Sunday, August 5, 2018

making a better music list

So Terry Teachout, who likes to pull out links to his own older writings in his blog, tagged one I must have missed at the time, ten years ago: a list of classical pieces composed since 1950 that he "finds interesting."

I'm at least vaguely familiar with all the composers he names, though I don't know all the specific works, and some of those I do know I would not rate highly. But they're all at least interesting composers, and an enquirer who's not necessarily expecting more than "interesting" probably won't go wrong here.

Teachout's goal here, as explained in the column linked to (behind a paywall), is to respond to a complaint by Joe Queenan, who'd suffered through an opera by Harrison Birtwistle, that nothing popular has been written in classical music since Verklärte Nacht. Teachout demurs, and so do I (I don't even like Verklärte Nacht).

But I'm more intrigued by Teachout's style limitations. He doesn't like "crunch and thump" music, which is his description of Birtwistle. I yield to no-one in my distaste for the work of Birtwistle, but I don't find that a good description. Even less do I accept his complaint about "the over-and-over-and-over-again minimalism of John Adams and Philip Glass." Glass hasn't written like that since the 1970s, and Adams never did. Criticism of minimalism by painting crude and false caricatures of the music is a common phenomenon, but from me it only earns scorn.

But I think I can create a better list of newer music that's more than just interesting. Rules:
1. Beginning date of 1970, not 1950. Otherwise I'd fill it up already with 1950s symphonies.
2. No composers whom Teachout lists. It's already a handicap on me to eliminate Shostakovich, Bernstein, and Arnold.
3. If Teachout hates Glass and Adams so much, none of them either, though otherwise they'd both surely make my list. No Steve Reich or Terry Riley, the other canonical minimalists, either, though there will be some music here by other hands that's definitely minimalist.
4. Nothing that's just "interesting." It has to have delighted or amazed or moved me.
5. 12 pieces, not 10.
6. And Teachout didn't have any women. I have three. It would have been four if I could have found an online recording of Wintersong by Stefania de Kenessey, and it could have been more had I included more composers I know primarily from concert encounters.

Here they are, with links to YouTube recordings when I could find them. A couple of these pieces I have introduced you to before. I don't expect anyone to like all of these except me.

William Bolcom, Three Ghost Rags (1970)
Henryk Górecki, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976)
Arvo Pärt, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977)
Alfred Schnittke, Polyphonic Tango (1979)
Michael Nyman, Water Dances (1984)
Paul Schoenfeld, Café Music (1985)
Michael Torke, Ash (1989)
Arturo Márquez, Danzón No. 2 (1994)
Jennifer Higdon, Blue Cathedral (1999)
Osvaldo Golijov, Ayre (2004)
Belinda Reynolds, Open (2009)
Caroline Shaw, Partita for 8 Voices (2012)


  1. Oh, Adams wrote some over-and-over again work in the 1980s (waves hands at Shaker Loops, for example). I happen to like it, and of course you are completely correct in what you say, generally, about minimalism and about Adams. His work, starting at some point in the 80s, and certainly by Nixon, is highly layered and complex and uses repetition as just one building block.

    Re Birtwistle, his Moth Requiem is atypical and perhaps would appeal to some non-fans. I am a fan and loved the two operas of his that I have seen.

    Considering that Verklärte Nacht was written in 1899, that Joe Queenan comment should just have been dismissed out of hand. It's obvious eye-rolling nonsense.

    That's a nice selection you list. I will note that the orthography of the Higdon piece is blue cathedral. Here's the list of orchestral works on her web site, showing blue cathedral and other pieces.

  2. Titles are capitalized. This overrides any question of whether the words would otherwise be capitalized.