Tag: 21st century music

Bryce Dessner: I’m the Same Musician Wherever I Go

A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat

Bryce Dessner is the first person we have ever featured on NewMusicBox who glowingly talked about both Paul Simon and Helmut Lachenmann. Like many of the most inventive creative musical minds of the early 21st century, Dessner does not compartmentalize music into different genres. However, it is clear that he has learned different lessons from his immersion into different kinds of music-making and that these lessons have made him a stronger musician, whether he is writing songs and playing lead guitar in the indie rock band The National, co-scoring the soundtrack for the motion picture The Revenant, or composing a double piano concerto for the Labeque sisters.

“I find scores to be a very advanced form of technology,” he opined during our hour-long conversation with him at the Archives of the New York Philharmonic immediately after a rehearsal for his composition Wires (for which he joined the orchestra on electric guitar for three consecutive nights in between their performances of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius). “With digital music, or sequence music, whether it be using Pro Tools or GarageBand or Ableton, or whatever, everything is based on patterns and loops,” he elaborated. “With a score, you see very clearly how to defy that. You can write across the bar and the sense of form is much more fluid and asymmetrical. In that way, in fact, I use score a lot in the band to create some of those details. We’ll write a song that’s basically doing the same thing for four minutes, but then I’ll look at it in a score and I’ll create patterns and motion in it that maybe would have been hard to see if I was just playing an Ableton loop or something.”

But scores can also impose limitations, as he then acknowledged. “Right now I’m in a season of needing to liberate myself from … that kind of isolation of looking at music and manuscript, and to be closer to instruments and to this idea of sound and the physical relationship of when I’m hearing notes played, I’m also feeling the bodies playing them. This physicality of music obviously translates the most when I’m on stage with my instrument. … So the balance of those things, maybe to capture that kind of lightning or that physical energy and then put it into a composition, has been something that’s really evaded me but has also excited me at times.”

Bryce Dessner has never been content to rest on his laurels. He’s always eager to explore something different. When he was asked by Sō Percussion to create a companion piece for David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature, he wound up creating a new instrument for the members of that quartet to perform his visceral Music for Wood and Strings. Similarly, The National’s song “Lemonworld,” from their breakthrough album High Violet, was a by-product of Dessner messing around in the studio and tuning his guitar “all the way down until the strings were almost flub.” While he was composing Wires, the piece he performed with the New York Phil, he literally wrote himself “emails every day with large caps saying, ‘NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS’” in order to try to “break old habits.”

“Part of why I’m drawn to doing this is because I’m still learning,” he explained. “I’m trying to be humble about my art and to be open to trying new things and also to say, ‘I don’t think I know.’ I’m dialing in deeper to what my true voice is and not being scared to try things.”

Dessner’s fearlessness about taking risks coupled with his openness to and fluency in so many different kinds of music have made him an ideal ambassador, not just between musicians from different backgrounds, but also with audiences. This has made him an ideal music curator, a role he has had at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in 2010, at the Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, which he founded, since its inception in 2006, and most recently at a NY Phil Nightcap concert last month. Ultimately, the experiences that Bryce Dessner has acquired and now shares as a musician are valuable life lessons that can be applied to all human interactions.

“I’m happy to be a kind of diplomat if people need me to be,” he said. “I find when you come into a room with judgment towards someone who is different from you …, you automatically cancel out all kinds of exciting possibilities that can happen.”

  • I learned more about electric guitar from Steve Reich than I did from Jimmy Page.

    A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat
    Bryce Dessner
  • We kept failing in trying to write a Nirvana-sounding song, so I just decided to just tune that guitar all the way down until the strings were almost flub.

    A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat
    Bryce Dessner
  • In Europe we’re all just a bunch of Americans.

    A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat
    Bryce Dessner
  • I love hearing the personality of a player and what they bring to it.

    A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat
    Bryce Dessner
  • I do love American string band music, American folk music, even some early country stuff.

    A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat
    Bryce Dessner
  • The 21st century is less about ideology, at least in music.

    A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat
    Bryce Dessner
  • More and more I see people leaving cities, giving up living condensed in a pressured environment where you have crazy stress trying to pay your rent and nowhere to rehearse.

