A Fresh Look at Classical Music

When I write “classical music,” you probably think Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, or maybe Chopin, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky. Bach died in 1750, Mozart in 1791, Beethoven in 1827, Chopin in 1849, Brahms in 1893, and Tchaikovsky in 1897. If you think in more modern terms, there’s Igor Stravinsky (d. 1971), and two musical buddies, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (both d. 1990). Will we ever see another famous classical composer? Or is all of this old news, overtaken by the expense of orchestras, the greying (whiting?) of the audience, the popularity of crossover music or orchestras playing Star Wars in concert, or the popularity of song-based (as opposed to album-based) streaming services?9780520283152

Yes. But. Classical music has been dying for centuries. If you’re seeking the new Beethoven, you’re on the wrong path. If you’re wondering how new ideas and new technologies have energized and blurred the definition of classical music, I’ve got a book for you. It was recommended by Alex Ross, whose own book, The Rest Is Noise, is probably the best book about 20th century music. Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a journalist, formerly the contemporary music editor at both Grove Music Online and The Oxford Dictionary of Music, so his background is solid.Tim begins After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 before the breaking of the 21st century, and manages to place music in the micro-context of the times: this is a history book filled with very recent history, covering just short of thirty years.

Some of the contemporary composers’ names may be familiar. John Adams writes instrumental music and operas; you may be familiar with Shaker Loops, or Nixon in China. John Luther Adams has become quite famous for Become Ocean. (I am curious about his music, and will likely devote a full article to his work next year.) Thomas Adès is a British composer who has become quite popular. John Corigliano is both a popular conductor and a composer, perhaps best known for his post-2001 tribute, Of Rage and Remembrance. Philip Glass and Steve Reich pioneered a new approach to classical music in the second half of the 20th century. Reich’s experimentation with combinations of sounds and music influenced lots of 21st century musicians (his influence is so widespread, and so much a part of contemporary culture, many modern musicians don’t quite realize that their music ties back to his work). These legendary 20th century  innovators are roughly the same age–an astonishing 81/82 years old.

Henryk Gòrecki passed in 2010, but his Symphony 3, recorded by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta, with vocals by Dawn Upshaw, has been a tremendous commercial success. Its appeal overlaps the work of Arvo Pärt, also in his eighties, whose contemplative recordings with ECM New Series, and other labels, resulted in the Vice article, “How a 78-Year-Old Estonian Composer Became the Hottest Thing in Music.” This past weekend, The New York Times published a somewhat similar article about György Kurtág from Romania, who is now 92. He finally finished his first opera, based upon the Samuel Beckett play, Endgame.

Add John Tavener (d. 2013) to the list, too.

Obvious question: are all of the new classical composers dead, or in their 80s or 90s? Nah, they’re just the ones who have enjoyed the last gasps of the recorded compact disc format. And there isn’t an easy way to promote a streaming thing, so you’re going to need to look beyond records to learn about the next-gen classical music. Or read the good advice provided by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. For example…

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

There’s the Kronos Quartet, a popular group that has long experimented with modern classical compositions, often in combination with music from many different parts of the world. In 2015, they released One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley (another contemporary classical composer from the 20th century), but their catalog includes work with or by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Sigur Rós (Iceland), Osvaldo Golijov (Argentina), Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Denmark), Witold Lutoslawski (Poland), the familiar Henryk Gòrecki (Poland–they play on several of his most popular recordings), and also Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Thelonius Monk.

There’s Mark Turnage, who wrote a provocative, but accessible, opera called Anna Nicole (Smith–a former Playboy model “equally notorious for her surgically enhanced body and her marriage to a a billionaire sixty-three years her senior”). According to Tim, Turnage is “a brash yet accessible talent.” It debuted at London’s Covent Garden with Led Zepellin’s John Paul Jones in the band.

We are just beginning Tim’s tour. As music becomes less place-based, in part due to technology and in part due to a desire to perform in new ways, he considers The Silk Road Ensemble’s concerts which “blend Western and non-Western, art and vernacular” as the musicians play traditional (native) and nontraditional instruments– it is “built on the principles of cultural exchange, learning and understanding… more like a jazz group than an orchestra).

Messing with the expected is central to new ways of thinking about music. For example,, “(Brian) Ferneyhough’s more recent music disrupts the pathways of memory, overloading, thwarting, or redirecting them. Incipits [1996], for violin and small ensemble, for example, is composed of several separate “beginnings,” which draw the listener into a set of expectations they must keep having to drop and reboot [a musical parallel to Italo Calvino’s novel, If one a winter’s night a traveler). Memory here is activated, only to wiped clean.”

I found the two sections about “Loss” and “Recovery” especially interesting. Loss introduces the work of John Luther Adams in connection with “evocations of the landscape, the English and Latin names of birds and plants, poems in two Native American languages…Adams has sought to render aspects of the Alaskan wildness, drawing attention to specific places and their need for protection.” (The work is a “quasi-opera” called Earth and the Great Weather.) In Recovery, he describes the work of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh which “identifies a space between past and present, traditional and contemporary, and Asian and Western…Because it exists in gaps–deliberately not fixed to anything, the music of Ali-Zadeh, Kanchelli, and other composers of the former Soviet Union proved able to slip between stylistic boundaries…”

Of course, I could go on, but my curiosity is now well ahead of my listening experience. I need to catch up, to slide away from emails and websites so I can spend more time attending to the music that is being made all around me. This is made somewhat more complicated by my current (and growing) interest in music that precedes Bach, Beethoven and the rest–as I begin an exploration of a remarkable early music group from England called The Sixteen, whose CDs should arrive any day now.

As I look forward, I also look back. Inevitably, I stumble into strong connections between the present, the future and the deep past. That’s what I love about music discovery.

And it is endless.

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