At the turn of the 21st century, there was not only a bewildering array of media through which to hear classical concert music, everything from huge home entertainment center speakers to earbuds, but also a somewhat disturbing plurality of kinds of music, whole different philosophies of music, each with its own devoted but isolated (even partitioned) practitioners and fans – and no single definitive path where Western music history was heading. Disturbing to some; exciting signs of life to others who champion contemporary music.
The 20th century was famous for plurality: in politics, in philosophies, certainly in the arts. In a musical vein, it was the era of "isms" that came along in sequence: neoclassicism surrendering to serialism, vehemently opposed by popism which gave way to collage of "quote-ism", then minimalism – no one of them totally replacing the others but, more importantly, no one of them clearing a legitimate path where 21st century music was supposed to be going. Minimalism was popular largely because it clung to a steady pulse and it was doggedly tonal -- a relief to average listeners who were exhausted by the tuneless avant garde. But minimalism was no answer either – its looped spiral lines were a cul de sac with no exit. What we find now, twenty years into the New Millennium, is no single path, but instead a preference for pluralism -- our best composers the world over, drawing on everything that's gone before: classical, romantic, serial, atonal, experimental, jazz, pop, ragas, dada...
And yet, chaotic though it seems, Western music rolls on, obviously mimicking the impulsive, unfocused, and fairly anxious times in which this music is being written. Consider six international composers each of whom was born in the 20th century but seems to have found his or her way into the 21st via wholly divergent paths. No one of them is "the" way forward and each has the limitations of a fragmented age, but each is representative of it, too, and is contributing to what makes this current musical moment pluralistic. The first two of these are Poland's modest, accommodating symphonist Witold Lutoslawski (born 1913) and the lyrical French perfectionist Henri Dutilleux (born 1916).
If Lutoslawski can be said to have been formed by the tough anxiety-ridden 20th century at all, his creative life has shown few signs of any emotional reaction to it. Too young to have understood or absorbed the 1918 executions of his father and uncle as counter-revolutionaries in Russia, he was already a recognized composer with a Warsaw Conservatory education when the Germans captured him in 1940. He managed to escape and return to Warsaw, laying low, holding off on composing, playing piano in popular dance bands and in the least conspicuous classical recitals – i.e., joining friend Andrzej Panufnik to play four-hand variations on a theme of Paganini. By war's end, he longed to resume serious composing but Stalin's edicts on acceptable music discouraged him. Instead, he acquiesced without comment, producing unimpeachable settings of Polish folk songs and worked at a modest first symphony and a conservative Concerto for Orchestra (1954) that hid its dissonant remarks in an agreeable phonology. "I could not compose as I wished," he said, "so I composed as I was able." His 1958 Funeral Music for String Orchestra unfolded a 12-tone row at the center of soft packaging. But even as a cultural thaw succeeded the death of Stalin, Lutoslawski only subtly ventured more modern gestures. Some of his 1960s music allowed players ad libitum to repeat melodic motifs in free time, exchanging signals during performance to indicate when the written score might be resumed but, again, such contemporary nods were rare: another example was his 1961 Jeux Venitiens whose explosive orchestral fireworks included impromptu repetitions of some motifs at the discretion of the conductor. By the 1970 Cello Concerto written for Mstislav Rostropovich, Lutoslawski was thinking more about pure music than about what modern compositional gestures might be slipped past the Central Soviet. His new score was strictly conceived and notated to project an aloof politically neutral aesthetic, though at the premiere his soloist purposefully played-up the cello-versus-brass scoring as a struggle of the individual against oppression.
By the 1980s, Lutoslawski was feeling independent enough to ignore official censure altogether: even as the government took steps to crush a Leftist solidarity movement in Poland, he premiered his Symphony No. 3 which traded-off 12-tone disharmony with constant reassertions of the fundamental key of E-major, making the heroic statement at the core of the piece speak to the pride of either political side. In his maturity, he shied away from any kind of public consciousness in music: witness his flowing Concertino for Oboe, Harp and Chamber Orchestra (1980) or the Chain, for Violin and Orchestra (1985) – these are conservatory-strict recital pieces concerned only with form and instrumental interplay. Les espaces du sommeil for baritone and orchestra happily applies his own pluralistic musical vernacular to an almost impressionistic tone, far from his usual interests, in order to set a surrealist French text by Robert Desnos. That very adaptability, along with his rigorous attention to structure, became hallmarks of a Lutoslawski score, and have made this composer especially welcome in these pluralistic days. His catalogue of recordings and an internet blog of related concert programming increases year by year. Symphony No. 4 (1992) adapts without hesitation to that decade's hunger for lyricism while maintaining its composer's formal scruples.