    A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat
    Bryce Dessner

Why the 21st Century is the Most Exciting Time for Music

This essay will appear in the program book for the Ear Taxi Festival (October 5-10, 2016) in Chicago.

At only 16 years in, it’s still a bit presumptuous to make sweeping statements about the 21st century, but I’d like to posit a grand claim: our new century is the most exciting time to be making and listening to music. And unless all our channels of communication suddenly get destroyed, either through an unforeseen force of nature or some man-made catastrophe, the sheer number of possibilities and opportunities for access that have been steadily growing for decades will continue and most likely increase in the coming years. Our current state of ubiquity should remain “the new normal” for the foreseeable and forehearable future.

For listeners, there’s more music to hear than ever before–and it’s happening all over the world. Of course, it always has, but nowadays, it’s not limited to “national” “styles.” Also, global travel has become much more convenient, relatively speaking, and so with enough time, money, and overzealousness, a fanatical fan could actually trek the globe to hear extremely exciting music every day of the year. Much easier, we now can also experience a great deal of music happening in all these places without leaving our homes. And when we do, we can keep listening on our smartphones! Since music from literally any place and time can now be equally with us in the here and now, the once seemingly impenetrable dichotomies of domestic vs. foreign, new vs. old, and us vs. them have become completely porous and ultimately meaningless. It is all equally ours to enjoy, as well as to be the source of inspiration for our own creative impulses.

As interpreters and creators, we can literally do anything we want. In such an environment, it is no longer possible to be out of step with the zeitgeist. We no longer should feel stifled by so many of the other binaries that used to divide us aesthetically–e.g. old-fashioned vs. out-in-left-field, traditional vs. avant-garde, non-commercial vs. popular. There are few anecdotes that encapsulate today’s omnivorous catholicism more effectively than something Seth Colter Walls wrote about 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Henry Threadgill back in 2012:

Asked about what’s caught his ear of late, he identifies some recent Elliott Carter music for piano, as well as a Beyoncé song that his daughter brought into his life.

While exciting music is now being made everywhere, some places have been transformational loci for decades. It’s no small coincidence that Threadgill was born and raised in Chicago and that his career began there as one of the original members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), who were pioneers of 21st-century music as early as the 1960s. AACM’s founder, composer Muhal Richard Abrams, epitomized the AACM philosophy when I spoke with him for NewMusicBox earlier this year:

If we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.

Though both of these two maverick elder statesmen moved to New York City decades ago, and therefore neither will participate in the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, their all-embracing spirit pervades this unprecedented week-long musical immersion. Over the course of six days, the music of 88 different composers will be presented. More than half of them (56 to be exact) are emerging composers.  The only common ground they share is that they all transmit their ideas through music notation.  Among the works being performed, 53 will be world premieres. All in all, it comes to more than 8 hours of totally brand new music.

Over the short span of time that we call the 21st century, a new breed of interpreter has arisen—polyglots who can speak and be understood in any musical language. It’s no surprise that given Chicago’s legacy as a hotbed for open-minded creativity, it is now one of the epicenters for such interpreters and more than 300 of them (soloists as well as 25 ensembles) will be involved in these performances. It is why of all the places in the world I can be, this week I am here!

The 2000 Man—What Century Was This Anyway?

In the August 1, 2000, “issue” of NewMusicBox, John Luther Adams imagined an “American Music Fund” in which “if you could dream it up, this fund would consider it.” It’s a concept we thought about a lot while creating New Music USA project grants last fall because the best way to serve new music is to ask practitioners what they need.

Conversation on NewMusicBox is essential for testing ideas that ultimately strengthen new music, and when you donate to New Music USA, you empower us to help solve problems. Please celebrate the 15th anniversary of NewMusicBox by making a gift to support conversation as well as action!

Do you remember where you were when we entered the new millennium? Well, I guess that depends on whether you believe that the 21st century began in the year 2000 or the year 2001. I definitely remember those debates. I’ve always been partial to the 2000 adherents, and perhaps am even more so now than I was back then, since when assessing the achievements of the new century less than a fifth of the way into it, it helps to be able to include an extra year’s worth of stuff.

