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What does contemporary music mean now?

What does ‘contemporary music’ mean now? This question is posed in response to
recent theoretical work that has endeavoured to reconceive the temporal structure of
the global capitalist present, which is understood to be a site composed of coexisting
temporal forms, histories, and competing periodisations. More specifically, it seeks to
situate this thesis within the discourse concerned with the recasting of ‘contemporary
art’ as a critical category, by considering it from the perspective of historical
contemporaneity. Building upon a Marxist tradition that places material production at the
centre of historical change, the guiding hypothesis of the thesis is that important insights
can be drawn out from the sphere of music for the consideration of the emergence of
contemporaneity as a historical form, as well as the aesthetic form of contemporary art.
Using music to examine contemporary conditions has been largely overlooked in the
current discourse, where there is a tendency to favour developments in the visual arts
since the conceptualism of the 1960s. As such, it is necessary that the concept of music
itself, and its material determining factors, are also reconsidered from the perspective of
the historical present.

Departing from certain dominant theories of contemporary art that increasingly
argue for its status as a generic and transmedial form, this thesis proposes that the
related concepts of medium and medium-specificity are centrally important when
attempting to comprehend the complex relations between artistic production and the
production of historical temporality. As such, a revised theory of medium-specificity is
proposed that intends to strip it of its modern formalist roots and reappropriate it for
historical materialist ends. By deepening the concept to include not only physical
materials, but also paratechnical relations of production, modes of circulation and
exchange, interesting questions arise concerning musical production and historical
experience. While music is the main focus of this thesis, the question is not simply one
of the production and consumption of musical works within contemporaneity. Rather, it
is the function of such modes of musical production in the constitution of
contemporaneity as the dominant historical condition of the present, which has wider
implications for the consideration of other forms of medium-specific artistic production
and the critical theorisation of contemporary art. In turn, the opportunity arises to
understand why the musical work comes to be what it is because of the specific
historical determinations within which it is produced, thus establishing a base upon
which the question of what contemporary music means now can begin to be answered.

Ryan Nolan