It’s not so often that Cincinnati, OH feels like the center of the musical world, and it’s even rarer that I get to work with several of my musical idols on a single project. But every once in a while, the stars align, and this past week was one of those rare occasions.
March 30 & 31 saw the world premiere of Philip Glass’s new cello concerto (no. 2) by our CSO. I’ve never thought of myself as a big Philip Glass fan, but in preparing for the concert this past week I had occasion to go back through my CD collection, and there’s no denying that I’ve had my Glassy phases. When I was a freshman in college, I used to listen to the last movement of his second symphony over and over again on repeat (and yes, I realize that many of my readers will find that concept delightfully ironic.) The coda is SO MUCH FUN and it features my favorite repeat in all of Glass’s work, because just when you think the movement is about to finish, he goes back in for another round (1:03):
I’ve also harbored attachments to the first violin concerto and “Glassworks” among others, which, when I added it all up, made me realize that I really am a Philip Glass fan. Which I think is one of those things that serious musicians aren’t supposed to say, but all the more reason for saying it.
And all the more reason why this week gave me such a buzz. The experience was only amplified by the fact that Philip is a gregarious and charming human being. A big part of my job this week was to interview him publicly, and let me tell you, that guy’s a talker. If Charlie ever had him on the broadcast, he wouldn’t be able to get in a word edgewise (which, perhaps, is why Mr. Glass has never appeared.)
I’ll admit that I was a little put off when I first received the score to the concerto about a month ago, and I found out that the music for his new piece was not actually new — it turns out that the concerto is a condensation of his score for Naqoyqatsi, the third installation of Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy. But the thing is, everyone involved treated it like it was a brand new piece of music, and because of that, it became a new piece of music.
Much of that had to do with the collaborators involved, Matt Haimovitz and Dennis Russell Davies. Now, when I said at the top of this post that I got to work with ‘several of my musical idols,’ DRD was definitely included in that mix. My obsession with him also dates back to my first year of college, when my eyes were opened to the greater world of new music, and I eagerly began buying up recordings of Schnittke, Pärt, and Glass among others. So many of the albums featured Dennis Russell Davies as conductor that his became a household name in the house of my brain.
Ahh, just thinking about these people gets me all in a tizzy, but I want to emphasize that the best part is that they were all really dedicated to this project (especially Matt Haimovitz who became one of my musical idols after working with him), they all contributed ideas that made it work, and, what made it so fulfilling on a personal level, they actually listened to and incorporated my ideas — little old me, the assistant conductor. That’s a rarity for artists who don’t even approach these guys’ stature, and it was an honor to contribute what little I did.
Sufjan was premiering a new song cycle co-composed with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner himself. The one bummer of my week is that I couldn’t get over to hear this collaboration (since I had to be next door attending to the recording of the Glass concerto).
I don’t think we give Sufjan nearly enough credit in general, but certainly we should all be bowing down on our knees when December 25 comes around. Simply put: Sufjan saved Christmas music. All of it. All of the familiar carols and songs, the trite lyrics, the pat harmonies. He redeemed them, re-invented, and glorified them. And all it took was a banjo and some oboes.
He also wrote some great new classics from scratch:
This is likely the best thing Menotti ever wrote. Pieces like The Medium and The Telephone have so many silly melodramatic moments and text-setting gaffs that they just don’t hold together. Amahl is simple and tunely, contains a musical setting of the line “This is my box. This is my box. I never travel without my box,” and always makes me cry right here:
1) These are your personal FAVORITES. No explanations, no reasoning. Don’t choose someone just because you think he or she is a particularly good or great composer. Choose someone because you love his or her music. [Note: the two need not be mutually exclusive.]
2) These are your personal favorites at this very moment in time. Try to let it flow – don’t hem and haw. Five minutes hence, you might have a totally different list. In fact, you could come back five minutes later and post a whole new list. I would love it if you did that. Maybe the You of five minutes ago really didn’t understand the You of now and your new perspective on life, love, and music.
3) Your list need not reflect any particular order. It can if you want it to though. Also – and this is very important – just because someone’s not on your list doesn’t mean you don’t love them.
4) Our working definition of ‘composer’ is anyone whose primary means of musical conveyance is the written note. Feel free to understand this broadly.
Discuss! We’ve had some astonishingly interesting and in depth discussions on these lists. Between like 5 people. And I love those 5 people, and respect them and value their opinions and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them. But I have a little thing called Google Analytics, and, Dear Readers, I know that there’s many more of you out there. This is a get-to-know you activity – absolutely not a debate. Just fun, y’all!!
I’ll start. In no particular order (excepting Beethoven):
Now we come to the vaguest of my Top 10 lists. As far as the qualities we’re looking for in a composer, this list has no more specificity to it than the original Top 10 Composers List what first inspired my project.
