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Leave No Good Idea Behind: Millennial Composers Embrace a Cosmopolitan Style

August 9, 2019

There was a time, within living memory, for many of us, when composers, critics, and listeners could have knock-down, drag-out fights (or the somewhat more genteel, but still vehement, classical-music equivalent) about which of the many contemporary “isms” was the true musical language of our time.

The battle lines were always clearly drawn. Was serialism the way of the future, or just ugly music that only an academic could love? Were neoclassicism and neo-Romanticism the true continuations of the Western world’s long established common musical parlance, or just abject pandering to listeners who couldn’t, or wouldn’t come to terms with the post-tonal universe? Was minimalism a brilliant jettisoning of both antiquated structural models and the audience-alienating harshness of post-tonal music, or merely consonant, repetitive twaddle? And were composers who combined rock and symphonic instrumentation finding a useful dialectic while also writing not only for the forces readily available to them, but that were part of their collective generational psyche, or were they just either pretentious rockers or crossover sellouts?

It was an article of faith that these questions were of elemental importance to the future of Western Civilization, so when composers had a change of heart — when George Rochberg and David Del Tredici, abandoning serialism for a modified neo-Romanticism, for example — they were spoken of as unspeakably treacherous by one group of listeners and celebrated for having finally come to their senses by another.

But by the turn of the 21st century, a consensus began to emerge among younger composers that these disputes were energy-sapping foolishness. Growing up with all these styles firmly established and intrinsic to their musical studies — and not being beholden to any of the partisan cliques — they were able to find useful elements in all of them, and also in the various forms of pop and jazz that are so inextricably a part of contemporary civilization that no musician with ears and curiosity could ignore them.

There remain holdouts in every subgenre, but it is hard to deny that the dominant musical lingua franca today is an amalgam, balanced differently for each composer, of virtually all the warring styles listed above, as well as new strands that seem to arise constantly, as musicians experiment. No-one seems interested in jeremiads about why one approach is more legitimate than another: If anything, the biggest arguments now are about which shorthand/marketing term – indie-classical or alt-classical – is more irritating to the greatest number of people. (Move over “Impressionism,” which Debussy disliked, but which stuck nevertheless.)

“Post-genre” has been proposed as an option, but that doesn’t really work either: in a blind listening test, most people will still regard what they’re hearing as classical, pop, jazz, or one of the many sub-genres within each, even when elements of several genres are mixed within the whole.

But if post-genre is not a useful stylistic description, it captures the spirit at several record labels, most notably Nonesuch, which began as a classical, new music and world music label in the 1960s, and now records artists of all persuasions; New Amsterdam, which also began as a home for contemporary classical composers but quickly headed toward whatever inspires the composers who run it; and Cantaloupe, the label started by Bang on a Can, which has long pursued a boundary-erasing agenda.

Post-genre can also be applied to composers — or at least, to composers’ ways of taking in the musical world and adding to it, if not to their specific styles. Recent recordings of music by Caleb Burhans, Alex Weiser and Caroline Shaw show how that works.


Caleb Burhans: Past Lives

Caleb Burhans is the kind of musician who seems natural in virtually any musical habitat; in fact, within a few years of his arrival in New York, fresh from the Eastman School of Music, in 2001, he could be heard as a violinist and violist in the new-music ensembles Alarm Will Sound and ACME; singing (as a countertenor) in the Trinity Church choir; playing guitar and electric violin in the genre-skirting duo, itsnotyouitsme, as well as for a handful more techno and classical groups — and composing for all of them.His latest collection, Past Lives (Cantaloupe), offers a good if hardly comprehensive overview of his recent work. Three of its four pieces, like quite a few earlier works by Burhans, are darkly consonant meditations that pretty much justify the “emo-classical” label noted on his Bandcamp page; the fourth, though brighter and lighter, thanks to the interesting combination of harp and marimba, has the sometimes disconcerting quality of a surrealist dreamscape.

The disc opens with an installment in an ongoing series of what composers used to call tombeaux — memorial works commemorating, often other musicians. Burhans calls them “Moments,” and has written them for Kurt Cobain, Elliot Smith, and Nick Drake, each a stunningly talented songwriter whose unsuccessful battle with inner demons led to an early death. On Past Lives he extends the necrology with A Moment for Jason Molina, in memory of the prolific singer-songwriter who melded indie rock, country, and blues into a distinctive style of his own before dying of alcohol-related multiple organ failure in 2013.

Burhans has scored the work for electric guitar and electronics, although these days, guitar pedals and computer apps offer such broad processing capabilities, not to mention looping capabilities, that it is hard to tell where the guitar ends and the electronic track begins. It probably doesn’t matter: Simon Jermyn, the guitarist here, is heard playing a clean (unprocessed) electric guitar line built on a slow, repeating, arpeggiated figure, through most of the 10-minute work, while velvety, sustained lines weave a gradually unfolding, contrapuntal web around it.

