by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, May 10, 2004.
When Timothy Andres was seven, his father, a computer specialist, brought home a teach-yourself-piano computer program. Andres was done with it in three weeks. He is now a freshman at Yale, and his musical progress is still accelerating. For one thing, he is a formidable pianist who has the measure of Charles Ives’s towering “Concord Sonata.” He is also a composer, with a piano sonata, a piano concerto, and a symphony to his credit. Most notably, his music is beginning to show an individual voice, which is the hardest thing for a composer to achieve.
What happens when you tell your emo-listening, hip-hop-dancing, ironically “American Idol”-analyzing classmates that you are a classical composer? “Composers still garner lots of respect,” Andres told me, when I met him in between classes at a campus café. He is a tall, lanky guy, with a sensitive face and a stubborn nose. “Even my suitemates understand that they have to turn down their Mandy Moore while I’m composing. However, just because people have a certain awe of composers doesn’t mean they understand what we do. It’s like being a trapeze artist or a lumberjack.”
Andres is making his way through the labyrinth of possibilities that the last century left behind. Ives is close to his heart; he grew up in a small town in Connecticut, not unlike Ives’s New England places, and many of his works begin with monumental, dissonant gestures modelled on the “Concord.” But he also has an ear for the more lyrical moderns, like Britten and Prokofiev. Recently, he has worked to simplify his style. Some new songs, based on poems by Jean Follain, have a fine-spun melodic line intertwining with a spare piano-trio accompaniment. The symphony, by contrast, sometimes moves blindingly fast through far-flung harmonic realms. It is quite an achievement for someone so young, but it will be a hard sell for performers.
Composers grow up with the idea that music is a game of heroes. In history books, they read that their forebears dazzled kings, electrified crowds, forged nations. Sooner or later, they come up against the disappointing realization that modern American culture has no space for a composer hero. That disappointment easily metastasizes into profound resentment, which no amount of success can dislodge. Indeed, the most famous composers are often the unhappiest.
“There’s some truth in that,” Andres said, when I outlined this syndrome for him. “I don’t want to become one of the angry, lonely ones. Writing my new songs, I felt a longing not only to be talked about and analyzed but to be sung and heard.”
I sought out Andres not to anoint him the “next big thing”—it is far too early to tell about that—but to find out what young composers like him were doing, dreaming, and fearing. For several months, I’ve been skipping big-ticket items at major halls in favor of student-composition concerts around the New York area—at Yale, Columbia, N.Y.U., Juilliard, the Mannes College of Music, and the Manhattan School of Music. I also collected stacks of scores and CDs and downloaded dozens of MP3s from the Internet. I found Andres’s music on the Web site of a remarkable public-radio show called “From the Top,” which shines a national spotlight on young musicians and gives them a taste of the cultural resonance that the media generally deny them.
I felt I was a guilty interloper when I entered the halls of musical academe. Some concerts were like student-faculty powwows with friends and family attached, and some works sounded like ardent serenades played at the windows of tenure. Historically, universities and conservatories have been the wrong places to check the pulse of American composition; Ives, after all, had to unlearn everything he was taught at Yale. There have been three great academic orthodoxies in American music: the late-nineteenth-century New England School, which worshipped Brahms and rejected any résumé that lacked the words “Hochschule für Musik”; the neoclassical school, which adored Stravinsky and Debussy, and required Nadia Boulanger as a reference; and the twelve-toners, who idolized Schoenberg and his ways. In the end, the house god is always the same—a European-oriented pedant who demands that young composers “justify every note,” develop every idea ad nauseam, and rise above the vulgar herd.
What’s encouraging about the present moment is that no single regime holds sway. Milton Babbitt, the last great Schoenberg apostle, is still a force to be reckoned with; he can be overheard muttering about excess octaves and unused registers at Juilliard student concerts. Yet he ends up giving crucial guidance to those who move in very different directions, as Stephen Sondheim can attest. Also at Juilliard is John Corigliano, who venerates Aaron Copland’s populist style, and who may start rolling his eyes if the alto flute plays the hexachordal complement of what the bassoon played ninety-two bars before. Even the minimalists are getting tenure, although amazingly few composition departments give proper attention to the achievements of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.