I like having this list be more open-ended though, because I think we’ll get a lot more interesting interpretations of what makes a good 20th/21st century composer and hopefully a lot of variety in musical style.
Obviously, music in the 20th century was a whole new ball game. First, there was this little thing called Sound Recording, which forever changed the ways in which music is created and disseminated. Then there wholly new channels of communication allowed us to out about all the tinkerers and oddballs, the hermits living in caves and railroad cars (not to mention the suburbs of Mexico city.) Supposedly at some point along the way, innovation trumped beauty as an aesthetic value in its own right.
OK now, before playing/judging, take a careful look at the title of this list: we’re not looking for composers who WORKED after 1900, we’re looking for composers who were BORN after 1900 (or during that year – so Copland is fair game; Poulenc is not.) It’s just another little tweak to make the game harder/more interesting. Maybe.
1. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)
György Ligeti. The Ligster. “El Ligerino” (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing). I think Ligeti is the best of what the 20th century is all about: he was a bold experimenter, he was a meticulous technician, and he forced musicians to reckon with the extremes of difficulty presented in his writing.
Ligeti’s music also forces listeners to confront their conceptions about what music IS (Poème Symphonique), yet it retains an obvious connection to the great music that came before him. He was part of several movements: Dada, Darmstadt, even “World Music” to a certain extent, but he was beholden to none of them.
His music is intelligent but not abstruse. He lived through some of the 20th century’s greatest atrocities (he even escaped a forced labor camp in Hungary) and yet he had a wicked sense of humor (his only work to bear a published opus number lists it as “No. 69″.) He lived and created in the tiny sphere of the European avant-garde, and yet his music became a part of pop culture.
Why do I love Alfred Schnittke so very, very much? There’s obviously the surface layer – the way that he can write a beautiful piece of music, then manipulate it 100 different ways. But that would be worth nothing if there weren’t a tremendous and powerful meaning behind it.
Schnittke was in every way a more subversive artist than his Russian forbears, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. Admittedly, this was a much easier task for a Soviet artist working after the death of Stalin. But I think it says a lot about Schnittke that even after all the walls had fallen, when the great 2nd World had come to its knees, he could have used his enduring popularity (and yes, he is a national HERO in Russia) to forge a new, and undoubtedly lucrative career by playing ball with the new regime; instead, he refused the Lenin Prize and moved to Germany.
Schnittke was the first composer to make full use of historical styles as a means of musical story-telling. He was also the best. His creepy distortions of earlier musics suggest a commentary about the meaning an manipulation of truth – let’s not forget that during the Soviet era, subscribers to the Soviet Encyclopedia would routinely receive replacement pages to be glued into their volumes when certain artists and politicians had become “non-persons”.
The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is considered the great mystical figure of contemporary music. There’s something of an irony involved here: he’s well published, well recorded, well represented in the media (especially in film soundtracks), well studied by the academic establishment, and even a frequent interview subject.
But despite our access to the man and his music, there’s no denying the powerful sense of the mystic in his art. Pärt famously invented a system of writing counterpoint called tintinnabulation which mimics the ringing of bells. His melodies recall Gregorian chant. Amazingly though, his music doesn’t sound like an anachronism – it sounds like an eternity.
If you read David Hajdu’s Strayhorn biography Lush Life (and I certainly recommend that you do), you’ll find out just how very difficult it is to separate the contributions of this jazz legend from those of his constant collaborator, Duke Ellington. But Ellington was born in the 19th century, so that makes it easy to choose Strayhorn for this list.
As best I can tell, Ellington was the revolutionary, Strayhorn the poet. Ellington was nearly two decades Strayhorn’s senior, and while young Billy was still knee-high to a grasshopper, Duke was creating major innovations in harmony, form, and especially orchestration that would change the face of jazz composition.
But at the tender young age of 16, Strayhorn famously penned the aching and harmonically sophisticated ballad “Lush Life”. During the very same period, there was this little gem, a melancholy ode to Chopin entitled “Valse”:
I’m not sure why, but I somehow feel like Steve Reich is a better minimalist than a composer. It’s probably silly to even talk about such things, but I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else knows where I’m coming from.
His early pieces were tremendously innovative and they gave life to a whole new musical world. Sometimes they shimmer, sometimes they startle. Some can be preformed by just about anyone (“Clapping Music”), others require unerring virtuosity (“Piano Phase”).
Maybe it’s just me, but I find Reich’s newer work much less fresh and less skillful. But maybe it’s just that his music has infiltrated the entire musical panorama so thoroughly that I approach these more recent pieces with an unfair set of expectations.
Allow me to expand on the things I said about Sondheim last time. First, he loves many of the same composers that I do: he’s frequently listed his favorites as Ravel, Berg, and Rachmaninoff. Not to mention Bernard Herrmann.
