Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Only Connect!"

Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon.  
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted . . .
-E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

Music is my optimal language, and I want it to express my world.
-Dylan Mattingly, Composer

In 2006, a group of teenage musicians in California called Formerly Known As Classical presented a program of classical music that had been written “Since We’ve Been Born.”  That meant 1989, and the program they came up with was this:

Hallelujah Junction (1996) by John Adams
Nickelcurve (2005) by Preben Antonsen
Sonata for Lou Harrison (2004) by Matthew Cmiel
Of A Summer Evening (1988) by David Conte
Last Round (1996) by Osvaldo Golijov
Cantos Desiertos (1993) by Terry Riley

I knew the names of only two of the composers:  John Adams, who by that year was almost in his dotage, having reached the ripe old age of 59, and Terry Riley, who, at 71, was even older.  The others were unknown to me:  though Conte and Golijov were younger, they were well into middle age.  Antonsen and Cmiel are both quite young.

A few months ago, Antonsen proclaimed that he was ready to give up:
Here’s an obvious but inconvenient truth:  the contemporary classical music world is absolutely tiny.  Our market share looks like a decimal error, and even many of our listeners are reluctant converts from Brahms and Beethoven.
He has a point.  The convention about those who listen to classical music is we’re a graying audience that confines itself to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, perhaps straying into Brahms from time to time.  And many people don’t listen to classical music at all.

I suspect there are a lot of us who feel the same pull backward when it comes to books.  I’ve lost count of the contemporary works of fiction I’ve put down unfinished to go in search of the “real deal”:  a nineteenth century novel.

Yet it’s a shame.  As I begin to venture into contemporary classical music, I’ve discovered that, whether I comprehend a piece or not, it’s often thrilling to go to live performances of compositions written more or less in real time.

I’ll always remember going to a recital by the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  The program was called "Carter in Context," featuring several pieces by Elliott Carter, a composer still among us who'd reached the estimable age of 100 the year before.  What drew me wasn't Carter, whose music I didn't know, but the "context," which was Bach’s Art of the Fugue.

I made little sense of the Carter pieces, but I was enthralled watching Aimard go at them with such zest.  And, at the end of the concert, Aimard beckoned to someone in the audience.  It was Carter, who came on stage to much applause.  There was magic in that I’m not really able to explain.

Along with Antonsen, Dylan Mattingly is another young composer who was part of that San Francisco group.  Now he’s here in the Hudson Valley and, along with composing and performing, he’s co-artistic director, with David Bloom, of an ensemble called contemporaneous.  Like Antonsen, he’s frustrated by the unwillingness of many people to listen to something new, but he refuses to hoist the white flag just yet:
Music has the ability to connect people like few other things, and the music that we listen to is the music which we best understand.  Some people will tell you that they identify more with Mozart than with anyone else.  And that’s fine—if it’s true.  But I  challenge you, anyone reading this who is afraid of any of the thousands of strands of new music that exist today, anyone who settles for Beethoven (because what could be better?), or who doesn’t listen to anything without words (because it’s boring and quiet), or who assumes that what you listen to is what you like:  make an effort to listen to as much new music as possible, listen to it loud (because music is meant to be heard!), and listen to it multiple times.  Some of it you will hate.  But there are some works which you will find indescribably beautiful, being produced all over the world, all the time, which are so much more meaningful because they describe a time and place to which we can relate.
I think of all the aspiring writers cranking out poetry and prose, trying to find an audience among a smaller and smaller band of people who read books, and burning with the same passion as Mattingly, Bloom, and others like them to make something new.  The only difference, really, is the choice of palette:  one dreams in words, the other in sounds.

Scott Barnebey, a young composer in Pennsylvania, writes about finding musical inspiration by means any writer or poet will recognize:
I enjoyed my professor’s examples of how he would sometimes find inspiration.  He had, among other domestic animals, a love for fish.  He would stare for hours at his fish tank, which sat atop his living room counter.  He loved coming home after a long day and watching the fish swim up, down, and all around. . . . he would stare at the fish tank because he found something more in there beyond the Platys and the Guppies – he found inspiration.
Can there be anyone who’s ever tried to grab hold of an idea who isn’t familiar with that sort of inspirational technique?

