Sunday, December 11, 2011

Young Composers

A post like this is an opportunity to praise young composers irrespective of their music, just for being. Or an opportunity to put them down because I'm in training to be a curmudgeon. Or an opportunity just to report on their existence. Instead of that, I'm going to actually tell you what I think.

Vivian Fung is a Canadian composer, born in 1975, with a doctorate from Julliard (who teaches composition there? --oh, Robert Beaser and John Corigliano among others). She cites as influences Asian music, specifically Javanese and Balinese gamelan. Let's have a listen to her String Quartet No. 2:

Was that a ragged and sloppy performance or is it written that way? Without the score I can't tell. Asian influence, yes. Underpinning it all seems to be the pentatonic theme of the beginning. But I hear a lot of Bartok. Nothing there made me want to hear more. It had the frozen harmony that perhaps comes from a pentatonic structure. The frenzied passages seemed to me merely frenzied, that is, not justified by what preceded them.

Next, Nico Muhly who has been getting commissions right, left and center. He is even younger than Vivian, born in 1981, also a graduate of Julliard in composition. His opera Two Boys just premiered at the English National Opera last summer. Let's listen to a piece from his album Speaks Volumes:

I don't hear much interesting there. I've gotten somewhat allergic to drones lately as they seem to have become a cliche. Speaking of, surely at this point in time the climax achieved by accelerando is also a cliche as is the crescendo on one note? That's what I hear: cliches. True, there is some lyricism in the high violin melodies, which is a good thing. But the form, like that of a rondo with a limp, leaves me cold. Not a very pleasurable or interesting listen.

Both these young composers seem to be composing Standard High Modernism: jagged rhythms, dissonant, the usual rhythmic and dynamic cliches. Take a chunk out of either piece and would it really be distinctive in the way a chunk out of a Beethoven or Shostakovich string quartet would be? And uh, Julliard, isn't this about thirty or forty years out of fashion? Haven't we had post-modernism since and whatever it is we are doing now?

Let's hear something by another not-quite-so-young composer:

Now that has two things the other pieces don't: harmony and a groove...

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