In like manner, Lutoslawski's contemporary, the Parisian Henri Dutilleux even achieved some 21st century fame not long before his death in 2013 (age 97) through CD recordings of his fourteen-minute Le temps L'Horaloge (2009) by soprano Renée Fleming and his 1985 violin concerto by Issac Stern, subtitled L'arbre des songes (Tree of Dreams). Also like Lutoslawski, Dutilleux charted a pluralist path from basically conservative means across a small humble canon of perhaps fifty works that blended advanced techniques with a nostalgic charm.
One quarter Polish, Henri Dutilleux was born in Angier to a culturally sophisticated family (relatives were friends with Delacroix and Corot in art; Fauré and Roussel in music) and after an initial musical interest channeled through local schools, he spent six years at the Paris Conservatory. There, he excelled at both fugue exercises and orchestration, composing orchestral atmospheres of ephemeral lightness and transparency with ease. Early on, his influences were mainly negative ones: a desire to not sound like Ravel nor count time like Stravinsky. Indeed, he later rejected most of the music he had written before 1940 as being derivative; even dumping two of the three scenes from his much-lauded 1953 ballet Le Loup (The Wolf) for the same reason. His first symphony had reminded some of Honegger; his Symphony No. 2 (1959) consciously sought other means of dramatic structure such as periodically pitting a small ensemble against the rest of the orchestra and scoring whole sections of featured brass in a jazz mode modelled on Duke Ellington. Never the less, while the Dutilleux sound did seem individualistic and remains so today, it sets no path to follow. His example is one of fine craftsmanship and fastidious integrity. The average listener seeking introduction to him would do well to audition the "Lent" movement of his Violin Concerto for acquaintance with his abstruse tonality; then experience the piece as a whole. To sample his gift for orchestration and timbre, there is his 1965 Metaboles or his 1978 Timbres espace Movement, an aural representation of Van Gogh's Arles art. Again, negative associations dictated the direction of his 1976 string quartet Ains la Nuit composed in deliberate rejection of Berg's Lyric Suite, intending to keep clear of that work's serial theme-making or any allusions to Wagner. Once his own self-critical ear was confident enough and he felt he was not being overly influenced by sounds he had ingested, Dutilleux began to produce his most forthright works: 1985's Le Citation, a chamber work for the anniversary of a friend's death; Shadows of Time, a 1997 meditation on the legacy of Anne Frank written for orchestra and three children's choirs; and the quasi-operatic Two Sonnets by Jean Casson.
Dutilleux's writing for all those varied texts and genres, soloists and ensembles, is lyrical and authoritative, yet not prescriptive. Purity and luminosity were terms applied to his legacy in the last year of his life and they are qualities greatly valued in the new millennium. His voice was just abstract enough and celestial enough to find a home in these enigmatic times; self-strong yet attractively shy; individualistic but inclusive – all of which are, of course, the qualities of pluralism. Being eclectic and being so private, he never presumed to suggest where Western music after him should go.
The next generation of highly praised composers would prove to be just as eclectic in output and, consequently, no more definitive in setting a course for others. Two composer names are instructive in that regard: each was born in the 1930s; each was famous by the 2000s. Their compositional styles were very different from one another, diverse also within their own catalogues, unwilling to commit to any one voice. Their personal pluralism seemed to spring from a skeptic's reluctance, from some kind of wounded trust, suspicious of both the mainstream and the maverick. Therefore, again, each scouted a path that no one else could follow.
