Tag: 21st century

Anthologies and the Problem of Pre-Fab Teaching

booksIt’s easy to see anthologizing as the first step on the road to canonization. When a contemporary piece is placed in a collection of the type to which Rob Deemer has by now famously contributed, it gets transmitted as a stable, printed score, and finds itself positioned adjacent to music that traditionally qualifies as monumental—large-scale, orchestral, German—and at the end of a perceived narrative of progress, decadence, decay (and rebirth?). It becomes a Work, and might as well be stamped with a morose likeness of Beethoven and brushed with a patina of dust and sauerkraut.

The anthology, in this view, is deeply problematic, and much of the criticism of Rob’s choices operates from this position. Those who remark on the dearth of European composers on his list, for instance, project a sense of indignation that a whole category of artists might not be considered worthy of immortalizing. Those who complain about the lack of improvised music (more on that below) and examples of other techniques betray a concern that nonstandard creative approaches will not be recognized as skillful.

More problematic than the anthology, in my view, is what this kind of critique assumes about the activity of history and theory pedagogy. The unarticulated assumption is that the anthology will be used in the service of a narrative of great works and geniuses, a kind of chronological tour of the Classical Music Hall of Fame, and that those contained inside the paper walls are proven masters, while those without aren’t worthy of attention.

One way to soothe the outrage is to recognize another function of the anthology, to view it as an aid to a particular type of teaching: as an outline of a context-driven narrative. What if we take anthologies as the beginning of discussions, not the ending? I don’t mean, exclusively, the kinds of discussions happening on NewMusicBox; I mean discussions in the classroom. Anthologies provide examples of trends, and provide students—and, more importantly, educators—with starting points on various topics. They will always be inadequate representations of musical praxis, and their inadequacy should be a regular source of conversation: Why does the collection contain so few women composers? So few non-European composers? Why isn’t there more organ repertoire? More saxophone repertoire? More kazoo music? Why is there only German art song? Why is there so little popular music? So little non-Western music? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others, but they—and many more—are all worth articulating in the classroom. Moreover, I venture to guess that every anthology compiler wishes desperately for this type of inquiry to take place.

card catalogThis is the crucial connection between anthologies and another of the controversial topics explored in previous NewMusicBox columns (Rob’s included): when probing questions are not encouraged, those types of voices that are typically absent from the telling of history—the non-male, non-European, queer, or generally unprivileged—will only continue to be absent. The more we teach history and theory as a study of great musical works and discrete moments of genius, the less satisfied those who raised objections to Rob’s post will be, and the more we all stand to lose.

Take the complaint about the lack of improvised music among Rob’s choices. This is a fair criticism, particularly as improvisation has a long history. In fact, it’s fair to say that, in the very long tradition of social music-making, strict notation is the exception. Yet, ironically, examples of improvised practices do not often grace the pages of anthologies, in part because of logistical difficulties. Though a significant part of Mozart’s and Bach’s musical activity, for instance, we can only guess at the exact form of each composer’s on-the-spot larger-scale creations. Furthermore, when printed in an anthology, even the music that would have been improvised, like a cadenza or operatic embellishment, ends up looking fixed, for the anthology, in subsuming everything under one heading, problematically suggests that all music approaches the printed page in the same way.

If a history teacher doesn’t take the trouble to situate works in the context of the performance practices, institutions, nations or courts with which they are associated, students are deprived not only of broad cultural knowledge, but of an opportunity to be informed about non-musical reasons for certain parameters of musical style. (An example might be John Cage’s famous anecdote about the reasons behind the piano preparations in Bacchanale.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but to teach only the composers discussed in someone else’s textbook, chosen by someone else’s narrative, would surely be an impoverished and lazy approach to pedagogy; anyone who knows enough to run a history or theory course knows more repertoire than that which is contained in an anthology, and could formulate valid objections to the contents of any textbook.

It has been articulated in the comments to Rob’s piece, but it’s worth saying again: bravo to Mark Evan Bonds for attempting to keep the anthology so current, and bravo to Rob for being so open about the reasons for his choices. It’s up to the rest of us to do the real work: to place these pieces in context, and make our complaints into curricula.

This Is Just The Beginning

The past few weeks have demonstrated that there are discussions—good, meat-on-the-bone discussions—to be had about contemporary concert music and the creative artists whose work is so important to our cultures and aesthetic well being. That the recent conversations about bringing attention to composers with lists both big and small have induced such passionate reactions and dialogues only proves how vital these debates are. I very much appreciate the many varied and disparate viewpoints that have percolated through the comment threads of both columns, and recognize their value in staving off complacency as well as reevaluating one’s own observations and conclusions.

So…where do we go from here? As interesting as the previous exchanges have been, they only scratch the surface of what can be done to gain a better self-knowledge of who we are as a music community and ultimately expand our audiences and their appreciation of our work. While conversations between composers can be both useful and fruitful, we should not forget to address those who are not composers themselves or who are not intimately aware of the new music community. It is my hope, then, that we can find ways to introduce who we are and what we do to others in a way that is simple, educational, and enticing.

One quote from the comments section of my column last week brought me up short:

Being somewhat jaded from decades as a musician and manager, and in no way a great admirer of contemporary music. I was very positively surprised when I listened to Lisa Bielawa’s double violin concerto and Corey Dargel’s piece.

There may be hope for contemporary music yet!

Appearing as it did right in the middle of some pretty energetic debate, this reader’s reaction effectively encapsulated the point of the column—to introduce composers and works to those who were unaware of them with the hope that they would want to learn more. This individual did not like new music and yet was not only reading an article on NewMusicBox but seemed willing to listen to the audio files on the off-chance they were to his liking. Much in the same way that Drew McManus’s Adapstration site promotes “Take a Friend to the Orchestra,” we can find ways to bring those new to our field to the table, make them comfortable with taking risks, and allowing our own enthusiasms to spread in non-traditional ways.

