A few weeks ago, overseas‘ radio stations Q2 and NPR Music (National Public Radio) launched a crowd sourced project to determine listeners' favorite composers under the age of 40 — and, by extension, those pieces which were shaping our contemporary musical scene and defining what it means to be a composer in the 21st century. On Facebook, Twitter and the aggregating pages on Q2 and NPR Music, an international array of comments poured in, reaching almost 800 suggestions in total. With much debate and awareness of such a list's limitations, we've narrowed the field down to 100 composers, each represented by one song in a randomized stream on this page. Unfortunately, the list does not include any composer from the Czech Republic or Slovakia.
If there's any lesson in what a user-generated project such as this can offer, it's that the narrow notion of what it means to be a composer — writing in the shadow of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — is well on its way to obsolescence. Forget dusty ideals of court or church appointments, or those notions of plumbing the depths of the soul for salvation. The 21st-century composer makes his home wherever he sees fit, uses a battery of electric guitars and drums in the same breath as a section of violins and violas, and performs for a rabidly dancing audience on one night and at a concert-hall subscription series the next.
How do you know when you're hearing a composer? All we can really say, to paraphrase the late Potter Stewart, is: "I know it when I hear it." We're thrilled that this project has brought together singer-songwriters and bandleaders, experimental musicians and technophiles, jazz artists and composition students, composer collectives and one-man shows, and couldn't be more excited to reclaim the terms "composer" and even "classical music" for a 21st-century vocabulary. Read below for a complete list of those 100 composers featured — and, most importantly, let us know your thoughts on what it means to compose in the 21st century.
One of the most successful composers under 40 is Nico Muhly. His creative weapons of choice, too, are an omnivore’s: for his second studio album, recorded in Iceland, he taped the scraping of butchers’ knives and the slurp of raw whale flesh marinating in a bowl. Opera audiences, however, can rest reasonably easy: when his first opera, Two Boys, arrives at English National Opera in 2011 it will be performed by the traditional vanilla partnership of an orchestra and singers. The subject — the real-life story of a teenage boy in Manchester who impersonated women on the internet in order to seduce another boy — is another matter.
This makes placing Muhly in any school or clique a thankless task. “Good!” he says, breezily. “I’m not trying to be deliberately frustrating, but making music now means doing a lot of different things. I have the luxury of not having to choose to do one thing over the other, and I have the luxury of access to a lot of different people and materials and influences. It’s something that comes very naturally to me.”
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MuhlyMMMMMuhly speaks as he blogs (and tweets): avidly and openly, skimming over cultural — and culinary — references with gregarious enthusiasm. But if Muhly undoubtedly has the hip factor, it is easy to overstress the wackier ends of his CV. Although it is his pop and film projects that have so far won him exposure in Britain, he considers himself first and foremost a classical composer: “That’s where I’m from, it’s my world.” And his musical first love is the most English and reverent tradition of all: Anglican church music, which seeped into his DNA via his training as a chorister in his native Providence, Rhode Island. To his hippie’s parents — his mother is an artist, his father a filmmaker — the vocation was surprising. “I think they were horrified.”
It was Muhly’s choral training that went on to stimulate an abiding love of English composers — Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Howells and Finzi, of whom the latter two are still pretty obscure in their native country — and an openness to eclecticism. “When you’re a kid you don’t understand this idea that music exists in this strange spectrum in people’s heads that’s like ‘this is mainstream, and this isn’t, and this isn’t’. And if you ask a choral scholar, their sense of the ‘mainstream’ has nothing to do with yours or mine, it’s totally different.”
Listen to the jangly gleam of many a Muhly work and you can hear the traces of choral anthems — allied to the rather more obvious Minimalist techniques of Muhly’s one-time mentor Philip Glass (he assisted the composer for two years). More important to him, however, is the model that the church composers offer: collaborative, practical music making, dependent on the forces (and funds) available day to day.
It also allows him to opt out of most of contemporary music’s more unforgiving strains. His music is experimental, but it’s an experimentalism with very soft edges. Inside the classical music world, that hasn’t always attracted unanimous praise. In The New Yorker, America’s pre-eminent composer, John Adams, suggested that his music suffered from “a surfeit of prettiness”. “It’s fine, he’s right,” Muhly says. “I make really beautiful music that I like.”
