Modern Agriculture and New Music

Several years ago, a popular farm near me lost its main building to a fire. This building was used for baking homemade pies, selling produce, and making other sales to customers. I believe the farm also suffered the loss of a couple of greenhouses in the fire. It was devastating and the farm never rebuilt. The land has been sitting, mostly unused, for many years. Just in the last couple of weeks, the news broke, as well as the ground, for the construction of a new building on the site.

This new building will be a state-of-the-art greenhouse for growing tomatoes in an aquaponics system which recycles the water fed to the plants. The pumps will be powered by solar panels in the field. Of course, the tomatoes will receive light through the greenhouse panels, but any supplementary heat during the winter will be powered by the solar panels, as well as lighting for offices.

I’ve read many complaints online. Some are complaining about losing the view of the open field. Others are claiming that growing food in the ground is “real” farming. Others say that tomatoes grown in the ground taste better. (I’d like to see a study on that.)

But I am fascinated. This greenhouse is a self-contained masterpiece of modern agriculture making use of all kinds of technology now available and affordable enough to be applied to growing food!

However, it would be wrong to hold up this aquaponics greenhouse as the epitome of modern agriculture, since it is only one example of the myriad of current-day approaches to growing food on a large or small farm, or even in one’s own backyard.

Whether or not you use or avoid them, genetically modified organisms are an example of modern agriculture. Permaculture is a modern theory of growing based on setting up an ecological system. Many backyard gardeners are growing in raised beds rather than in rows; that is fairly new. Community Supported Agriculture is a new way of doing business. Some “new ways” are actually a return to the “old ways” of organic farming and raising livestock on pasture, in reaction against the damaging effects giant agribusiness methods have had on human health and the environment.

What is “modern agriculture?” It’s not just one thing.

We can’t say that a solar-powered aquaculture greenhouse is “modern” because it uses the latest technology, but organic gardening in beds is “old fashioned” because it doesn’t use factory-made fertilizer and the crops are grown in soil.

Any farmer farming today is a modern farmer. They are not all taking the same approach. Their methods will be different, depending on their personalities, their philosophies, their land, their labor, their financial resources, what they are growing, where their market is, and so forth. But they all are trying to produce food in an effective and efficient way, to provide for their own family and their customers near and far. Most are reading up on trends, seeing what others are exploring and figuring out what new techniques they might be able to implement on their own farms.

It’s all modern! It’s all happening NOW.

So what does this have to do with music?

Well, a lot.

I recently read an article in which the author used the term “new music” to refer to “newly composed contemporary classical music made by living composers that seems to uproot and defy so many labels” which is “strange, erratic, and harsh,” lacking “attractive sounds and traditionally ordered melodies and rhythms.” The author then went on to explain all the benefits of this “new music” which, among other things, included being “exciting and challenging,” “the ‘future’ of classical music,” “uniquely relevant to today,” “impactful on culture,” and “powerful.”

The author did admit the definition was oversimplified, but I think it goes beyond that. To limit the term “new music” to this oversimplified definition is to communicate, intentionally or not, that any newly-composed music that doesn’t fit this definition is out of touch and old-fashioned.

This is like saying that aquaponics is the future of agriculture, but organic farming is not.

I expect to hear that argument from a salesperson selling me an aquaponics system. But I would not be pleased if a agriculture trade magazine singled it out as the only relevant modern agricultural technique. Yes, an article explaining all the benefits of aquaponics is fitting. But if the author says “I’m going to talk about modern agriculture and by “modern agriculture” I mean “aquaponics,” I’d take issue.

Any music written NOW is new!

Yes, genres are different. Approaches are different. Just like with farming, these approaches are going to be based on differences in personality, philosophy, labor and finances, as well as the types of ensembles a composer is composing for.

One size does not fit all! And if there is anything most wonderful about new music, it is THIS!

I label my music “contemporary classical” to differentiate it from jazz, musical theater, pop/rock, etc. If I were to be more specific, I would add “acoustic” to the description. I am not interested in pursuing electronic music or even combining it with acoustic music, and I have reasons for that which I may explain in a later post. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading up on or listening to electronic music. But writing it is just not for me. I’m going to leave that niche for someone else to fill.

There are techniques I would like to explore that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I read and listen, as I would a trade magazine, and see what I can tuck away for later.

But for now, my music tends to be more tonal/modal, and it has a more familiar sound to many listeners. But that doesn’t mean it is old-fashioned. Yes, some of my techniques harken back to the “old ways,” as I absolutely love Baroque music. I’m a pianist and have been playing works by Johann Sebastian Bach since I was five. I have absorbed the rules of counterpoint into my soul, so I figure I should use what I’ve got. But, despite the “old fashioned” tonal centers and the counterpoint, I eschew traditional harmonic movement, and I incorporate all the extended chords I picked up from many years of playing jazz. I care very little for the “proper” use of inversions and, rather, try to give individual voices as much independent, melodic movement as possible, even within a chorale style piece. I also very much enjoy pedal notes in the bass. Is that “old-fashioned,” coming from the days when the organ ruled, or is that “modern,” influenced by rock-and-roll?

Speaking of organs, last week I went to an organ recital presented by my friend, Robert Potterton III. He finished the concert with an amazing improvisation based on the theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, otherwise known as Ode to Joy (or “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” if you only know it as the hymn tune.) Talk about old meets new! An old theme, on an old-but-new instrument, a digital organ, with a brand-new take filled with unexpected harmonies, by a contemporary composer. It was truly new music and quite relevant!

Modern is modern, and new is new, whether in agriculture or in music. It’s what is happening NOW. To narrow it down further leaves out too much. Each approach brings something different to the understanding of the field, and they all are relevant. They all impact culture. And they all will inform the future.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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