Centuries apart

"Modern classical music" has always confounded me as a term. How can it be "classical" (in the adjectival sense) and "modern" at the same time? Alternatives have been proposed — I rather like "art music" myself, but it still has an elitist undertone to it — but I think this is a case where semantics must remain imprecise.

I’ve been listening to some classical music recently. One collection really does qualify as "classical". The others were borne from that tradition.

Ludwig van Beethoven, The Late String Quartets, Emerson String Quartet

After overdosing on the Fitzwilliam Quartet cycle of Dmitri Shostakovich’s quartets, I craved for more. Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets are invariably mentioned in just about every liner notes dealing with the string quartet literature. These were the last compositions Beethoven worked on before his death, and like almost everything else Beethoven did, these quartets are the benchmark by which subsequent composers are judged.

I probably should have listened to Beethoven before Shostakovich. These pieces feel quaint to me, after having been put through the tortured emotional ringer of Shostakovich’s dischordant works. Maybe I shouldn’t gone with Bartok instead. More likely, I would need to hear Beethoven’s earlier quartets to hear the contrast in style.

And I don’t have quite that time.

Steve Reich, Drumming, So Percussion

Somehow, this piece felt like Chinese water torture, and I couldn’t pull myself away. Using the phasing technique he explored in his early works, Steve Reich layers repetitive rhythms of varying tempo to create a compelling aural tapestry. There are times when Drumming tries your patience, but the resolution to unison always feels welcome.

Reich turned 70 in October, and I can’t say I haven’t been immune to the hype. I’m really craving the Phases boxed set from Nonesuch.

Michael Nyman, The Piano, Composers Cut Vol. 3, Michael Nyman Band

Michael Nyman wouldn’t even have a career if he hadn’t been inspired by Steve Reich. The Piano is probably Nyman’s most recognizable score. Well, it is to me. Movie scores aren’t highly regarded in modern composition circles because of the director’s thorough input. And most scores abstracted from their film images fall flat.

The reverse is true for The Piano. The music didn’t seem to fit the incidental nature of a soundtrack album. Nyman created a concert suite out of the soundtrack, and as a multi-movement work, the music feels more cohesive.

I still wouldn’t mind someone recording the portfolio of Holly Hunter’s character. (My review of the movie itself: hated it.)

Jay Greenberg, Symphony No. 5/Quintet for Strings

Greenberg is a teenager. He started composing when he was six (perhaps even three, by some reports.) He’s even been on 60 Minutes. Is he any good? He’s better than me, that’s for sure.

I really have no opinion on his Fifth Symphony nor his Quintet for Strings. They’re not Steve Reich, but they aren’t quasi-commercial late-Romanticism passing itself off as high art either. And they certainly aren’t the works of my classmates back in college, who’s idea of composition was to sound like Common Period literature.

I think I’ll check back on Greenberg 15 years from now. If he’s got a grasp of composition at that young age, I’d be interested to see what an adult imagination can conjure up.