Sofia Gubaidulina, like so many other Russian composers of her generation, suffered through many political crises, being hounded by the Soviet authorities both for composing "noisy mud instead of real musical innovation" and for her association with dissidents over the years. In additional violation of policy, she dared to compose on religious themes: 1979's In croce for cello and organ invokes the bond between humankind and the Christian cross, while 1982's Seven Words explores the Passion story more directly. And yet, in spite of harassment, Gubaidulina persisted. It even encouraged her. "Being blacklisted and so unperformed," she once wrote, "gave me artistic freedom – without compromise." Even during her darkest years of personal pain, say 2012 when her third husband and her daughter died along with a colleague composer, Viktor Suslin, her music did not seem to react; it remained its own confidant; nor were her well-publicized political conflicts to be found reflected in her work (unlike, for instance, all the clandestine protest music of Shostakovich). A strain of mysticism and a guarded internal well of feeling keeps the core of Gubaidulina's repertoire dark and refractory, though there is a searching quality as well that seems to have unanswered complaints and holds our attention.
Born in 1931 of a Tartar father and Russian mother, Gubaidulina piano-auditioned her way into the music conservatories in Kazar and then Moscow, drawing for inspiration, she said, on Shostakovich and Webern and Cage – learning from one mentor "how to be myself" and from the others an interest in unusual textures and mathematically generated rhythmic structures in music. She always followed a bold surprising path across a severe unforgiving soundscape that did not shy away from unconventional instruments like accordion or electric guitar, or unusual sounds like microtones. A rubber ball in contact with the cello strings played-back on pre-recorded tape embellishes her String Quartet No. 3. At other times, her music sweeps all such slang aside in exchange for a clear theme-line, formal, atonal, and serene. She has described her music as "collaborating with God" – including in that collaboration improvisation (Piano Sonata, 1965), an ecclesiastical appreciation of ethnic instruments (the Russian bayan in De Profundis; the Japanese koto in Tree Shadow), and the referencing of past eras of music as in her Bach-tribute, St. John Passion 2000. All acts of a pluralist.
It was violinist Gidon Kremer's promotion of her 1980s violin concerto, Offertorium, that finally bandied her name beyond her homeland. She followed with smaller works like Garden of Joy and Sorrow for flute, harp and viola (1980) and Descensio for ten players (1981). In 1987, she created an Homage to T.S. Elliott for soprano and octet, and continued writing vocal/choral works throughout the 1990s such as Alleluja for mixed chorus and boy soprano, two Galgenlieder for mezzo and ensemble, and a tribute to the poet Rilke, Aus dem Studenbuch for male chorus and female narrator. The big splash of the new millennium brought large orchestral works front-and-center in her ambitions: Light at the End (2003) and Feast During a Plague (2006), a percussion concerto from 2008 called Glorious Percussion, and a concertante for flute and orchestra sardonically titled, for the coming century, The Deceitful Face of Hope and Despair.
Regardless of her message or moods in these works, her compositional style can be said to resist tonal centers in favor of tone clusters and contrapuntal relationships among short motivic segments. The lay-listener is at once quizzed by the mosaic qualities of her surface structures which turn out to contain her themes, and attracted by the regular rhythmic energy she asserts. Her piano music, mostly confined to early days, reveals a baroque allegiance while late chamber works like So Sei Es (So Be It) show the refinement of her whole aesthetic beyond homage and exercise, past even Russian Orthodox mysticism, sidestepping the personal to a pure statement of musical facts. Her voice has not changed its character with her changing times, but her penchant for pluralism has allowed her to adapt.
Even Soviet era threats and visits to her Moscow apartment by thugs in the middle of the night did not intimidate her – nor cause her to back off into one particular acceptable style or 'ism'. She only moved to Hamburg after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the blacklist had expired. If her music was stoic or even sad, she said, it was nothing personal: it was only because "Russian music is always about pain". She wrote out of engagement with ideas and to express the transcendent ideals of her faith. Her musical language may be esoteric but general audiences have picked up on the conviction of even its most abstract lines. It is true that most people in her own country have only heard about her through her side job: scoring Russian films. Over the years, that medium has been inadvertently and subversively preparing general audiences for all sorts of avant garde music, making dissonance and atonality palatable by associating them with on-screen scenes of danger and tension and excitement so that if people found themselves in a concert hall, they had already heard at least a digested form of such difficult music before. Film music became not only a way for struggling composers to make a living, but a bridge between new music and new audiences and, to some extent, a bridge on which the composers themselves could experiment without yet crossing over from their early music to more modern styles. As she got older, Sofia Gubaidulina confessed that she actually appreciated the aesthetic of film scoring – it provided its own subject matter and timings. 'Real music' is never so obliging. Besides, she added grinning, "I am old and it is harder to write than ever."
