A glut of content (plus wide availability of older, better performances and
recordings) killed that golden goose in the 1990's. What compositions
written since 1950 have found wide acceptance and are in the common/regular
concert repertoire aside from a few late Copland works and John Williams'
We ought to change the masthead on this one, as we are speaking now in the
current context. I wish that I could agree with Tom that "older, better
performances and recordings" helped to kill off interest in newer
offerings. In terms of performance ability and interpretive nuance we have
never been better served than by current-day instrumental soloists; the
pianists alone are astounding. I will agree that top-quality singers and
conductors are for some reason harder to come by, but chamber and period
instrument ensembles have never been better.
Actually, plenty of things post-1950 have caught on. Philip Glass and Steve
Reich have multiple pieces that are often done, as is Terry Riley's "In C."
Certain works of Morton Feldman remain highly regarded, and are heard, and
while there are no "hits" among John Cage's late number pieces, taken
together they are played and recorded -- a lot. In Europe, Louis Andriessen
is a major figure, and his 1970s pieces "Hoketus" and "De Staat" are booked
all of the time. Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" is
still frequently programmed, though I must admit I don't embrace it as much
now as I did when I first heard it, in 1970. Major Ligeti works such as
"Lontano" and "Atmospheres" still sound as good as they did in the 1960s.
George Crumb gets heard quite a bit at the conservatories and in chamber
concerts, and -- personal opinion -- John Adams probably gets more
performances than the quality of his work would merit. The reader may not
like any, many, or some of this music, but it is played and has "caught
on." Whether any of it will stay is anyone's guess, but from the standpoint
of 1930 it really looked like Charles Martin Loeffler's "Memories of My
Childhood" would be around forever and it hasn't stuck in the long term.
There are numerous historic examples of that; short term successes that are
forgotten in the long term and lay on the shelf afterwards. Whereas
Copland's Piano Concerto -- which frankly I think is a piece of crap -- was
something few if anyone knew in 1930, and today several pianists have it in
Conspicuously missing in the 21st Century are the serialists, despite
Elliott Carter's late career resurgence. Boulez is still out there, of
course, but his works are mainly played by Boulez himself. Xenakis is heard
more often, and I think, respected more. But the vast majority of them --
the Haubenstock-Ramatis, the Mel Powells, the Wuorinens and so forth --
seem headed to the great cosmic dust-heap of history. Yet the survivors and
successors of this style still have an iron grip on academic classical
music, particularly at smaller colleges and universities where the higher
ups don't know that art music is moving into different directions and
Opera has overall done well in the second half of the 20th century, with
Adams' "Nixon in China" and Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" certainly but
also Sallinen's "The Red Line," Bernd Alois Zimmermann's "Die Soldaten,"
Barber's "Vanessa," Floyd's "Susanna," Argento's "Postcard from Morocco"
and other works getting staged -- with varying degrees of frequency -- in
addition to the canonical 30 or so operas. Will they stick? I don't know,
but I think "Einstein" and "The Red Line" will; Penderecki's "Ubu Roi," on
which he worked 40 years, is a major bomb, and it is so expensive and
difficult to stage Ligeti's "Le Grande Macabre" it will probably never be a
standard repertory piece. So that market is pretty much as it ever was;
some things hit, most miss, and some come back.
Areas that are down in the last 62 years are major symphonies, symphonic
poems and ballet. In a way, this mirrors the struggle of orchestras to
remain relevant in a changing economic climate where prestige value is no
longer relevant, and the long term effect of music appreciation having
disappeared from elementary level education long ago, not to metion cost
effectiveness, labor issues, etc. The symphonic poem is effectively
extinct, lorded out of existence by serialists and anti-programmatic
control freaks. The only ballet I can think of that has caught on since
1950 is Schchedrin's "Carmen Suite," which is a pasticcio. Expert concertos
are still written, but something played as extensively as has been
Sibelius' Violin Concerto, those of Prokofiev or the Gershwin "Rhapsody in
Blue" still eludes us. Even the Barber Piano Concerto is a rarity, though
that's not too surprising given its tough style. Orchestras still need to
work to overcome the "new music scare factor" that emerged at the end of
the 1980s. Community orchestras and homegrown, non-institutional orchestras
such as The Knights seem to have the right idea; they are more flexible in
terms of venues, program more carefully and have a better sense of
cultivating their audiences than the big civic or academic orchestras do,
who still seem to depend on prestige value and cute programmatic concepts
to put butts in seats, and those ideas are dead, dead, dead.
