Have a look at some contemporary composers, through recordings of their music. We’ll consider three chamber works—four, actually, by three composers—and a song-cycle. The song-cycle will serve as a kind of dessert. Three of the four composers are well-known, at least within the confines of classical music: These are Thomas Adès, Peter Maxwell Davies, and David Del Tredici. The other composer, Christos Hatzis, is less well-known, but with shifts of musical fashion, you never know.

Thomas Adès is probably the most bally-hooed composer in the world. A Brit born in 1971, he was prominent by his mid-twenties. In 1995, he wrote an opera, Powder Her Face, and last year, he premiered another opera, The Tempest (after Shakespeare). As far as I can tell, he has 100 percent support in the critical press; sometimes that support is deserved. Moreover, Adès is a good pianist—a very good one. In 2000, he made a recording of miniatures, by a motley crew of composers: about ten of them, stretching from Grieg to Kurtág. This is a fine CD (from EMI), containing some exemplary pianism.

More recently, he has recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, with the Arditti Quartet (also for EMI). Honest to goodness, this is one of the best recordings of that canonical work I know, thanks mainly to Adès’s contribution (more like musical leadership). I rank it with the treasured performances we all encountered years ago. But more to the point is what the “Trout” is coupled with: a piano quintet of Adès’s own. It’s a commendable work, showing a fair amount of compositional skill—also a gust of inspiration.

The quintet is in one movement, as so many chamber works are today. It is both spiky and lyrical, in what we now recognize as the Adès tradition. It’s also edgy and anxious; busy and distracted; jazzy and riffy. I find myself using those words constantly, in describing contemporary music—it goes way beyond Adès. This quintet is also rather changeable: Again, that is typical, of many. Sometimes it appears that these one-movement pieces are overloaded with movements! Perhaps composers have a secret fear that their music won’t be varied enough. (Granted, minimalists are free of this worry.)

As Adès develops the piece, he gives us muscularity and drive, and a combination of playfulness and menace—that combination is another Adès hallmark. He includes something like a slow movement, which has a lovely interplay between instruments. And he works a little theme over and over: To me, it sounds like a traditional British song, “Sail on, sail on, thou fearless bark” (memorably arranged by Benjamin Britten). Whether this was deliberate, we’d have to ask the composer.

There is a quick final section, and the piece ends very abruptly—you might even say modestly. Why? Because that ending doesn’t announce itself; the music just finishes, naturally. Some composers might have thought that such a piece required a bigger, grander, more important ending.

Whether this piece will enter the standard chamber repertory, one cannot exactly say, but my guess is that it will be played a lot, in Adès’s lifetime. For one thing, he will be around to participate in it. The real test of a composer’s durability is whether his music is played after he’s gone—when he is no longer available to coach, to bless, to take a bow. More than a few composers should be nervous on this score. Then again, will they have to know?

Before leaving Adès, a quick word about the liner notes in his CD. Those liner notes offer much musical explanation, and I have found—perhaps you have too—that the more music needs to be explained, intellectually, the worse it is. I remember one afternoon on which Daniel Barenboim, conducting some orchestra, delivered a lecture on a new piece that was longer than the piece itself. Remarked the critic sitting behind me, “I liked the lecture better than the piece.” We can often say that, even when the lectures are dreary. In any case, Adès’s liner notes—not written by him—claim that the Adès Quintet throws new light on the “Trout,” while Schubert illuminates Adès. Such a claim is utterly de rigueur, in the music biz. You will never go wrong, at any cocktail party, if you say, “The juxtaposition of Work X with Work Y made me think differently about each.” In Adès’s notes, we find, “Schubert’s familiar music is rendered strange by Adès’s piece, and Schubert’s piece in turn releases the connections between Adès’s piece and the classical tradition.” Never mind: Enjoy the two pieces for what they are, quite apart from any other music.

