Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Living Composer Final Project

(Insert obligatory apology for absence from blogging here).

Another semester is almost finished. The final exam in "Music of the Twentieth Century" is tomorrow. Alex Ross' fantastic text (reviewed by me here) helped guide my students through the constant interplay between music and historical events of the 20th-century. It struck me, however, that this was also an opportunity to get them to engage with music of the now. To this end, I assigned a term paper on a living (and in most cases, active) composer (or, in some cases, recently deceased). I gave them a list from which to choose (see below), and they had no other information about the composers on that list except for their birth dates and nationalities. The list provides a fairly wide sampling of styles. I gave them some time to do some "preliminary research" (aka Google) in order to pick a composer. Unfortunately, I did not provide a survey regarding their criteria or process, but all the same, the results were interesting. I've boldfaced the names of the composers who were picked by students (21 in all).

H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932, USA)
Thomas Adès (b. 1971, Great Britain)
Laurie Anderson (b. 1947, USA)
Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934, Great Britain)
Henry Brant (b. 1913, d. April 26, 2008, USA)
Leo Brouwer (b. 1939, Cuba)
David Cope (b. 1941, USA)
George Crumb (b.1929, USA)
Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934, Great Britain)
David Del Tredici (b. 1937, USA)
Pascal Dupasin (b. 1955, France)
Tan Dun (b. 1957, China)
Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943, Great Britain)
Lukas Foss (b. 1922, d. February 1, 2009, USA)
Kyle Gann (b. 1955, USA)
Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1961, Argentina)
Sofia Gubaidalina (b. 1931, Russian)
John Harbison (b. 1938, USA)
Stephen Hartke (b. 1952, USA)
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960, USA)
Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935, Germany)
Paul Lansky (b. 1944, USA)
Tania León (b. 1943, Cuba)
Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958, Finland)
James MacMillan (b. 1959, Scotland)
Meredith Monk (b. 1942, USA)
Tristan Murail (b. 1947, France)
Max Neuhaus (b.1939, 3 February 2009, USA)
Per Nørgård (b. 1932, Denmark)
Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932, USA)
Bernard Rands (b. 1934, Great Britain)
Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952, Germany)
Christopher Rouse (b. 1949, USA)
Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938, USA)
Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952, Finland)
Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958, Finland)
Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943, USA)
Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929, Australia)
R. Murray Shafer (b. 1933, Canada)
Steven Stucky (b. 1949, USA)
Augusta Read Thomas (b.1964, USA)
Yehudi Wyner (b. 1929, USA)
Chen Yi (b. 1953, China)
John Zorn (b. 1953, USA)

Among other components of the project, I encouraged the students to try and contact their subjects for interviews (phone or e-mail). I was discouraged by the response of some composers (who shall remain nameless). Perhaps an undergraduate term paper isn't an illustrious honor, but it is a chance to engage with the future before becoming the past. I'm well aware that some of these students may have been ill-prepared (e.g. "Hi. I'm writing a paper on you. Tell me about yourself."), but what message does it send to be unwilling to answer a few questions? Art can no longer afford to be so aloof, I think. I don't believe in changing compositional styles to fit trends, but I do believe in engaging with the "outside world" in some meaningful way. Some composers may not care if we listen, but I would hope they'd care enough about their own music to talk about it when asked.

All the same, I think it was a valuable project. For many students, the whole idea of modern composition was a revelation. "Symphonies" and "operas" are the stuff of Mozart. For them, not only are the white guys dead, but so is the entire tradition itself. While I don't think any of them left the class embracing Ferneyhough or Boulez's music, I do think some of them have become more aware of an eternal soundscape, serving as both scenery and props in what they know to be "the present." My hope is that engaging with this music now will make it less "dusty" in fifty, seventy, or a hundred years and that we can finally view composition as a living tradition, be it Du Fay, Bach, Haydn or Golijov.


rrb said...

Great assignment! I hope you'll do a follow-up after you've been through all the papers.

croust said...

Rebecca, I'd love to hear more about this assignment. We should chat sometime.

In the meantime, let me point out a similar project, started by Mark Clague at the University of Michigan, the Living Music Project:

Mark has assigned interviews for this as final assignments in many of his classes since 2003. Though the bulk of the data is unprocessed, there's some really fascinating stuff in there!

Peter G said...

Hi, followed your link off of dial-M. I'm a musicologist at Iowa. Sounds like a great project, and it has me thinking: with what sort of salutation would you greet Boulez?


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