Monday, December 28, 2009

The point of this exercise is not to name the Top 10 pieces of classical music but to expose whoever is patient enough to read this to a burgeoning world of musical tradition that is still very much alive, perhaps moreso now than it has been at any point since before World War II. Classical music is finally making its peace with a changing world in which other traditions can take from and give to it with almost total freedom. So long as musical ideas exist people will want to write them down, and so long as people keep writing music down there will be a classical tradition to preserve. Here are some more of the very best efforts of the last ten years.

Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles) by Gyorgy Ligeti:

(I used to scare a old roommate by randomly turning this piece on.)

I suppose that if I put one of the late master's pieces on this list I'm supposed to put the "Hamburg Concerto." And that's a wonderful work for the most part. But Ligeti was always a greater composer when he was more focused on having a good time than he was with Boulez-type intellectual point-making and unfortunately Ligeti the pedant is occasionally present in that piece. But this most fun of the avant-garde composers never seemed to have more fun than he did with this very-late-in-life song cycle based on nonsense poetry - the score calling for one mezzo-soprano and roughly 100 different percussion instruments (if you don't believe me go to its wikipedia page to see for yourself....) You'd think that such a battery would consistently overwhelm the singer, but Ligeti puts a lifetime of experience to use with the lightest, deftest percussion writing you could possibly imagine. But all the avant-garde instruments add up to a composite of something that sounds distinctly folkish. No doubt even Bartok is smiling. I'd have just liked to be in the room when Ligeti came up with the idea.

Afrikan Machinery by Lukas Ligeti:

(Ligeti the son performing Great Circle II from Afrikan Machinery. Needless to say, he's as fascinated by percussion as his father was, but his father would never have a section devoted to pure F-sharp major. It's as much Aphex Twin as Darmstadt.)

Gyorgy died in 2006, but his son Lukas is just getting warmed up. Now a composer based out of Brooklyn, Lukas writes music that is every bit as intelligent as his father's. It's hard not to view Lukas's music as the music his father would have written had he post-dated rather than pre-dated the 60's. But perhaps that's unfair to all involved. Lukas's voice is every bit as pinball-wizard-strange as his father's with all the same weird preoccupations with odd asymetrical rhythms and harmonies. But his music is as touched by mid-2000's Brooklyn hipsters as his father's was early 60's Darmstadt radicals. Both have the same prickly convictions and eclectic-in-the-extreme musical tastes - African drumming, Balinese Gamelan, acid jazz, electronica - but Lukas's music sounds like it has a slightly gentler temperament, probably born of living in more inviting surroundings.

Light In The Piazza by Adam Guettel:

(Light in the Piazza)

: It's gotta be very sad to be an elderly Broadway lover. It must mean that you probably grew up in a veritable paradise of musical popularity and quality only to watch as America's greatest musical tradition declined to irrelevance as glitz and scenery increasingly trumped substance (I got over my old fogeyness about classical music when I was twelve, but when conversation turns to Broadway I turn into Glenn Beck). To be honest, I'm not even certain that Light In the Piazza deserves to be on this list. The piece is a whole that is far greater than any part, with Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers's grandson btw) serving up a not-all-that-memorable score and lyrics and an even less memorable book by Craig Lucas. But what it has so enormously is all the ambition and pathos that is so terribly absent from so much recent music theater. Within its modest confines, it contains a tragic story about love and family that is as affecting as anything on this list. In such a fallow era, a musical deserves credit for a successful attempt to give its audience a meaningful experience. I have no doubt that lurking beneath the marquee lights there are other contemporary musicals that do the same, but where the hell are they?

(Flying Song from Tan Dun's The Map

The Map by Tan Dun

Tan Dun has the dubious distinction of writing what is probably the biggest flop of the decade. His opera, The First Emperor, was supposed to launch the "New Met" as a serious artistic endeavor and Peter Gelb spared no expense for it from Ziang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) as its director to Placido Domingo as its star. As it happens, it was universally reported to have sucked (click here for rather indisputable evidence). But let's be generous to Tan Dun. He aimed as high as he always does and he happened to fail. Dun is often dismissed as a purveyor of eastern kitsch, and there is no denying a stratospherically kitschy element to much of his music. But who cares? Not only is a lot of it beautiful, but quite a bit of it is based out of real intelligence - no piece moreso than The Map. It's a piece for which Dun went into the Chinese countryside for a year to collect as many dying Chinese musical folk traditions as he could. He then filmed them or had live performers come to play this Chinese folk music against an enormous orchestra and a virtuoso cello soloist (that part originally written for Yo-Yo Ma). Dun's ear for color is as superb as his teacher's, the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, and the resulting music is at once beautiful, strange and haunting.

L'Amour De Loin by Kaija Saariaho

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