In addition to inviting in new audiences, expanding our own discourses to bring together artists from across the aesthetic and artistic spectrum should be a constant priority. While we can’t expect every project to be all-inclusive, we as a community can strive to make sure our colleagues are aware of who’s out there and what new contributions are being made to our art. A great post by Jennie Gottschalk on her blog Sound Expanse made several cogent points to this end and made me wonder what more can be done to actively and enthusiastically increase our own awareness, knowledge, and appreciation of those artists who may differ from us in their language, process, and aesthetic.


In some ways, new music (however one might define such a thing) has been able to reach much further than before, and as the Internet and social media have evolved, so has the access to live and studio recordings, scores, and in many cases the composers themselves. This increased access is promising, but if it is not paired with education and awareness, its impact will be severely stunted. It would be great to hear about ideas you have as far as what forms this education and awareness, directed both inwards and externally, could take. I look forward to hearing your constructive ideas in the comments section below.

Found: Three Examples of 21st-Century Music

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.

Seeking: Three Examples of 21st Century Music

You have to be careful what you wish for.

A year ago I wrote a column that touched on the idea of musicologists including contemporary music in their teachings. I recalled an exchange I had with a leading professional in the field whose textbook and anthology hardly reached into the 1990s. He admitted that most musicologists wouldn’t know where to start when discussing music of the 21st century and that composers themselves may be best suited to point others in the right direction if not to start the discussion. It was a good chat and he seemed excited by my own interviews of living composers and potential book project.

Well, he contacted me this week and has asked if I could help him add two or three works (scores and recordings) to his anthology that would be “representative of recent developments” and “work well in the classroom.” The second part shouldn’t be too difficult—finding works that are 5-7 minutes and whose scores will fit in an anthology won’t be impossible to find, and the issues surrounding the licensing of these works will hopefully be amenable to both sides. The first part, on the other hand…let’s just say my head hasn’t stopped thinking about this challenge since I first read his message.

Now luckily he hasn’t asked me to designate these works with any stylistic labels (yet), but even if I avoid Jan Stafford’s attempt at creating names for what’s been going on since the turn of the century, I’m still faced with the task of choosing three (there’s no way I’m keeping it to two) works that will adequately represent the many stylistic and conceptual developments that have occurred since 2000 (and preferably written by composers born after 1960, per his request). Any one of us could probably look through our CD collections or i-Somethings and pick out a few of our favorite pieces, but this assignment gives me the opportunity to think hard about what has gone on over the past 12 years or so and hopefully come up with a list of characteristics that are special to this time period.

The biggest challenge that I’ve run into so far is how hard it is to categorize composers today—the various schools of thought that delineated our community decades ago are still there, but they are much more subtle and malleable than before. Composers today can easily pick and choose their techniques and underlying concepts from anywhere on the globe and anytime in our recorded history. While that has opened up many avenues of artistic expression, it’s also pretty daunting if you’ve been asked to come up with some examples that will inevitably parse the past decade into three distinct and teachable concepts.

At this point I have no idea where the request will lead and what my final suggestions will be, so I will take the next few columns to look at these characteristics and see what I can come up with—as always, the comments section will be open for your own suggestions and corrections (I’m quite sure I’ll be stepping in it at least once during this series). While this is indeed a nerve-wracking undertaking, the fact that a crack in the musicological wall has opened up is an important reason enough to go through with it.

Like They’ve Never Heard Before

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before on NewMusicBox, I’m getting ready to teach a month-long continuing education course on radical American music before World War II. To that end, I recently checked Carol Oja’s Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s out of my university library (to which I’ll have access for only a few short months more). I haven’t finished it yet, but the first half held my interest ably during the flight from Minneapolis to BWI. Although the particulars of some of Oja’s attempts to situate and contextualize prewar music within the long 20th century will probably seem a little narrow to readers with a more robust knowledge of postwar and more recent musics, as a work of cultural history I recommend the book highly.

I found Oja’s writing on George Antheil especially noteworthy. The futuristic pseudoscience and chest-thumping self-aggrandizement that adorn Antheil’s hyper-rhetorical manifestos are leavened by impossibly forward-thinking observations about musical material and form. About the infamous Ballet Mécanique, Antheil wrote that “it was conceived in a new form, that form specifically being the filling out of a certain time canvas with musical abstractions and sound material composed and contrasted against one another with the thought of time values rather than tonal values.” Had anyone said things like this before the 1920s? It’s a revolutionarily explicit foregrounding of the linear category of time, which Antheil made explicit as “the space of our musical canvas.” Rather than understand musical experience as a symbolic or agonistic play of events, Antheil—probably, now that I think of it, drawing a conclusion or two from the music of Debussy and especially Satie—proposed a quantitative view of that which had previously been conceivable only qualitatively.

This isn’t a wholesale endorsement of everything Antheil ever wrote in words or in notes, but—as part of a larger argument about the creative agitations of American ultramodernism—I think this point is worth remarking on. The notion of musical clock-time’s independence from agogic time is almost as crucial to postwar modernism as the notion of breaking down musical sound as graduated parameters. It’s very possible that there are clear antecedents here that I’m failing to notice—it wouldn’t be the first time Henry Cowell beat someone to the prescient punch, for instance—and, if so, I hope someone will chime in and set us straight. In any case, as we charge into the New Year, do celebrate the possibility that—like Antheil—something you’re thinking about right now might be on everyone’s mind in a few decades.