Classical music became engrossed with nihilism in the early 20th century, but recent developments point to a grand future.

Early in the 20th century, music under the “classical” umbrella began to show signs of serious transformation. Historical and cultural traditions began to merge, producing works that defied common tropes such as an identifiable national sound and identifiable emotional content. Strangely enough, composers began displaying “modern” and “postmodern” concepts by unraveling how music was written, performed, and listened to.

In many ways, this age of transition culminated with the debut of John Cage’s “4’33” in 1952. This composition consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, and received much critical acclaim. This landmark performance ushered in a new definition of music which, aided by technological development, successfully gave voice to the growing postmodern movement.

An age of deconstruction followed. Composers like George Crumb, Steve Reich, and Sofia Gubaidulina began releasing music that was shockingly raw, innovative, and avant-guard. Compositions like “It’s Gonna Rain” by Steve Reich in 1965, which consists solely of a looped recording of a pastor saying “It’s Gonna Rain,” seem to spit in the face of accepted traditions. Avant Guard music from this era eroded many preconceptions society had about classical music; it no longer existed to spark emotion, it no longer desired inherent meaning, it was no longer a privileged art form. Composers of the late 20th century worked to make classical music a raw and subjective minefield of ideas, and in many ways, they succeeded. Entering the 21st century, classical music was losing popularity, funding, and public regard. While the music composed by these great minds will forever be masterpieces of musical expression, the weight of postmodern deconstruction seemed to crush the musical passion of many.

The response of modern music

Most avenues of musical expression have responded to this movement. Many rock and roll, pop, country, and independent artists have tried to restore a “modern” sense of purpose to their music by focusing on love, power, and emotions again. These forms of musical expression have looked to individual sentimentality for significance. In some regards, they have abandoned postmodernism and returned to modernism as a comfortable nesting ground for ideas and art.

Classical music, on the other hand, seems to be digging further into unknown territory. Like a tenacious archeologist, contemporary classical music has continued, without public support, in the search for rich discovery.

For the sake of this argument, let us look at the music of Philip Glass.

The endless search for meaning

Philip Glass, born in 1937, has developed a signature style of aggressive repetition. His music will typically declare a unique four-bar phrase and launch into minutes of repetition containing only subtle changes. This raw, unapologetic minimalism formed his career in 1976 with the debut of “Einstein on the Beach,” a five-hour opera with no narrative – and no intermission.

When first exposed to his work, critics from around the world were appalled. An opera consisting of unrealistic repetition could not, to them, be the future of classical music. Public opinion, however, was much more positive. “Einstein on the Beach” was a smashing commercial success and sold out every performance in the Metropolitan Opera House of New York City.

Musicologists and music historians look at the original tour as a perplexing time of disagreement between critical acclaim and public opinion. The repetitive music of the opera was appealing to the masses and quickly strengthened Glass’s growing fanbase of new-music enthusiasts. After years of popularity, it became clear that the music of Philip Glass was giving something new to the classical world. Glass had found an original source of musical interest that brought enthusiasm to the world of classical music without sacrificing the musical developments made during the postmodern movement. In many ways, the music of Philip Glass highlights the pleasure humans can find in this endless search for meaning.

Classical music in the 21st century

Following the success of “Einstein on the Beach” and other contemporary works, classical composers have begun experimenting for ways to use this newfound meaning. Whether it be by repetition, like Philip Glass, or by using only a few meticulous notes, like Arvo Pärt, contemporary composers are combining sounds to communicate a sincere quest for meaning. Unlike the modernists, this meaning is not easy to find, nor is it objective. Instead, it is a profoundly human quest for meaning beyond emotion and sentimentality.

Reaching out through the postmodern lens for a world of real significance has resulted in some of the most interesting musical expressions of human history. Empathy and humanism resound as composers recognize each listener as a subjective human being who approaches music from a different worldview. The subject matter of opera and song has transitioned from emotional concepts to restorative narratives about post-colonisation, epistemology, and even major societal issues such as sex trafficking: as covered in Du Yun’s “Angels Bone” in 2016.I

Few works illustrate this trend better than “On Behalf of Nature,” released by Meredith Monk in 2016. This synthesis of contemporary musical form and tradition is a wordless plea for ecological awareness. The music itself continues to push the boundary of classical music, but it all exists to communicate a simple appeal for empathetic actions by the human race.

Because of the resiliency of composers like Philip Glass in the 20th century, classical music now has a position of awareness and activism. Modern classical music does not exist for short bursts of heightened emotion or impressive performances; instead, classical music lives to reflect humanity’s continual search for how things ought to be. Modern classical music reflects our deepest desires and concerns by giving voice to the absurd and extreme – because human beings have proven to be absurd and outrageous. Contemporary classical music shows us how a postmodern awareness of the world can strengthen the purpose of our lives.