Another young composer, Missy Mazzoli, whose music Steve Smith, a reviewer for the New York Times, describes as “a swirling current beneath a smooth surface,” finds comfort in embracing a life in music, not just a career.  Happily, it appears she’s finding both.  As Smith wrote last year:
I do not consider myself prone to rash prognostications.  But on a chance sighting in the Metropolitan Opera House lobby last month, I could not resist pulling out my cellphone for a quick Twitter post:  “I’ve spotted Missy Mazzoli at the Met for ‘House of the Dead.’   One day I’ll be here to hear her.  Bank on it.”
Yet another young composer, Mason Bates, “leads a double life as a composer and a d.j.,” to exuberant effect.  As Alex Ross alerts us:
An exceptionally vital group of young composers is driving the proliferation of new music.  As they pontificate on blogs and Web sites such as Sequenza21 and NewMusicBox, distribute music via MySpace pages and Internet radio, and post flyers for their shows, they act for all the world like unsigned rockers trying to make it in the city.
Just as writers need readers, composers need listeners to bring their works fully to life.  As listeners, we’re not required to become musicologists or to like everything we hear.  We need only to open our ears. 

-In remembrance of Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)


contemporaneous at the Hudson Opera House November 14, 2010 (a montage):

Missy Mazzoli and her ensemble Victoire play A Song for Arthur Russell:

Mason Bates and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra play Warehouse Medicine:

Missy Mazzoli talks about making a life in music:

Listening List

Jesse Brown:  Through the Motions

Video of contemporaneous playing Through the Motions (first part)

Video of contemporaneous playing Through the Motions (second part)

Matthew Cmiel:  Their Darkest Longing

Aaron Grad:  The Aeolian Harp

Judd Greenstein:  The Night Gatherers (excerpt)

Yotam Haber:  Espresso

Paula Matthusen:  but because without this (excerpt)

Dylan Mattingly:  Homeward Angel (excerpt) (the title is taken from the poem Homeward Angel, by his father, George Mattingly)

Missy Mazzoli:  These Worlds in Us  (excerpt)

Polina Nazaykinskaya:  Konzerto for A  (excerpt)

Cynthia Wong:  Three Portraits (excerpt)

The image at the head of the post is Kandinsky's Transverse Line.


  1. Just spent a while composing a lengthy comment; it disappeared when I went off to follow one of the links. Apologies if by any chance you receive two from me.

    I congratulate you on your 100th post. Apologies for being a day late. Love the Kandinsky!

    What I said was (and I'm rushing now as I need to go out) that I think that people are lazy when it comes to contemporary classical music. They prefer to listen to the familiar works of the great composers of the past rather than be challenged by works that sometimes are not immediately accessible.

    I cannot watch the video clips as our broadband connection is too slow, but I have listened to a couple of the audio clips and will return to the others later. (I like 'The Night Gatherers') I'll share this post with my husband whose life is all about music, to the extent that sometimes he would rather communicate through music than talk!

  2. Christine: Thank you for writing--twice! So frustrating when a carefully written comment just disappears. I will be interested to know your husband's thoughts (he can sing them if he likes . . .)

    One thought on your comment: I'm uncomfortable with attributing lack of listeners to laziness, though for some it may surely play a part. It's hard to know where to begin with contemporary classical music, and harder still to find a good guide. Some New York City critics, for example, tend to focus on the same handful of composers, many of whom offer the least accessible listening.

    Folks have busy lives, and music is often something for "downtime," for pure enjoyment. So what's the enticement to listen to someone like, say, Helmut Lachenmann (my personal bete noir)?

    What struck me, in finding the courage (thanks to John Metcalf) to go charging in, is how much of this music is downright enjoyable at first listen. (Night Gatherers was such a piece for me. I'm so pleased that you liked it, too. See what you think of the Jesse Brown piece "Through the Motions"--now that MySpace has corrected a problem on their site, I'm able to post the audio.)

  3. I could only hear any of the music in interrupted snippets, sadly. But most of what I managed to piece together, I enjoyed.

    I don't know any of the composers you mention, new music finds an audience very slowly and then only on home ground to start with.

    I admit that listening to old favourites is much easier, I don't have to work; perhaps 'lazy' is not too outlandish a description for the listener.

    I also admit that my reading pleasures are very traditionl, I am even tempted to go back to the classics, often because I simply cannot understand what I am being told or shown by some of the modern writers.

    It would help t share new experiences but I live in a rapidly ageing world where people's tastes are almost set in stone.

    Excuses, excuses.

  4. PS: I am just re-reading E.M.Forster's Short Stories. The collection 'The Obelisk' wasn't published till 1972, for quite obvious reasons. They are very good indeed.

  5. As usual, RA, you've given us much to think about. Thanks for introducing us to all of these talented young musicians.

    As to the question of lack of listeners/readers - some of it may be laziness, or the comfort and security of the familiar. (And didn't we have a post a while back on enjoying the expected vs the unexpected?) Sometimes I listen to something because it was meaningful at a certain point in my life and listening to it now is like a trip down memory lane.

    Also, do not discount accessibility. With an increasingly narrow-cast world, full of niche radio stations and publications/websites, there are no longer media to expose a large number of people to a work of music at once, like there may have been when people had to travel to the orchestra or listen to the radio to discover new things.

