Found: Three Examples of 21st-Century Music

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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

95 thoughts on “Found: Three Examples of 21st-Century Music

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Thanks for sharing your whole process, Rob!

    I’m glad that Gabriela Frank was selected, and that South America is represented somehow.

    Also, is interesting to note that two of the three composers selected are women! We can connect it with the previous genre discussions.

  2. Susan Scheid

    I thank you, too, for letting us in on your process and including candidates for inclusion, as well as the final three. I am curious why one of the parameters was such short pieces, but glad you found your way around it so as not to exclude consideration of longer works.

    1. Rob Deemer

      Hi Susan – the book/anthology/CD set that students would be purchasing (as this is for a textbook) can only have so many CDs, so they’re limited in the duration. If I had picked longer works, I wouldn’t have been able to choose three of them – so short it was.

    1. alex mincek

      There are some very good composers and pieces mentioned here for sure, but I’m also reminded why I’m glad I have a passport. Simply put, this article reveals (what is for me) the most lame aspect of American culture. Namely, a substantial lack of knowledge, or interest even, in anything that happens beyond our borders.

    2. Armando Bayolo

      Interesting. My European friends betray this sort of attitude about European music, failing to take seriously what happens in America. It’s sad that in the 21st century, at a time when I’d venture (granted, I can’t back this up with statistics, so if anyone wants to prove me wrong, please do) that more European composers are coming to the U.S. for study than vice versa, three American composers would seek to perpetuate the traditional inferiority complex our musicians used to feel when compared to their European counterparts.

      Pray tell, gentlemen, following Rob’s very careful and extensive parameters, which European composers would you have picked for this anthology?

      1. alex mincek

        Armando, I guess I would use a different set of parameters to begin with. So really I don’t think it’s particularly interesting for me to tweak Rob’s list by simply adding some international names (and remember, I don’t object to many of the American composers Rob lists. I object to the blatant absence of any real international presence in the list as a whole. And not for the sake of political correctness, but because there is so much interesting, good music being made outside the U.S.). However, off the top of my head, here a few non-American composers that I personally feel have made strong contributions to an identifiably 21st century music (in no particular order and vastly “incomplete”), so I would probably add a few of the following:

        Simon Steen-Andersen
        Pierluigi Billone
        Marc Andre
        Peter Ablinger
        Rebecca Sanders
        Georg Friedrich Haas
        Stefano Gervasoni
        Bernhard Lang
        Hans Thomalla
        Hector Parra
        Richard Barrett
        Olga Neuwirth
        Francesco Filidei
        Stefan Prins
        Juan Pablo Carreno
        Enno Poppe
        Georges Aperghis
        Richard Ayres
        Petr Bakla
        Chaya Czernowin
        Beat Furrer
        James Suanders
        Klaus Lang
        Wolfgang Mitterer
        Isabel Mundry
        Oscar Bianchi
        Julian Anderson
        Martin Smolka
        Unsuk Chin
        Alexandre Lunsqui
        Katharina Rosenberger
        Mathias Spahlinger
        Helmut Lachenmann
        Salvatore Sciarrino

          1. Harry Eiler

            Now THAT is a truly representative list of contemporary composers… give or take a few! ;-)

      2. Jeff Harrington

        Armando… you’re missing the point. There were practically nothing but New Yorkers on the list – and only a stylistic subset of them, to boot. Two quick and obvious European pieces, off the top of my head, In Vain and CONSTRUCTION. Throw in a Nico or a Golijov piece for good measure and voila…

        Like I said, on FB, Rob, you need to retract this article, rethink your approach and include the world, not just your New Yorker friends. Do the right thing. This is horribly bad scholarship and I promise you, you may have made a few careerist connections by including trendy names on the list – but you will be embarrassed by your picks in the future.

        Just, my $.02…

        1. Armando Bayolo

          Gaby Frank has NEVER lived in New York, Jeff. Although that still leaves 2/3 New Yorkers, I suppose.

          Alex, at least, has the courtesy to offer suggestions for composers to consider. I think you both forget, however, the great difficulty of the parameters set by Mark Evan Bonds to Rob (Sciarrino, Lachemann and Hass–all very fine composers, but all doing things that, if you ask me, are more 20th century than 21st, frankly–are all disqualified by his requirement that the sample composers be born after 1970–though then again, I think Lisa would be disqualified too).

          It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback on these things, Jeff. Rob actually goes out of his way to explain that there is no way a list of three composers can be comprehensive of all of the avenues available to composers in the 21st century. But, his ultimate sampling is very good at showing things that are increasingly important to composers in the second decade of the century.

          If it makes you feel better, why don’t we substitute Michel van der Aa for Lisa Bielawa? He’s European. He’s working in similar media. AND he was born in 1970.

          1. Jeff Harrington

            Good call, Armando, I was going to suggest Michel… but still, we’re really stuck in the same type of musical mono-culture, non-radical, quasi-tonal and I imagine the ultimate ‘game’ afoot is to proclaim ‘masterpiece’ status to a few pieces.

            I’d suggest we get rid of another of them and add Aaron Cassidy’s 2nd String Quartet. There, it’s not all ‘pretty’ music. And in terms of influence, which is what you would expect from a 21st century ‘masterpiece’ – In Vain or CONSTRUCTION are a gatrillion times more influential than any of Rob’s picks, including his last two.

            Just a quick side point, it’s truly wondrous how the new-Yalies/BOAC/QXR have turned an ironic marketing point – ‘The New Canon’ into historic writ. It borders on the miraculous; an infectious idea worthy of Madonna. Start ironic (think Material Girl) and then go LARGE. It’s a power grab of historic proportions and it would seem that some of us are buying into the hype that repackaging the somnolescent pop experiments of the 70’s and 80’s with ‘not-that-qute, could have been a rock star but my parents would only pay for Yale’ quasi-new music celebrity culture and wowza!

            The New Canon. Let’s not make fools of ourselves, let’s stand back, and take a good look around.

        2. Jason Hibbard

          “Horribly bad scholarship,” really? Rob was given a task and produced a considered response to the criteria put before him. He’s an engaged professional in the field with wide-ranging experience as a composer, teacher, and interviewer of his peers. His list is naturally limited, and raises as many questions as it answers, but it seems to me that Rob delivered what he was consulted for.

          The burden of scholarship in this case is with the textbook author. We don’t know anything about Mark Evan Bonds’s process here, but I would hope for something like this: (1) Contact several composers of different regions/countries and stylistic approaches to make similar recommendations. (2) Generate and follow 2-3 online discussions like this one. (3) Categorize several of the composer roles and self-identities that emerge. (4) Fold those into the narrative of recent music being told in the textbook. (5) Make the anthology selections.

          Of course, Bonds has a very sensitive and difficult job. Creating a new history of the most recent music is always fraught, as the comment thread makes very clear.

    3. Antonio Celaya

      The question presented entails a particular worldview. It asks for works that represent “innovations.” Again the high modernist semi-Hegelian notion of PROGRESS. While the US is the land that has most fervently embraced the notion of PROGRESS in all things, – the embrace of PROGRESS is to be expected in country with a virulent Calvinist tradition, that advocates an eschatological view of human existence – it should be noted that the American worldview is based on European notions. I am much more bothered by the buried supposition than I am by the author’s advocacy for the locals.

      1. Armando Bayolo

        Good point, Antonio, I’ll give you that, and that Hegelian outlook is still very much a part of (American) academic thinking (this may be something we’re stuck with, alas). But, is it any different in Europe? A number of the European composers with whom I’m personally in contact reflect this viewpoint far more than my American composer friends, ironically enough in this context.

        Rob, it seems your article raises more questions than it answers. This is a VERY good thing.

