Found: Three Examples of 21st-Century Music

Found: Three Examples of 21st-Century Music

Over the past two weeks I’ve been going over lists of composers and their repertoire to see if I could find some common threads that stood out as being both important and new in some way. I would like to take you through my process and show you why I nominated the three works that I did.

Written By

Rob Deemer

My last column discussed a project that I have been taking part in which is not only a challenge but a valuable opportunity as well. A noted musicologist requested that I submit up to three scores that would adequately represent the musical innovations of the past 10-15 years, and over the past two weeks I’ve been going over lists of composers and their repertoire to see if I could find some common threads that stood out as being both important and new in some way. I would like to take you through my process and show you why I nominated the three works that I did.

First off, when I wrote my last article I was not sure how the author would feel about me discussing details surrounding his new edition. He has since given his approval, so I can tell you that the anthology of which I speak is Mark Evan Bond’s History of Music in Western Culture (forthcoming 4th edition, published by Pearson Education). I have been very excited about Bond’s openness to including recent works in his latest edition, especially considering how widespread the general wisdom is that one cannot judge new works because of their newness (see Tommasini, Anthony).

Evan gave me a lot of latitude but also a few limitations—composers born around or after 1970, works that were short (no longer than seven minutes), scores that would easily fit into the existing anthology pages (14”x8.5”), works that had professional recordings, pieces that would work well in the classroom, and both scores and recordings that would be licensable. Anyone who has gone through the process of writing a book understands how precarious the activity is, so I can say right now that nothing is set in stone—all three composers have agreed to have their works included, but the licensing process may not only take a while but possibly disallow a work from being used. That being said and the ultimate end result not withstanding, I’ll stand behind both my nominated works and the parameters by which I’ve used to select them.

One thing that I did not want to do was to create new labels—the last thing anyone wants or needs is an “ism” that fairly or unfairly groups and pigeon-holes several composers based on one or two works that might in some way be similar. Instead, I decided to look for broad characteristics that overlapped many composers and works, and soon I was able to (subjectively) find enough that stood out to make a list of parameters. From there, I looked for works that, collectively, would cover as many of those parameters as possible. The following are the overarching characteristics that I felt best reflected the innovations of the past decade.

Use of Technology. Out of all the innovations that have affected concert music since the mid-nineties, one would be hard-pressed to find a more pervasive one than digital technology. Even discounting digital notation software, PDF technology, and the Internet (each one having had an immense effect on composers), there has been an explosion of methods with which to incorporate technology into the creative process and product. Ranging from simple aural enhancements and “with tape” pieces to basic looping software and the most far-flung digital transmutations, composers and performers alike have been slowly becoming acclimated to the ubiquity of microphones and laptops in the studio and on the stage—encouraging one another to employ the increasingly easy-to-use technology to explore new sound worlds, textures, and concepts.

Some examples that just touch the surface might include:

1-bit Symphony by Tristan Perich

Elsewhere is a Negative Mirror, Part 1 by Per Bloland

Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers by Annie Gosfield

Ecstatic Waters by Steven Bryant

Tourmaline by Alexandra Gardner

FONO by Angelica Negron

Rusty Air in Carolina by Mason Bates

Strange Imaginary Animals Remix by Dennis DeSantis

Influence of Chamber Ensembles. As contemporary concert music became more widely accepted at universities in the 1990s, performers who caught the “new music” bug began to form their own chamber ensembles. With the Kronos Quartet (founded in 1973) and Bang on a Can All-Stars (since 1992) as their precursors, some ensembles began to combine the structural, attitudinal, and marketing models of traditional chamber groups with other models such as “indie” rock bands and multi-tiered non-profit organizations, while others strove to raise the perception of their ensemble and its repertoire to the level of more established genres.

By the mid-1990s, grad students from Oberlin formed eighth blackbird and International Contemporary Ensemble and that Alarm Will Sound was organized by students from Eastman. Older ensembles such as the PRISM Saxophone Quartet (University of Michigan) and the Meridian Arts Ensemble (Juilliard), which came to prominence in the early ’90s, were now joined by So Percussion and NOW Ensemble (both formed at Yale) and later by others which coalesced in various locations around the country—Newspeak, ETHEL, JACK Quartet, Dither Quartet, and Janus Trio are just a few that hail from New York City, Dinosaur Annex and Firebird Ensemble from Boston, Great Noise Ensemble in Washington, D.C., Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, and Fifth House Ensemble out of Chicago, Earplay from San Francisco, and Musiqa from Houston.

What was most important about the formation of these ensembles was not only their proximity in age and attitude with emerging composers, but their aggressive commissioning and nurturing of new works. While most orchestras and many established chamber ensembles became living museums for music of the past, these new groups allow composers to experiment and expand their musical vocabulary without the pressures or attitudes that exist in many areas of the traditional concert world.

