Your Music and the Age of Choice — by Dylan Mattingly
There is only one music, and that is the music that you are listening to.
But that music is not confined by your computer speakers, the stereo in your car, it is not limited to a studio recording—thousands of different moments weaved from isolation into some 202 sequential seconds that spill into the air—nor the sound of your fan and the gurgling heater, not even those soft strange vibrations that fill you like an electric current, from your own subwoofer to the pulsing seizing thuds of the incessant house music from the neighbors upstairs, filling you with distant fantastical and wonderfully incorrect dreams of neon and smoke, nor to the slight shaking of the snow-wiped blacktop from a truck breaking through a glass forest of almost-rain and streetlights, not even to the earth orbiting the sun at a vast and inaudibly low G.
Now, this is not to say that the song that just came up in your playlist (for me “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen) is in any way less important. Every moment exists as a piece of a longer music, complete with ecstasies and miseries, inexorably connected to all other moments of your life. Listening to music is not an isolated experience, it is an addition—I cannot listen to this song without remembering certain experiences, without thinking of certain people, without picturing white Himalayan skyscrapers and ethereally unlit rows of apple trees that have nothing to do with Leonard Cohen, but have everything to do with the connection between these 230 seconds of my life to the rest of it.
If all music then exists only now, if no music is ever separated from the moment in which it is witnessed, why then does it matter when the music that we listen to was written? On some level, it certainly doesn’t. But when we listen to something like the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, which is something that everybody has heard, inadvertently or not, at some point, it does not mean the same thing that it meant when it was written 198 years ago. Because aesthetically this piece is unequivocally more appealing to most of us than, for instance Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s harp concerto, we can assume that there is something intrinsic in the music that makes it more relevant to today’s world. But the one thing that we can know for certain is that the piece, in its initial conception and release into the world, was not describing the world that we live in. And so one of the elements that always exists in listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh is its age, and our distance from the world from which it comes.
What this means is that for a piece of music from centuries past to be able to connect on a personal level with the noises of wherever we’re sitting, with the multitude of thoughts that span even the shortest moment, with the relationships we have with other people, and with our most basic conceptualization of who we are, it has to be not only exceptional but exceptionally lucky. The world has moved in such a way in the last 198 years that there is a deeply visceral emotional experience which can be had while listening to the second movement of Beethoven 7 against a backdrop of, for instance, New York City, or as was depicted in the film The Fall, the early Hollywood age of heroes. And because there is always interest in the negative space between the world of the music and the world into which it is thrust, there is no limit to what music can be used to express something about the world in which we exist.
But if our desire is to express our own world, our own lives, to experience as best we can the lives of those around us, of those we love, those we hate, and to be as connected as much as possible to the moments that flow through us (and beyond that, to the worlds that we want to create, not those that result from the haphazard juxtaposition of the long-gone to the modern world, not just in music but in literature and all forms of art, even in the fabric of the vast universes that people choose to project around themselves), then it is to new music that we must turn our attention.
When I play music, I want to play the music that speaks for my world. I love Beethoven 7. But I have no interest in performing it. When I play music, I want to play the music of my life, unadulterated by betweens and froms. And I want to hear the music of now, I want to hear the music of that truck outside and I want to hear the music of the people I love, I want this whole massive singing universe at once and I want it forever and I want it now, but I don’t want it yesterday. The goal of Contemporaneous is to perform only the music that describes our world. This music is our universe.
So then people ask me, “why should I listen to Contemporaneous over pop music?” My response to such a question is always the same. You should listen to exactly the music that you want to—but don’t let that be decided for you. We have entered an age of unparalleled choice, and to ignore that choice is an inexcusable act of laziness. You have the ability to find exactly the music for your existence. Genre is an imposition, limiting this choice, and it is an anachronism. Contemporaneous does not claim to be “pushing the borders between genres.” We simply recognize the timely and natural death of such boundaries. The time when the sounds that defined you were predestined is over. The time to choose has just begun.
The great tragedy is to be given the infinite choice with a finite life. The goal is to create the music of connections, to fabricate a singular and instantaneous atlas of human emotion forever in flux, a music for our lacks and overflowings, of unspeakables and inexpressables. How then can we possibly choose what to play? Despite the incontrovertible vicissitude of every moment in my life, I can give you a list of the pieces of music that are closest to my every breath (and as a composer, my life is dedicated to perfecting a music of my existence, an absolute resonance with whatever I am (for only an unreachable goal can outlast me)), but I can only guess at what music exists for you. So what then do we choose to play?
Very simply, we play our music, the music of our lives and the lives of those we know. There is an inherent trust in human similarity to assume that you will enjoy it too, but I know you will. In Contemporaneous, we offer you our world, translated to the best of our abilities. For me, that means not only my own music, but it means John Adams’ “Dharma at Big Sur,” Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia,” “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan, “Different Trains” by Steve Reich (which you can hear performed by Contemporaneous this Spring!) to name a few. For my co-artistic director, David Bloom (clean cut and from Alabama, whose world must look pretty alien compared to mine) it means something completely different. Between the two of us, our universe has a vast range of expression. Contemporaneous seeks to present our own music of being, to fill the void between people, to play the music we want to hear. Classical music is over, as is “modern” music, “contemporary” music, and yes, even popular music. This is the age of your music. And if you don’t like it, write your own.