      1. Jon

        I have to agree with this. Another good quote of his in this thread is,

        “It’s a power grab of historic proportions”

        Somehow I don’t see Shakespeare writing a play on this one. You do realize that the subject here is classical music in the 21st century right? It’s not the advent of world war III

        Seriously Jeff, tone down the hyperbole, people do actually have different opinions on these things.

  3. George

    OK, Interesting except for half of the music listed is truly awful-period- I do not care if programmers have been tempted by promises of higher ticket sales and youth involvement, the never ending desire for the “exotic” (hardly), or what is considered “with it”, a lot of this stuff is just not well written. Sorry Mr. Deemer, but all your points of discussion have been part of classical music since, well the beginning, there’s really nothing new about any of the elements you list (think Mozart, Liszt, Bartok, Harrison, the list is long.) What is new is how badly crafted much of it is, and how willing so many are to dismiss that.

    1. Colin Holter

      half of the music listed is truly awful-period

      a lot of this stuff is just not well written

      What is new is how badly crafted much of it is

      Can you prove this to be the case? On a scale of 1 to Well-written, could you quantify the awfulness of the pieces you object to in a way that’s responsible to some objective standard (or even a broad consensus)? I doubt it. I certainly couldn’t.

      You can, however, count precisely how many non-American composers made the list, and (as Alex noted) that figure is pretty disappointing.

      1. ARG

        I have to agree with George, and add to your comment that describing poor construction, poor counterpoint, flat developments, uninspired ideas, and composing for accessibility and immediacy rather than to create music of worth is possible, but not on a forum like this. I’m also very surprised and glad at the amount of openness from the commenters (and disappointed by the very narrow scope of the article, but I guess when one is only looking at a rather focused type of 21st century concert music, this is what one gets). I also must say that it’s a shame Huck Hodge, Aaron Cassidy, and Jason Eckhardt didn’t get any mention at all … but given the sort of composers chosen, I see why.

          1. ARG

            Firstly, define tacky. Secondly, define “this music”. Thirdly, why are you assuming I’m making these assumptions based on listening to the music alone? I have read and listened to countless interviews and actually discussed this very problem with some of the composers mentioned in the narrowly-focused article (and others who fall into similar genres) and keep on getting the same swill that amounts to “music is at the bottom of the list.” Furthermore, if my assumptions are correct, you’d probably be a bit more at ease if I were to tell you that I have a problem with composers who put music at the bottom of the list in ALL genres, not just in the genre of “this music.” But stripping music from a primary intention, combined with poor construction, poor counterpoint, poor transitions, etc … this just takes the cake.

  4. Les

    Rob,Thanks for including women in your lists. I respect and am impressed in general with the effort you put into your posts. I do wonder if the criteria you used, as referred to in one of the more negative posts above, have been used as muses throughout the history of Western Music as we know it and therefore nothing really new for the 21st century, i.e. the composer/performer, composers using secular or popular musics as influences, as well as non western influences, whether or not from their own background or others..listing just a few: Mcphee, Golijov, Chopin. There are many after and including Varese that use/d technology. Indeed one could argue that technology is part and parcel to instruments and their development, the harpsichord to fortepiano, through Boehm systems, the Theramin to Moog synthesizers. Nothing’s really new under the sun. I also think there are many other works and composers not included. These lists do seem to ignore somewhat, different stylistic genres that some feel are truly new movements of the last decade or two. The synthesis of many of the above in the eclecticism of Bolcolm, Rakowski and Currier, or the lyricality and depth of Shumalit Ran folded into a more rigorous setting. All great composers and saying something new and powerful in the 21st century, and for us over 40 set, although I see a few listed, the slant towards younger composers, also makes one pause. I wonder if we are still too close to our time, as a viewer looking at an impressionistic canvas, to really see the whole picture at this point in time, but thanks for your input as ever.

    1. Rob Deemer

      Thanks, Les – Evan already had several examples from the 40+ generation (including a Canadian composer and two Europeans), so he didn’t request examples from that list. He specifically asked for composers born close to 1970 or later, so I kept that as a major factor when making my list of three composers. Everything else is just examples of each of the parameters – I never intended the examples or the list to be all-encompassing, but rather to highlight those innovations that I myself felt were important.

      1. Les

        Ah, I see. Alles Klar! Still that synthesis is important. In my mind that, is what makes the 21st century different. Anything goes, indeed everything goes. What a time!

  5. Mark N. Grant

    Astonishing in their absence from this discussion– and evidently banished from any reckoned aesthetic importance in so-called 21st century music– are opera and symphony, the two large forms of composition that have most consistently engaged the greatest musical minds in history prior to the 21st century.

    1. Colin Holter

      I don’t think there’s anything astonishing about it. Opera and orchestral music are the two large forms of composition most dependent on the participation of sprawling, logy businesses that have little financial motivation to take risks and much responsibility to their donors – businesses that have in some cases already found the twenty-first century to be dicier operational terrain than the twentieth. If every composer had an orchestra and an opera company, we’d have no excuse for leaving them off the list!

    2. Dave MacDonald

      Opera and symphony are increasingly less relevant forms. It’s time to move on.

      I think the argument might hold for opera, but only in as much as our definition of “opera” has grown to include all kinds of smaller projects that aren’t really in the same category as the works that are performed at the Met.

        1. Mark N. Grant

          If opera and symphony are irrelevant, then the entire 5-10 centuries of the development of western art music are irrelevant. The expression of the great geniuses of the musical pantheon is irrelevant. The evolution of harmony, of form, of counterpoint, of orchestration, all are arguably irrelevant. And likewise irrelevant must be, analogously, the legacy of the novel, the epic poem, and the oil painting.

          I find the nonchalant, cavalier manner in which such statements as the above are dashed off deeply troubling. What have you created that warrants comparison with the Beethoven symphonies or the operas of Wagner? Drop your bravado and put your goods on the table. Put your own wares up on the same block in comparison with the Art of the Fugue, the Bartok String Quartets, the Rite of Spring, Die Meistersinger. Lots of luck, pal.

          1. Armando Bayolo

            Sigh! You’re welcome to. You’ll notice that Dave and I have linkable signatures that lead to our respective web sites (from mine you can follow links to my recordings in other places on the web, since my ISP is a little, meh, about audio samples).

            You’ll notice that Beethoven and Wagner both died in the 19th century. The last significant contributor to the symphony as a genre died in 1975. Although there were significant contributions from composers who are not known as symphonists (Stravinsky, e.g.) before AND after (myself among them), all of these pieces have in common a treatment of the form as a sort of HISTORICAL artifact and not a living, breathing form. The symphony is largely irrelevant today because it is not considered necessary to a composer’s reputation as a serious musician to write one (it was, in the same way, irrelevant in the mid-19th century).

            Opera is another matter. Opera seems to be a surprisingly vibrant art form and even more surprisingly pliable and malleable (that A View from the Bridge, Greek, Nixon in China, In the Penal Colony, Strong Like Bull, Miranda, Say it ain’t so, Joe, Soldier Songs, etc. can all be qualified as operas is testament to this), but I wonder how loud the objections would be had Rob ended up with Nico Muhly on his list.

          2. Phil Fried

            “..all of these pieces have in common a treatment of the form as a sort of HISTORICAL artifact and not a living, breathing form…”

            Untrue. In my experience the large ensembles (orchestras and opera) have a better track record of style representation than American chamber groups (which tend to stick to a single style of new music). The Minnesota orchestra has commissioned serial music from me I’m still waiting for Bang on a Can.


            Music is not in stasis and any art which reaches a point of stasis is dead. This makes the making composition lists well controversial. At best one can only mark the signposts on the way.

