The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Culture and Education


Culture and Education

Contemporary Music―― Captivating Moments of Brilliance Felt Intuitively

Mai Ikehara
Assistant Professor at the Global Education Center, Waseda University

In the liberating, vast expanse sea of contemporary music, what composers seek, what they take pleasure in, and how they express what their findings

The prefixed adjective “contemporary,” as in “contemporary music” or “contemporary art,” suddenly takes a concept and embeds an image of it being somewhat difficult to understand. When I am asked what makes contemporary music interesting, I usually answer, “Because the people engaged in contemporary music are incredible! They are so innovative! Their emotions are so lively!”

In this article, I will explain in my own words about the fascination of contemporary music based on two pieces.

A chapter on contemporary music is introduced in books on Western music history to explain the collapse of tonality, a phenomenon which occurred in the early 20th century. Tonality is a musical system to arrange pitches or chords such as C minor or A flat major, and this framework of tonality sets either a cheerful or a gloomy impression of a particular score. Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin all used this as the foundation of their compositions. However, in the early 20th century, composers who wanted to mix more unconventional notes into their music started to appear.

This triggered the crash of ideas that had been considered as sublime in the previous arts and methods that had been used to express them. The composers did so as if to say, "Forget common sense! Break them rules!”

Thus, freedom was achieved by cutting off ties with the past. Contemporary music started from questioning paradigms of earlier music as composers explored for something new, experimented with how to enjoy it, and figured out how to express their discoveries.

Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 1––Interpreting "Sur la langue"

Let me introduce Erik Satie (1866–1925), who is said to be the most eccentric of all the contemporary music composers. He bought seven velvet suits and continued to wear them for seven years. He founded in his home a society of esoteric religion in which he was the sole member, served as the chief priest and published its bulletin. He fought a duel at a concert hall using an umbrella and was arrested by the police. There is an endless list of episodes related to him and his character. As expected, the music written by such a person is somewhat outlandish. For example, Vexations, a performance exceeding 20 hours by repeating a bizarre piece of music of one-minute or so 840 times, is probably one of his most prominent compositions in which his stoic ideas burst out violently. Incidentally, since I wanted to experience firsthand how abnormal this work was, I played it for only one hour and became strangely enraptured as I lost my balance.

In the real world, Satie is someone I would probably like to avoid, but once opening a page of his scores, I am drawn to him with tremendous force. The thing is, I am blown away by how extremely sensitive he is with words!

In the first place, titles of his work are absurd, for example, Véritables Préludes Flasques (pour un Chien) (Truly Flabby Preludes (For a Dog)) and Choses Vues à Droite et à Gauche (sans Lunettes) (Things Seen Right-to-Left (Without Glasses)). But what makes musicians excited more than anything else is the musical language written on the score. Musical language refers to performance-related notations such as forte (loudly) to indicate volume, allegro (fast) to designate the speed, and cantabile (singing) to direct the style of playing an instrument. Satie's scores are full of notations never seen before. One example is in Gnossienne No. 1, an earlier work of his.

The first of these notations in this piece was "Très luisant," meaning "very brightly." Well, this is easy to understand. The performance should be dazzling. The next one, "Questionnez (questioning)” is odd. The performer would then be tempted to ask themselves “What should I question, and to whom?" From this point onward, phrases such as "De bout du la pensée (at the end of thought)," "Postulez en vous-même (wonder about yourself)," and "Pas à pas (step by step)" which seem comprehensible yet incomprehensible, continue. And the most peculiar of all is "Sur la langue (on the tongue)" at the end of this work (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The last part of Satie's Gnossienne No. 1
©Eric Satie, Gnossiennes.

What comes to your mind when you hear “on the tongue?” Is it the feeling of cold ice cream gradually melting? Or is it the one of rolling a piece of candy inside your mouth? Either way, in the score, there is no mention of what the player should do. Obviously, there is no way you would play the piano with your tongue.

Suppose that you play this piece as if ice cream is melting. When you put a spoonful of ice cream in your mouth, it is still hard and cold. So it might be suitable to play this first phrase with hard sounds while keeping proper tempo. In order to express the ice cream melting gradually, you might deliberately slow down. The image of ice creaming losing its form could be represented by reducing volume. Finally, to illustrate the sudden warm temperature of the tongue after the ice cream has completely melted, it might be appropriate to strike keys gently with a light touch and let your hands leave the piano keys slowly in the end. Were you able to play this piece well?

If you find that interpreting his compositions this way is interesting, you are pretty much captivated by Satie already. Formerly, performance notations were messages from the composer, who wanted performers to perform as instructed. By contrast, Satie asks performers a riddle: Why don't you think about it by yourself?

