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Emily Liz

Contemporary Classics (and a new blog announcement)

May 31, 2011 at 10:33 PM

Hello dear readers! I have a blog entry to share with you today called "Contemporary Classics." But before I share that with you, I wanted to let you know that I recently started a brand spankin' new blog called Song of the Lark, which is located at I'm currently throwing a lot of stuff up there, especially about female Victorian violinists. There might be some duplication between this blog and that one, but there's definitely a lot of new content on Song of the Lark. So if you're interested in the history of the violin (or my music writing in general - *blatant shameless self promotion*), you should take a look. I'm aiming on getting something up every few days, and I'm always looking for comments and suggestions of where to go next in my research. So feel free to come visit me there.

I also want to thank everybody who commented on my April blog; I wasn't able to get to all of them before the commenting period closed. Unfortunately, my second cat passed away after surgery for her infection. It was all very tragic and unexpected - I went to visit her at the vet's a couple of hours after the surgery, and then she died that night. The grief kept me from keeping up with a lot of stuff that I should have been on top of - including your comments. The best wishes that I got from Internet friends has been one of the main things that's been getting me through this time of grief. Thanks everyone for your thoughts and prayers; they means the world. Musicians can certainly be cut-throat and b*tchy and all that, but when push comes to shove, they're the nicest people in the world.

Okay, anyway. Onto our ~feature presentation.~


One of my favorite musical websites is the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics blog. Orchestra violist Sam Bergman recently wrote a series of essays about encouraging the performance of contemporary music, and it’s provoked quite the reaction. Since it’s rapidly approaching the end of May, and my blog archive looks awkward if I leave a blank month, and Laurie Niles also recently posted a blog about contemporary music, I thought I’d aid to the virtual chaos by pondering out loud about the subject myself.


I spent a day or two hammering out some thoughts about the subject, and ended up with a hilariously awful essay that is now tucked discreetly in my Failed Projects Folder with the label DNR.

What went wrong? It’s true that I feel very strongly that contemporary music should be performed – that it needs to be performed – but I discovered after reading Bergman’s essays that I haven’t spent much time at all thinking aboutwhy it’s important, and what I can do to encourage and support it. That’s a bit embarrassing. And it’s not that I don’t like contemporary music, or have some axe to grind against it. Heck, there’s a composer in my immediate family. I guess I’ve been so absorbed with all the standard repertoire from earlier centuries I haven’t yet familiarized myself with what’s happening now. But I need to change that. I need to open my mind some more and take some auditory expeditions to some different soundscapes. Even if I don’t end up living where I visit – I have a feeling I’ll always tend to gravitate toward late nineteenth and early twentieth century pieces – I still feel I ought to expand my horizons, and it will be my loss if I don’t.

So. My challenge for you is to choose five pieces by living composers to share with other people in the comments section of this blog. Not pieces you grudgingly like, or pieces you like because other people have recommended them to you – they have to be pieces that you actually love. Pieces that would attract you to a concert – not repel you, or make you indifferent. Pieces that you listen to when nobody else is around. Bonus points if the composer isn’t near death! Then, with your list, explain how you came to hear, like, or understand that work, or what you like about the piece in general.

Note: if you think that All Contemporary Music is Worthless Trashy Cacophony That I Won’t Even Let My Dog Listen To, don’t bother responding, because this blog isn’t for you. I’m not going to reply to you, because I couldn’t disagree with you more, and we have nothing to discuss. Sorry.

I put together a list…it ended up being pretty conservative. Not sure how I feel about that. Does it mean I’m not open to new things? That I’m intellectually lazy? Probably. Sigh. Well, at least I’m trying! I’m including two soundtracks at the end in spots 6 and 7, as I’m not sure soundtracks “count” in the classical music biz. If soundtracks are ever performed, they’re played at pops concerts, and they tend to be limited to works by John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Why is this? Is there some kind of copyright problem? Then why do we always hear Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars Medleys up the wazoo?