      1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

        Gosh guys, nobody’s dying here. Colin’s right that it’s beyond most of our means to write for orchestras or opera companies, but I’m pretty sure there’s a healthy tradition that lots of composers still draw inspiration from.

        Forgive me if my inspiration is dusty and tired, but anyone with a subtle mind can create something relevant and personal out of something “dated” and of another time. Schoenberg and Ravel, for instance: two vastly different contemporaries, both claiming to descend from Mozart…

  6. Alex Shapiro

    Under the heading, “no good deed goes unpunished,” it appears that regardless of the amount of hours and good intentions Rob Deemer devotes to investigating composer-related topics, he will be assaulted for not doing it to the exact specifications of others. Others, who are always welcome– especially within the pixels of NewMusicBox– to spend their own time writing long essays about their assessment of the contemporary music world. Not a single one of us will ever get it “right,” and that’s the beauty of our field.

    In neither Rob’s recent posting about women composers, for which, after listing over 200 of ’em, he was absurdly taken to task for not choosing favorites, nor in this article on trends in 21st century music (in which he’s now been castigated by one commenter for “horribly bad scholarship”), did Rob ever claim to have All The Answers or that His View was THE view we should all adopt. In both essays, Deemer went out of his way to humbly indicate the opposite (“There have been many works written throughout the last 15 years that barely touch the characteristics I’ve listed… I wanted to be clear that the works below do not connote the “Best of…”; “I do not make this list with any intent of labeling any one composer as being better than another…”). Our peer has merely attempted to open a door through which all of us might venture for our own explorations. Yes, the list here is largely U.S.-centric, and in hindsight Rob should have titled it as such. But it’s clear that he’s given a great deal of thought to this daunting and subjective topic, and it saddens me to read piercing comments from a few colleagues who assail one of our best advocates for simply putting some food for thought on the table.

    We all know that it’s impossible to summarize the output of living composers in 2012. This is a fantastic thing to be able to say. Long listings of composers’ names will never be long enough, and merely choosing three as examples could never possibly suffice. Rather than taking offense at a colleague’s attempt to describe the state of our art, we’ll have a far better time welcoming any peer’s suggestions as a launch pad from which we might discover new worlds.

    Thank you, Rob, for the time you’ve spent compiling a great deal of information that has led to vital conversation about our very un-categorizable field. My own music– created far from New York City and even farther from the stylistic examples posted here– benefits from existing in the enlightened environment that you always strive to create.

    1. Matt

      Alex, what “door” has Rob Deemer attempted to open? What “new worlds” is he offering for me to discover? Gimme a break. He’s name-dropping.

      Look, criticism of this essay is more than valid. Rob isn’t just saying “here is some music I like,” he’s positioning himself as a historian. He’s doing research. He has a PhD. People like this are supposed to be comfortable with peer-review, right? Well here’s some peer-review! This essay is hella narrow. You’re exhibiting a Fox News mentality when you reduce this criticism to just a clash of opinions. There is a place for argument here, and it has to do with knowledge about the subject matter.

      Besides, there’s no reason to be so sensitive about strongly worded comments. Comment threads like these are the reason people read New Music Box. If Deemer didn’t want to hear honest feedback, he wouldn’t put this stuff on the internet.

    2. Les

      Alex, I too applaud Rob’s work and his desire to ask these questions and put them out there. My comments are in regards to the actual criteria 1) i.e. use of tech 2) composer/performer 3) influence of chamber groups 4) non-western tradition. I think this discussion is fair (a bit feisty, looking through the comments), but ultimately the price of being in the blogasphere. I like the question, although I still think the parameters do steer us toward the young and that bothers me but beyond that, what I want to offer here is that the question about what’s new is good, however the criteria Rob centered on are all as old as music. When I read his comments I sat down and asked myself is this the 21st century and had so many examples in the 20th of the same influences I stopped at 100 per. For instance, since I was in Grad school with Evan Evan Ziporyn. at Berkeley, I remember composers talking about that non-western influence, learning about Colin Mcphee and realizing even that had been done before and on and on for the rest. I’d be really interested in finding categories that are actually new. I suppose I offer this, again, as a way of saying that as one commenter said, the peer review, might lead Rob to consider this. I suggested the idea of synthesis, which would include many of these composer’s works. The free feeding of ideas, but no one seems to have picked up on that. What are your thoughts. I really welcome them (as much as I do Rob’s, as always!)

  7. James Sproul

    I find the scathing responses to this article both very hilarious and sad at the same time for several reasons.

    first) yes, the list is fairly narrow. Of course it is, it has to be. It’s for an anthology of the history of music. I don’t know about what anyone else thinks, but I think that is quite a bit of material to comb through (even in the last 15 years) and so of course limitations need to be set to narrow the field.

    second) continuing the narrow argument narrative. Parameters were set, some by the main author, and then subsequent parameters by Rob to make sure the pieces he chose fit into the guidelines of the main author. If anyone thought it needed to be done another way is sadly mistaken.

    third) the sad part to me is some people discard this music because they don’t like it. So because by some subjective aesthetic displeasure that occurs it deems the pieces somehow not important. Ridiculous. And shame on those!

    lastly) for those who feel he did not do a good job (which I am not one of those people) I invite you to seek out an author of an anthology, have them tell you what they want, and make a list yourselves and see how easy it is, and I am sure you all will get it just right and everyone in all the land will rejoice in your academic prowess and I am positive that you guys will be absolutely fair, unprejudiced and your THREE choice will represent all the music that has been made in the last 15 years perfectly, and nothing will be left wanting. Happy researching!!

    Rob, you do beautiful work, both with notes and with words, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise!

  8. Matt Schoendorff

    I find it odd that so much of the discourse in the comments focuses on the composers and pieces Rob chose when that is only a secondary component of the article. The real point here is to identify compositional trends in the 21st century, and I think Rob did a commendable job of doing just that. Could he have chosen other composers/works to demonstrate these trends? Of course. There’s a near-exhaustible supply, both nationally and internationally. But Rob’s choices certainly do demonstrate the trends he identified, which is really all he had to do in the first place. Arguing over which composers and pieces Rob should’ve chosen seems like kind of a petty way to miss the point of the article entirely.

      1. ARG

        I agree with you for the most part. However, I feel as though some of his trends need more specific wording. For example, “Use of technology” could benefit from being worded “Parabolically expanded use of technology.” A wording like this implies that the use of technology has been around for a while, yet it is being hyper-exploited in the 21st century. And in his description, he probably could benefit from mentioning how many composers today are often computer programmers, knowing languages such as PD, MAX/Msp, SuperCollider, C++, etc … and also working more with video (Jitter, Processing, etc …). And perhaps “Emphasis on Individual – Composer/Performer” could be re-worded as “Re-birth of the composer/performer”. I just got the feeling that the trends he pointed out were not very 21st century. Perhaps there could be more about the music itself too, like, “Hyper-focus on repetition” or “Relinquishing control on specific musical elements” or “Re-approaching form”. These aren’t the best examples, but the only real “musical” trend he listed was “Influence of popular and non-western music”, and we all know that this has been going on for 1000s of years!!

        1. Jon

          I have to defend the trend of “Influence of popular and non-western music.” in the article. Someone else (or maybe multiple people) in this thread made the same statement that these things have been going on for a long time now, but not in the way they are now. In the past when composers would interact non classical music, that interaction was very one sided. Classical composers would take little fragments of the music (a melody for example) and force it into a Western musical framework. These composers generally weren’t very familiar with the traditions they were taking ideas from, and they didn’t really care. What you would often get is someone like Edvard Grieg absolutely butchering Norwegian Hardingfele music by dumbing down the rhythms and forcing the melodies into a classical harmonic framework. Grieg knew almost nothing about the music and had little regard for the original tradition.What we see now is composers actually treating non classical music as equally valid, and trying to really absorb various styles of music. You have Western composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley actually going and spending significant time learning about non Western musical traditions.

