this thread regarding modernist-influenced and contemporary work. I'm using this term (contemporary) because I think it's more suitable than terms like avant-garde, and I don't really have a better umbrella term to try and encompass a range of music with such broad stylistic margins.

Anyway, here is some music:

Ophelia's Last Dance

Kaija Saariaho - Fall - for harp and live electronics

Messiaen: Vingt Regards - X. Regard de l'Esprit de joie - Pierre-Laurent Aimard

O. Messiaen: Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (no. 15: Le Baiser de l'Enfant-Jésus) - Aimard

Alban Berg - Altenberg Lieder (Audio + Full Score)

Alban Berg - Lulu Suite [With score]

Olivier Messiaen - Poèmes pour Mi, orchestra (1937)

Luigi Dallapiccola - Piccola Musica Notturna

Henri Dutilleux - Métaboles (Audio + Full Score)

Henri Dutilleux - Cello Concerto (Tout un monde lointain...)

In Ictu Oculi - Three Meditations

I could keep going, but this is a good start at least. And I think you can see my aesthetic preferences for sparkly and precise things 😄
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I asked you to give examples of modern classical music that you think is beatiful and you gave me examples of pieces which have melodies. Yes, there's a bit of dissonance, but there is also a pleasant melody.
Doesn't this prove that @DaveM and I are right? Maybe you are missing the point: we never said that the modern classical music is necessarily bad in itself, but that music without melodies is not pleasant (in some cases is even "horror") and that this kind of music is a large part of modernism.
No, it doesn't mean that music without melody is unpleasant. You specifically asked me "Can you give an example of a modern piece that you think it's beautiful in the same way as Mozart's music?" which is a different question from "Can you give me an example of a modern piece that you enjoy?"
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Right, however my real question was: can the most revolutionary modern music be pleasant like Mozart's music? Not for you (and the niche audience that like the avant-garde music), but for the folks outside of this forum.
Again, this is more of a mentality from the 1950s avant-garde movement or the experimentalists from the latter half of the 20th century rather than now. Also, I think there is a bit of a false dichotomy here. It's not like there is only either fully melodic and consonant music, or fully dissonant and difficult music. Most music (including music being written now) falls somewhere in the middle of this on a spectrum. Some of the examples I provided have clearer melodic content than others – some are quite melodic indeed, others are less so and focus more on elements like texture and gesture (this can also be extremely compelling if done well).

As I have already said, I think trying to say whether or not this music is pleasant in the same way as Mozart's is a bit of an unfair question, as these types of music are completely different. Looking at other examples from across music history: Wagner is going to be beautiful for different reasons than Mozart, Monteverdi, Bach, Chopin, Debussy, or Purcell. And yes, I do think this type of music can speak to larger audiences. As with any music, some people will end up liking it, and others won't. I won't claim that everyone will enjoy it, but we all have our own aesthetic preferences, no?
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I think I already mentioned before that public funding isn't sourced from your pocket (or anyone's). That's a different discussion even if relevant. In any case the scenario you sketch is rather far-fetched, because as has been reiterated umpteen times now, the music you like hasn't gone away or been displaced or removed from concert programming. Indeed it is still the bulk of concert programming. New music generally makes its way into the mainstream (if at all) slowly and by a sort of selection. Whatever becomes accepted tends to remain and the rest falls by the wayside.

No-one is forcing you to listen to anything. You've been told this now about 100 times.
Seconding this. Also, on the note of funding: what funding does is that it makes classical (including, but certainly not limited to contemporary classical) music more accessible. Looking at prices for concerts in the city of the east coast US, where I've lived, and comparing that to Finland, where I have also lived: the concert tickets on average for said east-coast city are far, far greater than the ticket prices for comparable concerts in Finland. This goes for opera, orchestral, and chamber music concerts – and do keep in mind that I'm saying this on a level of statistics, not that every single concert in said east-coast US city will be more expensive than any single concert in Finland.

Public funding also tends to make music education much, much more accessible, and I do think that ties into this. From my personal experience, when speaking with non-musicians in Finland vs. non-musicians in the aforementioned east-coast city, non-musicians in Finland were far, far more likely to have an interest in (and sometimes surprisingly in-depth knowledge of) contemporary classical music.
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if your orchestra has public funding it's almost certainly being funded to just play orchestral repertoire like any other given orchestra.
Yes, and one thing that funding is going towards is making the price of ticket sales more reasonable! If anything, it means that concert-goes who want to see any kind of classical music concert have to pay less for a ticket than if all of the funding for the orchestra was coming from box office sales.
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