Also born in the 1930s but seeming a generation younger than Gubaidulina, both in his carefree relationship to society (American) and in his decidedly secular and populist music, New York's Steve Reich (born 1936), quickly became the sovereign prince of that burgeoning minimalist movement we have been mentioning, when it began. Through studies with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud, Reich at first promoted a marbled array of musical influences including a refined Parisian jazz-aware milieu that concentrated on texture and rhythm, while injecting it all with a theater-of-the-absurd disregard for audience expectations – i.e., seeming to promise sober works but then inflecting them with pop gestures. Reich's mother was a pop song enthusiast (she wrote lyrics for hits like "Love is a Simple Thing' [music by Arthur Siegel]). In the early 1960s, not so thrilled with the conventional concert culture but also restless with the waning influence of the serial cult and hearing more energy and ideas in progressive jazz of the period and electric pop than in anyone's struggling tonal symphony, Reich began wasting his free time playing around with open reel tape recorders. The idea of sounds-as-music and sound manipulation-as-composing suggested itself. He discovered that when he started up two tape machines playing the same music or even a sustained drone and let them run, inevitably one would gain slightly on the other – the result being that synchronization was lost. The tones would sound out-of-phase and the effect interested him. At the same time, he was recording snatches of random speaking voices, then physically splicing the tapes into an aural mosaic.
His earliest of these audio assemblages were 1965's It's Gonna Rain and the next year's Come Out, based on a bit of audio he had captured of a Harlem child beaten by police. He 'composed' two tape loops of the boy's voice, starting with an out-of-synch version and adding distance and syncopation to more and more copies of the kid's exclamation, eventually building an eight-part canon of speech. The manipulative power of technology grabbed him. Being young and absorbing the heat of rock music around him and the pulse of the machine-driven city, Reich added a repetitive pulsating track behind different versions of those tape loops so that one seemed to drive the other. Now, thanks to the steady pulse, the tape montage of sounds gained duration and momentum: it was composition, he said. 1967's Violin Pulse was an early product, a fifteen-minute piece for live soloist and three pulse-shifting tape machines playing three 'virtual' tape tracks of the soloist. Experiments continued in this same combination of 'live' and prerecorded performance: Piano Pulse (1967), Four Organs (1970), etc.
Before long, it was the insistent rhythm of each work that was attracting him and it was not a very far leap to becoming aware of Indian ragas with their combination of low sustained drones and repetitive circular theme lines. He was also devotedly listening to John Coltrane jazz at the time and beginning to relate the syncopation he heard there to the patter-rhythms he had created with the phasing voices in It's Gonna Rain. At one point, Reich traveled to Ghana to absorb the rhythmic traditions and praxis of the Ewe Tribe. Perhaps unfairly comparing Reich's metric language with the less analytical pulse-music of experimenters like Terry Riley on the West Coast or Philip Glass in Baltimore, the whole idea of rhythmic repetition music – a relentless pulse undergirding minimally changing chords – took on the unofficial and inadequate label minimalism. Reich's subsequent composing would be a pluralistic amalgam of all that.
Not everyone professed to be fascinated by the minimalist movement. While multiple keyboards and an intricate percussion ensemble tour through seventy-five minutes of slow-rolling and impersonal music in Reich's 1971 chamber work, Drum, the sheer stamina being asked of the players can become the focus of the evening for a listener rather than a proper concentration on the content or at least the sound-world of the piece. But primary in defense of Reich's work is his 1975 Music for 18 Musicians, an hour-long unfolding of eventually eleven chords which are announced at the beginning and then explained one at a time, scored for percussion strings, winds, pianos and voice. Two aspects of the work give it the authority of a masterpiece (and acceptability) apart from any mere mime of modern life. First, it has more structure than any previous montage or spinning-jenny minimalist works. Here, each chord becomes the basis of a movement and each movement carries forward across a high logical arch of flowing dynamics. And, second, any active listener is not just left alone in a spellbound space but remains engaged, listening for subtle changes in the harmonic surface of the music; and gradual progress is allowed to the tonal units driven by that regular pulse. The result is a very alive performance piece, with the composer very present in the scrum.
