One of my favorite musical websites is the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics blog. Orchestra violist Sam Bergman recently wrote a series of essays about encouraging the performance of contemporary music, and it has provoked quite the reaction. Since it’s rapidly approaching the end of May, and my violinist.com blog archive looks awkward if I leave a blank month, and Laurie Niles also recently posted a blog about contemporary music, I thought I’d add to the virtual chaos by pondering out loud about the subject myself.
I spent a day or two hammering out some thoughts about the subject, and ended up with a hilariously awful essay that is now tucked discreetly in my Failed Projects Folder with the label DNR.
What went wrong? It’s true that I feel very strongly that contemporary music should be performed – that it needs to be performed – but I discovered after reading Bergman’s essays that I haven’t spent much time at all thinking about why it’s important, and what I can do to encourage and support it. That’s a bit embarrassing. And it’s not that I don’t like contemporary music, or have some axe to grind against it. Heck, there’s a composer in my immediate family. I guess I’ve been so absorbed with all the standard repertoire from earlier centuries I haven’t yet familiarized myself with what’s happening now. But I need to change that. I need to open my mind some more and take some auditory expeditions to some different soundscapes. Even if I don’t end up living where I visit – I have a feeling I’ll always tend to gravitate toward late nineteenth and early twentieth century pieces – I still feel I ought to expand my horizons. It will be my loss if I don’t.
So. My challenge for you is to choose five pieces by living composers to share with other people in the comments section of this blog. Not pieces you grudgingly like, or pieces you like because other people have recommended them to you – they have to be pieces that you actually love. Pieces that would attract you to a concert – not repel you, or make you indifferent. Pieces that you listen to when nobody else is around. Bonus points if the composer isn’t near death! Then, with your list, explain how you came to hear, like, or understand that work, or what you like about the piece in general.
Note: if you think that All Contemporary Music is Worthless Trashy Cacophony That I Won’t Even Let My Dog Listen To, don’t bother responding, because this blog isn’t for you. I’m not going to reply to you, because I couldn’t disagree with you more, and we have nothing to discuss. Sorry.
I put together a list…it ended up being pretty conservative. Not sure how I feel about that. Does it mean I’m not open to new things? That I’m intellectually lazy? Probably. Sigh. Well, at least I’m trying! I’m including two soundtracks at the end in spots 6 and 7, as I’m not sure soundtracks “count” in the classical music biz. If soundtracks are ever performed, they’re played at pops concerts, and they tend to be limited to works by John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Why is this? Is there some kind of copyright problem? Then why do we always hear Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars Medleys up the wazoo?
Anyway, without further ado, a random list of some favorite pieces by living composers…
1) Hallelujah Junction, by John Adams. In particular, the opening bell-like sounds and the drive of the final movement. I like a lot of minimalist and minimalist-ish music, which isn’t a particularly popular position to take nowadays, but whatever. I can’t help that I like it.
2) Any piece by Kelsey Zachary. Okay, this is cheating a bit (maybe), because I’m friends with Kelsey. But I‘d love her music even if I didn’t know her. It’s contemporary and beautiful. I think some people have given up hope that the two can co-exist; happily, Kelsey proves them wrong.
3) Café Music, by Paul Schoenfield. I heard this on the BBC once and absolutely loved it. I love when jazzy elements sneak their way into classical compositions.
4) Passacaglia by Karl Jenkins. Anything by Karl Jenkins, really. He’s the guy that wrote the uber-ubiquitous “Diamond Music” that was so popular ten years or so ago. Surprise, surprise, it turns out he’s written more than thirty seconds of music in his lifetime, and his output includes this passacaglia. There are shades of Shostakovich in this piece that I find very appealing.
5) Two Movements with Bells, by Aaron Jay Kernis. I admit it, I originally listened to it because it was written for James Ehnes, one of my favorite artists out there right now, and Andrew Armstrong is now the pianist in the Amelia Piano Trio, who I studied with in 2006. But you know what? I love this piece, regardless of who is playing. I think this is a prime example of the responsibility that artists have to their fans to help guide them to corners of the repertoire they wouldn’t have explored by themselves. Thanks, James and Andrew!
6?) Soundtrack from the Village, by James Newton Howard. I’ll admit it: this is one of my favorite violin recordings ever. I’d love to see it rearranged as some kind of suite for violin and orchestra. Are you listening, James Newton Howard? Hilary Hahn? Anyone? …
7?) Soundtrack from The Fountain. Ridiculously moving. Take a listen. The Kronos Quartet has played excerpts from it in concert. Good for them.
So, there are seven-plus amazing pieces by composers who are still alive. I’d run to the box office if any one of them was programmed.
Share your favorites in the comments, and have fun listening. I’m really looking forward to suggestions to expand my horizons. And from now on, I vow I’m going to try a bit harder to spread the word about fantastic compositions written after 1900.