What is Happening Now V – Mainstream European-Style Composers

The minimal revolution eventually had an effect on all contemporary music — even the High Modernists like Carter and Boulez were persuaded to mellow out a little bit and compose music that was easier to follow. However, not everyone adopted the hypnotic pulsations of Reich and Glass — there are still many composers out there whose music grows seamlessly out of the rest of the 20th century. The work of these guys mixes a little more comfortably with the past – indeed, to an unfamiliar listener it might not be obvious that it was composed recently. What’s new about this stuff is often very subtle.

Thomas Adès

Thomas Adès (whose name is pronounced something like “addiss,” I think) rose to prominence in the 90s as a new English compositional wunderkind. Right away his work exhibited a virtuosity and playfulness that people really responded to. I’ll start with a movement from his string quartet Arcadiana, to show how deeply traditional his music can be. This passage sounds like something Barber, Britten, or even Copland could have composed, save for a few odd flecks of dissonance that mark is as something different. (That is very postmodern of Adès.)

(Direct Link)

Arcadiana appears on his debut album of original works:

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I’m also picking this great live clip of his chamber symphony Asyla. (The title is the plural of “asylum.”) This one is much more chaotic and perhaps a little more contemporary, though here I think you get a strong influence of 80s Ligeti with all of those shrill and violent ostinati that bounce off of each other. As it really digs in it briefly reaches the savagery of The Rite of Spring.

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The whole piece is awesome! You can get it on this album:

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Jennifer Higdon

I still haven’t heard much from American composer Jennifer Higdon, but what I have heard has been immediately impressive for its remarkable energy. She first came to my attention when she won the 2010 Pulitzer for her Violin Concerto.

I’m going to embed both movements from her Piano Trio, which is wonderful. These youtube clips present a nice performance by the American Piano Trio, who are faculty at Ball State.

The opening movement, “Pale Yellow,” is lovely and somewhat Romantic – again this could almost be Barber or Copland.

(Direct Link)

The second movement, “Fiery Red,” sounds like angry Shostakovich.

(Direct Link)

There are currently two recordings of this piece out there – I think this one by The Lincoln Trio is best.

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(I don’t know how interesting the whole album is – I haven’t played the rest of it! – but you could purchase only Higdon’s trio if you wanted to.)

George Benjamin

Benjamin’s early works in the late 70s and 80s seem to have firmly established his High Modernist cred – they sound quite in line with composers like Ligeti and Birtwistle. That’s fine, if somewhat unremarkable. His more recent work, however, has a new intricacy and fragility that I really like, with polyphonic strands that seem to be woven together in an almost Bach-like texture.

His opening movement from the piano piece Shadowlines presents a kind of knot that needs to be unraveled. It eventually starts flowing in a counterpoint that is gentle but still percolates with rhythmic energy. Here it is played by Taiwanese pianist Yin Chiang

(Direct Link)

Here’s a work for chamber orchestra, Palimpsest I, which begins with a chorale for clarinets which is interrupted by violent outbursts from the rest of the ensemble. The work morphs in many ways after that, but idea of a sustained, slowly moving stream of tones seems to carry throughout. Don’t miss 4:19 where it becomes an ominous brass dirge.

(Direct Link)

Thus, while Benjamin grows very obviously out of the “difficult” music of the recent past, I think there’s something new in there that is worth hearing.

Shadowlines appears on a disc of solo and duo works that is well worth digesting in full. (In particular, Viola, Viola is another excellent piece.)

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…and Palimpsests I is on this collection of chamber music performed by the peerless Ensemble Modern.

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There are many more, of course…

This is a catch-all category for contemporary composers who aren’t in a specific “bag”, so to speak, so there are dozens and dozens more that one could name who might go here. These three are just the ones that I personally find particularly interesting at the moment.

Next week we’ll look at the Spectralist school of composition and I’ll try to show some of the neat things that people are doing with computers that interact with live performers.

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