          1. ARG

            And what about die Meistersingers and die Minnesingers? What about renaissance composers using popular folk song melodies for their masses? What about Liszt and Brahms’s uses of Hungarian folk songs? Did they NOT know these traditions? Yes, Mozart’s use of Turkish traditions was probably not as respectful, but that time period of history was completely different. However, the fact that this has been going on for a while will always remain! I do think that there should be a mention of popular and “non-western” music influence, but his wording really needs to be changed to perhaps “An increased use of …” or even “a stronger blending of …”.

          2. Ken Bruzenak

            I stumbled upon this thread and was at first engaged, then amused, and finally disappointed. I dropped out of the “Who’s stronger–the Hulk or the Thing?”discussions forty years ago. I know everyone has their favorites, and that’s fine, but is all this verbiage actually saying anything? Over in film score discussion boards they argue over the merits of old-school melody (John Williams and John Barry) versus synthesizer droning (Hanz Zimmer and his Zimmerites) to the same lack of outcome, completely talking past each other. As for “world”music; how much of it strains mightily to sound like ethnic interpretations of western symphony orchestras?

            Wish I could say this was enlightening, but I think I’ll appreciate my “Wind and the Lion” soundtrack, and leave you guys to split the hair s nobody really cares about past its two or three performances.

          3. Ian Pace

            ‘What you would often get is someone like Edvard Grieg absolutely butchering Norwegian Hardingfele music by dumbing down the rhythms and forcing the melodies into a classical harmonic framework.’

            And what I hear a-plenty nowadays is some work of wholly middle-of-the-road ensemble music with the addition of a few ‘exotic’ instruments, preferably one of them played by the composer.

            But anyone writing music to be played by classical musicians, in concerts following the classical format, supported by classical institutions, is going to be involved in the process of appropriation when they employ musical elements from other traditions. Reich and Riley are no less touristic in this respect than someone like Giacinto Scelsi or for that matter Pierre Boulez. What counts is what they do with these elements.

          4. Matt Marks

            I agree John. I made a similar post in this blogpost of mine from a couple years ago. Even the “downtown” composers from the 70s/80s –that many reference in such been-there/done-that opinions– made pop-influenced music that was essentially “meta-pop”: serious (read: furrowed-brow) music that examined pop as a specimen, or a source of inspiration.

            As ARG mentions below, composers have been utilizing folk melodies for hundreds of years, but he fails to recognize that all of his examples amount to folk music being appropriated into a formal constraints. Yes, Bartok used folk melodies, but, for example, he turned rhythms that are impossible to notate into 7/8s. Many composers that are currently that make pop-like music, such as Corey Dargel, aren’t appropriating pop concepts into their work. If anything they’re appropriating classical music traditions into pop.

  9. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    As one who made the first response to Rob about his article (on Facebook), I have a few thoughts.

    First, being a public author is hell (at least he didn’t get death threats; I used to!). The pain of public authorship doesn’t mean he should stop, nor that his article shouldn’t be thoroughly discussed, nor (with deference to my friend Alex) that his approach shouldn’t be critiqued, particularly when the bias is so evident. A public vetting is a good thing, particularly when a future, more broad article or book is in the making (it is, I believe). It will be a better book for it, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    Also, I’m not sure this is a critique of Rob’s list or final selections per se but rather of powerful US-centrism being used to define ‘Western music’ … even if that still exists as a useful concept. People are hurt when they or their sense of who is important are not mentioned; yeah, I was surprised Michel van der Aa wasn’t there. So? It doesn’t mean Rob shouldn’t try, nor that he shouldn’t also learn. That, I think is a significant message here — to learn one’s biases and grow past them. It will make Rob’s influence as a scholar on music history’s view much more meaningful.

    I’d already made the critique of US-centrism on Facebook (the thread there included IrIXx Jorvik, Alex Mincek, Jef Chippewa and Arthur Sauer before it switched here), but I would like to respond to what Matt Schoendorff above praises: identifying compositional trends. These trends have already been identified — and well before the 21st century. They are probably maturing now and perhaps even in decline, which would be natural for a book on music history. Rob actually calls them ‘characteristics’ rather than trends, which makes more sense, though I wouldn’t agree that they “best reflected the innovations of the past decade.” I’d like to hear more about why he thinks that’s the case.


    1. Matt Schoendorff

      Good point, Dennis. These trends (or characteristics, which, you’re right, is probably a more apt term) did emerge before the turn of the century. I’m not sure I would agree that they are already in decline, but they certainly have matured since 2000. Are there any new trends/characteristics that have emerged only in the last 12 years? I’m having trouble thinking of any at the moment, myself.

      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        Two trends/characteristics occur to me: improvisation with technology and “amateur” composition.

        Rob touches on improvisation, which I think has become much stronger as performers and composers mutually change each others’ art (again), with an added component that is far deeper than before and is somewhat of an invisible ‘given’: Technological advances encourage real-time performance by composers who might otherwise have created fixed-media work, and similarly affect performers who learn a body of new sonic ideas, and both of these seed new ways of working across music-making. Again, it has roots before 2000, but seems to have had critical influence in the past few years.

        “Amateur” composition — and I’m not using that dismissively — is where folks we might not think of as composers create music from the ground up, bypassing the usual routes. I feel this may be the most important 21st century change because in an online world where no one knows if you’re a dog or not, no one also knows if you’re a capital-c composer or not. Composers are accepted for the work they make, not for what career heights they have scaled first nor for how many performers they can talk into doing their music.


        1. Matt Schoendorff

          Good call with bringing up the “amateur” composer, Dennis. I hadn’t even considered that trend until you mentioned it, but in retrospect, it is an important one. With the rise of more user-friendly composition technology and a greater number of outlets afforded by the state of the internet these days, the “amateur” composer probably will continue to gain importance in defining the direction of new music. Quite frankly, I find that to be an exciting prospect. I am continually surprised by some of the music I come across online that seems to have been created more out of intuition than anything else. “Amateur” composers perhaps do not have some of the hang-ups and baggage that can come from an educated professional compositional point-of-view, and the results can be quite refreshing.

  10. Daniel Wolf

    Am I out of line in thinking that the exercise, limited to a selection of three works, is an impossible one? Aside from all of the problems due to our lack of perspective (the time is too recent, the repertoire we’re most likely to know is local and parochial, etc.) consider, 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. So maybe the right answer to the querying musicologist was not a list of three works, but simply the answer that any answer would be provisional and it can’t be done with a list of only three.

    1. ARG

      Yes, you’re right. This is an IMPOSSIBLE task! He should have asked for an increase to 10 pieces … but even then … at least he could have covered a broader range, and provided (or implied) more justification for works that have been left out. I do think, though, that coming up with lists like these are very possible. But one must really be sure to consider many different factors before making certain exclusions, and also one must be sure to find merit in works that one may not like.

  11. Elaine Fine

    The musical world is vast, and we are all so provincial. I have yet to wrap my brain around the huge number composers from the Renaissance I have yet to hear (when comapred to the handful that I know well), the quality and quantity of the music from the Baroque Period I have encountered only recently, thanks to the dedication of performing musicians, the recently-unearthed treats from unknown composers of the Classical Period (like Titz) that have been buried in libraries, the explosion of 19th-century music from all over Europe, and its continuation and aftershock in the 20th century and into the 21st. Most of the 21st century music that matters to me happens to have been written by people born before 1970. I just don’t have the time or the head space to keep up.