Among newer things that have caught my attention is a trend towards
bringing motifs from more recent popular music into concert music. That has
been a practice in art music since at least the 15th century, but it is
very pronounced today. Ironically, it was French serialists -- Barraqué,
and Marius Constant -- who introduced the electric guitar into Western art
music in the 1950s. Now it is everywhere, but at AMG I had a data entry
specialist who would not enter a piece that had bass guitar or a rhythm
machine into the classical database. So there is resistance against new
instruments in some quarters; I can hardly see the NY Philharmonic adding
an expert synthesizer player to its ranks anytime soon, though they could
probably use one now. We have seen the advent of chamber groups that
compose their own material, not only Bang On a Can but Now Ensemble and in
the 1990s the Illustrious Theatre Orchestra.
I've gone on too long, but some "newer" composers that I like: Missy
Mizzoli, Judd Greenstein, Fausto Romitelli (already deceased), Mari Kimura,
Mari Takano, Karen Tanaka, Beata Moon, Bunita Marcus, David Thomas Roberts,
Jorge Liderman (deceased), John Luther Adams, Kui Dong, Beth Anderson,
Shane Cadman and many, many others. Some that I am on the fence about
include Unsuk Chin, whose first album I liked but whose "Alice" opera was a
certified disaster, and Wolfgang Rihm, who is big in Europe but whose music
I find very hard to like. There is a lot of excitement about Philip Glass'
protege Nico Muhly but I have heard almost nothing of his music.
Will any of it stick? I don't know, but I can't imagine anyone hearing John
Luther Adams' "In the White Silence" and not being affected by it.
Most of this music is recorded by the artists themselves, though Bridge,
New World and even to a small extent Naxos and Bis are players in this tiny
subset of the music industry; Telarc was doing it, before Telarc died.
Although Sony records The Knights, and I think the new Nico Muhly disc is
on one of UMG's labels, on the whole the majors aren't participating, and
that's probably not a bad thing. Some things they did in the 90s -- like
Todd Levin's "Deluxe" and their support of composers like Michael Daugherty
and Graham Fitkin was simply the wrong stuff to exploit, though there is no
sign that either Daugherty or Fitkin will be going away anytime soon. In
Levin's case, his DG release killed his career, and there may have been
promise there, despite the album.
Hindsight is what we here specialize in, but very recent history is hard to
adjudge; I think we may be in a state of integrity regarding Western Art
music up through the mid-1970s but after that is too close to call. And
nowhere else in music are the pundits and critics more anxious to put their
finger on the next big thing. Where were we, incidentally, in 1912? In a
similar impasse, I'd say. Overall, the forward development of music has
slowed to a crawl in 1970-2012 as compared to 1927-1969 and I realized that
myself at least a decade ago.
Nevertheless, I would say that Western Art Music is in far better shape
than it was when I entered the conservatory in the late 1970s and it was
clear there was only one path we were expected to take. However, I will say
that conservatory-based electronic music has fallen way behind
industrialists, laptoppers and hiphoppers in terms of variety and
relevance. It is not only a problem of not keeping up with technology --
and abandoning new music programs, which most colleges and universities
have done since the 90s -- but one of attitude. Academic electronic music
departments cultivate a kind of granty cuteness in the face of the rest of
the world and its manifold developments. THAT will be hard to cure.
That's more than enough, for now.
David "Uncle Dave" Lewis