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Faculty of Music


Dr Charles Wilson

University of Cardiff

Immer neu? Negotiating the 'Contemporary' in Contemporary Classical Music

Discussions of the music of our own time often focus on the way in which it is moving (or else not moving) into the future, whether as postmodernism, retromodernism, hypermodernism, or no modernism at all.  My interest here is instead with how that notion of the ‘music of our own time’ stretches back into the past. I shall be dealing not with modernism, the modern or even the new, but merely with the ‘contemporary’: that term (or, for some, rather debased non-term) often thought to speak simply of ‘currentness’ in a manner shorn of value judgements and emptied of aesthetic contents, a purely if ambiguously temporal indicator.  The ‘contemporary’ finds itself called upon to cover an increasingly broad chronological swathe of music, often stretching back to 1960, 1950 or even further back.  The ‘long tail’ of the contemporary keeps getting longer, and no one seems to know where or how to cut it off.

But this is not just a problem of periodization. My aim is therefore not to prescribe, delimit or somehow ‘theorize’ the contemporary, as has been attempted in recent work by such art theorists as Terry Smith and Peter Osborne, but rather to understand what the omnipresent category of the contemporary does to our understanding of the recent past.  Edmund Husserl’s famous description of a musical sound focuses the listener on a ‘now’ moment, the overlapping retentions of which stretch back to the initial moment of the sound’s onset.  Only when the sound ceases do those accumulated moments pass from the domain of retention to that of recollection.  On a historiographical level, the contemporary, as a present-focused category, appears to absorb its past in the form of an extended present, its ‘long tail’ produced by the constant accumulation of past ‘nows’.  This ‘past’ of the contemporary is therefore not yet accessible as past, in terms of history or canon, but only as the faded retentions of an all-absorbing present. This raises some interesting questions.  Does our privileging of the contemporary represent some kind of overhang of the metaphysics of presence, creating an automatic association of presentness with immediacy?  And might our conception of the contemporary be usefully reconfigured, perhaps (following the historian Peter Fritzsche) as an empathetic as much as a chronological category, an indicator of ‘mutually recognizable’ – if not necessarily common, shared or similar – experience.

Charles Wilson was senior subject editor for twentieth-century composers at the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited the Cambridge University Press Journal Twentieth-Century Music (2009–12) and is lecturer in music at Cardiff University.c


Wednesday, 19 February, 2014 - 17:00 to 18:00
Event location: 
5.00pm, Recital Room, Faculty of Music