    I don’t think that anyone, particularly a composer, who is busy thinking about the music s/he is writing during our present century, would feel comfortable about naming three composers to represent the age, but I do happen to like Frank’s music a lot. And I am enjoying these comments.

  12. Ian Pace

    There is nothing in itself inpermissible about constructing a list of the most important new composers, new works or new developments of the 21st century, and concluding that they are all to be found in the USA, or even all in New York. My problem with this article is that it does not really suggest much familiarity with composers from outside of the USA (nor with non-American performers and ensembles). To take at least some sample of the rest of this musical work and ultimately reject it might be OK, to appear to exclude it from consideration from the outset seem very provincial.

    And as others have said, some of those aspects of the music listed which are being presenting as innovatory are far from being new.

    1. Antonio Celaya

      I don’t think there is anything impermissible about making a list of the most “important” composers, but I think it is a fool’s errand. “Important” to whom, and in what manner “important.” Are the most “important” composers those with the most prestigious commissions (prestigious among other composers, because the general public doesn’t give fig)? Is the most “important” composer the one who sells the most cd’s to people who aren’t composers? Does Wiki have the objective standards firmly established to determine importance?

      If it is those whose music will have the greatest influence on other composers, then one has no choice but to wait and see. Of course do we want to ignore composers who write marvelous music that doesn’t influence other composers? Gads, why would we want to ENJOY anything that is guaranteed superb by imitation?

      There was a lamentable time when people defined an “important” composer as one whose music would be ensconced in the canon in 100 years. [Thank the muses we have people of the past to determine that for us. That’s why we all get our daily doses of Joseph Raff and Felix Draesedke, and that awful Mahler is forgotten these days. Of course, posterity will likely ignore lots of good stuff.].

      Perhaps I shouldn’t tease so about the notion of “importance.” I found Dr. Deemer’s list a little limited in some respects. there are pieces by composers on his list that would cause me to flee from the room or enter a deep sleep, if I was lucky. I agree that none of the composers on the list have created some trend that wasn’t jumping decades before – but that doesn’t mean the music on Deemer’s list is bad, or not worth a listen. Many of us will be milking the music of Lou harrison and Henry Cowell till out dying day. Dr. Deemer is as entitled as anyone to plug for his friends and colleagues. I do find the implicit claim of objective standards in his choices to be questionable. If what Deemer is saying that these are composers who are important to him, because he loves their music, then I cannot rebut that. Even the “informal musicology” of the web is advocacy for what one loves. The lamentable, fascistic and traitorous Ezra Pound summed it up. “What thou lovest well remains the rest is dross…”

  13. Rob Deemer

    Alright, Kevin’s awesome Pulitzer win has inspired me, so here goes…

    No, I will not update, edit, or remove my final list of composers. Stop asking.

    Yes, I left out some names that I would have loved to have added to this article – say, 50-100 (easily), including many that were from Canada and Europe. I picked works, not composers, that were examples of the characteristics that I had chosen.

    No, this was not an overt or covert move to make people think no one’s writing anything of worth from across the Atlantic. Y’all have been doing it a lot longer than we have and that’s reflected in the anthology as a whole.

    Yes, I had to look up “semi-Hegelian”…

    No, this was not an overt or covert move to make people think that there was a small and narrow aesthetic since the turn of the century. How anyone who knows the music of Huang Ruo, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, Per Bloland, Mari Kimura, Tristan Perich, Steve Bryant, Daniel Kellogg, Susan Botti and Ken Ueno could say such a thing is beyond me. Should I have added other names? Maybe. Am I happy with the names I’ve listed? You betcha.

    Yes, I made a conscious decision to focus on aspects of the contemporary music scene that I felt were less redundant with other characteristics I’ve noticed over the years (as well as the other works in Bond’s anthology). This does not mean that other characteristics were in my mind inferior, they simply were less appropriate, in my opinion, for this specific project.

    No, I did not have to look up “hegemony”…

    Yes, this means that not only did I leave orchestral and opera composers, such as newly-Pulitzered Kevin Puts as well as Christopher Theofanidis, Arlene Sierra, Brian Current, Thomas Adès, Mathias Pincher, Jefferson Friedman, and Stacy Garrop but also composers who write amazing choral music like Tarik O’Regan and Abbie Betinis and jazz composers like Darcy James Argue…and even complex composers such as Jason Eckardt and Aaron Cassidy (both of whom I include in my courses here at SUNY Fredonia – some of the undergrads love their stuff!) The omission these composers was not out of disrespect – and it sure as hell wasn’t out of ignorance.

    No, I did not expect this much discussion.

    Yes, I have a lot more to learn myself (as Dennis so kindly put it).

    No, I don’t mind criticism when it’s warranted and when it’s given respectfully.

    Yes, you bet I’m glad we’re having this conversation. Thanks to all for adding to it.


    1. Ian Pace

      Let’s look at the names mentioned here:

      Huang Ruo- Chinese-born American
      Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate – American
      Per Bloland – American
      Mari Kimura – Japanese
      Tristan Perich – American
      Steve Bryant – American
      Daniel Kellogg – American
      Susan Botti – American
      Ken Ueno – American

      Kevin Puts – American
      Christopher Theofanidis – American
      Arlene Sierra – American
      Brian Curren – Canadian
      Thomas Adès – British
      Mathias Pincher – German
      Jefferson Friedman – American
      Stacy Garrop – American
      Tarik O’Regan – British
      Abbie Betinis – American
      Darcy James Argue – Candian
      Jason Eckardt – American
      Aaron Cassidy – American

      Now is there a bias here?

      1. Ian Pace

        The population of Europe is about 738 million people, that of the United States 313 million, Canada about 34 millions. Even if we leave out the rest of the world, the relative percentages would be roughly Europe 68%, United States 29%, Canada 3%. Yet out of that list, if we omit Mari Kimura, the percentages (counting Huang Ruo as American) are roughly Europe 14% (two Britons and one German, so only one non-English-speaking European), United States 76%, Canada 9%,

        Something tells me there is a profound bias towards the English-speaking world.

        1. Aaron Cassidy

          I really do think that Ian has tapped into something here. Clearly there are others above who have said similar things, but the data Ian raises is quite telling, and it makes the bias even more obvious.

          What I find particularly interesting is that Ian’s comments here, on the surface at least, look like they contradict the comments on the parallel facebook thread elsewhere (in response to Alex’s comments above …!), suggesting that the names Mincek lists are of a peculiarly European ‘festival music’ brand (which, with perhaps 2-3 exceptions, I’d agree with completely), but actually upon reflection the two strands of comments go hand in hand. There is a distinct provincialism in both worlds, an us vs. them mentality (made rather shockingly, violently clear in Armdando’s comments above!), and an aesthetic worldview that is established primarily through familiarity. It’s not really naivite — it’s something deeper, more problematic, and more clearly tied with cultural, political, and educational norms and expectations.

          I’m baffled by Rob’s claim that these proposed works represent legitimately new and uniquely 21st century contributions (as I wrote to him via twitter, it wouldn’t take much effort at all to list obvious predecessors for any of the pieces on his short list, or indeed any of the names on his expanded list above), but I’m similarly baffled at how narrow the rest of the argument has been that has followed. For a discussion that’s meant to be about newness and innovation, most of the conversation here is really quite astonishingly old. With the exception of Ablinger, who, for my money, probably has done more to challenge our ideas of music-making of anyone since Cage, most of the other names (mine included, I have to add) are mostly treading old battles, despite our best efforts.

