What is Contemporary Music?

By Kari Juusela '77
Kari Juusela is the dean of Berklee’s Professional Writing Division. He is a multi-instrumentalist and an active composer whose music has been performed and recorded by artists in the United States and Europe.
Kari Juusela is the dean of Berklee’s Professional Writing Division. He is a multi-instrumentalist and an active composer whose music has been performed and recorded by artists in the United States and Europe.
Phil Farnsworth

Perhaps the best perk of being a 21st-century musician is the opportunity to travel the globe, hang and play with the local musicians, hear new music, experience a variety of cultures, and see and hear the world from different vantage points.

In May my musical travels included an exhilarating trip to Moscow’s P.I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory to attend orchestra performances of works composed by a Berklee senior and three Berklee faculty members. The 30-hour trip to Moscow—which had stretched considerably because of the Icelandic ash cloud, a missed connection, and an unexpected overnight in Zurich—gave me more than ample time to reflect on a question that has buzzed around Berklee during our intensive three-year curriculum review: “As we strive to be the world’s leading college of contemporary music, what is our definition of contemporary music?”

Because Berklee was founded in 1945 on the revolutionary principle that music could be taught through contemporary music (e.g., the music of the day), this has become an important question. The American Heritage Dictionary defines contemporary as “1. Belonging to the same period of time. 2. Of about the same age. 3. Current; modern.” Using this definition as a guide, the question became, “What is the music of today?”

Music of the Day

In January of 1973,when I began my student career at Berklee, the college offered the only accredited college curriculum focused on performance and composition of nonclassical music. In 1973 the “music of the day” for me was rock and jazz with a dash of contemporary classical music for spice. It meant pretty much the same thing to Berklee faculty members, who were predominantly jazz musicians, with a few classical folks and some young rockers thrown into the mix. For that era, I was a fairly typical Berklee student. I was long-haired, middle-class, white, male, a performer in local bands, a participant in my high-school music programs, interested in jazz and rock, and thirsty for a different experience from what a traditional music college could offer.

My parents were classical musicians, and my earliest formal experiences were traditional studies on piano, violin, and voice, along with instruction in composition and theory. My mother sang for the Washington National Opera, and I was exposed to powerful contemporary classical operas by Igor Stravinsky, Alberto Ginastera, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, and others. My somewhat-progressive mother studied with Todd Duncan (the first Porgy of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess), and my dad could play most of the standards of the Great American Songbook. But the music that floated my boat was by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Yes, Traffic, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Edgar Winter, Weather Report, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, and other great musicians who wrote and performed their own music.

Through my traditional background, I learned violin, cello, and piano, but my teenage instruments of choice were guitar and bass, electric instruments powered by 200-plus-watt amplifiers. I had great respect and love for classical composers living and dead, but the grooves of Davis’s Bitches Brew; the mesmerizing irregular meters of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra; and the elegant songs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison were my formative compositional models. Understandably, once I arrived at Berklee, bright new facets of contemporary music were revealed to me by great teachers, including John LaPorta, Jerry Kacinskas, Rob Rose, Steve Swallow, Mike Gibbs, Gary Burton, and others. Soon my musical vocabulary, knowledge, and tastes had greatly expanded. Back then what kept me happy at Berklee was the wonderful and powerful combination of learning the rich heritage of Great American Songbook, jazz, and classical music, and combining those ideas with rock-based, improvised music that was the primary music of the day. During the 1970s, some Berklee faculty members were die-hard jazzers and considered rock a lower form of music, so it was not always a comfortable fit. But like sand in an oyster, the stylistic friction created an awesome blend of new music.

My recent reminiscing in airports led me to ponder questions such as, “If I were entering Berklee in 2010, who would my musical heroes be, and which instruments and music would they play? Where might I come from and what musical culture would have influenced me? In 2010, what would I consider the music of the day to be?” And finally, “How can we continue to provide the musical and stylistic friction and heat to create a new 21st-century musical stew?” In 1973, Berklee served my contemporary music needs well. It laid the foundation for further musical exploration and gave me many skills to succeed professionally. But will it do the same for today’s aspiring contemporary musicians?

Every Conceivable Genre

Clearly, the contemporary musical quilt of 2010 is richer and more colorful and multi-stylistic than it was in 1973 and, naturally, so are the students and their interests. Berklee students come from all corners of the world, and their musical heroes, stylistic influences, and tastes encompass every conceivable genre.

In 1973, Berklee offered three majors: performance, arranging and composition, and music education. We now offer 12 majors, and this fall we will offer a host of new minors. To continue to create the perfect-storm environment that created so many of today’s top musicians, I believe that we must continue to embrace and teach as many new styles of music as possible. Yet we must also provide our students with a solid musical foundation and teach them the rich musical heritage that brought us to this point. Perhaps most important, we must continue to recruit a stylistically and culturally diverse faculty that can push students’ musical boundaries and assumptions and create a college where exciting, new, and bold contemporary music is commonplace.

As I reflect on my Berklee student experience, I realize that my teachers’ most powerful lessons provided me with a solid foundation in contemporary musicianship, a strong commitment to my art, the ability and confidence to improvise, and a deep respect for a diversity of musical expression. Berklee’s eclectic and diverse faculty and students also gave me exposure to multiple styles and provided me with rich and varied performance and composition opportunities.

Although it has been a tall order, Berklee has historically met the challenge to teach music through the music of the day. In this ever-changing musical world, we must continue to keep our ears open and assess what constitutes contemporary music and provide the same exciting opportunities to our current and future students.