What is Contemporary Classical Music?
Words by Matt Laing
The ANAM Set Composer and ANAM Alumni (2013)
I’m not a huge fan of the term “contemporary classical music”, it makes it sound like we’re writing music now for the 18th century! While “art music” isn’t ideal either, I think it’s still a better reflection of its often-abstract nature, and a more inclusive description of how music has reflected and can reflect the context of its writing, particularly so as stylistic lines have become increasingly blurred.
For me, contemporary art music is whatever the people writing and performing it want it to be. Whether it’s a notated string quartet, a work for dance or an improvised immersive installation piece, the bolder the artists involved are in thinking about the possibilities for the writing, delivery and experience of an artwork, the more enriched we are as an art form. I don’t think it needs to be anything ‘rules wise’ so long as it’s innately interesting, says something and respects the performers and audience. I think demystifying our art form will be a key part of its future; we want our audiences to be open minded, and that demands an open mindedness on our part in how we present our work.
My time at ANAM as a viola player in 2012-13 was so critical to my development as a musician. Although when I left, I really had no idea what I wanted to do, I think reflecting on the variety of my experiences has really shaped my career to now. ANAM to me could best be described as intense; a lot of early mornings and late nights, and with a lot of competing pressures! ANAM’s greatest strength, and challenge, is that it’s an education and public performing institution; being asked to both rebuild aspects of your technique and perform week to week at such a high level presents the types of challenges that build you in a way nowhere else can. And it prepared me to overcome the sometimes-frantic nature of a career as a professional viola player.
I learnt so much from the teaching staff, my time playing in the Auric Quartet and collaborating with fellow students on projects, and undertakings like ANAM’s Quartetthaus really planted a seed for thinking about how versatile our art form can be as an experience by thinking outside (or in this case, inside) the box.
ANAM forged so many personal and professional relationships that continue now, and most of my compositional opportunities since leaving ANAM have been initiated by people I studied with. Indeed, the first works I ever had performed were by fellow ANAM students for ANAM student-led projects, well before I’d considered composition as a career path. When the ANAM Set project was proposed it felt like a natural fit because I’d done it before! The piece I’ve written for flautist Lily Bryant has been a great experience for me, even though lockdowns have meant we’ve only managed to find the one chance to meet in person to workshop it.
The ANAM Set more broadly is important, I think, on a number of levels. As an ANAM student you’re at an artistically critical juncture. Your immediate artistic possibilities are enormous with the resources of the academy and safety net of a large institution so you can really try some stuff out and learn whether it goes well or badly, and that free mindset naturally lends itself to a boldness for the works written as part of this project. That makes it a great opportunity for both parties – I suspect going forward individual collaborative relationships will be more important than ever, so the fact that every ANAM student and composer involved have the chance to connect like this can hopefully be the beginning of an ongoing professional relationship, and a mindset of possibility in the direct collaboration between musicians and composers. ANAM students today are tomorrow’s professionals, and our future artistic leaders. I hope this can be the first of many such collaborative large-scale projects!
Since departing ANAM, Matt has gone on to be the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2021 Young Composer in Residence, the recipient of a Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composer House Trust Residency, and Musica Viva’s 2021-2023 FutureMaker.