American Composers Orchestra


On the Edge of the Millennium


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3 senior composers' views

There's No Time Like The Present.

Young Composers on Composing Today and What It'll Be Like Next Century

By Mic HolwinMelinda WagnerAnthony KelleyRandall Woolf. photo credit:Robin Holland

1972. Elliott Carter is writing his third string quartet, which will win a Pulitzer Prize the next year. Pierre Boulez is causing a ruckus in his new post as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Anthony Kelley, Melinda Wagner and Randall Woolf are doing their math homework, riding bikes, maybe practicing for their piano lessons.

It's hard to earn respect in the difficult field of contemporary classical composing, especially when you're a young composer who would consider even a relatively modern-day work like Philip Glass's Einstein On The Beach a golden oldie. Today's emerging composers have a substantial last few decades—let alone last few centuries—within which to contextualize themselves.

Just the last century alone has had more than its share of upheavals. After all, not only have the rules changed every decade or so—just take for one the rejection of tonality, the acceptance of atonality and the embracing of tonality once again—but the playing field itself has unceasingly metamorphosed with the advent of countless paradigm-shifting inventions. A short list would include the phonograph, television, CDs and personal computers (the last a late 20th-century composer's de rigueur compositional tool used for countless tasks from sound generation to score printing)—enough to render the world incomprehensible to a turn-of-the-century composer, should he teleport into our present.

How has this all affected today's composers and made them unique from previous generations of composers?

"There aren't so many ideologies—'I'm gonna be this kind of composer doing this kind of thing,'" says New York composer Randall Woolf. "The world is so complicated now no one can be an expert in even these little fields. Whatever comes your way, you adapt as quickly as you can."

Anthony Kelley, composer-in-residence for the Richmond Symphony, agrees. "There's less of schools and more of an individual impulse to create something."

"When [composers like Crumb, Diamond and Perle] were coming up through the ranks, it was almost impossible to get an orchestral piece performed," says Philadelphia-born Melinda Wagner. "In the last 20 years, that's really changed.

Melinda Wagner"Large corporations like Exxon started underwriting conductor residency programs with the major orchestras in the early '80s," Wagner goes on to explain. Meet The Composer also started to place composers-in-residence, who began performing current scores. "I see this as one of the major changes in this century that's going to make the next century possible for us," she says. "Before that, you had to have gotten your Pulitzer Prize to get a major orchestra to play your work."

Woolf, too, feels that more young composers are getting orchestra pieces played now than 25 years ago, citing Tan Dun, Aaron Kernis and Michael Torke as examples. In spite of this, he feels there are troublesome issues involved with writing orchestral music today. For one, he says, "the orchestra itself is very unwilling to change. You're committing yourself to writing for a group that is pre-Stravinsky. If you want to add a few instruments, it means your piece is unlikely to be played."

He wonders if orchestras' resistance to upgrade with the times will hasten their own extinction. "Maybe people don't want to go and see something that's a hundred years without a change. Maybe people don't want to write for something that's a hundred years without a change." Consequently, Woolf is pessimistic about the orchestra's future and his future with orchestra. He questions whether it's a wise choice to pursue symphonic writing as a main focus.

"But, it's very seducing," he concurs, "the sound of the orchestra is just fantastic. There's nothing like it."

Kelley, in contrast, believes in the staying power of orchestral music. "There's always a place for the orchestra," Kelley states, citing film soundtracks, pop records and multimedia events as ever-growing employs for orchestra. "I don't think it's outdated at all. There's nothing that compares to the sound of a live orchestra, or even a recorded orchestra.

"I see the orchestra as limitless in presenting material because you've got such a wide range of instruments. Even if you're just going for conservative orchestration, it's infinite."

Wagner believes there will be a place for orchestral music in the future. "I feel very positive about it. I think audiences have had their appetites whetted a bit [for contemporary classical music]. People ultimately don't want to go on hearing the same old stuff over and over."

