I. The NPR Top 100
A couple years ago, NPR made a particularly noble gesture toward classical music. It came out with a list of the 100 best composers under 40. On this list was everyone from Classical Great White Hope, Nico Muhly, to Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James. In a time when the boundaries between composition, arrangement, and performance get more and more blurry, it made the prudent decision of making a very liberal definition of what a composer is.
But even when the list is buffered by rock/electronic musicians like Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead and those Icelandic dudes from Sigur Ros, one can’t help noticing a striking problem. There is no way in this crazy mixed up world of ours that there are 100 young composers who are truly worth listening to – at least 100 worth listening to that we (or NPR) has heard of. Instead of being a list of the most talented, lists like these inevitably become lists of who has the best press agents, or who has the best connections. I would guarantee that I’ve heard more music by the composers on this list than 99 out of every 100 people who’ve read it. But out of all these 100 composers, there are at best a couple dozen who to my mind exhibit a real talent for composition, and probably less than ten who have any idea how to develop theirs. One day, when we’re all old and grey, it will be clear whom among these talents turned out to be great composers. In fifty years, we should count ourselves lucky if there were as many as half a dozen ‘immortals’ on this list.
Let’s imagine that NPR existed in 1840 and did a similar list. Any list of the greatest composers under 40 would begin with Mendelssohn, who was at that time thought of as the great heir to Beethoven. Chopin would not get many complaints either. Berlioz and Liszt would be on the list, but plenty old fogeys would write in to complain. Glinka would be there too, but there would be all sorts of xenophobic complaints from the Germans. Schumann would be there, but mostly as a thank you for all the reviews he’s done for NPR. On the other hand, it’s highly likely that neither Verdi nor Wagner make this list for another two years. But Ferdinand David would, so would Adolphe Adam, and Johann Strauss Sr., and Charles Valentin Alkan, and Georg Hellmesburger, and Louis Niedermeyer, and Sigismond Thalberg.
From a certain point of view, a list like this is completely ridiculous. We have no way of knowing who is going to write great music in advance of when they write it, and even after they do, we often judge it wrongly. Furthermore, there is something about the term ‘composer’ that reeks of 1840. Few if any of the most influential (some would add ‘inspiring’) musicians of the last 100 years were composers in the most traditional sense – even Stravinsky was arguably as much an arranger as a composer. Most of the great musicians of the 20th century were weird hybrids of composers, arrangers and performers who found the freedom to create music by which no one had in the heyday of what we now call ‘classical’ music could imagine possessing. Even I, when I look at the NPR list, have to wonder if there is a single traditional composer on it to make music as compelling as Dan Deacon or Imogen Heap.
I could go down the list and discuss the reasons why I think various composers on it have the potential for real greatness (Timothy Andres), or are very good and underrated (Sarah Kirkland Snider), good but overrated (Nico Muhly), mediocre (Judd Greenstein), mediocre and overrated (Mason Bates), mediocre but enjoyable (Colin Jacobsen), irredeemably bad (not telling) and completely full of shit (really not telling…). But there’s a very simple, gaping, question this list begs its readers to ask which is so plainly under the noses of whoever made it that I worry they’d never notice it unless it was pointed out to them…
Is there such a thing as classical music in our day?
II. Teapots and Gefilte Fish
A conversation on The West Wing between President Jed Bartlet and his aide Charlie, on their way to a concert at the Kennedy Center.
• Jed: Do you know what they’re playing?
• Charlie: I’m sorry, sir?
• Jed: The Reykjavik Symphony. Do we know what they’re playing and for how long they’re playing it?
• Charlie: It says here 'an evening of modern music.'
• Jed: Turn the car around.
• Charlie: 'The orchestra features 90 pieces, including anvils and castanets.'
• Jed: Turn the car around.
• Charlie: Modern music is cool.
• Jed: Modern music sucks. Anything written after 1860 sucks.
• Charlie: 'Samuel Barber, Symphony No. 2.'
• Jed: Sucks.
• Charlie: 'Stravinsky, Variations on a Theme.'
• Jed: Sucks.