Through the 1980s, Reich, like others of his time, began to reach out for multi-cultural/multi-ethnic resources to add to his vernacular. On turning fifty, he moved to rediscover his own Jewish roots and, if it could be done, to meld the sources of real Hebraic music with his own. In 1988's Different Trains he even approached the subject of the Holocaust by combining rail sounds (remembered from living near the New York subway) with recorded words from Holocaust survivors ("If I'd been born across the world, I'd have been sent off in those transport trains," he gasped to realize.) Twenty years later, he created another elegy with his fifteen-minute WTC 9/11 (2010), this time using pre-recorded verbal fragments of the voices of victims and police and doctors and onlookers of New York's Twin Tower attacks in 2001. Tonal interjections amongst the documentary voices and sounds are especially disturbing, beginning with an electronic emergency signal going off while stringed instruments give it harmony. Voices telling the story of that day are processed with Auto-Tune technology of the sort that pop singers use to correct their faulty pitch, here used to turn each spoken syllable into a musical note – and a string quartet then backs them. Thus, spoken sentences have become recitative. By the third section of WTC 9/11, legato phrases from the strings frame the drama not as a single event but as a timeless tragedy. This is third-stream minimalism, exploiting a vastly expanded role for the compulsive rhythm. The overall mood that results is one of a distress-call hyped by a sense of impending doom.
By then, Steve Reich had already become the grand old man of post-minimalism although the term itself had taken on a pejorative, or at least passé, connotation once its self-kinetic origins had been assimilated into rock music and film music and adapted into more harmonically generous forms by millennial composers through the likes of scholars like Arvo Pärt and post-modernists like John Adams. Reich's 21st century works had begun to enclose more harmonic movement, though they often relied on the heartbeat of percussive instrumentation to carry the composition: Mallet Quartet (2009) for two vibes and two marimbas; Dance Patterns (2002) for vibes, xylophone and piano, or Double Sextet (2007) for pairs of flutes, clarinets, piano, cellos, vibes, and the requisite background of percussion to make everything oscillate.
In quick, crowd-pleasing works like Short Ride in a Fast Machine (A Fanfare for Orchestra), that aforementioned Massachusetts composer John Adams lobbed brass voluntaries, spinning woodwind figures, syncopated strings, each in changing time signatures, into a headlong showpiece of forward motion while a single wood block knocked-off a steady meter throughout. This was not thematic music – he called it a "fanfare" for good reason – but it was more like a whirling dervish (but a very American one) overtaken by a passing stampede. But even as a fanfare, there was harmonic progress and, in the last minute or so, trumpets sang out a line as melodic as any brass proclamation in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The work's playful title may also have contributed to its public notice and ensuing fame: "Fanfare for Orchestra" does not have the same ring as the dramatic promise in the concert hall of a "fast ride". Adams's loyalty to that regular robo-pulse and yet his liberal pluralist style of lush Wagnerian chord progressions along with sort of Big Band sensibility, all strung through an aggressive modernism rapidly made him an audience favorite. His forty-minute orchestral masterpiece, Harmonielehre (1985) with its E-minor opening and accelerating/decelerating meters that lead to an expressive melody in the cellos, darkens for a brooding mid-section, then reaches for an almost traditional orchestral splendor. An E-major conclusion could almost be called neo-romantic minimalism. By the year 2000, Adams, very much in his prime (age 53), found himself first-in-line among composers for commissions.