The texture grows fairly thick before Burhans reverses the process and dismantles it, eliminating lines until one sustained, thinning chord, and ultimately a single tone, remains. It is an elegy in the best sense — pained and mournful, but also, at its peak, a celebration of the power and directness of Molina’s work.

Contritus, performed by the JACK Quartet, is equally melancholy, thanks in part to its slow-moving, undulating chord repetitions, as well as a shadowy, neo-Renaissance harmonic thumbprint that calls to mind some of Arvo Pärt’s early works. But the Pärt connection is fleeting, or at least, only one of several strands in this rich fabric. Elsewhere, what sounds like a looped, pizzicato cello line, holds the foreground until higher lines, played with a growing intensity, virtually drown it out. Some of the same textural addition and subtraction that drives A Moment for Jason Molina can be heard here as well, but Contritus has a clarity and sparseness that give it a different sort of energy.

Repetition also drives the harp and marimba work, Once in a Blue Moon. At its heart, the work, played by the Duo Harpverk (harpist Katie Buckley and percussionist Fran Aarnink), is built on simple materials — a two chord harp figure here, a six-note marimba line there — yet the qualities of attacks, the subtleties of timbre and the balances between the two instruments shifts constantly. So does the spirit of the piece, which begins with a folk-like simplicity, but soon morphs into the rhythmically spellbinding and timbrally off-kilter quality of a gamelan orchestra, and then the tactile, almost child-like character of a music box before both instrumental lines become increasingly spiky. At its zenith, the piece sounds as thought it could be the score for a nightmarish film – perhaps an episode of the dystopian Black Mirror series.

Burhans performs on only the final work, early music (for a saturday), an atmospheric piece on which he plays electric bass and electric violin, processed with space echo and tape delay. From the start, the work draws the listener into a hazy cluster, within which buzzing timbres, violin figures that at times sound like muted, distant voices create a sense of mystery with an undercurrent of menace.

Or at least, that’s one way of hearing it: I’ve reacted differently to this piece every time I’ve played it. On one pass, its sound world suggested a walk through a strange, aural amusement park. On another, its odd shimmer reminded me of the desolate but strangely alluring soundscapes that the German synthesizer group Tangerine Dream created in its mid-1970s work.


Alex Weiser: And All the Days Were Purple

Alex Weiser composes more conventionally than Burhans, in the sense that he writes straightforwardly for orchestral instruments and voices, and — at least in the music I’ve heard — does not use electronic timbres or processing. But as the huge collection of recordings on his website demonstrates, he knows how to push instruments to their expressive limits, and his imagination as an orchestrator is matched by a gift for evocative melody.

Weiser’s And All the Days Were Purple (Cantaloupe) brings together two song cycles: the eight- movement title work, completed in 2017, and Three Epitaphs, composed a year earlier. Both are scored for voice, piano quartet, and percussion, although Three Epitaphs also exists in a chamber orchestra version, and together they offer a good overview of his strength setting texts.

Four of the six texts for And All the Days Were Purple are Yiddish poems; the remaining two are in English, but all are presented as “secular prayers,” or the prayers of poets who don’t believe in God. The inherent contradiction makes sense when you hear the texts, as filtered through, and magnified by, Weiser’s music. For example, in “My Joy,” the opening piece, with a Yiddish text by Anna Margolin, the poet tries to identify happiness in a series of sad images, settling finally on the idea that “over our joy there hovered the smiling face of death.” The key lies both in the lyric and in the introspective, vocal melody and mildly dissonant, characterful piano and string accompaniment: if you can sing of hopeless hope, why should prayers without God seem strange?

The notion is developed further in the intensity of Weiser’s setting of Edward Hirsch’s “I Was Never Able to Pray,” in English, and the series of brisk rising figures that support Weiser’s more slowly ascending melody for Rachel Korn’s “Longing” and the spare, supple vocal and instrumental chromaticism he applied to Abraham Sutzkever’s “Poetry.”  In both Mark Strand’s “Lines for Winter” and Margolin’s “We Went Through the Days,” graceful, richly chromatic vocal melodies soar over hazy instrumental backdrops, offering an imagery-rich, alternative prayer form – ecstatic, yet oddly calm, though by no means entirely restrained.

A pair of more assertive instrumental interludes tap into an otherworldliness that moves beyond the expressive contours of the songs. At times I wondered whether the work would be even more powerful if those elements weren’t segregated — if, in other words, the song accompaniments had the same vigor and slicing edges you hear in the interludes. But Weiser has found a comfortable balance and interplay in the vocal movements, and having the singer and ensemble competing for the spotlight was probably something he decided would not be productive here.