Another prominent British composer—though of a different generation—is Peter Maxwell Davies, born in 1934. He is a Lancashire native, but has long lived in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. In fact, he once wrote a piece called An Orkney Wedding, which gained some popularity. Davies is now Sir Peter, although I trust no one will be offended if I last-name him.

The Naxos label commissioned from him ten—ten—string quartets, which he has called The Naxos Quartets. (When you hear such news, remember that classical music is dying—that is the chant from the smart set, as it has been for literally hundreds of years.) We now have a recording of Quartets 3 and 4 (on guess which label?). Quartet No. 3 brings up the old question, What does music mean? That is, what does it mean, if without words—which force a meaning—or particular, significant tunes (such as a national anthem)? First, however, listen to what the composer says in his liner notes:

The intention with Naxos Quartet No. 3 was to create a work exploring the compositional potentialities of a magic square of Saturn (3 x 3) within one of Mars (5 x 5) within one of Venus (7 x 7). This would all be developed alongside an independent square of the Moon (9 x 9), with the associated isometric disciplines, based upon the plainsong proper to the celebration of St Cecilia on 22 November, ‘Audi filia et vide’. In this way I set myself creative problems whose intricacy and complexity posed new and formidable challenges. … However, during the course of composition, March and April 2003, external events affected the Quartet’s unfolding: the invasion of Iraq.

Yes, Davies abandoned those planets to issue “an unpremeditated and spontaneous reaction to the illegal invasion of Iraq.” (The words are again the composer’s.) I hasten to say that you don’t have to grant the composer his meaning, or intention. John Corigliano may call his Symphony No. 1 an “AIDS Symphony,” but once the listener receives it in his ear, he sort of owns it—Corigliano says the same. (Again, however, once words are imposed, we’re in a different ballgame. And, indeed, Corigliano gave his music—part of his symphony—words, with a separate choral piece called Of Rage and Remembrance.)

Davies’s Quartet No. 3 is in four movements, with the first labeled “March.” It starts out relatively innocent and playful. Is this the musical equivalent of Michael Moore’s happy kite-flying, in that movie? You may remember how the filmmaker depicted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As the music continues, it turns violent, martial. Then we have an elegy, a deep, deep sadness. Davies is a composer in control of himself. He tries to convey the impression of a great wrong done, and succeeds. He is full of creativity in this movement; his high dudgeon seems to have worked for him.

The second movement, “In Nomine,” is rather beautiful, and ghostly, but it becomes tedious. The composer is enveloped in his sadness—okay. But he would be wise not to stay enveloped for so long. The third movement is called “Four Inventions and a Hymn,” and, according to the composer, it “stands in for a Scherzo.” It is tight and interesting. It has an edgy (there we go again), stop-and-start feel. Then the music turns very accusatory. Toward the end of the movement, Davies gives the unusual marking stucchevole, meaning “cloying, nauseating.” He is shoving it into our snoots. And he again succeeds. What we have here is revulsion in music.

In the final movement (“Fugue”), more revulsion is on offer. Unfortunately, so is heavy-handedness, and this is a harmful trait, a cousin to dullness. The music is supposed to be ugly and off-putting, because it’s “about” something ugly and off-putting. But the composer has not left well enough alone. He writes, in those liner notes, “I imagine a baritone voice, quietly intoning Michelangelo’s words …”—and those words, in translation, are “While damage and shame persist / It is my great fortune neither to see nor to hear. / So please do not disturb me, and speak quietly.” And yet, says Davies, “the closing measures [of his quartet] … show that it is just impossible to neither see, nor hear.”

Well. A question to ask about music of this sort is, Does it become warped by ideology? Is it agitprop? This happened to Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who often had to toss off music just because Stalin demanded it. They wouldn’t have wanted anyone to hear it later (and we almost never do). No, I don’t believe that the Davies quartet is agitprop; I think it is a meritorious composition—but, at a later date, he may want to trim its excesses. And by the way, if you’re looking for a piece of music that treats the invasion of Iraq as a liberation, or spends its elegy on Saddam’s many victims—don’t look too hard. If a composer wrote such a piece, he would certainly have to disguise his intention. And if he did not: Would Naxos have anything to do with him?