He used ultra-modern gimmicks to promote his music, too. In 21st century parlance, it was called pre-selling (create the buzz; establish consumer familiarity with some aspect of your forthcoming work and then launch), in this case by introducing his new opera, to be called Nixon in China, by getting radio play for one instrumental interlude from the score, "The Chairman Dances" – a pedantically flowing essay set to a chugging rhythm that expands in mid-section via rousing, rising chord changes. The other modern salesmanship going on here was, of course, the very idea of making a whole opera out of some real-life political headlines. In the era of Adams, since 'real life' broadcast news was offered with as much splash and glamor as entertainment news and Hollywood was granted as much weight as Washington, why couldn't opera take part? For Nixon in China, major vocal roles were assigned to the characters of Mao and of American President Nixon; even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in an ironic libretto by Alice Goodman. Much of the action was staged around a large-scale State-dinner occasion, while other scenes were more intimate, peering behind the official faces for more telling moods and motives, drifting musically between flowing vocal lines and the minimalist remnant of Adams's early style: personal pluralism.
John Adams continued this expansion of freer, nearly-melodic post-minimalism and his gimmick of choosing historical events as dramatic subjects with works like 1991's opera retelling of the hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists, The Death of Klinghoffer, and 2002's On the Transmigration of Souls, his choral/orchestral/tape narrated commemoration of, recalling Reich, 2001's World Trade Center Twin Tower attacks and their effect on the people of Manhattan. The first ten minutes of Transmigration present, in a suspended sense of shock, an orchestral pedal harmonized by a few related notes. Narrative voices appear in front of that backdrop repeating words or phrases heard in the streets or seen on hand-drawn 'wanted posters' tacked up around Ground Zero searching for loved ones. Here, those written messages are presented as vocal refrains like the single word "missing" or the sad sentences of those digging through the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers: "I loved him from the start. I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is..." Choral moaning churns under it all. The work's second part turns more demonstrative: active orchestra, rebellious choir, outraged at the intrusion into civilization of such willful barbarity – but then, too, the question of why: Whose needs were ignored that inspired such retaliation? A single trumpet peels a paraphrase of Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question – individual voices read-off names of the dead. Dust settles over the ruins to the last murmuring of the orchestra and chorus, of synthesized chords, and of barely audible spoken words "light...day...sky".
By the second decade of the new millennium, John Adams was the most programmed American composer. His Dharma of Big Sur was a concerto for electric violin. El Niňo was a briefly in-vogue scientific term for one of the effects of possibly permanent global climate change which Adams was using as the title for his third opera exploring the Nativity. He called his fourth opera Doctor Atomic about Robert Oppenheimer and the building of the first atomic bomb. No one faulted him for these self-referential titles and subjects because the music and the strength of effective theater were so right for the age. And everyone knew that he could also write a piece called Naïve and Sentimental Music without losing his head – and it would be genuine music, not a pastiche. Here was classical music without losing its audience: hypnotically pulsed but melodically, at least harmonically, grounded so that both the ear seeking familiarity and the scattered restless brain seeking stimulation were rewarded. And all the while, critics could not really define the genre of his music; he continued the life of a pluralist speaking for that post-everything generation by associating his otherwise serious pieces with newscasts or pop culture references. Even his purely instrumental pieces of later music were likely to have snarky pop-culture movie title referents like 2007's Son of Chamber Symphony (known later as "Joyride" when turned into a ballet) or City Noir based, he claimed, on the movie scores he remembered from matinee showings in his youth.
Anything but a personal confessional style in music for this wary, turn-of-century school of composers. It was mostly music about things or evocative of some event or concept. No single path, and no 21st century composers have claimed to know where the long road leads. Baby-boomer composers: try Britain's Thomas Adès, China's Tan Dun, Finland's Kaija Saariaho – offer no template. And when contemporary voices as diverse as Judith Weir, John Tavener, Michael Nyman, Henry Dutilleux and John Adams were surveyed by BBC Music Magazine about the direction of 21st century art music, the only consensus was for pluralism as the trend – which is, of course, no trend at all. Or is it?
There are hardly any definable categories left, let alone any leading influencers or models. Works are self-contained. It is not reactive music anymore but pro-active and self-actualizing -- certainly legitimate wellsprings for art, but just not part of a straight line of music evolution – maybe stopovers on a learning curve.
