New Forms for New Music September 4, 1978

Whatever happened to the symphony? the tone poem? the song cycle? the oratorio? the cantata? the sonata? the prelude? the rondo? One might occasionally run across a composer who still turns back to one of them, but by and large these forms are dead. They were supposed to die. We killed them and we were glad we did. As music made its brash way through the 20th century, we decided we didn’t need standard forms anymore. We were going to be emancipated from all of that. The 20th century, or at least the second half of the 20th century, was to be wide open. Composers could still write string quartets, concertos, operas, and sets of variations occasionally, since those forms were not quite worn out yet, but there was really no need for any of it. The new music could now break all the rules, make up its own forms, and do whatever it wanted.

It was a nice idea, but wasn’t very realistic. Composers, like other groups of human beings, always seem to fall into standardized procedures of some sort. Of course, they don’t know they are falling into standardized procedures. Artists never do. For example, it was not until composers had been writing sonatas for a century or so that anyone ever completely defined ‘sonata form.’ Today’s music also fits into basic forms, and eventually someone will be able to define them all, and the new forms will probably turn out to be at least as rigid as any of the old ones. It is premature to lay down any hard and fast rules, but when I sat down to try to make a list of today’s standard forms, I was surprised to discover that I could already delineate six of them fairly specifically.

The post-Webern form: Post-Webern pieces are generally scored for ensembles of diverse instruments, and last from six to 20 minutes. As in the works of Anton von Webern, from which the form was derived, the music involves careful manipulation of intervals, usually with the help of a 12-tone row. The music must be intricate and atonal, with new variations appearing constantly, and little or no repetition. Major chords, strong rhythmic pulses, and lyrical melodies must be carefully camouflaged, if they occur at all. This is probably the most widely used of all 20th-century musical forms, and it completely dominated music series, especially in America, throughout the ’60s. It has declined gradually in popularity in the ’70s.

The multi-media form: This spectacular contemporary form always involves projections and electronic equipment, as well as instrumentalists, and usually dancers as well. As much of the activity as possible must be presented simultaneously. Normally such performances call for a large cast and take place in gymnasiums, ballrooms, or other open spaces. Usually a sociopolitical message is conveyed. Multi-media pieces were most frequent and most spectacular during the late ’60s, though they are still encountered occasionally in less frenetic variations.

The performer-and-tape form: This form generally calls for one to six performers and lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. The tape is prepared in an electronic music studio, and the main concern is to set up a dialogue between humans and machines, usually with dramatic tension between the two. Both must have more or less equal time. In many early examples the electronic sounds and the instrumental ones were sharply contrasted, but as electronic equipment became more sophisticated, the tapes began to blend with the instruments and sometimes imitate them. The form began almost simultaneously with the advent of purely electronic pieces, but it soon proved to be far preferable for concert-hall presentations. The genre has never been particularly popular, but it has held remarkably steady, with new performer-and-tape pieces continuing to crop up every season.

The hypnotic form: Hypnotic pieces may be written for almost any instrumental ensemble, but they must always be rather long, extremely persistent, and highly repetitious. The tempo must be rather fast and must remain exactly the same throughout. The main concern is to lull the listener into a sequence of melodic or rhythmic patterns that shift very gradually as the music progresses. The form sprang up rather suddenly in America in the late ’60s, when Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ became widely known, and several composers launched successful careers writing hypnotic pieces. Hypnotic pieces in this strict form are not written so often today, although less well-defined types of repetitive or minimal music crop up constantly.

The sound poem: This form involves making music by manipulating words. In most cases speech sounds are recorded, altered, mixed, collaged, and otherwise made into prerecorded tapes. In other instances sound poems may be performed live. The most important requirement is that the piece be a genuine sound expression, and not merely a translation of words that could be conveyed effectively on the printed page. Many early precedents can be found, such as the ‘Ursonata’ of Kurt Schwitters, although the form was not explored with any regularity until the late ’60s and early ’70s, when a number of poets became more interested in public performance than in publication, and a number of musicians became interested in working with speech sounds. Sound poetry still accounts for only a tiny percentage of the new music launched every year, but the genre seems to be gradually growing in popularity, particularly in California.

The performance-art form: The main requirement in this form is that composer-artists perform the pieces themselves. The works may involve instruments, sound effects, talking, singing, theatrical devices, or all of these things, but they must be presented by the artist, with or without assistants, and must be highly individualistic. The content is usually autobiographical, conceptual, or comic, and the performance often utilizes highly developed vocal skills, or other individual performing skills, that only the particular artist can execute. Works in this form must not be addressed specifically to a musical audience, however, since most of the performance outlets for this genre are in museums and galleries. Little songs, dances, or jokes, which would be considered frivolous in most other art forms, are often acceptable in performance art. The genre evolved in the early ’70s and now flourishes particularly around New York.

Of course, the genres I am calling today’s ‘forms’ may not seem parallel to the ‘forms’ of the 19th century. But that is only natural, since the music itself is so different. The rules that defined 19-th century forms pertained largely to the relationships between themes and the ways in which a composition was to be divided into sections. Now the concerns are different, and the rules are about other things. Of course, many contemporary works turn out to be hybrids, just as many 19th-century works turned out to be crosses between symphonies and tone poems or between sonatas and rondos. And occasionally someone like Eric Satie comes up with something that defies all of the categories. But these are only exceptions to the networks of rules that determine the vast majority of music. Ultimately every age is left with a rather small collection of generally accepted procedures.