The 5th Stream Defined

by Peter Hatch


Published in 'The 5th Stream Festival/Conference of Canadian New Music', CanMus 6, 

University of Toronto Press, 1990, John Beckwith and Peter Hatch. co-editors

This paper takes the form of extended opening remarks to The 5th Stream Festival/Conference of Canadian New Music. It is not as much an effort to create a textbook definition of a term as to give you an idea of the kind of thinking that went into choosing the artists featured at this festival/conference. The festival features almost exclusively younger Canadian composers. I hope that some of the points I raise will provide

food for discussion in the days ahead.

'Mainstream' new music in Canada, it seems, has changed over the past ten to fifteen years from predominant schools of 'post-serial' and 'new techniques' writing to a situation (at least among the younger composers) where it is very difficult to group composers into schools of thought; in many ways the traditional boundaries between 'art music' and 'pop music' or 'conservatism' and 'experimentalism' seem to be breaking down. It seems the only term in current use truly appropriate to today's new music scene in Canada is 'pluralism'. Other attempts to group composers into common schools have resulted in a number of other 'isms', many of which are strung together at the top of the 5th Stream poster.

It was Leonard B. Meyer who, I believe, first predicted today's pluralistic state. In his 1967 book Music, the Arts, and Ideas Meyer envisaged 

the persistence over a long period of time of a fluctuating stasis - a steady state in which an indefinite number of styles and idioms, techniques and movements, will coexist in each of the arts. There will be no central, common practice in the arts, no stylistic "victory". In music, for instance, tonal and non-tonal styles, aleatoric and serialized techniques, electronic and improvised means will all continue to be employed.  Though new methods and directions may be developed in any or in all of the arts, these will not displace existing styles. The new will simply be additions to the already existing spectrum of styles. Interaction and accommodation among different traditions of music, art or literature may from time to time produce hybrid combinations or composites, but the possibility of radical  innovation seems very remote. However, the abrupt juxtaposition of markedly unlike styles - perhaps from different epochs and traditions -  within a single work may be uncommon. 

Considering the date that this was written, it is quite a remarkable prophecy. The situation Meyer outlines describes quite well what the present new music scene is like. Whether or not this situation will continue "over a long period of time" (Meyer never explains whether he means by this several years or many decades) remains to be seen. It is the belief of at least some composers that we are 'between periods', that the diversity of styles we are experiencing now is simply the breeding ground for a new music yet to emerge. Meyer argues against this, claiming that the idea of an ongoing stasis has historical precedent and seems even inevitable at this point in history.

The incorporation of quotation and the juxtaposition of styles within a work that Meyer referred to began to be found in the music of, for instance, Lukas Foss or Meyer's faculty mate George Crumb in the mid-1960's and yet went on to become a major part of many composer's language in the 1970's. That kind of thinking has perhaps peaked in the music of people such as the New Yorker John Zorn. Zorn claims that a major inspiration for his compositions is the music of cartoon shows. In any one work, the prevailing style may change dozens of times from bebop to turntable scratches to striptease music. An example of this is his 1988 work Spillane, inspired by the detective novel character.

The 'fluctuating stasis' or 'dynamic steady state' that Meyer outlines is what is implied by the term '5th Stream', with the added consideration that perhaps there is something which groups this music together, a bond beyond simply diversity of style.

'Third Stream' was a term coined by Gunther Schuller in the 1950's to describe attempts by composers at that time to merge the musics of the art music (usually serial) and jazz (usually post bebop) traditions into something new. These efforts came from both 'art music' composers such as Schuller himself and also from those primarily in the jazz world such as Charlie Mingus. Other artists, such as Anthony Braxton or Cecil Taylor, did not bother with labels but continued to form a music which was neither jazz nor 'art music' but something which combined elements of both if not something which really was a 'third stream' of music. Here were the real beginnings of a music which was a true hybrid and not simply a juxtapositon of styles.

Third Stream continues to thrive (at least in New England where one can actually take a degree in it), but it seems to me that such an attempt to merge musics from the 'classical' tradition with more popular idioms is found now in a much broader sense where the popular idioms can include rock, new wave, ethnic folk musics and even elements of the nineteenth century symphonic tradition. Artists such as David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno have achieved a certain level of commercial success but also seem to contribute ideas which have a high level of artistic validity. It is artists such as these who create real headaches for the arts funding bodies who must make decisions as to which artists are 'fine art' artists and therefore fundable and which are 'popular' artists and therefore not fundable.

Attendance at the Darmstadt summer course for composers last summer and discussion with composers there suggests to me that 'The 5th Stream' is largely a North American phenomenon. The predominant aesthetic atmosphere there reminded me in many ways of (at least central eastern) Canada in the mid to late 1970's. Certainly, serialism and 'new techniques' were very much the thing to do and, although I realize that Darmstadt has traditionally been a bastion for that kind of thinking, discussion with a number of people there suggested that it was still the prevailing aesthetic atmosphere throughout most of mainland Europe.

