The Bewildering Diversity of 21st-century Composed Music

Writing for the August 27 issue of The New Yorker, Alex Ross uses Pulitzer Prize history and his read of Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s dive into “Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989” (University of California) as a launchpad for his own reflections on how “contemporary composition has become as fractured as the art world—and that’s a good thing.”

Even for readers deeply immersed in contemporary music and its history, such a framing inspires further explorations:

[Rutherford-Johnson] presents a decentered, democratized scene, in which famous names collide with figures who may be obscure even to plugged-in fanatics. Reading his book took me months, as I stopped to search out Internet evidence of the likes of Cynthia Zaven’s “Untuned Piano Concerto with Delhi Traffic Orchestra” (2006), in which the composer improvised raucously on the back of a truck being driven around New Delhi.

In Rutherford-Johnson’s telling, composers are not sequestered monks but attuned social beings who react to cultural pressures. The book is organized around an array of such forces: late-capitalist economics, the breakdown of genres, sexual liberation, globalization, the Internet, environmentalism, the traumas of war and terror. Moving from nation to nation and continent to continent—the book includes not only British, American, French, and German composers but also Lebanese, Filipino, and Asian-Australian ones—Rutherford-Johnson hosts a musical version of the Venice Biennale. For a theoretical frame, he adopts the curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of “radicant” aesthetics—radicant being the botanical term for organisms with no single root, like ivy.

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One thought on “The Bewildering Diversity of 21st-century Composed Music

  1. Chris Sahar

    Actually there is a predecessor to this viewpoint and a somewhat overlooked book possibly because it focused on what are classified as “serial” and twelve-tone” composers – Josef Straus “Twelve Tone Music In America”. The reviewer does not write if “After the Fall” credits Josef Straus for his excellent textbook “Post-Tonal Analysis” which is an effective and commonly used textbook in conservatories and university music schools since 1990. Therefore contributions from theorists and writers such as Straus – especially his chapters on “The Myth of Serial Tyranny”, “The Myth of Serial Demise” and other chapters from “Twelve Tone Music In America” are excellent readings in gaining a much better idea about contemporary classical music. Are those pointing to the dogmatic conditions that existed during the 50’s and through early 70’s at universities false? Certainly not and texts as “After The Fall” offer us important reminders of this. However, Straus counterbalances this his writings showing convincingly that serialism was not as constricting and dogmatic in the US as it might have seemed.

    And as a personal rave of a work which best represents the fusing of serial procedures with those composers outside this style and approach, check Charles Wourinen’s 3rd Piano Concerto from 1983. A wonderful work and it would be great for it to be heard more often.

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