Age: Does It Matter?

It can be a tricky matter to track down young composers, because most are not widely recorded or performed. But if the recent spate of awards given out by ASCAP and BMI are any indication, there are an enormous amount of composers under 30 writing an equally enormous amount of music. In addition to the 19 main winners of ASCAP’s Morton Gould Young Composer Awards this year, four others received honorable mentions, and seven special ASCAP Foundation Awards intended for composers under 18 where given, as well as five Honorable Mentions. Nine others were honored at the 48th BMI Student Composer Awards last June. Take into consideration all the schools and conservatories in the U.S. that offer degrees or private study in composition, not to mention young composers who are writing on their own, and the logical conclusion is that these winners must represent only the tip of the iceberg, numerically.

Despite their youth, some of these composers already appear to be well on their way to having distinguished careers. For example, 15-year-old Julia Scott Carey, who has been composing since age 5, received her first commission (from the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra) at 11, and over a dozen orchestras have performed her works to date, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

However, although it may be fairly easy to get an idea about how many young composers are out there, it’s anything but easy to make generalizations about the forms they prefer or the styles they write in. There are exceptions, such as Carey, who speaking by phone from her home in Massachusetts, describes her style as “lyrical” and “tonal–with a lower-case T.”

Some composers who are getting closer to 40 have established a trademark sound such as neo-romantics Lowell Liebermann and Daron Hagen, both of whom turn 40 later this year, neo-modernists Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964) and Anthony Cornicello (b. 1964), or post-minimalist Michael Torke (b. 1961), whose distinct style involves frenetic rhythmic patterns, and whose pieces are often based on his musical interpretation of colors. But far more often the writing of composers under 40 shows a wide mix of styles and influences, sometimes from piece to piece and sometimes even within the piece. For example, the three movements of Voices, a clarinet concerto by Derek Bermel (b. 1967), are based, successively, on speech sounds, an Irish folk song, and Jamaican rap.

The instrumentation of these young composers’ pieces is often as eclectic and varied as their musical style. For example, the compositions of Annie Gosfield (b. 1960) include works for detuned piano, the ensemble Newband (which is primarily made up of instruments built by Harry Partch), and a work for solo piano and baseballs created for the 100th anniversary of the unification of New York’s boroughs called “Brooklyn, October 5, 1941,” after game 4 of the 1941 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees.

It seemed, in this regard, that it might be a good idea to ask one of these composers, particularly a well-connected one, why they think so much variance among this generation. One likely candidate was Adam Silverman, 27, a Yale graduate and co-founder of the New York-based Minimum Security Composers Collective, which has presented works by over 20 composers in three years and who says, when asked how many composers he knows personally, “I can’t even imagine…I could rattle off 50 names easily.”

Silverman believes that one reason composers of his generation lack any kind of common language is because they’ve grown up with easy access to many different types of music through media like recordings, radio and Internet sources like Napster and mp3.com. (His influences, for example, include Ligeti, Stravinsky, Schubert, the Beatles and Torke.) They’re also the first generation to have grown up with easy access to computers, which they can use as a tool for composing, either through software manuscript programs like Finale or through music editors and sequencers. Another reason may be “possibly a negative reaction to the example set for us by the oldest living generation, who harshly divided modern classical music into uptown and downtown camps, West Coast, and East Coast, American and European… In the last 35 years, however, there has been a slow rebuilding of musical openness, starting with that of the minimalists. Today, with no chips on our shoulders, young composers stand on their legacy; not having strongly experienced this musical chauvinism from our musical peers, we are free to concentrate on the important task of developing our own styles and personal modes of expression form whatever sources we see fit.”

Many of these young composers also differ from their older colleagues in a way that reflects a pre-20th century tradition: actively pursuing careers in performing as well as composing. Bermel, for example, was the soloist when the American Composers Orchestra premiered Voices. Gosfield, in addition to frequently collaborating with artists such as John Zorn, also directs her own ensemble. And New York-based Dave Douglas plays trumpet in no less than six ensembles, from a jazz quartet to Sanctuary, which he describes as an “electric octet.”

However, most of the music of the under 40 crowd does not seem to draw on political or social issues. Two exceptions to this are jazz composer Don Byron (b. 1962), whose outspoken political views inform virtually every composition he writes, and Robert Maggio (b. 1964), who said in his notes to the CRI disc Gay American Composers, “I write music that matters to me–music that explores my internal emotional life and the relationships between individuals. As with all important facets of my identity, my homosexuality has an influence on my music, at times directly affecting the pieces I write.”

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