• Charlie: 'Schoenberg, Enlightened Night for String Orchestra.'
• Jed: Totally blows.
• Charlie: 'After intermission, they’ll be performing the world premiere of a piece...'
• Jed: Played on teapots and gefilte fish.
• Charlie: '...by a new Icelandic composer.' They told me he got so nervous when he heard you were coming that he was rewriting the piece until six o’clock.
• Jed: If he wants more time, I’d be happy to take a rain check.
• Charlie: I thought you liked classical music.
• Jed: This is not classical music. It is not classical music if the guy finished writing it this afternoon.
It’s at least worth noting that President Bartlett turned out to love the Icelandic piece he heard. But in a sense, President Bartlett’s made an argument which lay music lovers have made for nearly a century. Whether they’re ultimately right or wrong, we have to concede that they have a point. Classical music is not classical music because of any instrumental combination it contains; and it’s not classical music because of the performers involved. Classical music – at least as we currently define it - is classical because it’s proven over a long historical period to have nearly as much, or more, value to audiences today than it did in the era when it was written. Many classical music professionals complain that the term ‘classical music’ is a masterpiece of negative publicity – trapping a still living artform within a museum of past creations. In a sense, they’re absolutely right to do so. There is little in the world more constricting to the creativity of contemporary composers than having to share programs with the greatest musical minds of the past. But it’s called ‘classical’ because it rises above the concerns of our day at the same time that it addresses those very same concerns. We can speculate as to which of today’s musicians will have value to music lovers in a century’s time, but unless we live to see it, we’ll never know.
Try as we may to tear the classical music’s pearly gates down, it will never work. The greatest music, the greatest of any artform, is larger than all of us. The reason Beethoven and Mahler dwarf most contemporary composers is not (just) because audiences are conditioned to love them. It’s because Beethoven and Mahler are better than most contemporary music, and the audiences know it even if the musicians don’t. Music lovers may be a fickle and spoiled lot, but they’re not idiots.
III. What Music is Better?
Indeed, what about that music which is better? There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, maybe even thousands, of creators of great music in our time. Who are they?
Well…let’s start with the classical realm. Better yet, let’s just stick to the Americans. Whom among living American composers have written music that we can honestly say has turned the possibilities of the world upside down as only the greatest art can? While trying as best you can to leave taste out of the question, and realizing that the extent of your knowledge is pathetically inadequate, you still have to try answer the question.
What living American composers wrote music after which the world was simply a different place than before they wrote it, even minutely? No doubt, there will be a lot of the Big Three: Glass, Reich, and Adams. From a still older generation, one can’t deny places to Elliott Carter, Ned Rorem, or Gunther Schuller. You’d probably have to make at least a little room for some lesser known older names as stylistically different as David Del Tredici, William Bolcom, Charles Wuorinen, Terry Riley, (and especially) George Crumb and Meredith Monk. Among the middle aged names (does Osvaldo Golijov count?), one ought to include Michael Hersch, Aaron Jay Kernis, Paul Moravec, Stephen Hartke, Richard Danielpour, Steven Mackey, Steven Stucky (or are they the same person?), Michael Daugherty, Eliot Goldenthal, and all the great composers of Bang on a Can (special citation to David Lang). And among the young American composers who show potential for the ‘ultimate promise,’ it’s a list that at least has to include Andres, Nico Muhly, and Sarah Kirkland Snider and perhaps twenty or so others whom I could name (and no doubt, hundreds more I couldn’t), But as Stephen Sondheim (a composer more slated for immortality than anyone on this list) would say, ‘art isn’t easy.’ In a healthy artistic community, it takes thousands of the talented artists to provide dialogue, competition, and support so that just a handful of immortals can emerge. I’m well aware that I know ten times as much about classical music as I do about any other musical genre. Yet even I could create a list of the essential living, ‘non-classical’ American creative musicians that’s at least twenty times as long. No doubt, some of you reading this could make one fifty times as long. Next to the historical contributions of a baker’s half-dozen like Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Stephen Sondheim, Ralph Stanley, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, and Stevie Wonder, what are Glass, Reich and Adams but soon-to-be footnotes?