© Brigitta Muntendorf
© Brigitta Muntendorf
© Marcel Koehler
© Marcel Koehler

Brigitta Muntendorf — More Chaos, please! Contemporary Music and Culture in the Digital Age

Museum or Vibrant Part of Life – New Music Decides for Itself

If I compare the current shifts in artistic creation, in the general understanding of interpretation and the notion of an "ensemble", and in the role that critical perception and programming play in contemporary music, with those that are taking place in society and culture at large, owing to the ongoing digital revolution, it is obvious that contemporary music, including its whole apparatus, is still in its infancy. We currently find ourselves in a culture of the digital age1, that’s to say: digital infrastructures pervade the analogous, the physical and the material realm. In this fundamental reciprocity, following the four fundamental forces in physics, unimpeded transfer creates innovative processes in the fields of work, production and critical perception as well as the new constitution and coordination of individual and collective action which has continuously to be renegotiated.

In this situation, referentiality as a form of communication, the generation of new models of community in the area of conflict between singularity and diversity, and the concrete analysis of the receptive subject, all of which render visible both ideas and their resonance, plus the ubiquitous algorithmisation, constitute the four most important areas of tension in relation to social and cultural developments.

The future of New Music, the implications for its artistic and social relevance, will be determined by whether it will position itself within or outside such processes, and whether creative artists, interpreters and supporters will be prepared not only to expand existing structures, but to re-think them in a fundamental way. Failing that, it is obvious that New Music will languish as a form of museum art, artificially kept alive, in which its intrinsic resistance will appear as the highest form of assimilation in a cultivated and hermetically sealed discourse about society and culture.

Composing within Reference-Systems: Audience and Performance

The fact that today, composers and interpreters, especially of the younger generation, increasingly adopt an interdisciplinary approach, some of them working interactively as well, and, an even smaller number, also collectively, is still a singular and phenomenological characteristic within New Music. This can be inferred from the way in which the inclusion of electronics, projections, performative elements, special stage- and performance settings, plus sufficient capacity for the amount of rehearsals necessary for the works’ realisation, puts a strain on existing ensembles and their organisation as well as on most festivals, and lets their facilities and programming quickly come up against their structural and financial limits. In this context it is fascinating to observe how composers and ensembles increasingly develop platforms outside the New Music Scene, or find a remedy by developing their own structures for production.

This observable trend towards trans-medial, digital, theatrical and performative forms of production equally describes an understanding of music which is context-oriented, and which constitutes itself on the basis of referential processes. Referential systems determine our communication; they are the strategy within the chaos of the variously motivated, exorbitant provision of information and, by means of selection and compilation, by composition, provide meaningful and, above all, current frames of reference. Such systems of reference represent the prevalent model of production aesthetics in contemporary art2 and illustrate their relevance in particular owing to the fact that they include the receptive subject – i.e. the audience – as a constituent part. It is a condition of referential art that the sources and meanings of the whole artistic apparatus should be rendered visible – its position in the present and its interdependency with tradition and context thus produces performance. Here, the massive shift in the role ascription of authorship and audience becomes particularly apparent. The receptive subject can no longer be ignored once the experience of collective reception takes the performance and the visualisation of an artistic attitude for granted.

Plea for a "Commuity of Practice"

If we assume that referentiality in the work of a composer signifies a new approach to the concept of composition itself, the Community of Practice3, with its referential, reflexive and collaborative tendencies could provide the corresponding working model.

Within the collective form, as defined by Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger, it becomes manifest that today, it is not so much homogenised communities that establish themselves, but those in which the emergence of difference and community takes place at the same time.4

The Community of Practice, as a communal model for creation, is particularly fascinating precisely because it describes a dynamic field of practice in which people with diverse abilities come together in support of a defined goal, and creation and reflexive interpretation go hand in hand. Within contemporary music, such a working model would provide ample space for the further development of many current trends and would raise the artistic quality of interdisciplinary work.

Thus, an increasing number of musicians develop their performative qualities and create specific stage personalities whose interpretation goes beyond the merely musical. In the face of a defined artistic goal, Community of Practice can help the development and implementation of such skills within all kinds of communities, no matter how they are made up, to reach its point of culmination. By including composers and artists of other professions, an existing ensemble can incorporate the Community of Practice by the same token as groups who have formed themselves in relation to a concrete artistic goal.

As such an approach is incompatible with the existing standard of four rehearsals, general rehearsal and concert, it takes a new form of infrastructure in which longer working periods, combined with the necessary equipment, become possible. Implementing the Communities of Practice in existing houses, for instance in the form of national or international residencies, could help to combine the productive forces and cultivate the vitality and communality in current artistic creation. Likewise, a firm basic subsidy for ensembles and other collectives for their work in Communities of Practice could ensure artistic autonomy in dealing with current issues within the arts, including New Music, such as post-colonialism, exoticism or the gender problem, as their analysis could take place from within. The thing is: If we regard ourselves as a Community of Practice with a joint goal, then the road to this point is one in which the communal production of diversity profoundly contradicts the character of an exhibition. If the work process itself already takes the form of a communal happening, the result cannot in any sense be hierarchical.

If we explore the area of tension between referentiality, the community, the receptive subject and algorithmicity in relation to its basic operational forces, we will find that it is the chaos of available information and the creation of social meaning which interact with each other. Most of the structures of support in the field of contemporary music do not permit for any form of chaos – as the unknown, as modus operandi, or as a formation whose output is unpredictable. As a matter of fact, I posit that chaos, as the constructive basis for a lively experiment which forms part of the processes of creation and development, and also as a structural component of festivals and institutions, is generally vetoed. For instance, factors such as the tendency of institutions to adhere to creator-myths, or the stipulation of certain conditions for public funding, compelling the arts and music, by means of pressure applied from the outside, to assume socio-political responsibilities, without relying on the fact that artists are thinking and reflecting individuals, act as impediments. But also the method of keeping up an "event-culture" by presenting a string of world premières that, owing to its focus on the resulting "product", completely disconnects it from the process of creation, implies, from the outset, a dialectics between an artistic value and its limited lifespan, and thus has a prohibitive effect. These are symptoms of a fossilized culture – whereas the term "cultura", respectively "colere", in fact has the exact opposite meaning, namely: "to cultivate".

The digital revolution is currently showing us to what extent chaotic, non-linear and reciprocal processes are able to evoke  creativity, productivity, communality, resonance and vitality. The extent of our ability to establish some lively, collective and dialogical formats, both on an artistic and a structural level – as in the Community of Practice – will in the end determine whether in future we will operate within an energetic and contemporary musical culture – or in a museum which has become irrelevant for our present day.
—Brigitta Muntendorf, 2018



Brigitta Muntendorf is composer and artistic director of the Ensemble Garage and the concert series Frau Musica (nova). She is currently substitute professor for Composition at the University of Music and Dance in Cologne.


1—Felix Stalder, „Kultur der Digitalität“, Edition Suhrkamp, Berlin 2016
2—André Rottmann, „A Conversation with André Rottmann and John Knight.“ Dezember 2011, Los Angeles, in: John Knight, „a work in situ“, Frankfurt am Main: Portikus 2013
3—Etienne Wenger, „Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge“,
Harvard Business School Press, Boston 2009
4—Jeremy Gilbert, „Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism“, Pluto Books, London 2013


Based on the essay "Community of Practice. Komponieren in Referenzsystemen" by Brigitta Muntendorf and published in Positionen no. 116.

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