And yet there are striking and colorful and attention-getting works being written these days, albeit in an impulsive and rather impersonal pluralistic language, not eager for intimacy but eager to observe the world around us. A case in point are the many abstract canvases in the portfolio of millennial American composer Augusta Read Thomas (born 1964). Since the 1990s, she has been collecting critical praise from journals like 'Gramophone' for her orchestral "clarity of conception and precision of gesture" and for work that is "ruminative and pungent". But those are all compliments that point to her objective professional stance and her acceptance of a purely descriptive expressionist tonal language. Title-imagery alerts us first, then maybe we lend an ear. She has called her 1998 concerto for orchestra Orbital Beacon; her 1999 string quartet became Sun Threads. For those fledgling pieces and other surprisingly confident ones, Augusta Thomas (call her "Gusty") was granted a fellowship through Radcliffe and Harvard, and awards from the NEA, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the French International Dutilleux Competition and, at the age 33, was made the Mead Composer-in-Residence for Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim at the Chicago Symphony from 1997 to 2006. There, she profited from the encouragement of mentors and colleagues and the fostering of small foundations looking to support new orchestral music, eager in particular to promote a new generation of young women composers whose styles included a sound familiar enough to engage faithful listeners yet uncommon enough to keep the adventure of new music alive. Enter the pluralist.
Gusty Thomas had studied as a piano student in Glen Cove, New York, then became a trumpet performance major at Northwestern university. When composing began to attract her, she was accepted into London's Royal Academy, eventually becoming the first female composition professor at the Eastman School, Rochester, New York. Her astral inclinations flourished thereafter in a sequence of new works: a piano trio subtitled Circle Around the Sun (2000), Pulsar (2003) for solo violin; Radical Circles, a jittery sparkling fanfare for orchestra; Silent Moon, etc. In 2007, her Astral Canticle, a double concerto for flute, violin, and orchestra, was one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in music and was finally recorded in 2015. It is a broad panoramic work made of wide-spanning chords, encouraging the listener to observe how vast is the glory of the created universe. It is full of call-and-response brass writing, yet also contemplative and amorphous in the very act of regarding -- restless and somehow playful all at once without finding a sure-fire tonal North Star. Dissonance interplays with open diatonicism there. As in other Thomas works, freedom among genres is the prime directive of her developing language. In another fanfare for orchestra, Aureole (2013), the listener may hear snatches of Copland's Rodeo; but then in her earlier Words of the Sea (1995), we find pointillist writing mixed with dreams of Debussy. Earth Echoes seems obsessed with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Resounding Earth uses 120 bells for a wide variety of effects to tribute Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio. Her exciting fifteen minutes of dangerously jazzy impulse and orchestra fervor, Terpsichore's Dream from 2007, seems Stravinskian. A 2007 Scat for Oboe further explores her interest in the techniques of jazz players from her parents' generation as does her sax concerto Prisms of Light.
Vocal music comes, if not as naturally, at least as happily for Thomas, as she has set the poetry of e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Rumi, and even her own verse. Thus, as extrovert and plural as her times, rather than formal, probing or introspective, Augusta Read Thomas used the first decades of the new century to produce a healthy log of sonic excursions while standing aside with the listener, discouraging any moral or emotional (or musical) conclusions, just dazzled by the view. Even her recent music on the subject of love, observes from one remove and is titled, with internet jargon, Love Tweets.
Those are the qualities of so much of the current pluralistic music scene: oblique music, impartial, descriptive, perceptive rather than empathic. The serious composer, post 20th century, puts his (and now, at last, more often, her) art out there as a demonstration of craft and the active listener can receive it without introspection because its "message" is just about its own mechanism and materials like Reich, or about tone and texture like Dutilleux, or about auras and emanations like Thomas. It's not asking for emotional sacrifice or investment, only for a degree of sophisticated attendance; it's also not asking 'where does this music stand on the evolutionary ladder of creation?' It's a new multi-focus for music and it makes pluralists of us all, composers and listeners. We can worry about the chaos such pluralism threatens to cause. Or we can just keep listening and sampling, at least assured of some kind of future for classical music – no prescribed path for now, but new voices, changing colors, ideas and surprises – all signs of life.
John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, National Public Radio, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.