          There are some composers on both lists — Rob’s and Alex’s — whose work I admire greatly, and there are even a few whose work I love, but there are shockingly few whose work I think is legitimately innovative and unique. I’ve been holding back this anecdote for a few days, b/c I think it’s probably a bit too flippant and too dismissive, and names are named, but … here goes: This whole debate reminds me of being an undergraduate (more years ago now than I’d like) and flipping through a well worn Burkhart anthology, past all of the great pieces and the great composers and getting to the last few entries in the final chapter (arranged chronologically) and thinking, “How the hell did this crap get in here?”

          Now I know.

          1. Daniel Wolf

            Such statistical bias towards Americans and a few non-Americans who are currently well-known in the New York area should not be surprising in that it is a list composed by an east coast composer with an academic career and published on the web magazine of the music information center of the US. (And let’s not disregard the fact that, although this is outside of their mission, New Music Box _has_ supported an international discussion culture, something which is far in advance of anything on offer in any of the European music information centers, all of which are more exclusively focused on promoting nationals.) The more vital issue here is of musical diversity — of style, genre, technique — and that’s worth a serious discussion. In fact, given the lack of demographic diversity in most (dead, white, European, male) historical survey courses, being able to identify, for American students with little prior contact to classical/concert/art music, a handful of local contemporaries with a diversity of exciting approaches may be of more use than any perceived slight of those without US citizenship.

          2. alex mincek

            “There is a distinct provincialism in both worlds”

            Yes Aaron there is, but my point was to be aware of as many of these “worlds” as possible.

            Also, I tried to make it clear that I was not attempting to offer an alternative list, but since I was asked directly by another commenter to do so, I tossed out some names. I did so, however, knowing full and well that the names I mentioned directly reflect my own familiarities/bias/…

  14. Marcos Balter

    Though I must say I also find many elements of this list troublesome and ultimately reject much of it, I respect Rob’s willingness to make his own thoughts public and open to debate (and debated they were!). But, in the end, I think the main lesson – at least for me – is how subjective (and often useless, with all due respect) this kind of list is. Also corroborated is why I as a teacher do not and will not ever use anthologies. They are terribly limiting, and often biased, even unintentionally as I believe is the case here. I believe the “uniformization” of lenses with which to examine music history, of now or from the past, is contradictory to the field itself, therefore detrimental. My respectful two cents. Rob: hang in there, and thanks for the honesty.

      1. Aaron Cassidy

        [Apologies. Shouldn’t’ve posted that. I was just angry that (a) your answer to a rather heated and rather genuine conversation was ‘this is a stupid conversation to be having’, and (b) that your post somehow implies that you’re above the fray by not using an anthology, whereas of course you make exactly the same kinds of decisions and judgements in whatever work you do decide to select to present to your students, even if it’s drawn from a wider range of sources. Editorializing and contextualizing is what we do for a living, you & I, so to write the whole thing off as ‘subjective’ is both obvious and also rather misses the point. … But, as I say, I’m sincerely sorry for the bratty nature of the post.]

    1. Ian Pace

      @Marcos: what would you use when trying to introduce students or other young people to a range of 20th century music, when they might otherwise be almost wholly unfamiliar with it? Isn’t some sort of selection of works necessary for that?

      Whilst I certainly have problems with various of the existing anthologies (of music old and new), and know of no history of 20th century classical music which I find wholly satisfactory (Glenn Watkins’ Soundings is the one I usually recommend to students; it’s excellent and varied on the first half of the century, but runs out of steam and loses some interpretive command a bit of a way into the second half), still I find what I’m looking for is simply a different anthology and a different history (my ideal history would be quite different and not necessarily treat ‘classical’ music separately from other 20th century traditions).

      What I suppose I’m saying is that I can see the purpose in coming up with a small selection of representative works for the first decade of the 21st century, just questioning the bases upon which the selection is being made, not the very fact of making such a selection.

      1. Philipp Blume

        Not to speak for Marcos here, but I also don’t use anthologies, unless you count my brain and/or my university’s library as an anthology. I give students a highly superficial view of ‘what is out there’, and give them the tools to explore what most directly interests them. I take my cues from the individual, perhaps in the spirit of homeschooling? If they’re my students, they’re probably adults…

        I admit this isn’t possible for a large classroom since it doesn’t do enough to counteract the basic apathy of the majority of students — though that’s a topic for another day. I do wonder if Marcos and/or like-minded teachers have other suggestions for the classroom environment. Perhaps my basic attitude of simply building on the students’ own interests might work after all? What if they all had to go out and explore whatever path they wish to take in this truly dizzying cosmos of the possible, and then come back with an oral presentation? The pressure to bring something original to the conversation might be the right counterbalance to the aforementioned (boogeyman?) apathy.

        Considering that anthologies serve the purpose of bringing together materials that are difficult to come by, it seems that the whole medium is rather… moribund.

  15. TomV

    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!

  16. Mark Carlson

    I remember anthologies that were in use in the early 70s when I entered college (yes, I am among those elderly composers–almost 60!–who were not under consideration for this particular list). Some were contemporary music anthologies, some historical anthologies that included contemporary music. But when I look at them now, they seem quaintly dated, and much of the music in them has long been forgotten.

    Also, with the awareness of how diverse–in every way, including geography–the world of “classical” music was even back then, and more so now, I realize, “Oh, that composer was probably a friend, teacher, student, or colleague of the editor’s, or was famous at the time, or was performed a lot in the part of the country where the editor lived and worked, etc.”

    However it happened that a certain piece was included, it reflects the editor’s particular awareness of what was going on, and that always has its limitations. There’s an awful lot more going on than any person could possibly know about. And it’s also not possible to create such a list without engaging one’s personal prejudices–and, of course, we all have them.

    So my gripe is not at all with Rob for how he created this list or which pieces he chose, but with the whole notion of including the present in such an anthology at all.

    I like it that there is a moratorium on someone’s appearing on a US postage stamp until they have been dead at least 10 years. It gives a chance for the passions of the moment to subside and for some level of objectivity to prevail.

    Why can’t it be something similar with historical anthologies? There is no way any of us can be objective about the set we belong to, so why not wait awhile before determining what recent pieces belongs in a history of music?

  17. Mark N. Grant

    The acute limitations of this parlor game can be best illustrated by guessing at what names a similarly forward-looking group of young composers might have nominated in 1912 for examples of 20th century music by composers born post-1870. Debussy, Mahler, Janacek, Sibelius, Puccini, and Strauss would all be ruled out of consideration birthdate-wise. Stravinsky had done Firebird and Petrouchka but not Sacre du Printemps, and Schoenberg would have been on only a few ballots (modernist Strauss himself rebuffed him). Ives was unknown, Bartok and Ravel (and certainly Varese)were still “emerging.” More likely to have appeared on such a list would have been Scriabin, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, and perhaps a few slightly pre-1870 births like Busoni (b. 1866). And how many then celebrated composers of the Edwardian era are now dusty historical footnotes?

    Would such a 1912 list be retrospectively representative of 20th century music, or would it be merely a transitional snapshot? Was the Titanic disaster in retrospect emblematic of the rest of the 20th century, or was it a transitional snapshot?

    There are popular trends and common practices to be discerned in the last dozen years, but please, let’s patiently refrain from conferring history-book distinctions on lists of au courant names. It’s premature. It’s wise to distrust instant pantheons.

    1. Ian Pace

      @Mark: OK, but suppose it was ten years later? Then Stravinsky would have written L’Oiseau de feu, Petrouchka and Le Sacre du printemps, as well as Les noces and Pulcinella and numerous other works. Bartók would have written the Sonatina, The Wooden Prince, The Miraculous Mandarin, the first two string quartets, and the op. 18 Studies. Varese had written Ameriques and Offrandes. Prokofiev had written The Gambler, The Love of Three Oranges, the First Symphony, the first three Piano Concertos, the first Violin Concerto, the first four Piano Sonatas, the Toccata, Sarcasms and the Visions Fugitives.