Aside from the differing methods for arriving at compositional materials (and here I get into very tricky ground) it struck me that perhaps one way of describing the difference with the newer 'new' music in North America was its emphasis not as much on the conceptual, 'metaphysical' aspects of the musical experience, as on its physical, 'music as sounding' aspects. Perhaps this can be seen most simply in what I see as a trend in programme note writing away from the very philosophical and many times 'pseudo-scientific' notes still prevalent in Europe and characteristic of many composers here a decade ago, but seen less often now in North America.

A more obvious difference between European and North American new music might be the much greater acceptance on the part of North American artists of the more 'popular' idioms - jazz, rock, new wave and ethnic folk musics and the incorporation of these idioms into their art. It is interesting to contemplate whether these influences may trigger new and exciting areas for new music or whether they are simply a 'selling out' to 'cheaper' forms of entertainment as many people seem to think. (Certainly this is what many people thought at Darmstadt.)

There does seem to be more of an 'entertainment' aspect to much of the music of the 5th stream and it is this element which disturbs many people about the new music. The idea that music with a high artistic element could also be entertaining was not a concept often found in the sixties and seventies and is still not found in Europe.

At a recently held conference sponsored by the Ontario Arts Council on marketing and contemporary music I got into a rather interesting discussion with Linda Smith, the artistic director of Arraymusic. The subject: artistic programming as marketing tool. There are things which you know 'work', appealing to a large number of people or appealing in a guaranteed fashion to a smaller number of people. At the same time, it has always been the mandate of new music organizations to present the newest ideas in music, regardless of reception. The question was very similar to that which faces all composers when writing a work and one in which maybe there has been a shift lately. Have composers become more aware of their audience recently? And if so, is this a good thing or a bad thing? And is this awareness of audience a matter of quality of audience or quantity of audience? Has there perhaps been a shift in audience reception? Have larger audiences become more interested in being stimulated with new ideas or have the newer musical ideas stimulated larger audiences?

The audiences at Darmstadt were quite intolerant of any music which stepped outside of their traditional view of what concert music and especially new concert music should be like. If a work was not primarily composed of disjunct major sevenths and minor ninths coloured by extended techniques it was greeted with often quite vocal jeering. In one case, a new work by the British composer Christopher Fox began with a simple oscillating major third - this gesture greeted by laughter from much of the audience. One of the most controversial works performed was by another British composer living in Cologne, Chris Newman, whose work My Night in Newark/New Pianos seems to warrant yet another new label - that of 'naive music'. Although the reactions of some audience to these works was often quite disruptive and rude, in other ways it was wonderful to see people actually engaging in the works and showing their reactions. Often times it seems quite disillusioning in Canada to see work after work receive the same bland applause. I would like to extend an open invitation to people here to boo and cheer as they please without penalty while here. Yes, even during my works.

It is interesting to note Leonard Meyer's comments on audience reaction to the new pluralistic state. He says:

One crucial aspect of the present situation...does seem clear and certain: there is not now, and probably will not be, a single cohesive audience for serious art, music, and literature as, broadly speaking, there was until about 1914. Rather, there are and will continue to be a number of different audiences corresponding roughly to broad areas of the spectrum of coexisting styles. Just as some artists, writers, and composers will be stylistically polylingual  changing styles for whatever reason - so one individual may belong to several audiences within the same art.  

I would like to emphasize again that I feel Meyer is talking about a North American audience only. It is interesting to note that perhaps the reason why 'the 5th Stream' and its acceptance is so much more prevalent in North America than in Europe has to do with the fact that the classical concert going tradition is so much more ingrained into the European way of life than in North America and that, perhaps, 'the single, cohesive audience for serious music' that Meyer refers to is more important to the concert going audience in Europe than in North America. A memorable experience for me at Darmstadt was striking up a conversation with a woman at a concert by the Arditti quartet of very difficult works which, because things fell behind schedule, was still going on towards midnight. It turns out that she was a doctor who 'had played the flute a bit in high school' but found the new works 'difficult but enjoyable'. Obviously it is as natural for many Europeans to go to a difficult concert of new music as it is for North Americans to go to a movie. However, it is probably this aspect of tradition in Europe which makes the audiences there more conservative and resistant to change - especially change challenging the traditional boundaries surrounding 'fine art' music.

Finally, I would like to comment on the all-Canadian programming of this festival. Obviously, it would have been much easier to draw on an international repertoire for programming simply for the ease of putting things together. However, although I will not try to claim that there is anything special or unique about Canadian music, I will claim that there are a great number of very talented composers here, many whom are represented in this festival and many, many more who simply did not happen to have works for the appropriate combination of instruments with the proper duration. If there is one thing that I think we as Canadian composers may have in common that may make us unique, it is our lack of self congratulation (I mean this in a group sense, not as individuals). When in Darmstadt, it was quite interesting to see the pride of composers from such places as Iceland and Yugoslavia, pride not so much for a national style as for a group of composers coming from a common place.

A healthy aspect of our time and place, I feel, is its pluralism - the acceptance of a large range of musical styles as valid expressions of musical thought. This festival hopes to explore and 'test out' that diversity and its acceptance by juxtaposing the quite differing musical styles all found under the current rubric of 'contemporary music' in Canada. By placing Piche next to Hawkins, Schryer next to Kucharzyk, our goal was to show both the richness of compositional thinking in Canada today and its great diversity.

Peter Hatch

May 1989