EugeneTakahashi

If anyone could defeat a potential Y2K catastrophe, it was Eugene Takahashi! (Photo by Richard Kessler.)

So, I’ll tell you exactly where I was at midnight on January 1, 2000: I was coordinating with NewMusicBox’s then-web designer Eugene Takahashi to make sure that our talk with Don Byron, our nationwide tour of jazz clubs, and the rest of the ninth “issue” of NewMusicBox was published without a hitch. Considering everyone’s fears about Y2K bugs, it was somewhat nerve wracking. (If you don’t know what I mean by an “issue”, you should look at the previous post of this 15th anniversary remembrance. If you don’t know what Y2K is, be thankful, even though it inspired some interesting music that found its way into our Online Library–originally called, ahem, NewMusicJukeBox–that launched two years later.) Anyway, ever since then it’s been a NewMusicBox tradition—even now that we publish content every weekday—to post our latest large-scale profile at the same moment the ball goes down at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I know that makes us seem a tad NYC-centric, but since—even despite time zone differences—folks all over the planet seem to be glued to their TV sets when that happens (sure beats being there in person), it somehow feels appropriate.  It’s also a great excuse for getting out of New Year’s Eve parties.

John Luther Adams and Frank J. Oteri

2014 Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Luther Adams (a.k.a. JLA), then the president of the American Music Center board, has been a mentor to me from the beginning of NewMusicBox.

As for other events from the rest of that year that still resonate with me, I’ll probably never forget the brouhaha that erupted when Lewis Spratlan won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Music for a piece he had composed 22 years earlier. A lot of people failed to realize that the prize was not for a “distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American” written during the previous year, but rather for one “that has had its first performance in the United States during the year.”  (Now, of course, the prize is awarded to a “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.”) I remember vowing that we’d talk to whomever won that prize and feature that person in NewMusicBox and we did, but in the years since we’ve gotten faster and now report on the winner of the Pulitzer as soon as it is announced. Miraculously, despite the seemingly instantaneous transmissions of social media, we’ve managed to stay on top of that particular game.  But what is perhaps the most mind-bogglingly gratifying coda to this story is that this year, the person who back in 2000 wrote a provocative alternative reality history of the Pulitzer Prize, finally won the prize himself!

Jenny Undercofler

It was clear from our first correspondence that Jenny Undercofler belonged in NewMusicBox. (Photo by Brian Krinke.)

I also remember how the so-called “Denver Project” (sounds like a CIA code name) still held sway over the music programming at most “public radio stations” across the United States and how a young graduate student named Jenny Undercofler responded to it. We were so blown away by her writing and her zeal that when NewMusicBox’s Associate Editor Nathan Michel left NewMusicBox to become a rock star (which, eventually, he kinda did), we hired her! (She has since gone on to prove to the world that young people can be some of the best advocates for new music through her work with Face The Music.)
I still tell people about the moment in our talk with Elliott Carter when he said that minimalism reminded him of cat food commercials. (The connection between minimalism and the semiotics of advertising was the central thesis of a book by Robert Fink published five years later that found its way into NewMusicBox the following year.) I still regret that we weren’t able to share Carter’s quote on video—bad lighting—but that didn’t stop us from finally boldly marching into the 21st century with video clips of minimalist pioneer Meredith Monk the following month.
NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
Perhaps my most vivid memory mirrors those of most Americans and concerns the aftermath of the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election. I traveled to California the day after Election Day (to record conversations with Pauline Oliveros, Joan Jeanrenaud, and John Adams) still not knowing who the next person to hold our nation’s highest office would be, yet suddenly being minutely aware of “hanging chads” which somehow got worked into every joke. (Before that election, we had a few jokes of our own….) Maybe now that the man who ultimately wound up being our next Commander-in-Chief for the next eight years has taken up painting, he’ll get more interested in music and start reading NewMusicBox!
What are some of your memories of the year that was either the last year of the 20th century or the first year of the 21st?

