What Is Contemporary Music?

By 
John Mirisola
September 13, 2019

It's practically Berklee's middle name—but what are we talking about when we say "contemporary music"?

Image by Kelly Davidson

You can find the phrase in the first line of Berklee’s About page. It’s our handshake: Hi, we’re Berklee, a contemporary music and performing arts school. This is how it’s been since Lawrence Berk founded the school more than 70 years ago with jazz at the center of the curriculum. We were the first music school to take seriously the idea that music could be taught effectively through popular contemporary styles, and that idea continues to stand behind so much of what Berklee does.

But what do we mean when we talk about “contemporary music” these days? Certainly jazz is no longer the only contemporary music a student can learn here—not by a long shot. On the other hand, we can’t mean contemporary as opposed to classical music—not while students at both Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory at Berklee continue to explore, compose, and perform exciting and fresh work in the classical idiom (though we could spend many more words on the equally fraught question: What is classical music?). Instead, contemporary music, for Berklee, has more to do with an approach to music than it does with any particular type of music. 

To better understand this approach, we spoke to members from across the Berklee community about what making and teaching contemporary music means to them in their particular disciplines. In the process, a few key features emerged that seem to be central to how many at Berklee approach the study of contemporary music:

Relevance

According to vibraphonist Victor Mendoza, contemporary music is, simply put, “music performed and created with what is rhythmically, harmonically, and texturally current.” For Mendoza, a professor at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain, this means that his job is to teach students to employ current musical vocabularies—jazz, Pan-American rhythms, and global harmonies “performed on acoustic, ethnic, and electronic instruments.” But he also stresses that “great music and musicians will always be relevant"—that there's a timeless quality to compositions by musicians from Bach and Duke Ellington to Tito Puente, Stevie Wonder, and the Rolling Stones.

Great music and musicians will always be relevant.

—Victor Mendoza

Grammy-winning saxophonist Tia Fuller, a professor in the Ensemble Department, defines the work of contemporary music as “excellence, influence, and exploration of what we know as popular music today—discovering the fundamental components of today’s music through cultural influences, social constructs, and cross-pollination of genres.” For Fuller, who has performed with Beyoncé and directs ensembles focusing on the music of artists including Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars, Christian McBride, and Micki Miller, working in contemporary music is not just about what popular music today sounds like, but about each artist’s pursuit of excellence and integrity through their performances.

Jonathan Bailey Holland, chair of composition, contemporary music, and core studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, describes the relationship between a classical grounding and a contemporary context at the Conservatory: "The Conservatory curriculum is rooted in the western classical tradition, but our students are vibrant creative artists living today and responding to their current condition. For these students, creating and performing contemporary music means that their work is focused on communicating from an informed perspective, with a voice that is relevant to, and shaped by, the world in which they live. It also means that they each define exactly what this means on an individual basis.” There are as many ways to be musically relevant as there are musicians creating and performing work today.

For some, including Annette Philip, artistic director of the Berklee India Exchange, relevance has a social dimension, as well: “Contemporary, for us, means not only seeking to push boundaries musically, but also bringing topics that are socially relevant into our artistic choices. We strive to create concept-driven, socially conscious productions that embrace the integration of multidisciplinary art forms, perspectives, and cultural influences.”

Cross-Pollination

As the leader of an institute that works to strengthen creative exchange between Berklee and India, Philip also understands the ever-broadening interplay between cultures, genres, styles, and technologies. "India is home to one of the oldest music traditions of the world. It is also one of the most diverse countries not only in terms of the number of languages, dance forms, or religions that flourish there, but also from a geographical, social, economic, and ethnicity point of view,” she explains. "Contemporary Indian music today is a confluence of Indian classical or folk idioms combined with nuances of pop, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, rock, and myriad other genres.” This cross-pollination is on full display in Berklee India Exchange’s most popular video on Berklee's YouTube channel, “Jiya Jale,” which reinterprets a classic A. R. Rahman song with "a string quintet, jazz influences, reharms, and what the students fondly call a 'dirty loops' section.”

Watch the Berklee Indian Ensemble perform “Jiya Jale”:

Javier Limón, artistic director of the Mediterranean Music Institute, sees a similar benefit in the vast array of styles on display across campus. Berklee is “the world reference institution” for contemporary music because of its "balance between roots from all around the world and new vangard styles and techniques," he says. "Only at Berklee can you find flamenco, jazz, blues, electronic dance, Latin, Middle Eastern music, Sephardic songs...all together played by young, great musicians.”

Of course, part of what makes contemporary music's cross-pollination so successful at a place like Berklee is that the musical community here represents such a wide range of styles to begin with. Kim Perlak, chair of the Guitar Department, explained in a recent Sounds of Berklee interview that it’s not as though everybody has to learn to play every style of music; rather, it's that all options are on the table when you have a diverse community that shares a common technical foundation. “It’s based around a common language—a vocabulary that we all share regardless of style,” she said. "We have this wonderful faculty that literally represent every style that you can imagine; and you have this deep set of raw materials now that give you the technique and the tools to be expressive in those styles—and so then you can choose where you go.”

Listen to Kim Perlak discuss stylistic tradition and collaboration on Sounds of Berklee:

Ultimately, that common musical language and those tools, which apply to deep traditions and fledgeling styles alike, allow contemporary musicians to explore, collaborate, and eventually bring contemporary music into the future.

Future Focus

“I see two distinctly different approaches to teaching music,” Berklee President Roger H. Brown says. “One is to insure that students are magnificently trained to keep the musical canon of the last three centuries alive. The other is to prepare students with the tools, including knowledge of history and instrumental technique, and also a sense of personal agency and an innovative spirit, to create the music of the future. Berklee’s legacy is almost uniquely in this latter realm, as epitomized by the achievements of alumni ranging from Quincy Jones and Gary Burton to St. Vincent, Ramin Djawadi, and Esperanza Spalding.” 

Watch Ramin Djawadi B.M. ’98 break down his approach to composing the Game of Thrones theme:

Perhaps nowhere is the future of music taking shape faster than in scoring for film and video games. "From a film scoring perspective,” says Sean McMahon, chair of the Film Scoring Department, “contemporary music is the result of the intersection of composition and technology. And since technology changes so rapidly, so does composition and contemporary music, as a result. While the Film Scoring curriculum heavily relies on technology, we don't teach software. We teach principles because principles don't change. And if students understand principles they will be able to adapt to new technological tools—tools that don't even exist today—for a scoring career that requires lifelong learning."

So this is what we mean when we talk about Berklee's approach to contemporary music: a rootedness in musical knowledge and technique, but also a sense of freedom and independence, and an eye to the future.

Rebellion

But when you think about the history of contemporary music, from jazz to rock 'n' roll to hip-hop to punk, it does seem as though we’ve left something out, haven’t we? Former Prince engineer Susan Rogers, a professor in the Music Production and Engineering Department, provides the last corner of the contemporary music puzzle.

"Contemporary music is by, for, and about young people,” she says. "It serves dancing, socializing, courtship, and signaling how one would like to be seen in the culture. Listening to contemporary music should be much more about feeling and much less about analysis, compared to listening to music from earlier times. It is the job of young people to rebel against musical norms; it is the job of older people to conserve what was good about them.”

So just get out there and make some new noise. What to call it is someone else's job.

Listen to Susan Rogers discuss dissonance and underground music on Sounds of Berklee:

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