August 19, 2016
“Composers have always wanted to fondle the pieces that they love,” John Adams, of “Nixon in China” fame, said in a recent interview. They have long borrowed from their predecessors: quoted them, evoked them, effaced them, mocked them. They have transcribed them, orchestrated them, built sets of variations from their seeds. They have tried to build on them, forget them, ignore them.
On the whole, nobody has asked them to. But over the last decade or so, it’s become increasingly trendy to do exactly that. Major institutions, orchestras and performers are asking contemporary composers to respond to specific pieces of music from the past, often to be performed — senior and junior pieces, both — on the same program.
“It’s like, why are there so many movie sequels made?” asked Timo Andres, who took Beethoven as a starting point for “The Blind Banister,” a piano concerto that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and that the New York Philharmonic will play in April. “We know the characters already. We have a little doorway into the movie before we even sit down. In a way, it’s the new-music version of that.”
Around 10 years ago, “this idea seemed to pop up in a lot of places at the same time,” said the pianist Jonathan Biss, who with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra commissioned Mr. Andres and four other composers to respond to Beethoven’s piano concertos. The conductors Riccardo Chailly and Mariss Jansons asked for responses to his symphonies in Leipzig, Germany, and Munich, and the violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner had three composers respond to the violin sonatas for their Bridge to Beethoven series.
“The fact that I’ve been asked to do this four times now means that people are serious about it, that it’s not just a gimmick,” said the pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, who has taken on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky. The violist-composer Brett Dean is tackling Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto for Mr. Biss and the sixth of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra’s “new” Brandenburg Concertos (an idea the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra got to first).
Why this, and why now? After all, in an ideal world composers would be allowed to write whatever they please. Interviews with composers, performers and administrators suggest that both economic and artistic considerations are at play.
The core assumption is that many, if not most, classical concertgoers have a built-in distaste toward modern music. Their ears prefer what they already know. “People who are not deeply into the new-music world,” said Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s artistic director, “have a very clear picture in their minds about how they don’t like it. You’re dealing with an antipathy.”
Response pieces are evidence that institutions do want to program more new music: An orchestra or pianist could always just play Mozart alone. But the assignments are part of an attempt to guide a wary public toward an appreciation of contemporary styles. Audience surveys, noted Kyu-Young Kim, the artistic director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, show that contextualization leads to greater appreciation of new music. “When you have a work that just sits on a program with a Beethoven symphony and an overture,” he said, “that makes it hard for the audience to understand why it’s even there.”
Jesse Rosen, the president of the League of American Orchestras, said ensembles are saying, in effect: “Yes, we want to play a role in generating new music. We also want a pathway for people to engage with it.”
Composers appreciate that response pieces lead to coherent programming, possibly making for a better reception for their work. It creates a “meaningful link,” said Anna Clyne, whose “Night Ferry” was designed to go with Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, “rather than just shoving a Beethoven symphony in with a contemporary piece to pull in the crowds.” On the other hand, it might doom a composer to failure.
“It sometimes puts the contemporary piece at a disadvantage,” Mr. Andres said. “You really want to go up against Schumann’s ‘Kreisleriana’? It puts the audience in a position to say, ‘Oh, that was interesting, but I still like the Schumann better.’”
There’s no single way in which composers, well, respond. Some take an explicitly musical route. Caroline Shaw — who is writing one of Mr. Biss’s commissions and is one of seven composers whose responses to Buxtehude’s “Membra Jesu Nostri,” elicited by the choir The Crossing, will be performed at Mostly Mozart at Lincoln Center on Sunday, Aug. 21 — prefers to work from a quotation or reference.
Others find a particular chord progression or rhythm they can use. Sometimes the response element is immediately audible, sometimes not, often in a deliberate bid to let the new work stand on its own. Mr. Biss said he wouldn’t have located the Beethoven in Mr. Andres’s “The Blind Banister” had it not been pointed out to him; Mr. Adams said that the piece is so good that he had forgotten about the link.
Some composers ignore the original score entirely. Mr. Iyer’s “Bridgetower Fantasy” instead recovers the compositional history of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Violin Sonata; he explored the heritage and talents of George Bridgetower, the Afro-European violinist who performed the sonata’s premiere with its composer. In that way, Ms. Koh said, he brought up issues of diversity and the gaps in music history.
Commissioners try not to assign composers at random. In some cases, that’s easy, especially if the composers involved are performers, too. Ms. Shaw knew the Buxtehude work as both a singer and violinist. Mr. Andres is an accomplished pianist, as is Anthony Cheung: A coincidental set of commissions, two of them responses, allowed him to explore his relationship with Beethoven. For a third piece, he chose (voluntarily) to respond to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with “Lyra,” for the New York Philharmonic, having been interested in allusions to the Orpheus myth others inferred from the work.
After all, Mr. Cheung said, “as composers we’re always thinking about the past.” Responses are a way of introducing new work “that is in a way somewhat familiar and perhaps nonthreatening,” a way of “holding a listener’s hand from one piece to the next, from the familiar to the unfamiliar.”
But they are also not a stretch. “We start from somewhere,” Mr. Cheung said, “and for a lot of us that is music of the past, music for which we have a familiarity and love. So why not pursue something that would seem to be second nature?”
Even so, there is a difference between composers responding to pieces on their own and being asked to do so. “I’m sure there are plenty of composers who don’t love the idea,” said Steven Lankenau, a spokesman for the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes. “But there are so few composers who have the luxury of turning projects down, that they may find a way to enter into that project that works for them.” If you’re a composer opposed to the idea of responses, Mr. Cheung said, “it validates you as a composer, to be given this opportunity next to Beethoven. It’s very flattering.”
The ideological grounds for opposition have slipped away, at least for many younger composers. The post-World War II determination to sever avant-garde music from the past has long ended. Now composers are much more likely to celebrate their inspirations and to take them from a wider range of music. If they see responses as a chance to grapple with traditions, they also see them as an opportunity to do something new. They might see a response as a welcome constraint, much like the common limitations of having to write for a specific instrumental grouping, or at a certain duration. They might see a chance to learn.
According to David T. Little, who is part of the Buxtehude project, “Having to engage very seriously with someone else’s way of thinking, you learn a lot about how you think about music.” A young composer, he added, might even start to see a dead master as a colleague.
There’s something disquieting in the fact that composers are being asked to write so explicitly on the terms of past giants. “There’s a part of me,” Mr. Adams said, “that thinks this is somehow a capitulation, or an admission, that unless something is connected to the great masters of the past, it’s going to be a hard sell.”
And even enthusiastic composers recognize the dangers: the risk of gimmickry; of a trend becoming too popular; of too much music looking backward; of a piece never escaping its original context; of institutions ticking the new-music box and leaving it at that. There’s also the risk of being typecast.
“I haven’t actually counted, but probably the majority of my pieces, at least in the commissioning language, were specified to be a response to something or other,” Mr. Andres said. “I’m starting to reach the end of my rope. I just think it’s a little bit of programming laziness. If you want to commission someone, then just commission them. If you like my music, then commission me. We shouldn’t have to gum it on to Schumann, or Schubert, or even Ives.”