5 Minutes That Will Make You Love 21st-Century Composers

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love 21st-Century Composers

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love 21st-Century Composers

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love 21st-Century Composers

In the past, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to choose the five minutes or so they would play to make their friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello and Mozart.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love music written in the past 20 years — some of it meditative, some explosive. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

Caroline Shaw’s “Partita” spun me round and round, turned me inside out and launched me into a whole new understanding of what music can be. The piece feels three-dimensional, voluminous, astronomical — but also intimate, personal and incremental. It’s like someone whispering into your ear while you’re climbing the tallest mountain. It is uniquely fragrant; it has needlelike precision; it organically spills through some of the most sophisticated harmonies. In the mouths of Roomful of Teeth, it is a virtuosic display of the incredible range of the human voice.

The Dutch composer Michel van der Aa is an omnivore, influenced by electronic music, pop, soundscapes, movies and installation art. Genres and their confinements are of no interest to him, as they aren’t to a whole new generation. Listen to this piece, full of brutal poetry and great rhythms: It will grip you immediately, ignite your imagination and give you goose bumps.

I love Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum” because I can find myself in it. The way it searches and shifts, changing colors and textures; the way the second violin and viola join forces as the cello and first violin do the same. The way it explores and grooves and celebrates these instruments, so you feel they can do anything except land a plane. Like all great chamber groups, the Catalyst Quartet is beautiful to watch, like a family in lively conversation at the dinner table: anticipating, interrupting, changing subjects.

There is something just stunning that happens in Courtney Bryan’s “Shedding Skin,” inspired by the poem of the same name by Harryette Mullen. I included “Shedding Skin” in the Julius Eastman retrospective I curated at the Kitchen in 2018 because it gave me the sensation his works did when I first heard them. There is a whole history inclusive of many Black radical music traditions present here, Ms. Bryan’s attempt to notate improvisation within the form of classical composition.

Joseph C. Phillips Jr. works in a style he calls “mixed music.” Here, his ensemble, Numinous, nails his hairpin turns — and his references to Schoenberg and Curtis Mayfield — while offering pristine vocal and string blends, plus guitar work that embraces funk and fusion-jazz.

The music I love most often gives me the feeling of being in transit — ideas and sensations like ever-changing landscapes seen through the window of a train. In “Stars — Sun — Moon,” the fourth movement of Thomas Adès’s “In Seven Days,” the trip becomes a voyage into space; soundscapes turn into moonscapes. This gorgeously organized chaos has some of the most imaginative writing I can think of for piano and orchestra (here, Kirill Gerstein and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra). When I first heard these sounds 10 years ago, I giggled softly, which is my slightly awkward physical reaction to being amazed. I still have that reaction when I hear — or, these days, play — this movement.

More of a languid walkabout through a slowly changing musical environment than a composition with a clear beginning, middle and end, this piece is exactly the type of place where I have wanted to spend more and more of my time during recent days. While appearing almost aimless on its surface, it is in fact a deeply satisfying experience to hear this slow motion form in its entirety. As a listener, I feel as though I am sitting in a small rowboat adrift on a lake, with the wind gently pushing me back and forth between small, exquisitely beautiful coves, while the boat very slowly turns in a circle; by the end I have seen and heard the entire 360 gorgeous degrees of horizon around me, from every angle, countless times.

Ted Hearne’s music is heart and head, funny and serious and full of imagination, intelligently rigorous while being so moving I tear up. Good art is like that. His music lives in the space between the historical and personal, past and present, and always takes risks in the way he shapes time. You feel like he is composing his insides, his guts. It reminds me of this Morton Feldman quote: “Art is a crucial operation we perform ourselves. Unless we take chances we die in art.”

Donnacha Dennehy’s setting of Yeats’s tender, macabre love poem “He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead” is haunting and spare, with slow-moving, eerie dissonances in winds and strings pierced by bell-like notes from piano and electric guitar. It sets an intimate stage for the soloist, her long lines ornamented with turns and grace notes. I fell in love with Dawn Upshaw’s voice as a teenager, when I was first discovering classical music. In early recordings, her voice is a fountain of gold. It’s a different instrument now: darker, less easy and, like this song, almost unbearably beautiful.