So he takes those composers, mixes them with some more from the Great American Songbook (esp. Harold Arlen and George Gershwin), folds in the most brilliant lyrics in Broadway history, and voilà, you have a soufflé:
(Who knew “Little Red Riding Hood” could be so creepy and so funny when you set it to a mixture of Ravelian blues and meta-Music Hall strolling music?)
7. Ástor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992)
The great innovator of the Argentinian Tango, Ástor Piazzolla studied composition with the mythical French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Piazzolla’s music is infused with the language of Bach and the early 20th century European modernists.
I liken his music to Haydn’s or Johann Strauss Jr.’s: his pieces aren’t written for the dance, they are written to tell the story of the dance. Each piece is a miniature scene – the cabarets and night clubs where he cut his chops are the setting.
Thomas Adès is the real deal: a composer who writes music that is both interesting and emotional, has the piano chops to back up his incredibly demanding instrumental ideas, and makes a living off writing and presenting his own works.
Add to that the fact that he’s adept at incorporating a variety of styles into his music and a natural flare for the dramatic (see The Tempest and Powder Her Face) and you’ve got a first rate composer.
Messiaen reminds me of two other composers on this list: Arvo Pärt, because of his fervent and mystical religious beliefs; and Ligeti because of their shared experience as prisoners during WWII (Ligeti had it much harder) and because they both wrote music that explores new ground while maintaining a direct connection to the romantic tradition (Messiaen’s is stronger).
But now that I think of it, there are more parallels: like Ligeti, Messiaen dabbled in various -isms throughout the 20th century and took only what he liked. Messiaen’s modal harmonies are often bear a passing similarity to Billy Strayhorn’s mellow sonorities.
It would be slightly insane to make a list of the “Top” composers born after 1900 and not include at least one person who primarily worked in the essential 20th century art form, film. Probably a lot of you will think it’s equally crazy to choose Alberto Iglesias, a semi-obscure Spaniard who’s only scored about 20 movies, to fit that bill.
My reasons: Iglesias takes the best things from other composers who rank among my favorites: Herrmann, Max Steiner, Miklos Rózsa – even Danny Elfman. Then he turns the volume up. He is an amazing orchestrator and user of instruments more generally. Much like Pedro Almodóvar, his primary collaborator, Iglesias speaks an altogether contemporary language but informs it with a thorough knowledge of history. Both gentlemen speak to our lightest and our profoundest selves.
Formulating this list was a lot harder than I thought it would be. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that an instruction like “Pick the top 10 composers” would leave me adrift though. The good thing was that in choosing the contenders, I was able to better define my criteria.
I’m glad I used a fixed birth date as a criterion: for one thing, it made things easier than if I had gone with an even vaguer notion of “20th/21st century” composers, because then there would have been invited all this blabbing about who’s secretly a 19th century composer, etc. Choosing 1900 as a starting point for composer births was arbitrary enough.
I ended up going for a bon milieu approach: I preferred composers who were not afraid to experiment but who didn’t specifically align themselves with any group, and who made music that was both daring and beautiful. Not really any different then the criteria I would use for composers of any era.
Now, my conversants, to the comments section. The usual rules apply: make your own top 10 list or modify mine by replacing my selections with you own. There’s a whole lot of latitude in this list – much room to interpret that pesky word “Top” and bring in a lot of different ideas about music. Also, for this list please mention at least the birth year of your submissions.
Charlie Rose plays an inordinately large role in my life*. He is quasi avuncular – sometimes a chum, sometimes a father-confessor. In the space of a single interview – a single question, really – he can be simultaneously awkward and brilliant, bored and engaged. To gaze upon him is to know that he is a man of intense contrasts: how can one man look so boyishly handsome and so ruthlessly haggard at the same time?
*[in my head]
Charlie is my particular subject today because he’s been giving a lot of love to the classical music world lately, but we’ll get to that in just a second. I want to pause here to state publicly that even though I will fight valiantly to make sure cuff links remain a vital part of the male wardrobe, I love that Charlie just doesn’t wear them. In fact, sometimes he won’t even bother to button his ordinary cuffs:
And in that picture, he was in London for goodness’ sake! Ok though, enough about Charlie’s clothes. [And trust me, I could go on.] Charlie has always been a great friend to the classical music community, but there’s been a recent spate of interviews that I’d like to talk about. Let’s begin with the most interesting:
Valery Gergiev, in his 2nd or 3rd appearance on Rose, gave a blisteringly efficient and wide-ranging interview. This was the Charlie Rose broadcast at it’s best: engaging, insightful, convivial, mutually respectful. Plus, if anybody has ever embodied the phrase “rakishly handsome”, it would Valery Gergiev – which is astonishing in a world where we have Charlie Rose! [see above] Let’s just say, this was a meeting of equals.