    I know this is the case with contemporary books. As the spouse of an aspiring novelist, I know that publishers are looking for the Next Big Thing (i.e. the next DaVinci Code/The Help/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and are very reluctant to look at anything outside that commercial zone. And if they do pick up an indie/artsy book, well, there is no budget for marketing it to anyone, let alone the general public.

    Here's hoping people keep their ears (and eyes) open~

    And happy anniversary to us!

  6. It may be days before I finish this tantalizing post with all of its bios, videos and clips, so let me say right now before the great day gets away from us, "Happy Anniversary and many more to come!"

  7. Thank you for the wealth of listening pleasure - a truly apt celebration of our 100th!

    I stumbled into contemporary classical music, thanks to you and John Metcalf. I'm quite sure that I would not have paid much attention otherwise - I tended to stick with my old favorites - as WOS says "trips down memory lane".

    I'm busily storing future memories.

  8. Thanks for all the interesting, thoughtful comments!

    Christine and Friko: Of course, speaking of "only connect," so interesting to learn that you two, as writers, have as mates musicians--cannot think of a better case of "only connect" than that. And thank you also for identifying two other contemporary composers: Philip Sawyers and Giovanni Sollima--yet more riches await.

    Friko: Thanks, also, for the E.M. Forster tip. The stacks of books to read grow ever taller . . .

    WOS: So right you are about the "narrow-cast world" (great way to put it, too), not to mention the narrow cast of publishers' minds you justly note.

    Carol-Ann: I love to think of this as "busily storing future memories." What a good way to put it!

    cybersr: Enjoy the rest of your journey down the trail of links. I'll be interested in hearing your musical review!

  9. Thank you kindly for visiting and commenting on the 2010 Music List post on my own blog. To respond briefly to your invitation to comment on the music and musicians you mention here: I am not personally familiar with most of them, but I want to make the time to listen.

    Two you mention whose work I do know are Missy Mazzoli and Judd Greenstein. In addition to the work performed by her band/ensemble Victoire, which I know you know, Missy Mazzoli also has a piece on the Newspeak album that I included in my list. Newspeak is a very interesting ensemble; depending on whose work they are performing, they partake as much of free jazz or progressive rock as they do of classical influences. Clarinetist Eileen Mack is both a member of Victoire and a co-founder/member of Newspeak, and her contributions to both groups are sterling, in my view. (Violinist/composer Caleb Burhans is also a member of Newspeak, also contributing a piece to that album, and is worth your attention as well.)

    Your post includes an excerpt from Judd Greenstein's "The Night Gatherers," which is one of my favorite recent pieces. (It appears on violist Nadia Sirota's album, 'first things first' from last year.) Judd Greenstein is a co-founder of the New Amsterdam Records label and of the NOW Ensemble. (I think "NOW" stands for "New Original Work," but I could be wrong.) He seems, from what I've heard to date, to work in a sort of post-Romantic mode, very appealing to the ear. There will be a new NOW Ensemble recording coming up in 2011, and it is something I am very much looking forward to.

    To those two I'd add the most glaring omission from your list, which is Nico Muhly. He is sometimes dismissed as over-hyped or "flavor of the month," but I think that is grossly unfair. His dance score "I Drink the Air Before Me" is brilliant, varied and exciting, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale's recent recording of some of his choral settings ("A Good Understanding") is seriously good choral music (liturgical and secular -- he does a pretty good job with Walt Whitman) in a surprisingly traditional style. He has a great gift for taking his wide-ranging influences and making them his own. It's not "hype" when it's essentially accurate.

    This has gone on longer than I meant it to, so I'll close it off. I will, however, return and listen to some more of what you have incorporated in your post, and perhaps comment further. Again, you have my thanks for visiting my blog and for inviting me over to yours.

  10. George: Thank you so much for writing. In my view, by the way, you may write as long as you want. So much great information! Nico Muhly has been on my "to do" list. Thank you for reminding me of him--I am listening to pieces of his as I write. Lovely. newspeak appears to contain a lot of wonderful stuff, from what you point out. Caleb Burhans's Keymaster on i am not is one of my favorites from that album. There is an endless supply of good listening once one starts, isn't there? I look forward to sampling your recommendations. Many thanks!

  11. Great Post and thanks for such support for contemporaneous music (i'm sure my friends, david and dylan, would approve the term). I just started grad school in connecticut and, even at this level, it is sometimes an uphill battle to get listeners (even players). All we can do is keep on keepin' on, doin' what we do best: write the music that's in our hearts and in our heads.

    Fantastic composers mentioned here--I'd like to recommend 2 others: JacobTV and Kevin Volans. There are so many intriguing and engaging voices today, I can't imagine how anyone would just want to stick with Beethoven and Brahms, but that's a discussion for another day.



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