Contemporary music must, I feel, be segregated into two schools of composition, (traditionally) tonal and atonal.
While not wanting to sound like a dreadful traditionalist or stick-in-the-mud I feel that modern atonal music has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Like the Punk or Rock & Roll movements, contemporary music seems to feel that it needs to be different to its parents, so goes out of its way to be contrary. Atonal compositions like those of Brian Ferneyhough are listenable only as a demonstration of technique. The concept of listening for pleasure or enlightenment has been sidestepped so we must ask ourselves, is this still what we traditionally call music? As I mentioned in the piece on “Bye Bye Butterfly” in Exploring Genres we might need to recategorise these “new” forms under a heading of Sound Art.
To a certain degree, a creative discipline must conform to a set of principles to still be allowed to call itself the art form, and contemporary atonal music is failing to comply.
Modern tonal music is, however managing to remain pertinent and challenging, fulfilling to both the listener and the composer. Works by musicians such as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Howard Skempton manage to remain accessible without brashly disregarding their musical heritage.
What we have come to call Classical or Western Art music has been composed and played in roughly this form for the last five hundred years and I can fully understand the desire or need for composers to break away from a perceived convention. I can also see how one might feel coming after the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Britten that all of the good tunes have been written and sticking to the same rules would merely be a rehash. For me, this would seem defeatist. A generation of guitarists didn’t put away their instruments after hearing Randy Rhoads; they took him as an inspiration and forged new music in his wake.