Sounds Heard: 17 More Takes on those 88 Keys

Merged image of the album covers of American Vernacular and Keeping Time
Once upon a time, it often felt as if anything that did not have some kind of electronic component—or at least did not emulate those new sonic resources made possible via technology through extended techniques—was an anachronism. Things like string quartets, or—even more so—solo piano music seemed hopelessly quaint and not in keeping with the times despite the fact that tons of composers were still creating engaging music for these instruments. The recent 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet serves as a reminder of how they and now countless other string quartets have shown listeners that it is still possible for up-to-the-minute contemporary music to be realized on two violins, viola and cello. Similarly, myriad pianists promulgate an endless supply of recent repertoire, proving there’s still a lot to be said via those 88 keys without even having to venture inside their instruments or retune the strings. Two pianists who recently caught my attention with new releases devoted exclusively to American music composed within the last quarter century are Nicholas Phillips and Mary Kathleen Ernst. All in all, 17 composers are represented on their discs, showing that the instrument that once was a mainstay in households all across the land still has a home in the 21st century.

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Cover for the CD American Vernacular

American Vernacular
Nicholas Phillips, piano
(New Focus FCR 144)

Phillips’s latest CD outing, American Vernacular, is something of a departure from the previous recordings in his discography—discs devoted to the music of San Antonio-based Ethan Wickman and the late Boris Papandopulo, who was among Croatia’s most prolific composers. Now, rather than focusing on a single composer, Phillips offers a wide-ranging program whose unifying theme is being American in some way. He approached composers telling them he wanted to put together an album of “American vernacular” music without really offering them much more to go on. In his booklet notes for the CD, Phillips wrote that he wanted to “engage audiences with new music that also drew from something familiar” but “not to make a popular crossover album.” As a result, the music represents a broad range of styles and moods.

Spectacular Vernaculars, a three-movement suite by Mark Olivieri, pays homage to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, De La Soul, Alberto Ginastera, and tango.  That’s already a lot of ground covered in the album’s first three tracks. Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody, which is inspired by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains, sounds like music Claude Debussy might have written if he had lived in the Western United States instead of Paris. I’m particularly enamored of On the Drawing of Constellations by Chicago-based composer and vocalist Ben Hjertmann, whose previous compositions have run the gamut from a post-modern take on the once ubiquitous secular Medieval song “L’Homme Armé” to prog rock material that sounds deeply indebted to Brian Wilson. Constellations, as is fitting for a musical depiction of the evening sky, is much more introspective and aphoristic; imagine the directionlessness of late Morton Feldman without the sometimes neurosis-inducing (wonderful though they may be) dissonances.


Billy-tude by Joel Puckett (who was profiled last month on these pages) is a delightful virtuosic piece that makes occasional nods to Billy Joel in ways that even I, who have never been much of a fan of the “Piano Man,” can appreciate. Three Piano Miniatures (Nos. 10, 12, and 13) in Mohammed Fairouz’s ongoing series are sonic meditations on, in turn, Liberace, Tin Pan Alley, and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The last of these, with its foreboding ostinato, is particularly moving. Beloved by David Maslanka is an extremely tender short piece that admirers of the composer’s imposing large scale works for symphonic winds will find rather surprising.

Luke Gullickson’s Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey offers up some of those Feldman-esque dissonances that Hjertmann had eschewed but in ways that are much more driving and insistent. But what is perhaps most striking about this piece is the way that material alternates with rapid cross-hand figuration that emulates Fahey’s signature finger-picking guitar style. John Griffin’s Playin’ and Prayin’, which mixes hoedowns and Christian hymnody from the Deep South, is somewhat reminiscent of the many “Hymn and Fuguing Tune” compositions Henry Cowell composed during the last 20 years of his life; it’s a sound world that is ageless, at least to my ears. A Southern Prelude by William Price offers a more abstract take on the sound world from below the Mason-Dixon line, taking its cues from the rambling, chatty-style delivery of Southern storytellers.

The final work featured is Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances, composed in 2012 by David Rakowski. Aficionados of Rakowski’s seminal piano etudes will revel in this new piece’s similarly off-kilter takes on blues and jazz with fractals thrown in for good measure. I, for one, was extremely disappointed when Rakowski reached his 100th solo piano etude and said that he would write no more of them, but I’m overjoyed that he’s found a way around his vow.