      And these would all be post-1880 births (adjusting the date forward by ten years).

      1. Antonio Celaya

        People in the future (and isn’t that what posterity is rather than some unknowable moving hand?) will listen to what’s available and what has meaning for them. It may not be what has meaning for us. Let the future deal with its aesthetic needs. What’s the point of the prognostication game? Tell me what you you love about a piece of music and that may make me want to listen to it. Tell me you know that there will be a new canon and that you are confident who will be in it, and I can only wonder why I should want to hear those “predestined” pieces.

  18. Jeff Harrington

    Before any more names get dropped in the course of this ‘developing canon’ I’d just like to add that for every name that drops, a kitten cries, because obligations are so born. Another allegiance in a club, another, tiny dent in the facade that musical understanding in America can sometimes be based around the music and not about the network of affiliations and careerist obligations that drive everything about its sordid surface. Leave it to an American to take a scholastic project of limited merit and magically transform it into a vast new opportunity for personal networking enrichment.

    Bleh… I’d move on to Frank’s ‘let’s ease things away from the criticism of those NYC beautiful people and shift the discussion to Caplet’ but that’s milque toast commentary to the crime that’s been committed here.

    1. Phil Fried

      “folk music being appropriated into a formal constraints…”

      “If anything they’re appropriating classical music traditions into pop.”

      “Leave it to an American to take a scholastic project of limited merit and magically transform it into a vast new opportunity for personal networking enrichment.”

      (3 points noted in reverse order)
      I myself might have made the above comment, yet as someone who also studied composition in Europe I know that the exact same stuff goes on there too. I mean really? Unlike America; Europe, Canada too, has “official” composers.

      The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble and Ars Nova were both known as classical crossovers many many years ago. I noticed no furrowed brows at that time. What made them such was their hardcore mainstream classical training. I would have a hard time accepting any musician who claims to represent a tradition without something more than mere success.

      To suggest that popular music has no constraints is puzzling.

  19. Marcos Balter


    You are right, a selection needs to be done. I just prefer to select those works myself rather than rely on available anthologies, compromising my teaching due to publishers political games or editorial decisions that don’t match my needs. I also know that, in spite of my best efforts to make such selection as unbiasedly as possible, any selection is, of course, biased. But, dealing with my own bias rather than those of others seems more conductive to what I do. That said, I sincerely try my best to be as healthily diverse as possible. Composers covered in my classes just these past 3 weeks: Abrahamsen, Romitelli, Furrer, Muhly, Mazzoli, Dargel, Poppe, Grisey, Lachenmann, Frey. Pretty ecclectic bunch, I think. Same goes to older music: I find the available anthologies to be extremely uneven, and, with tools like IMSLP, I find the concept of anthologies outdated and an unnecessary burden.


    I was about to say what you call boldness I call bullying and histrionics, but then I saw your apologies. Accepted.

  20. Robert A. Baker

    I have two breif comments (hopefully the fervour hasn’t died down and some are still reading for more debate!):
    First, perhaps the author who made the request of Rob (Mark Evan Bond) might be wise to include a subtitle or heading immediately above Rob’s list of three that might read something like “Three young American composers – leading the charge in the 21st century?” [? a part of the heading]
    In which case, he would be wise to consult other composer/researchers in other countries to do the same, after all the book is titled: History of Music in Western Culture.

    Second, on the matter of American bias, I admit it was the first thing that came to my mind. But second to my mind was this: as a Canadian composer now living in the US for five years, I amazingly learned something about myself soon after I arrived (and continue to realize it). It became apparent that my musical radar and knowledge is almost exclusively European (and a little Canadian), and I knew very little American music before coming here (except of course Ives, Cage, Feldman, Glass, Riley, Reich, Zwilich, Carter, Babbitt, … hang on a minute, …that’s more than a few …, anyway). On the other hand, many (NOT ALL) US composers I’ve met (and now good friends, I should add) I found knew very little about the current Euro rep I knew. My point is that I suppose it cuts both ways. I didn’t know a single US composer on Rob’s above lists except Mackey and Adams before I came to the US.
    Therefore, I hope Mr. Bond opts for some “national” or regional heading when printing his contemporary music portion in his book.

  21. James Primosch

    Three points:

    – I think American conservatories have become more welcoming of new music in recent years, but new music groups have had a presence at universities in the U. S. for quite a while – The Group for Contemporary Music (at Columbia U) and the Contemporary Chamber Players (U Chicago) date back about 50 years.

    – There are a whole lot of composers named here whose work I am not familiar with, and I bet most readers are in a similar situation. Perhaps some homework is in order with particular emphasis on music from across the literal ocean(s) – and across the oceans of genres, styles, idioms.

    -It’s amazing how everybody (myself included) – secretly or out loud – thinks they are in the mainstream and “that other stuff” is unimportant and worthless. It would be a good idea for all of us to question whether our take on history and the current scene is the only valid one.

  22. Ian Pace

    The question of what constitutes the ‘mainstream’ is an interesting one, I think, but often argued in terms of the validity or otherwise of particular aesthetics and technical approaches. Whilst almost no contemporary classical can claim to be ‘mainstream’ in terms of the wider societies it inhabits (except perhaps a few things which have gained some commercial popularity – maybe some of Michael Nyman, or more recently Paul Mealor, in the UK), what becomes ‘mainstream’ from within the narrow field of contemporary classical music is, I would say, a question of what is legitimised through the support (financial or otherwise) of institutions, and also through certain species of critical discourse which exist in particular media outlets.

    The long and short of this is that this may be fundamentally a question of institutional power.

  23. Ian Pace

    But, just to add to that, if *no* species of contemporary classical music could plausibly assert its mainstream credentials, in such a way as might imply a wider importance over and above simply satisfying those inhabiting or controlling a small cultural field, it would end up being just one genre of music amongst many. And that genre might remain or disappear depending upon many other factors. But in one way or another, it is currently legitimised by various types of institutional support, generally when it is seen as an extension of a ‘classical’ tradition.

    I would ask in that context: first, why, in an anthology of 20th/21st century music, should music somehow relating to that tradition receive pride of place? Why not have some of the best bands from 2000-2010, or some free improvisation (or not-so-free improvisation), some late jazz, or some sound art? To frame it more broadly, why, at least when teaching the music of the 19th and 20th centuries, from which times varieties of urban popular genres (some of them notated) emerge in line with the growth of major Western cities, should the ‘classical’ tradition (which is itself a 19th century invention) remain at the centre of things?

    1. Tupac Shakur

      The second paragraph above gets at the heart of the problem I think. One would be very hard pressed to keep the “classical” tradition as hermetically sealed as the bounds of a bonds anthology might need it to be. (i.e. is Richard Barrett’s notated music “classical” and his work with FURT something else entirely?) Groups like the AACM, especially Braxton and Lewis blur the line even more- and electronic innovations come out of hop hop and dance music producers just as often as they come out of university studios. Tear down the borders! :)

  24. Jay

    Hmm. I’m quite astounded that in criticizing this list as being too American the answer is to bring in more Canadians and Europeans. I see – so that’s the entirety of the music world then? What about Asia, the Pacific, Africa, South America, etc? This kind of USA-Europe binary is exactly the same blinkered thinking that only looks to young Americans as being the harbingers of any kind of new musical age. China’s economy is set to eclipse the States any decade now – as Paul Griffiths said (I think – I don’t have the book to hand) this next century will probably belong more to the ‘rest of the world’. Perhaps that’s one of the trends that could have been noted here?

    1. Robert A. Baker

      The scope of this talk is “Western music culture” according to Demeener’s description of the book he was making his list for.

