Seeking: Three Examples of 21st Century Music

Seeking: Three Examples of 21st Century Music

You have to be careful what you wish for.

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

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

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

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

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

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5 thoughts on “Seeking: Three Examples of 21st Century Music

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Very interesting, Rob.

    Once I discussed with FJO about the lack of bibliography on the music of the last two decades. It would be great if your research could lead to a book. I made myself the same question of “recent developments”, and even more which of those are “representatives”. Looking forward to your conclusions.

  2. Brighton

    Your task would have been hard in 1912 or 1812 as much as now. It’s too soon.
    I thought Jan Swafford’s piece was spot on. The “academy” in the US is presently divided between those fascinated with sound (mostly computer generated or processed) and those trying to write relevant music for real instruments using eight notes and everything.
    To represent the people wrangling with notes, I would pick Jefferson Friedman’s Third String Quartet (2011) because it uses a palette containing traditional counterpoint, textural counterpoint, some diatonic chords, and a traditional instrument group. I think this will be the ultimate legitimate trend in chamber music. It follows the musically oriented path of Debussy – Bartok – Ives without capitulating into either pedantic formalism or new age sentimentality.

    1. I Agree

      I immediately though of Jefferson Friedman as well! His music is a great amalgam of what’s happening in the new music world today and would make a great contribution to the book.

  3. Christina Rusnak

    On 3/23, I posted the following on the listserve for SCI:

    “I’m looking to put together a seminar (semester or trimester long) examining seminal (/or otherwise important or influential in some way/) pieces, and their composers, from the 21st century. This is to address that many of our mus. hist and contemporary composition classes only get to the 1990 or so before the semester is over. The works would have to be recorded (or available to the class) and have a score – if applicable – also available to the class.

    Because change is fluid and often invisible until past, it may be necessary to go back to ~ 1992 or so. I myself try to look “across” to what’s current as much as possible, but there is so much great music being composed and emerging performance practices (including some old becoming new again), that getting input from you all will substantially strengthen my syllabus. Many of you may be wanting to address the same need in your own programs. I’m looking for 20-30 pieces. Thank you for your thoughts and input.”

    I’ve received 15 varied replies, and I’m eager for 30 more!!

    Brighton above states that it’s too soon, but prior to the 20th century with the advent of recordable music, composers looked across the field of music, as well as the near past. My request is not looking for the 2-3 pieces (I don’t envy you there) that are the most seminal of the new millenium, but pieces/composers either indicative of change, establishing transitions or those that for inexplicable reasons BELONG in this new time.

    We are living in a golden age compositionally. We owe it to our students to help them understand the rich diversity of today’s musical landscape.


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