One additional detail that deserves a mention: Phillips very helpfully provides detailed information in his notes for how to obtain scores for all of the pieces stating, “I hope this recording inspires you all, especially fellow pianists, to seek out the music.” It is laudable gesture that will hopefully get this worthy music into many additional hands and ears.

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Cover for the CD Keeping Time

Keeping Time
Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano
(innova 868)

Mary Kathleen Ernst’s new collection, Keeping Time, ups the ante on Phillips’s by limiting her selection not only to recent music by American composers, but exclusively to women. For the folks who claim that such endeavors are no longer necessary in 2014, one need look no further than the fact that while Phillips’s American Vernacular is a fabulous collection, it did not include a single female composer. But Ernst’s restriction is anything but limiting and proves that worthy music is being created by everyone. In fact, I decided to feature both discs in this essay to try to balance things out a bit.

Keeping Time by Canadian-born, now Bay Area-based Vivian Fung lends not only its title to Ernst’s anthology but also a guiding principle behind the selection of all the works herein; as Ernst states in her booklet notes, “it reflects the ongoing pulse in music” and also “honors … composers writing during my lifetime.” Secret and Glass Gardens, a 2000 work by Jennifer Higdon written for the Van Cliburn Competition’s American Composer invitational, frequently enters territory that is worlds away from the frenetic virtuosity that usually characterizes her work and offers a glimpse of sumptuous lyricism that is equally appealing. Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances is a single movement that stiches together a wide range of dance-like sections in different tempos. Jing Jing Luo’s Mosquito is, as its title implies, unbridled flittering; it is tense but very exciting. (Warning: though it is labelled correctly on the tray card, the metadata for this track was mislabeled and so it appears as though it were part of the next piece; in fact, the erroneously metadata tags continue on for an additional eight tracks of that next piece.)

The most substantial work featured on the disc is Chai Variations, a 20-movement, 21-minute tour de force for solo piano by Judith Shatin that was inspired by the Jewish folksong “Eliahu HaNavi.” Chai, the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is often used to represent the number 18 as well as life, hence Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and this set of 18 brief variations with a theme at the beginning and a recapitulation of the theme at the very end. Ernst shows a particular affinity for this music, having previously recorded a whole disc of Shatin’s music with violinist Hasse Borup which included the formidable solo piano piece Widdershins.

Spontaneous D-Combustion by Stefania de Kenessy, who shocked the sensibilities of the avant-garde at the beginning of the 21st century with her “Derriere Guard” movement, is true to de Kenessy’s purposefully backward-looking compositional aesthetics which provocatively reject most of the musical advances of the 20th century. But it’s not without some quirks. It is a series of seven short movements, but players can play as many as they wish in any order. Ernst chose three, ending the set with a manic Vivace in septimal meter that is not the kind of thing you’d typically hear in the 19th century.


Nancy Bloomer Deussen’s “A Recollection,” a gorgeous little piece akin to the Albumblätter that so popular during the Romantic era, is from a suite of two pieces entitled Musings: Circa 1940 that were inspired by her childhood in the Bronx as World War II was about to unravel. Coming at the end of Ernst’s CD, it almost has the feel of an encore—perhaps a not so subtle suggestion to other pianists since returning to the stage to play something like this after an entire concert program is an almost surefire way to garner even more enthusiastic applause.

Finding the Right Balance

For many music-minded folks in New York City, January is normally a crazy time of the year since this is the month when national organizations such as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and Chamber Music America always hold their national conferences here. After all these years, and especially after the arrival of the Polar Vortex, you’d think they’d opt for a month with better weather! While I opted to pass on APAP this year, I devoted the entirety of last weekend to CMA which this year offered an extraordinary range of half-four showcase performances by various ensembles—18 in all—as well as a commissioning concert featuring four works which were all created in 2012.

In addition to these conferences, another annual January event of more recent vintage now also looms large—PROTOTYPE, which is a two-week, multi-venue festival devoted to new opera. Now in its second season, PROTOTYPE presented performances of five new works—by Gregory Spears, Kamala Sankaram, Jonathan Berger, Du Yun, and Lina Lapelyté. I attended all of them and was extremely glad I did, except for not being able to rid myself of bittersweet feelings over the irony that thanks in large part to this festival, the 2013-14 concert season, which also witnessed the demise of New York City Opera, felt like NYC’s most vital one for new opera in years.

