Recently Anne Midgette, the Washington Post music critic, published a thought-provoking article (complete with video) and related blog post about introducing contemporary concert music to folks who did not know where to start listening. The postings struck a good tone between being informative and not talking down to her readers (a narrow window, to be sure), and I thought they did a pretty good job of opening the door a crack for the uninitiated. The examples she gives throughout the article, for example, touch on a wide array of composers, but the follow-up list at the end of the article missed a perfect opportunity to introduce more of the younger generation of composers to the public; she gives a list of “significant composers and works” that exactly outlines the issue of breaking new voices into the public consciousness if we’re still introducing works by Carter, Boulez, and Crumb as contemporary works.
The video portion of her article gives us Anne’s view of what’s going on in contemporary music today with three examples—John Adams’s Harmonium, Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, and a track from Missy Mazzoli’s recent Victoire album—and her blog post (and subsequent Facebook postings) ask for other sets of examples of composers that would help to allow the uninitiated to get their feet wet in the hot tub that is contemporary concert music. The premise of this is that if we hear three different composers, we should be able to infer that each of those composers are representatives of larger groups of artists who might be writing music in a similar way or who are at least related in some way or another. The challenge with this is that with many composers I know, you could listen to three different works from the same composer and hear three different musical styles/genres/concepts/what-have-you (for an example, check out Missy Mazzoli’s audio page and you’ll notice both the similarities and difference between her works by genre, year written, ensemble, etc.).
While it may be possible to group composers in such a way, I have an alternative that I would humbly submit: introduce the uninitiated not to composers, but to chamber ensembles. Over the past 15 years or so, we’ve had a huge influx of chamber ensembles that have grabbed the responsibility of pushing the boundaries of concert music and ran with it, encouraging composers from across the spectrum to use their ensembles as laboratories and, in doing so, have done as much as anyone to build our current musical environment to the level that it is today. As much as I would like to point to orchestras as a method of introduction, it’s my own personal feeling that the sparseness of new works performed every year and available on recording would make such an exercise difficult and not widely representative in comparison to what is available with chamber ensembles.
By using various ensembles, both traditional and innovative, one could get a good sense of what directions composers are exploring, and as such I’ve listed a few examples below (with links to pages with audio files). I would not presume to say this was the best way or the only way to discover new music, but I submit it as a healthy alternative.
Chiara String Quartet: Leyendas by Gabriela Lena Frank
Biava String Quartet: String Quartet No. 2, “Devils and Angels” by Stacy Garrop
JACK Quartet: String Quartet by Aaron Cassidy
JACK Quartet: Contritus by Caleb Burhans
eighth blackbird: Divinium Mysterium by Daniel Kellogg
International Contemporary Ensemble: Undersong by Jason Eckardt
International Contemporary Ensemble: Someone Will Take Care of Me by Corey Dargel
Alarm Will Sound: Arrangements of Aphex Twin by various composers
ensemble dal niente: Capricious Angels by Augusta Read Thomas