Anthony Kelley"I'm pretty sure that there will be even more eclecticism in the styles," predicts Kelley for the 21st-century American orchestra. "References to world music, which was going on even during Crumb's heyday. But there's going to be even more because the world gets smaller and smaller. And there's going to be more references to the popular styles. Our generation has heard a lot of popular music, and it's really hard to get away from that influence. As John Harbison once said, 'The music you love is the music you grew up on.'"

Speaking of, many if not most young composers today have been raised on pop, rock or jazz, and are using —knowingly or unconsciously—popular idioms in their orchestral works. Kelley sees this hybrid language as a way to draw audiences back in to concert halls. "[Popular influences] gives new audiences something else to grasp on to," he says. "To some degree, a lot of the high European art music references began to lose audiences, in America especially. Where the sounds are always interesting and titillating, the material isn't something that audience members can retain and take out of the hall with them."

Raised on rock and playing in garage bands before ever hearing an orchestra, Woolf (whose new CRI/Emergency Music CD of chamber and solo music is entitled Rock Steady) believes that most composers of his generation are re-discovering their rock or jazz roots, himself included.

"For example, I really like a lot of rap music. The textures that Public Enemy does—very complex things with samples at all different times—I get a lot out of that and put it into my classical pieces. But if you listen to my music, I don't think you would ever say that it sounds like rap."

Randall Woolf. photo credit:Robin HollandThough it shares half a title with a Velvet Underground album, Randall Woolf's work for orchestra White Heat doesn't consciously invoke rock sources. (Though Woolf, who's done orchestral arrangements for Velvet guitarist John Cale, can easily translate rock to symphonic.)

White Heat was written during a "fast and intense summer" when Woolf was a student at Tanglewood and studying with David Del Tredici and Oliver Knussen. "I wanted to write a piece that would be a really fast blur," explains Woolf. "Things just whizzing by. This piece has many themes and sections but they all go by so quickly in the end it's just this blur, like white light—composed of all the different colors—is a blur."

Jazz is Kelley's main influence and he utilizes its melodic flow and rhythmic swing in his orchestral writing. In fact, a dream of his is to write a melody that would one day become a jazz standard.

Another dream of Kelley's led to his jazz-inspired piece The Breaks. Kelley dreamed its opening measures. In playing through the next morning what he had scribbled down in the middle of the night, he relates, "when I heard these large smashing chords—BAP!—and everything responding to those chords, I said, 'Man, that just sounds like a bunch of jazz riffs. What am I trying to do? That's not gonna work for orchestra!' Then I said, 'Well, let's see what happens.'"

What happened was a Gershwin-esque symphonic jazz work complete with "breaks," or solos a jazz player takes without accompaniment at the end of a phrase. These breaks, though, are more like "stylistic parenthesis" through which multiple influences— swing to pop to Latin to Michael Jackson—permeate. Kelley, currently writing a Piano Concerto for the Richmond Symphony, compares it to "a conversation where you're talking about a nice dinner you had the previous night, but you end up talking about the red bow tie the waiter was wearing."

On the other hand, Wagner's Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion (commissioned by Paul Lustig Dunkel and the Westchester Philharmonic), uses neither rock or jazz references and is "very narrative and tells a story, although there's no program." Wagner, who studied with George Crumb, cites Crumb as an influence on not just her but on "every American composer in terms of orchestration—he invented so many of the great sounds that we use every day." Her roots grew in 20th-century classical music. "When I was a kid, I loved Aaron Copland, and still do," she says.

Wagner, at work on a piece for the New York New Music Ensemble, pictures herself in the next century. "I had a Chinese student several years ago who told my fortune," she explains. "He said 'When you're in your 60s, you will be very busy.' And I thought, that's great news. Number one, I'm going to be alive, and number two, being busy is great. So my hope is I'll be busy with musical projects. Looking back, I hope that I would feel that I had been an honest person artistically."

Randall Woolf's White Heat receives its New York premiere at ACO's September 27 concert, as does Melinda Wagner's Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, Paul Lustig Dunkel conducting. Anthony Kelley's The Breaks receives its world premiere at ACO's November 1 concert, conducted by Gerard Schwarz.


ACO's emerging composers program is made possible with generous support of the Geraldine C. and Emory M. Ford Foundation.


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