  25. Mary Jane Leach

    I just discovered this thread. To be totally contrarian, I find the whole idea of an anthology out-dated, especially with its trend of creating hierarchies and playing favorites, even if unintentional. As far as I can see, the publisher is the one who will benefit most. Why not have a web site with links to various styles that can be explored/followed according to one’s interests, as well as being capable of being updated and added to? No one would take the same path – enthusiasms and teachers’ strengths could come into play. In short, it would be a more organic and less static way of learning and end up actually being useful instead of a waste of paper.

    1. Terence O'Grady

      The idea of dispensing altogether with an anthology and instead posting a number of links to various sites and compositions naturally appeals to everyone’s anti-establishment instincts, but I’m not sure how useful that would be as a teaching tool if it’s the exclusive strategy. I say that because part of the classroom dynamic requires (at least in my opinion) that students have shared experiences and they have in many cases all listened to and analyzed or attempted to analyze the same piece at a given moment in time so that they may discuss their different takes on it in the classroom. Is an anthology the only way to do this? Of course not. One may always take the time to get legal clearances for several pieces of music and make photocopies of them (because the students will naturally have to mark up their scores if they’re being asked to analyze them). You can even make the students pay for those photocopies (although my department never did that).

      If a teacher (music theory or music history) doesn’t find any useful music in a given anthology, they should by all means stay away from it. Most teachers use a combination of anthologies and their own supplements to that anthology. I should say, though, that anthologies are useful for music history teachers in so far as they have an obligation to make sure that the students have at least a nodding acquaintance with the “canon.” I know that professors of English and comparative literature (especially the younger ones) often disdain this approach, but good luck getting into grad school if you’ve never read any Milton in your undergrad career because your professors never considered him relevant. And it’s not just about grad school. Any English major should have at least some knowledge of any writer that generations and generations of intelligent scholars and readers have found to be compelling. Is that any less true in music?

      So I don’t think the notion of a canon is quite as evil as its been portrayed in many circles in the last 20 years or so, in literature or in music. And in so far as an anthology can help students become aware of at least some of the major players within that canon, it could be a good thing. But no one is suggesting that a teacher should not venture beyond the canon (or the anthology) into music and composers that the teacher finds to be valuable in teaching her students, especially in regard to 20th-21st century music.

      1. Mary Jane Leach

        You completely misunderstood me. I wasn’t talking about not teaching the canon (at least up to 1960-ish) or implying that it was evil, I was suggesting that something like an anthology be put online – I find a printed, fixed content anthology quaint. Of course you would have your basic styles and pieces, but then there would be links that you could follow, a kind of free associating. This is the way I teach – I put everything online with lots of links and project the scores that we listen to (or print them out if we’re analysing in class). I find anthologies never have what I want, whereas these days I can find almost everything up to the early 20th century online. If there are scores that aren’t public domain, then it could work something like DRAM, which a lot of schools have. Or for streaming, Naxos and/or DRAM again.

        Especially when you get into more contemporary music, the anthology concept falters, for many of the reasons stated above. So, instead of listing three composers/pieces to represent a period, one could follow what interested you, in a way mirroring the process that Rob went through, only without having to narrow it down. Hopefully there would be a trend you’d want to follow, indeed you could split the class up into sections and have each section report on a different trend, so that they’d all know one style well and be familiarized with others. So if the proportional rhythmic canons of Nancarrow appealed to you, maybe you’d want to check out Tenny’s Spectral Canon for Nancarrow, and then maybe Clarence Barlow’s extension of that. And, of course, since I’d have included Josquin’s Agnus Dei from Missa L’Homme Arme earlier, which usually isn’t in anthologies, the students would already have been turned on to cool manipulations of cantus firmi. That said, if one is a lazy teacher, this probably won’t be an approach you’d want to use.

        The San Francisco Symphony has a really great web site that does something similar to this – for instance they go through the Rite of Spring – and you can follow all kinds of threads, musical and otherwise.

  26. Terence O'Grady

    Yes, I apparently did misunderstand the main thrust of your comments. Your negative references to “creating hierarchies and playing favorites” seemed to suggest a general disdain for the very notion of a common repertoire that all students should know something about. I agree that it’s very difficult to find anthologies that effectively represent the broad spectrum of post-1960s music and your solution to that problem sounds like it would be very effective. I disagree, however, that the question of whether or not to use an anthology has anything to do with laziness. Everyone who uses an anthology uses it selectively and supplements it broadly.

  27. Robinson McClellan


    Thanks for this excellent article. As I began reading the comments, I decided to post one lamenting the omission of choral music (hopefully in a less bizarrely hostile tone than many of the comments on this thread). Then I was glad to see your later mention of choral music in a comment, and two of the composers I myself was going to mention.

    Still, I felt that your focus is too narrow. To me your approach falls within a long tradition of the history of classical/Western music being written by and for its creators (including performers and critics), rather than its audience (whether Bach’s musically “elite” Prince Leopold, or “the average gal/guy”). I suppose that’s partly natural, as we creators are the ones most concerned with our creations…but in my view it has skewed and obscured many vital talents and trends.

    So with your project as an example, I believe (without figures to back it up) that:
    A) contemporary choral musicians are generally more friendly to new music than those in the chamber or orchestral worlds (except of course the those in the “new music” crowd you focused on). The same probably goes for band music, but I don’t know enough about that to make claims there.
    B) Thus probably most of the new music being written today, in terms of sheer bulk, is for choirs (and bands) in churches, schools, and other communities everywhere.
    C) Because they are embedded within the daily activities of many “lay” people (i.e. not professional musicians), these repertories as a whole have a much larger audience than any of the music you included.

    Therefore I’d guess that most of the “new Western classical music” in the world that’s actually reaching people (leaving aside the pop/rock/hip hop/etc that far, far FAR more people listen to) lies in these domains: the world of community, church and school choirs, and (probably) school bands, etc etc.

    To me, audiences in general deserve more credit than they get, and always have. I realize this is an extremely complicated issue, and that to a large degree we creators — the community of composers, performers and critics — have acted as trend-setters for many centuries, influencing broader audience taste, especially after the fact. That has been a good thing (Mendelssohn bringing us Bach), but not always a good thing. Much great music has been lost because the politics or overly specialized tastes of the musical community has overlookded or deliberately rejected something valuable (to stay in the same era…Vivaldi lost until ca.1950…or Geminiani largely unknown still…though even there, that same community brought them back).

    So, obviously this goes beyond your article to the much bigger question of how music history is written (and the whole problem of anthologies discussed in the thread). But in general, I would love to see the audience’s perspective given more weight. The music you include here may be more “innovative” than a lot of the “mass consumption” choral (and band) music out there, at least on the surface. And it gets a lot more press, especially here in NYC. But in the larger scheme of things — music’s importance in the lives of sheer numbers of people — ALL the music you included actually remains a very small niche interest. (Then again, the same could be said for nearly all of the music, in its time, that finds its way into in any standard music history textbook, Bonds’ incuded.)

    So to sum up: your omission, though carefully deliberated on your part, seems even more important from this point of view than the omission of European works.

    That’s not to say the music you mention shouldn’t have been included. But if I had been given this task I would have used all your thoughtful and valid criteria to choose just ONE of the three works. Then another would have been from the choral repertoire, and perhaps a band/wind ensemble piece. If a more international view had been possible too, then so much the better (for that, perhaps Bonds could simply title this section of his book “new trends in AMERICAN” music and thus temporarily avoid the problem)?

    Anyway, thanks Rob again for an interesting and thoughtful read.

    ~ Robinson McClellan

    P.S. If I am advocating for choices based on music that has influenced the widest audience, I should say that by that criteria my own music would not nearly qualify. But neither would that of most of those on your list.


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