Before the holidays, I wrote about the gender inequities in classical music which continue to play out in new music and how some organizations are attempting to address this issue. Some folks got so heated up about the prospect of performing repertoire that completely reflected the totality of who creates music that the debate kept raging for a month. The bruhaha on the web this week has been revolving around an incendiary essay by a writer named Mark Vanhoenacker, posted January 21 on Slate, called “Requiem: Classical Music in America is Dead.”

To get a sense of what’s gotten folks—myself included—all riled up, here’s a choice excerpt:

Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither.

[C]onsider the relative standing of classical music. Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

It seems to me the problem with some folks’ “classical music paradigm” (as opposed to the music itself) is that it willfully assumes this music to have a role that is somehow separated from the rest of societal discourse. Of course, as Alex Temple so astutely and succinctly pointed out earlier this week: “Denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.”

What I witnessed this month, both at PROTOTYPE and in the showcases at the Chamber Music America conference, is that some folks understand what it means to pay attention to finding the right balance with respect to diversity—gender, ethnicity, age group, etc.—and in so doing have shown that “new (classical?) music” (why do we even have to label it?) is very much alive. Rather than that balance being in any way a hindrance to “quality,” by paying attention to this broader range, they are putting forward some of the most engaging stuff that is happening right now.

Jennifer Charles in Angels Bone

Jennifer Charles in a Trinity Church concert reading of Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone, an opera about human trafficking which seamlessly merges medieval polyphony, indie rock, and even a bit of Darmstadtian modernism. Photo by Noah Stern Weber, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

The most exciting music being created today is not the product of a single compositional aesthetic or the work of just one segment of the population. (Pick your prejudice and throw it away.) It cannot be contained geographically or be hermetically sealed up in impenetrable genre boxes. What writers like Vanhoenacker get so wrong when they look at statistics is how arbitrarily creative work is carved up to fit into niches that are no longer relevant. (It’s important to point out that in the percentages he shared as proof that classical music and jazz are at the bottom of “the business of American music,” no genre has a majority. That’s a far more significant piece of information which speaks to what music in the 21st century is all about thus far.)

During the question and answer period following a fascinating panel discussion at the CMA conference moderated by Joel Harrison, which also included Missy Mazzoli, Clarice Assad, and Billy Childs, Kevin James said something that I believe is emblematic for our time:

Composers now prefer to be beyond genre. There is no sound that I would not consider. Composers today want that flexibility.

Some of us are still recovering from a century of industry-imposed genres. But when we do, it will potentially be a paradise for a truly new music.

Playing the Dozens

The flurry of comments in response to Rob Deemer’s latest NewMusicBox post, “Found: Three Examples of 21st Century Music,” reveals how fraught with controversy it has become to establish anything that even faintly resembles a canon at this point in our history. While that is not what Rob was attempting to do (and I’m not trying to suggest that he was), his motives are extraneous to the passions that an assumption of such an effort provokes. Yet curiously, in a recent blog post over at Sequenza21 (cited in “Alex Shapiro’s response to Rob’s essay and written, ironically, in response to another NewMusicBox post by Deemer in which he provided a list of 202 women composers and offered anyone reading to add more names), composer Judith Lang Zaimont suggests that we should be narrowing our field:

What good is it to have so large a field? According to a telling anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, we withdraw when there are more than c. six choices at hand. Two hundred is 194 too many. Why are people – good people, sensitive, knowledgeable people – reluctant to express their opinion? Why run scared of standing behind your principles, your choices?

With all respect to Judith Lang Zaimont, whose music I have admired for decades and whose writings about music are insightful, I would hate to limit myself to three or six or even two hundred and, if there’s any generalization we can make about our current music culture, we no longer need to. I probably discover at least a dozen new composers every week (both contemporary and from the past), and for that I am grateful. I hope it never ends.