A staple of the New York improvisation scene, the cellist and composer Okkyung Lee released her latest album two months ago. “In Stardust” is dedicated to the Korean cartoonist Kang Kyung-ok, who created a manhwa series under that name, a sci-fi story about a normal high school girl who is later revealed to be the heir to an interstellar kingdom. She was meant to be sent off to the universe but ended up on earth.

When contemporary composers engage with traditional forms — the symphony, the concerto — the results can be fascinating. Like the string quartet, which is nearly 250 years old yet is kept fresh by artists like Gabriella Smith, whose “Carrot Revolution” (played here by the Aizuri Quartet) dashes from its percussive opening through stylistic juxtapositions as unruly as an English garden. Both an homage to classical music’s past and a folk jam session, it’s a testament to the history of the string quartet, its possibilities and its vitality.

Du Yun’s “San” for cello and electronics is a modern-day twisted vocalise, reaching back in time to honor the guqin, an ancient Chinese string instrument. The piece seems to transport the listener to a long-ago era, and the cellist Matt Haimovitz draws out the complex conversation and storytelling buried within this work through high, soaring melodies, unmetric rhythmic patterns, lyrical scratches and scrapes.

Caleb Burhans’s “Contritus,” recorded by the JACK Quartet, is a beautifully made doorway to all kinds of listening and thinking. This score is very much of our time; it is direct and approachable, but carries within it other, older ways of experiencing. The glacial opening material seems to have its roots far back, in the viol music of Purcell, while the shimmering and pulsating surfaces later on evoke music from our own moment. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy “Contritus,” though, because the harmony is so lovely.

In his opera “Written on Skin,” set in medieval times, the composer George Benjamin’s music is modernist and flinty yet also rapturously beautiful. A turning point arrives when the illiterate, inquisitive Agnès (the soprano Barbara Hannigan, in this premiere recording from the Aix Festival) watches with awe and suspicion as the Boy (the countertenor Bejun Mehta) creates an illuminated book. The music tells all: Erotic yearnings well up between the two characters, even during mundane exchanges.

One of the great joys of being a conductor is presenting new works to the audience. Jimmy López’s “Perú Negro” is one of the things I bring with me almost everywhere I go. It’s a work of astonishing intensity and groovy rhythms, inspired by Afro-Peruvian music, and the perfect introduction to orchestral music for a person who has never been to a symphony concert. There are a lot of layers; one can follow the complicated rhythms of the percussion or enjoy the tempting melodies of the woodwinds and the strings.

Ophelia reappears, onstage with orchestra, and tells us, in her own words, how it was. Paul Griffiths wrote a book called “let me tell you,” using only the 482 words Shakespeare gave Ophelia, letting her retell her story. The composer Hans Abrahamsen found inspiration in this, and the result is a work for soprano and orchestra which is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music I have ever had the honor to sing. It is full of Ophelia’s innocence and experience, her heart breaking in an “ecstasy of light.”

Not much happens in John Luther Adams’s “Sky With Four Suns,” the first movement in a cycle dedicated to sky, wind and bird song. Yet the piece exerts a magnetic pull. Pulseless and wordless, this choral meditation seems to exist outside of time. Performed by the Crossing, harmonies slowly shift — and with them vocal colors, moving from resonant warmth to nasal metallics — so that the music seems to capture slight changes of clarity and light. Mr. Adams is a devoted environmental activist and his music marries a mystic’s reverence for natural phenomena with a scientist’s keen observation.

Is whoever you share your living space with asleep yet? Good. Same here. Whatcha drinking? Nice. I’m in. You know the rules: One of us picks the drink, one of us picks the jam. So: Andrew Norman’s “Sustain.” A gracefully eerie orchestral nocturne for the summer of 2020 if ever there was one (though premiered by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the fall of 2018). OK, headphones on, lights off, let’s check in in five.

Oh, damn, that was 33 minutes, wasn’t it? Whatcha think?


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