Another important composer under 40, Sarah Kirkland Snider writes music of direct expression and vivid narrative. Her works, which strive for an indifference to boundaries of style or genre, have been performed by artists and ensembles from around the world including Signal, Colin Currie, Dinosaur Annex, Hebrides Ensemble, the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, the Knights, Shara Worden, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Psappha, Newspeak, Quatuor Bozzini, and many others, in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall, the Aspen Music Festival, Merkin Hall, the Colorado Music Festival, the Bang On a Can Summer Festival, the MATA Festival, the Look & Listen Festival, and the Keys to the Future Contemporary Piano Music Festival to New York multimedia art cabarets such as (le) Poisson Rouge, the Bell House, The Red Bull Theater, and Theater for the New City.
Her most recent music explores her love of writing songs. These works include Penelope (2009), a 60-minute song cycle with lyrics by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, written for vocalist Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) and the chamber orchestra Signal; Penelope (2008), a music-theater monodrama for Ellen McLaughlin and the Eclipse Quartet commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Center; and Until I Became Human (2007), a set of songs for mezzo, viola, and orchestra commissioned by Dinosaur Annex and the Community Music Center of Boston, set to the poetry of Ivanna Yi. Like Penelope (2009), which is scored for string orchestra, harp, percussion, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and electronics, much of her music features untraditional instrumentation; these works include Shiner (trombone, harp, viola, marimba), Stanzas in Meditation (two sopranos and harp), and In Two Worlds (mixed chamber ensemble including two trumpets, one offstage.) Upcoming projects include new works for yMusic, Shara Worden, NOW Ensemble, Third Coast Percussion, and violist Nadia Sirota. Fall 2010 will see the release of her first album, Penelope, featuring Shara Worden and Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, on New Amsterdam Records.
Sarah is also active as a promoter of new music in New York and beyond. From 2001-2007 she co-curated the Look & Listen Festival, a new music series set in modern art galleries. Since 2007 she has served as Co-Director, along with William Brittelle and Judd Greenstein, of New Amsterdam Records, an independent record label recently called “the focal point of the post-classical scene,” (Time Out New York) and “emblematic of an emerging generation” (The New York Times), and praised for “releasing one quality disc after another” (Newsweek).
Her most successful project is Penelope, a song cycle based on Ellen McLaughlin story, written for Shara Worden. To Sarah, Ellen Mc Laughlin’s text highlights elements of the Odyssey that are not necessarily readily apparent, elevating it from a simple hero story to something far more human, not to mention giving Penelope some long-overdue recognition. The music of Penelope is just beautiful and I people really love it.
Paola Prestini’s music takes the listener on a journey through different life experiences, creating an aural and visual map of the different countries and cultures that have inspired her. These travels sonically reflect the impact that collective identities, cultures and values have when they meet and dissolve in a person whose artistic roots are the collective sum of many parts.
This culminates in a romantic vision told in the form of calls to prayers, spirituals, narrations, and electronic resonances that come together with visuals to create Prestini’s unique voice.
Paola Prestini is a composer, a producer, and a teacher. Her influences range from Zorn (his music, his life) and Glass to Beethoven, Palestrina, and folk music. She has dedicated the past ten years to collaborating, and she has learned that collaboration can be an arduous process, and it is the balance of respecting people’s ideas, how to let certain ideas go, (and how to know which ones you will not let go) that allows you not to compromise your artistic integrity. She says: “Collaboration is an art in and of itself that can only be learned by doing it, making the necessary mistakes. My role in the process is my love of bringing disparate voices together, and seeing what emerges from the synergy. I continue to evolve because I see how different people ingest these new experiences—their rawness to the experience often enlightening certain parts of the collaborative process that were not clear to me before. Each artist’s passion for their ideas reminds me that redefining the boundaries in collaboration is a lifelong process and is absolutely connected to the project at hand, and that even in the hardest collaborative processes, ones identity is not lost, only rediscovered and reaffirmed”.