So I would be extremely uncomfortable with the assignment that Rob was given; I’m glad no one asked me to do it. Last year I devoted a lion’s share of my free time to updating and revising the articles about American orchestra music and American chamber music for the forthcoming new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music; in both cases, I went way past double my word limit in an effort to cite as many composers and works as I could cram in and I still feel heartbroken about all the works I couldn’t squeeze in. I don’t feel the need to defend Rob or his specific choices for three examples of 21st century music, especially since Alex Shapiro has already so articulately done so in the comments, despite ““Anonymous Matt”’s rebuttal that she was “exhibiting a Fox News mentality.” (Who is that guy?) But I would like to engage in Daniel Wolf’s thought experiment because I think it could lead us into a new and equally interesting area for discussion:

[C]onsider, as a thought experiment, trying to sum up the first decade of the 20th century in only three works. So I choose something of Debussy, Strauss and Ives. A nice group with some great pieces in the decade, but hardly representative or even suggestive as I’ve certainly missed very important and very different works by i.a. Ravel, Mahler, Puccini, Skryabin, Satie, Schoenberg.

If we were miraculously transported back to April 1912, we would have a very different view of the 20th century than we do now. Imagine being just barely twelve years into the 20th century: the first performance of Pierrot lunaire would not take place until October 16 and the riots during the premiere The Rite of Spring would not occur until the following year. Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen would have been three years old, and not yet aware of any of this. John Cage would not yet have been born. There would be no radio or television and live performance either in concert halls or in people’s homes (played from published sheet music) would have been the way music was mostly consumed; commercially released recordings were still a novelty that most people didn’t take very seriously. (Remember that merely twelve years before the start of the new century novelist Edward Bellamy, not being able to comprehend the possibility of recorded sound, imagined an alternative late 20th century where everyone had music in their homes as a result of using a telephone to call dedicated music rooms that operated 24/7.)

As for Wolf’s choices of Debussy, Strauss, and Ives as the three representatives of 20th-century music based on only being around for the first 12 years of it, I’m reminded of the cliché of hindsight being 20/20. Ives would certainly not have made anyone’s cut. At that point in history he was an unknown “amateur” composer and therefore would have been outside the purview of all of us. (The way music was disseminated in the year 1912 is difficult to fathom in our own time where being able to access the music of just about everybody is taken for granted; perhaps the greatest testimony to that sea change is our ability to easily find the music of our own era’s “amateur” composers about whom Dennis Bathory-Kitsz wrote so eloquently.) Also, an American would never have made the grade, especially not in the United States where our sense of cultural inferiority was artistically stifling for many at the time. (Also women, sadly, would never have been considered for such an honor despite the extraordinary music being written at that time by Amy Beach and Lili Boulanger, among others; nor would people of color despite the publication of the vocal score of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha only a year earlier, in 1911.) More than likely the list would have been filled with composers like Max Reger, whom we hardly think of as a 20th century composer (since he died in 1916) if we think of him at all. This is in no way to disparage Reger, whose music I find endlessly fascinating. In fact, if anything, history’s weeding out of composers from earlier times can be far more unjust than singling out people in our own (at a time when there is also a platform for healthy debate about it).

But let’s take the exercise even further back in time to April 1812, a time that many establishment classical music purveyors continue to fixate on. Indeed, Beethoven was all the rage. He had already composed 26 of his 32 piano sonatas, as well as six of his nine symphonies, and the 7th and 8th would be completed later in the year. Many of the most influential arbiters of taste hailed him as the world’s greatest composer; for better or worse, they frequently still do. But almost as highly regarded at the time were Muzio Clementi and Jan Ladislav Dussek (who tragically died a mere month earlier on March 20). History has not been terribly kind to either of these composers. The Dussek entry in the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians posits that history might have overlooked Dussek because so many passages in his music sound like the music of other composers, albeit composers whose sound-alike works postdate his. History’s selectivity can be capricious and extremely unfair, which is why the more of us who can write history the better off we all are in the long run. In our own era of plentitude, a few adventurous record labels have issued recordings of music by Clementi and Dussek; I’ve recently been listening to them and have loved everything I’ve heard. So rather than worrying about how history will determine who the “great” ones are, I would argue that it’s more important for us to be as open and generous to everything as we can possibly be and do everything we can to ensure that all of it thrives. And, if it all does in fact thrive as a result, when folks in 2112 start picking fights about the music of our time, they might actually have a leg to stand on.