Anyway, without further ado, a random list of some favorite pieces by living composers…

1) Hallelujah Junction, by John Adams. In particular, the opening bell-like sounds and the drive of the final movement. I like a lot of minimalist and minimalist-ish music, which isn’t a particularly popular position to take nowadays, but whatever. I can’t help that I like it.

2) Any piece by Kelsey Zachary. Okay, this is cheating a bit (maybe), because I’m friends with Kelsey. But I‘d love her music even if I didn’t know her. It’s contemporary and beautiful. I think some people have given up hope that the two can co-exist; happily, Kelsey proves them wrong.

Visit Kelsey’s Reverb Nation site here.

3) Café Music, by Paul Schoenfield. I heard this on the BBC once and absolutely loved it. I love when jazzy elements sneak their way into classical compositions.

4) Passacaglia by Karl Jenkins. Anything by Karl Jenkins, really. He’s the guy that wrote the uber-ubiquitous “Diamond Music” that was so popular ten years or so ago. Surprise, surprise, it turns out he’s written more than thirty seconds of music in his lifetime, and his output includes this passacaglia. There are shades of Shostakovich in this piece that I find very appealing.

5) Two Movements with Bells, by Aaron Jay Kernis. I admit it, I originally listened to it because it was written for James Ehnes, one of my favorite artists out there right now, and Andrew Armstrong is now the pianist in the Amelia Piano Trio, who I studied with in 2006. But you know what? I love this piece, regardless of who is playing. I think this is a prime example of the responsibility that artists have to their fans to help guide them to corners of the repertoire they wouldn’t have explored by themselves. Thanks, James and Andrew!

6?) Soundtrack from the Village, by James Newton Howard. I’ll admit it: this is one of my favorite violin recordings ever. I’d love to see it rearranged as some kind of suite for violin and orchestra. Are you listening, James Newton Howard? Hilary Hahn? Anyone? …

7?) Soundtrack from The Fountain, by Clint Mansell. Ridiculously moving. Take a listen. The Kronos Quartet has played excerpts from it in concert. Good for them.

So, there are seven-plus amazing pieces by composers who are still alive. I’d run to the box office if any one of them was programmed.

Share your favorites in the comments, and have fun listening. I’m really looking forward to suggestions to expand my horizons. And from now on, I vow I’m going to try a bit harder to spread the word about fantastic compositions written after 1900.


From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on June 1, 2011 at 7:40 PM

ok this is not going to be the best or most organized response ever but here are a few of my favorites:

1.  Patriot soundtrack esp. opening theme.  I firmly believe that today's film music etc. is tomorrow's classical, and is really just the logical continuum of stage music throughout the centuries.  Hurrah to Williams, Zimmer, and the rest.

2.  Ligeti--isn't this pathetic that I can't remember whether he's alive or not!  But I heard the CSO play his "Lontano" a couple years back and was absolutely blown away.....

3. Palladio--the diamond music--that may be the same piece that you were referring to; I played it in college, can't remember all of it, but fell in love with it.  Need to get a recording someday. 

4.  Edgar Meyer violin concerto.  Came on a CD with Hilary Hahn's Barber concerto and such a lovely and fascinating piece.  The double stops amaze me.

5.  Mark O'connor's stuff.  His appalachian trio cds are my rainy day music.    Love it.

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on June 1, 2011 at 7:53 PM

Oh, and one other that I ran across for a college listening test and cannot for my life remember the name or the composer.  20th century piece, string quartet.  It was the third movement I think and it had a treatment of Pachelbel's Canon in D that grabbed my attention....but I ahven't been able to find it since cuz I can't remember what it was!  (Would love any input....!!!)

From Emily Liz
Posted on June 2, 2011 at 4:11 AM

Ooo, thanks so much for the response, Kathryn. It's amusing because I just played the theme from the Patriot at a concert a week or so ago! Everybody LOVED it. I'm going to look into your suggestions. Thanks so much!!

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