Christos Hatzis is a Canadian composer, originally from Greece, born in 1953. According to his bio, his music “is inspired by proto-Christian spirituality”—the best kind of spirituality, in this business!—“his own Byzantine heritage, world cultures and various non-classical music genres such as jazz, pop and world musics.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is a fairly standard bio for composers today, right down to that singularly ugly word “musics.” But it gets better: Hatzis “has created several works inspired by the throat games of the Inuit, Canada’s arctic inhabitants.” But of course. Throw in the (Indonesian) gamelan, and you’ll have perfection.

His String Quartets 1 and 2 are found on EMI, and each has a title (or subtitle): The first is “The Awakening,” and the second “The Gathering.” About the first, he writes —in liner notes—“It was composed at a time in my life which might be described as a crossroads, musical and otherwise, and was influenced by my own personal awakening to the richness of Canada’s native cultures, and to how immigrant cultures like my own confronted and nearly destroyed them.” This clash of civilizations is depicted by throat singing, on the “native” side, and trains, on the other.

Indeed, Hatzis puts a train right at the beginning of the piece, rumbling along. (This is a tape of a train—the work is for “string quartet and soundtrack.”) Then we hear the Inuit singing, and wailing. This piece is of a genre: a paean to white guilt. One of the most hilarious pieces I know in this genre is “The Un-Covered Wagon,” by Brent Michael Davids, recorded by the a cappella singing group Chanticleer. It features Indian war whoops against the sickly, guilty singing of Christian hymns. It is utterly crude. If the aforementioned Mr. Moore—or the “historian” Howard Zinn —wrote music, it would sound like this.

Hatzis’s String Quartet No. 1 is another one-movement piece, and, underway, it is sort of gripping: grinding, driving. Soon we have a gorgeous melody, Romantic, lush. The composer has an obvious melodic and harmonic gift, and he has a good sense of pacing, as well. There is something Barber-like in this work: You might think of the Adagio for Strings (a piece some like to mock, but that any composer would kill to have written). Hatzis is especially good at putting churning notes beneath soaring, free melody—a favorite practice of composers right from the beginning.

In due course, you can hear the white invasion of Inuit land, and the resulting horror. The piece climaxes in a kind of genocidal fury. A modern script has been followed. Toward the end, Hatzis falls into cliché: You can imagine a man looking out a train window, at the landscape, thinking, regretting. Soon the train is rushing, with the music frantically passionate. Tears well in the man’s eyes, and streak down his cheeks. In how many movies have we seen and heard this? At least this is my (strong) impression of what Hatzis does at the end. But he has written an effective piece.

“The Gathering” is another “war piece,” or “political piece,” prompted, says the composer, “by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.” He wrote most of it “during the time of terrible war in Kosovo and the continuous bombing of Belgrade.” We are told that “the presence of heterogeneous stylistic elements in this piece also acts as a form of exorcism against the absurdity of war and senseless violence.” Bear in mind, however, that you—the listener—are entitled to throw the composer’s program out the window. In fact, you may choose not to know it, before listening to the music—or ever, I suppose.

This string quartet is in four movements, all of which have subtitles. The “heterogeneous elements” to which Hatzis refers include Middle Easternisms (representing the Muslims) and Eastern Orthodox music. At the outset, we hear some Middle Eastern wailing. We then experience a variety of melodies, inventions, borrowings, suggestions. There is always movement here, something is always going on. We get shades of Latin America (I believe), and of Shostakovich—no one is better at martial, or terrorist, menace than he. Hatzis throttles and provokes us, admirably.