A few of the many works that have emerged out of these collaborations include:

Divinum Mysterium by Daniel Kellogg (eighth blackbird)

So-Called Laws of Nature by David Lang (So Percussion)

Chamber Concerto Cycle by Huang Ruo (ICE)

Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams (Alarm Will Sound)

Animal Vegetable Mineral by Steven Mackey (PRISM Quartet)

Songs from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt by Missy Mazzoli (NOW Ensemble)

Influence of Popular and Non-Western Music. While the idea of combining popular or ethnic music with classical/concert music has been around for a very long time, since the late 1990s it has become infused into the mindset of many composers and ensembles. Because of the wide range of influences that composers have had at their fingertips, it is difficult to even begin to describe the myriad ways in which either popular music or musics from non-Western cultures have left and continue to leave their mark on concert music. Characteristics can range from texture to harmony to instrumentation to rhythm and so on—even the concept of writing a work with the intended result being a recording and not a live performance.

Some examples of works that demonstrate such characteristics include:

Craiglistlieder by Gabriel Kahane

Dog Days by David T. Little

Folk Music by Judd Greenstein

Mothertongue by Nico Muhly

A House in Bali by Evan Ziporyn (includes Balinese Gamelan)

Tracing Mississippi by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (incorporates American Indian music)

Emphasis on IndividualComposer/Performer. Related to the influence of popular music is how much composers have relied on the specific eccentricities of a particular performer in order to shape a work; this often includes asking for special techniques or skills that a particular performer has mastered (including improvisation, extended techniques, or stylistic performance traits). This has encouraged many performers to search for performance techniques that would allow them to stand out from the crowd—an example would be the growing number of violinists, violists, and cellists who have learned to sing while playing their instrument.

In addition, there are an increasing number of composer/performers who sculpt some of their works around their own personal abilities on their instrument. This unique situation gives the composer much flexibility as they create, but it also results in the possibility that the works may not enjoy an afterlife with other performers. Finally, we have seen a similar increase in individuals who make a name for themselves on their instrument first and use the opportunities they have as performers to hone their skills as composers—percussionist Jason Treuting, hornist Matt Marks, and violinist/violist Caleb Burhans are three of several outstanding examples of those who blur the edges of “performer” and “composer” to a great degree.

Examples of works that emphasized an individual performer’s voice include:

Thracian Sketches by Derek Bermel

Reverse Swastikas Mark the Place of Buddhist Temples by Ken Ueno

Mouthpiece IX by Erin Gee

Cosmosis by Susan Botti

Subharmonic Partita by Mari Kimura

The Little Death, Vol. 1 by Matt Marks

Of course there are many other characteristics that I haven’t listed here that are evident in many scores written over the past 15 years. Tonal languages, processes based on spectral analysis, stylistic hybridization, extensive use of pre-existing sounds or musical material…the list is long. However, when it came down to it, it wasn’t that difficult to pick three pieces that as a whole enveloped all of these concepts in some form or fashion. In fact the hardest part was to find works that fit within the requested duration limit—all three ended up being short movements of larger works (a string quartet, a double concerto, a song cycle). As of yesterday, all three have been enthusiastically endorsed by the author as being “diverse, as representative as a mere three works can be, they’re not long, and they’ll have immediate appeal in the classroom.”

One last note: There have been many works written throughout the last 15 years that barely touch the characteristics I’ve listed. If anything, composers have become comfortable choosing from the musical smorgasbord that has accumulated over the past several centuries.  I wanted to be clear that the works below do not connote the “Best of…”, but rather they represent what is new and, from this writer’s perspective, could be indicators of what is to come.

Final Selection.

1. Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, mvt. 4 “Chasqui (2001) by Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972)

Written for the Chiara Quartet, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout is one of several works by Frank that reflect her interest in her Peruvian heritage; “Chasqui” not only depicts an extra-musical narrative but asks for traditional Western instruments to sound like traditional Peruvian instruments (the charango and quena).

2. Double Violin Concerto, mvt. 2 “Song” (2008) by Lisa Bielawa (b. 1968)


Double Violin Concerto Mvt. II, Song from In Medias Res


Part of a larger work that was crafted around two very different and complimentary violinists (Colin Jacobsen and Carla Kihlstedt – a composer in her own right), “Song” not only asks Kihlstedt to play with a quarter-tone scordatura but also to sing while she is playing.

3. Every Day is the Same Day, mvt. 3 “On This Date Every Year” (2010) by Corey Dargel (b. 1977)

In response to Cornelius Dufallo’s request for a work as part of his “Journaling” series, Dargel created a large-scale song cycle for himself to sing with Dufallo on violin (multiple violin lines are layered using Ableton Live software during each performance); Dargel writes the texts of his songs as well as the music and is known for his ability to use dry humor to comment on controversial or socially uncomfortable subject matter.