Eliza Bagg, a Los Angeles-based new-music singer, and a member of the neo-psychedelic band Pavo Pavo, sings these songs affectingly, with a pure, vibrato-free timbre, and the habit of sliding into notes like a jazz singer when there is an interpretive reason to do so. You could argue that the Yiddish texts, especially, demand that approach: you hear it in early 20th-century Yiddish theater song, and in the phrasing of klezmer, both vocally and in the style’s clarinet and violin phrasing.

Bagg takes a more standard approach — a bit of expressive vibrato, and no glissandi — in Three Epitaphs, a single-movement elegy that brings together verses about mortality by William Carlos Williams, the ancient Greek poet and composer Seikilos, and Emily Dickinson. The vocal settings, in this case, are really just tiny islands within the 14-minute score, so the instrumental writing carries most of the weight of this deliciously wistful piece.


Caroline Shaw: Orange

You might have expected that in the six years since Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize for her Partita for Eight Voices, record companies would have been falling over themselves to get her music on disc. Shaw herself, of course, has been pretty busy, not only filling new commissions, but also singing (and touring) with Roomful of Teeth, holding down musician in residence positions at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., and Music on Main, in Vancouver, B.C., and making guest appearances on Mozart in the Jungle and on recordings by Kanye West and Nas.

A few of her pieces have, of course, turned up on recordings that also feature music by other composers. But Orange (a collaboration between New Amsterdam and Nonesuch) is the first album devoted fully to her work. And though most of the music for which she is best known is vocal music, Orange offers six imaginative and urbane works for string quartet, in superb performances by the Attacca Quartet.

That Shaw is so at home in the medium should not be surprising. She took up the violin as a child, and earned her bachelor’s degree (from Rice University, in 2004) as a violinist. The quartet has long fascinated her, both for its longevity as a classical ensemble, and its adaptability. “It’s something familiar,” she has said, “and yet you can keep on opening these doors and diving down these little rabbit holes.”

The rabbit holes here are pretty interesting places. Shaw is exceedingly fond of pizzicato writing, which she uses both in tightly-played, full-ensemble chordal passages and in brisk counterpoint, but also, as she demonstrates in Limestone and Felt, as a segment of the quartet’s flexible range of textures, which runs from hard-edged martellato tapping to the most velvety pianissimo bowing.

Actually, no part of that range is skipped over in this collection. Slashing strummed chords, ringing artificial harmonics, every quality of bowed sound, from the sublimely gentle through an astringent growl or a high-pressure, rubbery tone, turns up somewhere in these pieces. Repeating arpeggios, with one foot in country fiddling and the other in Philip Glass’s music, turn up as well, and give way either to fragmented melodies, cacophonous post-tonal bursts, or surprising modulations.

There is also a clear sense of the past looking over Shaw’s shoulder. Ritornello is an extended, wide-ranging, contemporary dissection and exploration of a Baroque structural model, with roots in Monteverdi, but a harmonic language that poaches from the full spectrum of music history. The ghost of Ravel’s string quartet — and certain Ravelian harmonic moves — moves through “The Cutting Garden,” the second of the five movements that make up Plan and Elevation, and in “Punctum,” you hear traces of Ravel as well as a reharmonized quotation from a Bach chorale (“Erkenne mich, mein Hüter,” from the St. Matthew Passion).

Shaw stops at several of these ports of call at some point in just about every piece, yet each has a distinctive sound and sense of purpose. As a quartet composer, in other words, she is both curious and restless, interested in exploring the possibilities, fond enough of certain effects to want to linger on them, yet also eager to move on and discover what else can be done. The pieces don’t sit still for long. But you don’t feel as though you’re being dragged along for an experimental joyride.

Perhaps that’s the magic of the seemingly unnameable post-everything style: textures, colors, and effects that, in former times, were used far more sparingly, have migrated to center stage, and though there is nothing especially groundbreaking about the harmonic language, it draws on so many historical influences that you are hard-pressed to slap any of the existing stylistic labels on it. The same goes for Burhans’s music, and though you could squeeze Weiser’s into neo-Romanticism, that’s not entirely accurate either.

But post-genre? Not really. There are moments when Burhans could pass as a rock experimentalist, but most of his works, and Weiser’s and Shaw’s, sound unquestionably like classical concert music, and because the works of all three composers have tendrils that stretch to past styles, whether tenuously or powerfully, they make the most sense as part of that tradition.

Allan Kozinn (@kozinn) began writing about music for The New York Times in 1977, and served on its culture staff from 1991 to 2014. He was born in New York and studied music and journalism at Syracuse University.