Semantically, you can’t really be a composer of “classical music” if you’re alive, even though that hasn’t stopped the music industry from using this term. (Although that semantic disconnect might be part of why living “classical composers” are so far off the radar of the general public.) But you also can’t be a composer of “new music” if you are no longer living.
One of the historical inevitabilities of “new music” is that, at some point, it will no longer be new. Of course, the hope is always that the best of what is new will take its place in history, and that subsequent “new” work of later generations will either build from it or define itself in opposition to it. All too often, however, when new work ceases to be new, it resides in a cast-off limbo, no longer welcome at the table with the new and not yet embraced by the avatars of the tried and true.
For every Morton Feldman—who was largely ignored during his lifetime but whose music seems to gain even greater relevance and resonance every year since his death—there are others whose work might even have been presented to rave reviews at the Metropolitan Opera or Severance Hall while they were alive, yet nowadays you can’t hear a note of it. There are still untold others deserving of a place in our canon whose music barely made it onto anyone’s radar, either before or after death. Julius Eastman’s music might never have made it onto CD were it not for Mary Jane Leach’s persistence and New World Records’ commitment to promoting the breadth of American music. For many composers, there isn’t even a living family member who can be a torchbearer at this point. This problem has been gnawing at me quite a bit these past few months following the deaths of several acquaintances whose parents wrote important music that has yet to gain the advocacy of 21st-century champions.
Some recent conversations I’ve had with music industry types only confirm a sad reality: as difficult as it may be to get a performance of a new work, it is even harder to get a performance of a work by a lesser-known composer who is no longer living. This hurdle takes on even greater significance this week as the new music community mourns the deaths of three composers, each of whom were at very different levels of fame: Stephen “Lucky” Mosko, Soong Fu-Yuan, and Donald Martino. Without champions loud enough to keep their music heard now that they are no longer with us, how will their work ever reach the audience it deserves?