Age: Does It Matter?

Composers born during the 1940s and ’50s came of age in an era where the barriers between “serious” and “popular” music, as well as jazz and avant-garde music, started to break down drastically and there was a noticeable increase in the use of experimental techniques. Not every composer born during this period chose to follow these trends, naturally. Some even reverted to more conservative idioms. For instance, while the early works of John Adams (b. 1947) like Shaker Loops (1978) are minimalist, his more recent ones, like the 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer, are more through-composed and in a more conservative, post-modernist style.

But many composers in this age group have found a signature sound world and have pretty much remained identified with it. Glenn Branca (b. 1949) writes for “orchestras” of up to 100 guitars, many of them altered or specially built in different keys. Stephen Scott (b. 1944) started composing for “bowed” piano, where a group of performers use fishing line or horsehair to bow the piano’s inner strings, in 1976. Ellen Fullman (b. 1957) has been primarily associated with The Long String Instrument, a wooden box with 85-feet wires that creates tones with deep frequencies. Stuart Saunders Smith (b. 1948) frequently incorporates non-traditional percussion instruments into his music, from kitchen utensils to pieces of scrap metal to tree branches hung with glass wind chimes. Since 1990 much of Phil Kline‘s music has been composed largely for “boom box orchestra,” a group of portable tape players. Meredith Monk (b. 1943), who has been associated with extended vocal techniques since the 1960s and has created a significant body of works exploring this terrain for her own ensemble, has only recently explored the possibility of writing works for other ensembles including the orchestra.

Electro-acoustic, electronic or computer music are the preferred mediums for many of composers in this age group such as Daria Semegen (b. 1946) and Pril Smiley (b. 1943), both of whom were associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Although composer and electric guitarist Paul Dresher (b. 1951) has created works for conventional instruments, some of his most important scores, which he performs with his own ensemble, combine electric and acoustic instruments to create a new type of chamber music. Another electric guitar playing composer Steve Mackey has also developed a unique style through combining the electric guitar’s sonorities with those of acoustic instruments. Scott Johnson (b. 1952), since his John Somebody (1980-82) in which an electric guitar imitates repeated fragments of voice recordings, has continued to explore and refine the technique of turning pre-recorded conversation into recognizable melodies through repetition and imitation for the past two decades. Charles Dodge (b. 1942), since his landmark Earth’s Magnetic Field (1970) in which the musical material from computations involving changes in the earth’s magnetic field, has been creating provocative music with computers incorporating such diverse ideas as synthetic speech-song to altering historic recordings of Enrico Caruso. Another computer composer who has been obsessed with the fine line between verbal communication and music-making for many years is Princeton-based Paul Lansky (b. 1944). Laurie Spiegel (b. 1945), who began her career performing folk and bluegrass music on the banjo, and began exploring the possibilities of computers in works such as Appalachian Grove (1974), has rarely gone back to acoustic instruments since then.

Other composers who initially concentrated on electronic and electro-acoustic music have modified or grown away from their original approach. For instance, Ingram Marshall (b. 1942), whose earliest compositions involved tape experiments, now frequently mixes live acoustic instruments with electronic processing. And Elodie Lauten (b. 1950), who originally worked exclusively with the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument (CMI), now composes for a lot of music for solo acoustic piano and has even created a work for Baroque period instruments.

Rock and popular music is also a strong influence in much of the music written by this age group. Glenn Branca (b. 1949) and Rhys Chatham (b. 1942), who were both originally performers in rock bands, have been created large-scale compositions using rock aesthetics and rock instrumentation for decades. Bonham for eight percussionists, by Christopher Rouse (b. 1949), was inspired by the late Led Zeppelin drummer. Julia Wolfe (b. 1958) described her Lick as being directly inspired by the Motown and funk music she grew up with. (Wolfe, along with fellow Druckman students Michael Gordon and David Lang, also founded the Bang On A Can Festival, with the aim of trying to break down the Uptown-Downtown polarity, in 1987.) Laurie Anderson (b. 1947), who like Philip Glass has enjoyed great commercial success, frequently works with rock musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and Adrian Belew. However, as she said in John Schaefer‘s book New Sounds, “I don’t think of [my music] as rock in any way, but it’s sitting in the rock bins in record stores, and there are people on it who do rock.”

It’s also not uncommon to see works inspired by current events and popular culture, both serious and frivolous, among composers of this age group. Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) is a particularly good example of the latter, with extroverted works like Desi (inspired by Desi Arnaz) (1990) or Elvis Everywhere, whose scoring includes four Elvis impersonators. Many of Laurie Anderson’s pieces include satiric or humorous social commentary, often with a feminist slant, such as Beautiful Red Dress. A number of African-American composers have written pieces inspired by important figures in black history; including Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) and Anthony Davis (b. 1951), whose opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, was composed in 1985. And it was primarily composers of this age group who contributed to The AIDS Quilt Songbook, a cycle of 15 songs commissioned by the late baritone William Parker in 1992.

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