The third movement, “Nadir,” begins with two quick shouts of “Hey”—I imagine the instrumentalists handle that. This is a long movement, and it grows a little tiresome—perhaps Hatzis’s sense of pacing fails him. Or perhaps he likes his material a little too much (same thing, actually). We are jolted awake by more shouts of “Hey,” but then the music become wan, bleak, sounding like reams of other music written today. Even if this movement is sincerely felt—and I have no doubt it is—we may roll our eyes, just a bit. “Nadir” at last concludes with a final “Hey,” and some brusque, decisive notes.

The fourth movement, “Metamorphosis,” has some effective repetition and urgency. Hatzis knows how to move notes within a simple frame. And again, he has his churning below, soaring above. A quasi-minimalist lull is broken by chaos, and then we get peace, or an appeal to peace. After a brief musical prayer, and some Middle Eastern twanging reminiscent of the beginning, the work ends.

Come to think of it, it would be hard to separate this work from its program, and quite hard once you know the composer’s intentions. And yet the piece is interesting from the sheer compositional point of view. I pause to recognize that I’ve written quite a bit about politics so far, as I consider these recordings. When I write this way—as I do every five years or so—some people inevitably say, “But you’re politicizing music.” In truth, I abhor the politicizing of music, and say so frequently. But if composers (and performers) themselves do it … it is awkward to ignore.

And now for our dessert: David Del Tredici—the American composer born in 1937—is an ardent neo-Romantic, after a conventional start. (I mean, of course, a serial one—an induction into serialism.) We have from him some tasty art songs, and I will specifically address Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter, a cycle recorded on the Music & Arts label. (Hila Plitmann is the soprano, and the composer is at the piano.) Here is Del Tredici, explaining how it came about:

One evening in 1995, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I heard the young poet Joshua Beckman read his Lament. Before long I was crying, and it came clear to me that I would one day set his poem to music. Was it because I had just lost a lover to AIDS? Whatever the trigger, Beckman had touched the deep place where music longs to connect with words and to trap forever (or so composers hope) the heart’s tremulous, fleeting emotion.

In addition, I can’t help quoting the composer’s statement that “the cycle was written in 1998 at both the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, then revised and expanded in 2001 at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study Center in Bellagio, Italy.” Yup, that’s the life of the modern successful composer: Almost every chord is touched.

Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter is a sweeping, clever, attention-holding cycle, with a difficult and prominent piano part. (The vocal part is no cakewalk, either.) Del Tredici has a gift for matching word with note, or syllable with note, and the poet, Beckman, gives him some surprising and excellent words to match. Try this out:

At the news of your death
couples who had never heard of you
kept walking and were only dragged back
by the nagging sensation
that after hundreds of miles
they had left homes and families unattended.
And one source stated that a
woman in her early thirties
after returning and finding that she
had not left her oven on
headed directly back out
and has not been hear from since.

There are nine songs in this cycle, and each is an individual, while managing to relate to the rest. A “Piano Interlude” leads to the last song, sounding for a time like an angry etude. “A Giant Wave” is in the tradition of good, rollicking, stormy sea songs—and “Rebellion” is about the craziest thing you’ve ever heard. It begins with doses of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” and later echoes “Salome.” After many other tunes and summonses, it ends with the “Liebestod”—actually some blend of the “Liebestod” and Brünnhilde’s hojotohos. As I said, crazy, but compelling. (You must hear it.) The soprano lines are hugely challenging, way up in Lily Pons land.

And I might point out that the composer dedicates each song, to someone. The last song, “David,” is “dedicated to myself!” The composer did well to include that exclamation mark.

In music, there are a million AIDS pieces, just as there are a million war pieces—anti-war pieces—and a good many 9/11 pieces. David Del Tredici’s song-cycle stands out; it is not trite. Almost forty minutes long, it would constitute half a singer’s recital. Sopranos—especially native English-speakers—should include it in their arsenals. They would be rewarded.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 1, on page 72
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