Bar none, the most interesting part of this interview was the last five minutes, in which Charlie posed Gergiev one of the most surprising questions I’ve ever heard him ask: Who are the 5 (or 6) most important living composers in your eyes?
The reason for my surprise is that there are so few people in this world who are in any way interested living composers (the concert/art/academic kind, that is). Charlie Rose could not possibly have expected to recognize any of the names on Gergiev’s list (unless happened to fall under the elusive “unknown known” category), and yet he asked the question. I have never loved him more.
Let’s take a look and listen to Gergiev’s list of composers, shall we?
Shchedrin is an interesting choice, I’d say. Most Westerners, if they’ve ever heard of this composer at all, have only heard of one piece: the “Carmen Suite”, a sort of cartoonish, barbaric Russian ballet-fantasia on themes from Bizet’s Opera:
Shchedrin is often compared to Schnittke, and it’s not an unwarranted (though don’t get me wrong, I know Alfred Schnittke, and Rodion Shchedrin is no Alfred Schnittke). At his poppier moments, Shchedrin sort of comes off as Schnittke-meets-John-Williams. Gergiev makes a compelling case for the composer on his new album:
Dutilleux came as a surprise a) because I honestly did not know that he was still alive, and b) it’s not that he’s necessarily a bad composer, but I’ve never known anyone to be a major fan or champion of his music, and I certainly had no inkling that Gergiev might be that person (say in the way that Kent Nagano and Olivier Messiaen are associated w/ each other).
I’ve always thought of Dutilleux as a sort of solid but not terribly interesting mid-2oth century modernist. I don’t know much [his] of music, so perhaps that’s not fair. Give a listen and see what you think – this is the opening movement of his “Metaboles” and is the piece I’m most familiar with by him:
Raskatov is Gergiev’s near exact contemporary (they were born like 2 months apart). Raskatov has actually figured prominently on this blog before. Allow me to job your memory: he is the very person who painstakingly reconstructed Alfred Schnittke’s 9th Symphony. This was no easy job, and by all accounts, he did very, very thorough work. I mean, the piece that we can hear today sounds like Schnittke, and it’s all because of him. Respect.
The Schnittke symphony was released on CD and that’s how Raskatov first came to my attention. You see, he included a new piece, a Nunc Dimittis in Memoriam Alfred Schnittke (or Alfredom Schnittkom, I think, if we’re being correct about our Russian grammar.) And it’s like, honestly, can you hardly blame the guy if he wants to put his own piece on this album after doing all that work? I can’t – I’m sure I would have done the same thing. And it’s not that it’s a bad piece. It’s very Schnittkey, but you know, it’s just not going to come off so amazing in comparison when you pit it against this amazing transcendent work by an artist who was already halfway to the grave. Here’s maybe my favorite section:
With all due respect to Gergiev’s Ruskii compatriots, I would have started my list with Thomas Adès. Adès is arguably the most important, greatest, most tubular -whatever adjective you want to use- composer of concert music we have around these days. And it’s not a hard argument to make. Whether we all choose to realize or admit it, we composers today are living in the shadow of Ligeti. (In Russia, Schnittke is the looming presence. Give it time, and he will creep westward.)
Despite this pervasiveness, Adès is really the only major figure who is seriously grappling with the specter of Ligeti. And he’s none the worse for wear. Here is the first movement of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, about a minute in:
It’s not that the two pieces sound all that similar – my point is that they seem to inhabit a similar universe but they are worlds unto themselves. The act of homage is subtle: both composers build rhythmically complex textures that are nonetheless extremely quiet; the effect is a luminescent haze of sound.
I think it’s significant that not only that Adès handles himself adeptly in a dialogue with Ligeti but that he’s chosen late Ligeti as his conversant [I might mention that Adès' concerto also shares aspects with Ligeti's Hamburg Concerto.] Again, he’s not an imitator or a provocateur or anything like that – he’s got a very strong singular talent, perhaps one of the few strong enough to really grapple with Ligeti’s writing.
1) Grigolo might be the most Italian Italian person I’ve ever heard. No offense to my Italian friends, but they tend to say in about 100 words what they could manage in 10.
2) You just know that right before the cameras started rolling, Charlie made Vittorio coach him on the correct Italian pronunciation of his name. Charlie really tried to retain this knowledge as he introduced his guest, and though this was definitely his most valiant effort yet at a foreign pronunciation, it still comes out gloriously mangled.
2) Plus, if you skip ahead to 16:42, you’ll see that Vittorio loves Charlie, and so do I.
3) Watch Antonio Pappano at the beginning of the show as Charlie is introducing him. Do you see him subtly lip syncing the whole speech? That’s kind of really weird, right?