Hmmm is this a personal bias? Probably. If you are a regular reader, then you know how much I adore new music. However, this challenge goes beyond just singing music that has been written in the last 20 years give or take. Your day 8 goal is to sing new music because it supports the larger music community around you. As performers, we must be advocates for our art and industry. We need to continue promoting the classics while we encourage audiences to engage with music being written now. I have no fear that we will ever discard the greats that have come before. There is a new music cycle that we can follow to boost the profile of our art which is to strive to be superb musicians, faithful commissioners, and excellent business minds.
“I’ve always had an intense curiosity about new music”, says soprano Renée Fleming. “I can remember sitting in symphony concerts as a kid and just flipping out over the Stravinsky and falling asleep in the Tchaikovsky. This has been my taste since I was very young; I don’t know why. Singing new music is not a chore for me”, she continues. “And I love any new American opera. It’s so exciting to sing in my own language, to get the chance to interpret music that’s never been interpreted before.” Renée Fleming
Singers are in symbiosis with composers – we need each other to continue our art-making. You give sound and physicality to the composer’s intentions and writing and together you seek an audience. Just like singers, composers are fighting for venues, audiences, and funds. I have written this before and will continue to preach: you are not a solitary unit as a singer. You rely on so many factors so that you can perform the music you love. Why not advance those relationships by working with a composer? When once commissioning seemed relegated to those high-profile singers it has now moved the way of the grass-roots opera company and DIY recordings. Many of you have already forged close relationships with composers. For every eager new music singer there is an equally eager composer that would like to write for you, if the details are right for both parties.
“Composition is a decision-making process refined through experience.” – Ken Ueno¹ When working with composers, you are a necessary part of the decision-making process. You are helping to create the performance practice for that work and composer when premiering and giving subsequent performances of their piece. You are contributing to their aesthetic as a composer as well as displaying your unique sound and opinions. That is why, when commissioning, a piece that you both set out with clear expectations. Understanding the composer’s style and sound will help you decide whether or not it is right for your voice. Also, composers, make sure that you know strengths and weaknesses of the performer. If you are planning on commissioning a piece of music, it is necessary to hash out the details of text (and whether or not the rights to the text are available), commissioning and copying fees, funding, and in some cases performance rights. For a more in-depth look at the details of commissioning music, check out this guide from Meet the Composer. Also, check out this great post from David Smooke, simply titled “Performers and Composers“, for a look at what composers are looking for from contemporary classical musicians.
What if you are not ready to jump in to commissioning a piece? Perhaps you are just looking to dip your toe into new classical music? Just like in our discussion of chamber music, there has been so much contemporary classical music written for the voice it is difficult to know where to start.
“The diversity of styles and genres in contemporary music is truly impressive. At no other time has there been such musical diversity. From serialism to neoclassicism, minimalism to multimedia, non-Western crossover to musique actuelle, and neoromanticism to postmodernism, there’s something for every sensibility. For those beginning to learn about new music, there are many points of entry. For the uninitiated, there’s the pop-influenced work of American performance artist and composer Laurie Anderson, the rhythmic folk-influenced improvisations of Czech composer and performer Iva Bittova, or the unique music of self-taught instrument maker Harry Partch. The genre of minimalism also offers a great variety of approaches and methods, demonstrated by such composers as John Adams (US), Louis Andriessen (Netherlands), Philip Glass (US), and Henryk Görecki (Poland). Composers John Tavener (UK) and Arvo Pärt (Estonia) are minimalists who explore themes of introspection and contemplation.
Aspects of popular music that students hear on the radio every day are present in the work of many new-music composers. Composers whose music incorporates rock and popular elements include Erkki Sven Tuur (Estonia), Peter Hatch (Canada), Mark Anthony Turnage (UK), and Graham Fitkin (UK). The influence of world music, specifically from Bali and China, has enabled American composers like Colin McPhee, Peter Garland, and Fred Ho to move away from Western aesthetics. Composers influenced by the folk music of their own countries include Aaron Copland (US), Charles Ives (US), Giya Kancheli (Georgia), Jose Evangelista (Canada/Spain), and Peter Sculthorpe (Australia). Composers working in the areas of soundscape composition and acoustic ecology include Canadians Hildegard Westerkamp, Claude Schryer, Sylvi MacCormac, and Barry Truax, as well as Americans Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, and Annea Lockwood.” – Therese Costes
You can always ask your friends who are in to new music. Yet, there are also a vast number of online resources that will help you become more familiar with what is new these days. Check out NewMusicBox, “a multimedia publication from New Music USA, dedicated to the music of American composers and improvisers and their champions. NewMusicBox offers: in-depth profiles, articles, and discussions; up-to-the-minute industry news and commentary; a direct portal to our internet radio station, Counterstream; and access to an online library of more than 57,000 works by more than 6,000 composers.” If that isn’t enough to sift through, try our friends over at I CARE IF YOU LISTEN who have a great series 5 Questions to… in which they interview composers, performers, founders, directors, and more. “Created in December 2010 by Thomas Deneuville, NY-based French composer, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN was born from the desire to talk about Contemporary Classical Music, or New Music, in lay terms. Other interdisciplinary topics include Art and Technology.” Also take some time to peruse the articles, interviews, and forums on Sequenza21 – The Contemporary Classical Music Community.
Becoming more involved with music conceived and performed now is not just a niche-choice; it is a necessity to furthering our culture, industry, and artistry. Even if you are already committed to new music, we must strive to excel in the entire new music cycle: brilliant musicianship, loyal commissioners, and skillful entrepreneurs. Aren’t you just as tired of the “classical music is dead” conversation as I am? Let’s continue, with our actions, to show that is simply not the case.