What Should You Listen to Next?

Let’s talk about other peoples’ music.

I’ve been asked time and again about modern composers. People who are excited about music tend to be people who are not necessarily plugged in to the world of modern classical composition. Let’s face it: it’s much easier to find out about underground bands or DJs or really any kind of entertainment artist than it is to find a new composer. Even our most famous contemporary composers are largely unknown outside of modern art and music. Philip Glass, for example, got more traction out of a joke on the show South Park than a lifetime of premieres, accolades, and press, and I still regularly meet people who have never heard of him.

Still, as I keep saying, this is an incredibly exciting time in modern classical music. The fact is that – unlike the past – there are so many avenues to explore and, as a result, so many different types of modern composers. I’m a firm believer that every music genre and sub-genre whatsoever exists because someone somewhere pioneered it or used it to make music worth listening to. So while I prefer certain genres to others, there are two factors that attract me to any music no matter what: Craft and Something to Say…two concepts I might re-address in another blog entry, but let’s just take them as rough concepts for now.

Who then in modern classical has Craft and Something to Say? Let me, for purposes of this lay-person discussion, break my colleagues into some unbelievably broad and arbitrary categories. Bear in mind that the purpose here is to suggest composers speaking to the perspective of someone curious to find new music but unsure of what’s been happening since Schoenberg. Any composer worth his or her Craft or Voice writes in all of these categories…I’ve just lumped them into the best starting point for each one.

So without further ado, here is the New Music Novice Guide for where to start listening (not where to stop!).

Do you like experimental and/or electroacoustic music? You should start listening to:
James Mobberly
Roger Reynolds
Alvin Lucier
James Tenney (1934-2006)
Joseph Schwantner

Do you like offbeat-but-still-traditional chamber music? You should start listening to:
Peter Garland
Joan Tower
George Crumb
Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006)
Oscar Bettison
Curt Cacioppo
Gregory Spears

Do you like more traditional music? You should start listening to:
Philip Glass (the string quartets)
Chen Yi
John Adams
John Luther Adams
Steve Reich
Dominick Argento
Arvo Part
Wojciech Kilar
Asha Srinivasan
Gabriela Lena Frank
Veljo Tormis
Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010)

As for choral music – one my own specialties – I have to say I’m not terribly impressed with anything that’s happening out there right now (with the notable exceptions of any Estonian composer like Arvo Part or Veljo Tormis). Maybe, I’m too close to it or am too confident in my own work. I LIKE a lot of choral music, but it seems like having both Craft and Something to Say with it are difficult to come by these days. Expect a follow-up to this: I’m sure I’ll dig myself deeper into a hole in a later post.

…and now that I’ve offended more than half of my friends and colleagues, let me reiterate that this is a blog post. I’m essentially thinking out loud here, so if I’ve left anyone out or mis-categorized anyone, I apologize. Such was either due to my carelessness or my desire to save some space here.

To all the non-composers, know that I am leaving out many, many, many excellent and living composers. Many of them are hard to find or, like me, don’t have many (or any) professional recordings available. Think of this as a starting point: these are composers you can find with just a little effort. Once you find someone you like, seek out the other composers on their concerts or recordings, and in no time you will be just as conversant in new music as anyone professional.

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