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The Classical Music of the Twenty-First Century
by Don Robertson
© 2000 by Don Robertson

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My Own Realizations
During the last half of the 1980s, after my intense study of classical music styles from Gregorian chant through romanticism, I realized that one of the problems facing the art of classical music was that a false expectation of stylistic improvement always was present, just as it was also expected in the art of painting and the other arts. In any time continuum, as art evolved, it must also evolve stylistically by incorporating newly discovered elements, and that older styles were archaic and should be left behind. There was always an historical precedence for this: new discoveries always brought about a stylistic change in art, and this change created the next step in the evolution of that art form. Monteverdi and the composers of the early 17th Century introduced radical changes into the music of his time and thus the music evolved to the style of the baroque era that reached its zenith in the music of J.S. Bach.

Bach’s sons contributed to the beginnings of the style of the classical era and they greatly influenced both Haydn and Mozart who brought classical-era music to its zenith. Beethoven and Schubert altered the state of classical music with their new discoveries and were the first great masters of the romantic era that culminated in the late 19th Century with the music of Wagner. Schönberg introduced atonality and changed the course of classical music in the 20th Century, then along came Cage and the music of chaos. From chaos is born the cycle of music again, but this time we have a full cycle of music behind us, plus the ability to learn of the traditions of music in other parts of the world, including the great countries of India and China with their highly developed classical music traditions that we have not had the ability or the desire to explore before.

After realizing that there was always an expectation for a stylistic improvement to further art music along and that older styles were considered archaic for no concrete reason, I realized that during the 1980s, this ‘improvement’ had become a style known as minimalism.*

I believe that it is time to abandon this concept of stylistic improvement as the criteria for which a piece of music is accepted or not. It is this false sense of improvement that continually gives birth to avant guard and other superficial and degenerate artistic movements that imply a rejection of the past. It is fine to make new artistic discoveries, as we have seen in the past, but what is important to realize is that at this time in history, the beginning of the 21st Century, we have taken art through an entire cycle, and now instead of looking to style for the answer to what is acceptable in music, we need to judge art by different criteria. We have become slaves to style! We have to dress according to the most current style, our homes and our furniture, they must be chic, and we are victims of trends in eating, in smoking, trends in art, trends in music. We are and always have been a society of sheep following blindly some preconceived notion of what has value and what does not. Awaking to our own inner potential and the realities of the universe that we live in is critical. 

This realization completely freed me from the boundaries of what I now considered a false evolution of art music. I had brought an end to atonality in my music by discovering the composition of music using duochords, the root of negative music. This was the same end to which I felt the negative classical music of the 20th century was unconsciously evolving. With my new freedom, it was not necessary to embrace yet another ‘improvement.’ The whole concept of artistic evolution through creating a new style and abandoning previous styles, I now realized was contrived and not necessarily real. Evolution in music did not represent a step-by-step ‘improvement’ in style, but instead dealt more with the evolution of man and our understanding of ourselves, our environment, each other, and the true meaning of art itself.

Thus freed, I realized that as a classical musician, I was able to write that which best represented the state of my soul and my feelings using any of the techniques that I wished to use: be they new, or of past ages in classical music, techniques that I had learned in my studies of non-western classical music, or even from what I had learned in jazz, rock and roll, or in blues. In fact, this is what many classical composers were already experimenting with during the first half of the 20th century, before the total embracing of atonality and serialism…composers such as Stravinsky (neo-classicism), Bartok (folk music), Ives (marching bands), Messian (bird song, Indian scales), and Milhaud (Jazz)

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* Minimalism was a term coined to describe a style of music that evolved out of a composition made by Terry Riley in the late 1960s called "In C." Terry’s music had significance at the time because he was a classical composer that had rejected atonality. The stylistic features of Terry’s work was imitated by others and a new style of music, later termed minimalism, was born. Composers who fit into the minimalist category are Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams.

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