Whether you write in C major or in microtones, you face the basic struggle of getting your music in front of a crowd. By and large, composers of the youngest generation have different expectations from those of their teachers; they have never known a culture that cared about classical music, and thus they aren’t waiting glumly for the masses to come to their senses. They worry not only about the technique of composition but also about the formerly unmentionable arts of presentation and publicity. Even those who write freakish, antisocial music may have well-designed Web sites where visitors can download worklists, audio files, scores, art work, and rants on this or that subject. In other words, they do not hold themselves aloof. They care if you listen.
The music at the dozen or so concerts I attended was so diverse that I gave up trying to tease out dominant trends. Instead, I listened for voices that went against the grain of whatever styles they were inclined to adopt. Sung Joo Hong, who studies at the Manhattan School, has written a wonderful String Quartet that mixes the sad warmth of Barber with darker shades of Shostakovich. It culminates in a bitterly brilliant, propulsive finale that I could imagine being played by the Emerson Quartet. Scott Wollschleger, of Erie, Pennsylvania, also at the Manhattan School, has a grand sprawl of a piece called “The Cold Heaven,” full of apocalyptic drones, ominous minor-key statements, jabbing semitone signals, and a shimmering close reminiscent of early John Adams. Mathew Fuerst, a student at Juilliard, is influenced by Copland, and, like Copland, he so rigorously controls his material that it never verges on the nostalgic or the sentimental. His Clarinet Quartet, performed at a Juilliard student recital, culminates in a heartfelt eight-note figure that yearns to answer Ives’s “Unanswered Question.”
Over at the avant-garde end of the spectrum is Paula Matthusen, at N.Y.U. The whispering, scratching, plinking, and sighing of her “run-on sentence of the pavement,” for piano, Ping-Pong balls, and electronics, has an oddly sad, entrancing effect, especially when the stream of noise coalesces into slivers of song. I was completely gripped by David T. Little’s “Sunday Morning Trepanation,” for mixed quartet and CD playback, which equates contemporary religion with the drilling of holes in the skull. This composer, who doubles as a heavy-metal drummer, is coming to Princeton in the fall, and every bad-ass new-music ensemble in the city will want to play him.
Some of the very youngest composers—child prodigies, even younger than Timothy Andres—act as if the twentieth century had never happened. Athena Adamopoulos, a seventeen-year-old student in Juilliard’s Pre-College Division, has written an effortless late-Romantic effusion entitled “Soliloquy,” which none other than Yo-Yo Ma has played. Jay Greenberg, also of the Pre-College Division, is all of twelve and is working on his Fifth Symphony. He has mastered the art of orchestration, and his Brahmsian music positively glows in the ears. For him, it is 1904 and anything is possible.
Of the composers I heard, the one who seems best poised for a major career is Nico Muhly, a twenty-two-year-old, spiky-haired, healthily irreverent student of Corigliano’s at Juilliard. He has formed his own private repertory, running from the purest, hootiest English choral music to minimalism in its raw, classic phase. These tastes reflect two sharply different musical experiences—singing in a boys’ choir and working in Philip Glass’s electronic studio. He also listens to a lot of off-kilter pop, like Björk, Múm, Ladytron, and Fischerspooner. “Nothing is better than Prince,” he advised me. On a recent afternoon, he enjoyed motets by William Byrd, Khia’s salacious hip-hop track “My Neck, My Back,” John Adams’s “China Gates,” and Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”—the last for a school paper.
If Muhly simply dumped his diverse musical loves into a score, he would have an eclectic mess. Instead, he lets himself be guided by them, sometimes almost subliminally. In “So to Speak,” a short piece that the Juilliard Symphony recently played at its annual student concert, he asks players to be “spastic,” to “smudge” certain notes, to “ignore the conductor”; he is trying for a raucous, un-“classical” sound. But the work itself is austere and solemn in intent. It is based on Thomas Tallis’s Pentecost anthem “Loquebantur Variis Linguis”; those spastic woodwinds are speaking in tongues. The music spins away into a kind of gritty ecstasy. This and other Muhly pieces achieve a cool balance between ancient and modern modes, between the life of the mind and the noise of the street.
Muhly was not the only student composer I met who had an intelligently babbling enthusiasm for every aspect of his art. The cynic in me wondered when these bright young things would undergo the inevitable plunge into disenchantment and despair. The optimist in me wondered if they might be able to turn the classical cynics into fools. Sung Joo Hong said, “If you know what you are doing, and you really want to do this crazy thing, this is the century where we could get the richest music ever made.”