John Cage's 4'33"––"Listening" and "Hearing"

When it comes to riddles, I have to give a mention to John Cage (1912-1992). He is a free spirit who surpasses Satie. He invented the prepared piano, a piano with nails and wood chips between the strings for altered sounds. He established a method called “chance operations,” where he composed a piece of music simply by linking together sounds selected through fortune-telling. One could not help but object to each of these methods.

The greatest challenge presented by such a sensational man is probably the piece entitled 4'33", in which no music is performed for four minutes and 33 seconds. To begin with, can this even be considered a piece of music? Since nothing is played, there are no pauses, but technically, it is divided into three movements. There is also a properly written score (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Cover of the Centennial Edition of the Score for Cage's 4'33"
© John Cage, 4'33", C.F. Peters Musikverlag.
* Incidentally, this centennial edition includes three scores for 4'33," which are written in three different ways, a clear indication that the composer had a difficult time thinking about how he should convey the purpose of his composition in the form of a score.

When this work premiered in 1952, the audience must have been perplexed. A pianist came out and sat in front of the piano but did not touch its keys for four minutes and 33 seconds––though the pianist opened and closed the fallboard to indicate the pause between movements. At first, the concert hall was quiet, but it was soon filled with murmur of the audience.

What was Cage’s message behind this piece? Let me quote what the composer said:

"You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."

Perhaps, Cage wanted to point out that the world is full of sounds––and that music consists of a wider range of sounds. We should not only listen to what we call music but also pay careful attention to what we hear unintendedly.

What happens when we shift from "hearing" to "listening?"

Well, let us experiment. Let us experience 4'33", right here, right now. Please join me. While we are at it, I recommend you to record it with your smartphone or some other device. This is to keep track of time as well.

– After four minutes and 33 seconds –

So, what happened?

Right now, it is midnight, and I am sitting in front of my computer in the laboratory. I hear the shrill buzz of cicadas somewhat close by (I hate cicadas). I can also hear the sound of the computer running. Although it is midnight, or rather, because it is midnight, various sounds, which usually go unnoticed, are heard in silence. However, I was able to sense these sounds because I strained my ears to hear them.

What did you hear? If you lived by railway tracks, you might have heard the clickety-clack of trains. If somebody had come by your room halfway through the performance, you might have noticed the knocking sound on your door. Or when you sat on the chair again, you might have heard the creaking of the chair. All the sounds that surround your life and all the noise that you make constitute the events occurred during the time frame of four minutes and 33 seconds.

Now, let us play back the sounds we just recorded.

– After four minutes and 33 seconds, again –

What did you hear this time? Did you hear different sounds from last time?

I started eating cookies while listening to the recorded audio, so I hear the munching of the cookies. Munching… Cicadas singing… Munching… Cicadas singing…singing… The munching noise of cookies as I eat them is mixed with the audio of cicadas from the smartphone recorded earlier. It sounds as if the cicadas are saying, “Give me a cookie, too.” This is a concerto played by cookies and cicadas.

Listening to the recorded four minutes and 33 seconds together with the present four minutes and 33 seconds means experiencing a double 4'33". Since I said, "Let's play the recording," you might have directed your attention to the audio from the smartphone only, but in fact, outside this context, many other sounds were being created as well.

Of course, there is no way of knowing whether Cage expected his audience to listen to 4'33" this way. Probably not, but he most likely would have appreciated this sort of sudden realization.

The one-time nature of music––sensing it through real experience

The work 4'33" composed by Cage prompts us to listen closely to sounds that might be lost in the past if careful attention is not paid as demonstrated above. This leads to the one-time nature of music, in other words, the importance of listening to music as a unique experience the moment it is played. Beyond music, Cage may have intended to provide us with an opportunity to prepare for once-in-a-lifetime events head on.

Not only Cage, but also Satie and all other composers of contemporary music are highly conscious of directing our attention to how we should face music and sound. It seems as if they want to tell us that unexpected, ordinary moments in daily life and events that would otherwise go unnoticed may in fact be the most fascinating and probably the more meaningful if we paid closer attention. Such realization becomes truly close at hand by actually sensing it through experience.

Contemporary music will never be a theoretical art. It is an art sparking with joy, inviting listeners to feel moments of its brilliance.

Mai Ikehara
Assistant Professor at the Global Education Center, Waseda University

After majoring in piano at the performance department of Toho Girls' Senior High School and the music department of Toho Gakuen College, she switched to the musicology course to study compositional theory, completing all the required courses at Toho Gakuen College's graduate school. She obtained a doctoral degree in musicology from Kunitachi College of Music. Currently, she is an assistant professor at the Global Education Center, Waseda University and a visiting researcher at Kunitachi College of Music Research Institute to study 20th-century American music. Her specialization is manuscript written by Igor Stravinsky, a 20th-century Russian composer, but she is interested in contemporary music in general. She plays the piano while giving lectures, making the most of her own experience in music performance. Her lectures are highly-regarded, and in the autumn of 2015, she received the Waseda University Teaching Award from the University President.