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.
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.
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?
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:
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.