Literature has played a huge role in her writing—it has always been her first collaborator; she loves painting music on these canvases—the ideas on the page invite her to play and to think.
“I couldn’t live without music. When I write, after an initial process of often puzzling mechanical work (finding the language I want to use, and the outside sources that will be incorporated), I am in a state of flow: I often cannot remember the details of writing. It is as if all the years of experience come together to transport me through the process of expressing the cumulative inspirational sources into the musical concept at hand.” These moments pay for all the hard work! They are the best moments of her musical life, and even though each musical project has a different entry point, that moment of flow occurs in each experience.
Most recently, Paola curated FERUS, a festival at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn featuring artists that cross boundaries (violinist Jon Rose, choreographer MEI-BE WHATever dance, and Mark Stewart to name a few), and, is working on several collaborations with artists she greatly admires: violinist Cornelius Dufallo, cellist Maya Beiser, vocalist and performer Rinde Eckert, and filmmakers and visual artists Erika Harrsch, Ali Hossaini, and Carmen Kordas. Through her company, VisionIntoArt (VIA) she curates a biyearly series 21c Liederabend with Beth Morrison Projects and Opera on Tap; it was named “Best of 2009″ by TimeOut NY, and in 2011 will be at the Kitchen. VIA was founded with the belief that artists need to provide opportunities for other artists. She believes strongly in creating artistic communities and fostering new art, and that money is best spent on talent, not ‘stuff’. The environment of a collective brings with it the freedom to explore and create without boundaries in a safe playground.
The last one of the young composers I would like to mention is Valgeir Sigurðsson. He has made his name as an exponent of musical subtlety. As an engineer and producer, he's often focused on the intimate, the miniature. On his solo debut Ekvílibríum, his songwriting and composition tended towards the muted or the oblique. His best-known work is punctuated with question marks and ellipses, and not so many exclamation points.
But this is only one side of his musical capabilities. Draumalandið (“Dreamland”), a documentary about the exploitation of Iceland's natural resources, tells a story about huge things—the fortunes of a whole nation; the destruction of vast landscapes; and the global economic forces, greater still than any nation, that fuel it all—and for his soundtrack to the film, Valgeir has brought out a heavier set of tools. His entire roster of Bedroom Community labelmates contributes in some way to the creation of the score: classical composers Nico Muhly and Daníel Bjarnason, industrial wizard Ben Frost, and American folksinger Sam Amidon, along with a host of others, and the small orchestra assembled for the record swells from moments of expansive beauty into massive, surging symphonic force. Its harmonies are anxious, pulsing, driven.
Not that this is an album lacking in subtlety. Draumalandið the film takes on the delicate task of unmasking the apparent win/win proposition of Iceland's aluminium smelting boom—clean energy! New jobs! Economic growth!—as a false blessing with very real consequences. Likewise, Draumalandið the soundtrack takes global, at times seemingly abstract questions, and offers deeply personal responses.
Valgeir's score makes fierce and direct statements of sorrow and indignation, but it also expresses, with a kind of hushed awe, the beauty of landscapes on the brink of devastation, and the seductive shimmer of the illusions that imperil them. Tender, fragmented melodies rise out of uncanny musical textures; in the album's opening track, Sam sings “Grýlukvæði,” an Icelandic folk tune about a greedy hag come to devour naughty children, just as he would an Appalachian ballad, and in turn Valgeir reframes it as a sad, sympathetic reprimand to a people (Icelanders, yes, but by extension all of humanity) who would sell their birthright to a rapacious multinational.
This is all painted in brushstrokes broad and minute, from palette of hugely varied shades—Sam's banjo playing, Daníel's John Cage-style piano treatments, Ben's halos of distortion—but somehow, it all fits together as a coherent musical argument. Heard as an accompaniment to the film, the Draumalandið score can disappear into the images and the narrative. Listened to on its own, it rewards close attention: for the subtle interconnections between the movements, for their cumulative emotional force, and simply as a series of meticulously scored and recorded musical moments, urgent meditations on the natural sublime.
After listening to and reading about the music of the listeners' favourite composers under the age of 40 the questions are: how spiritual is the music of those composers? How important is spirituality for them at all? To get an answer we probably have to wait a bit longer.