At the end of last year, I paid my first visit in a decade to the Huddersfield contemporary music festival and, alongside some excellent music, heard an underlying rumble of chatter that posed the question: whatever happened to the great composer? Time was when a visit to Huddersfield meant rubbing shoulders with the greats. I queued once behind Luciano Berio at an ATM; saw Elliott Carter dining in an Indian restaurant (and sightings of Karlheinz Stockhausen in various Huddersfield Indian restaurants are legion); and the history of the festival is haunted by the ghosts of John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Henryk Górecki, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Werner Henze and Michael Tippett, who all made the trip to this unassuming West Yorkshire town. But who had even heard of last year’s headliner, the Swiss composer Jürg Frey?Hmm, well yes, Switzerland is not known for its great composers. But while those cited are certainly well known, I'm not sure any of them, other than Messiaen, actually qualifies as a great composer. In the course of the essay Mr. Clark rather moves the goalposts from great international names to British composers and laments that no-one these days matches up to the great names Britten, Tippett and Birtwhistle:
[T]he truth is, it’s over. The confident forward march in British music that handed us a lineage of great composers – Britten, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle – has shattered. Given that all the obvious “isms” have been exhausted, composers now face an existential crisis over where music might head next; and, anyway, our culture has decided to privilege ephemeral celebrity over anyone who cares enough about the future to utter anything difficult or challenging. And clued-up composers realise that.How does a march "shatter"? You got me. But mixed metaphors aside, this is an oddly lackluster complaint that boils down to "Thomas Adès just isn't as meaty as those older modernists." Well, no, we do seem to be on to a new chapter. I kind of suspect that Mr. Clark is a modernist ideologue who is mistaking a change in idiom for a lowering in quality.
The world does seem rather diminished these days. When I was at university it was not uncommon for friends not involved in music in any way to know and appreciate the music of people as diverse as B. B. King, Bob Dylan, J. S. Bach, Ravi Shankar and even Charles Ives. I doubt this is any longer the case. But I don't actually think that the most outstanding composers working today are lesser figures than the icons of modernism. Is Philip Glass a poorer composer than John Cage? Is Thomas Adès lesser than Benjamin Britten? Is Steve Reich on a lower level than Karlheinz Stockhausen? Not in my book. What has changed is the degree to which artists out of the pop mainstream have any exposure at all. The classical music world is entrenching itself to ride out the storm. But there are still some seriously fine composers and performers.
You just know who I am going to pick as an example, don't you? This is Steve Reich's Mallet Quartet, dating from 2009 in a performance by Sō Percussion from memory: