On 10 Years of the New New-Music Scene, and 30 Years of My Own

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Clockwise from upper left: Bang on a Can founders Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon; (Le) Poisson Rouge; Judd Greenstein, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records; and composer Milton Babbitt. Photo: George Etheredge/The New York Times/Redux, Getty, Courtesy of Judd Greenstein

I don’t know her name, but a young composer has just shown up in New York. Maybe she’s a singer or a cellist, or both, and also a whiz with the editing software on her laptop. She’s got a playlist full of Latin hip-hop and early minimalism and Iranian kamancheh music and for a while she played bass in a punk bluegrass band. You might run into her this weekend at the joint tenth-anniversary celebrations for two institutions that drew her to the city: (Le) Poisson Rouge and New Amsterdam Records. Even from a distance, she saw that the existence of the Bleecker Street venue and the composer-run label meant that New York had a place for musicians like her, who assemble their tastes from a global menu rather than a teacher’s dogmas. She may not stay long, but for now, this crowded, competitive, crushingly expensive metropolis is the place she needs to be.

Little of that description would have made much sense to me in 1988 when I too arrived in New York, eager to become a professional composer. Thirty years ago, the American contemporary music world was a macrocosm of Manhattan geography. Uptown composers, cerebral members of the avant-garde guild, clustered around Columbia and dreamed of taking curtain calls at Lincoln Center. Downtown composers spun out ecstatically leisurely works in lofts and art galleries, or at the Kitchen. These divisions reached across thousands of miles: uptown included Paris; downtown extended to California. But at bottom, New York’s new music subculture was fiercely, even ridiculously provincial. With little money or fame at stake, the spoils consisted of nuggets of prestige. Fortunately, even meaningless feuds eventually peter out. As the city has become more global, I have watched the music world get healthier, more complex, and less hermetic. In their decade of existence, (Le) Poisson Rouge and New Amsterdam have helped seed whole forests of music far beyond the five boroughs.

To understand why this anniversary matters, it helps to scroll back to a time before they existed — to the late ’80s and early ’90s, for instance, when, as a graduate student at Columbia’s School of the Arts, I was an uptown foot soldier in a multi-decade war that had reached its exhausted, senescent stage. Eventually, my side lost, thank goodness. Downtown minimalism spawned Post-Minimalism in countless iterations, while the purest forms of old-fashioned academic avant-garde now seems like a form of decadent mannerism, a style of exquisite craftsmanship and technical extremes, going nowhere. I moved to Queens during my student years, which gave me an outer-borough vantage point on the silliness, and wrote music infected with a romanticism that neither faction had much use for. It was only later that I watched the walls come down and a new New York geography of music emerge, rooted in Brooklyn but assertively fragmented, eclectic, and fluid. Making the transition from composer to critic led me to put down my pencil and open my ears.

Schools splinter, aesthetic principles get tossed or overhauled, the geography of music shifts. And yet the participants in all this fragmentation value continuity, too. Composers tend to slot into a long line of teachers and students, tracing their legacies back to 19th-century Europe and forward to the next generation. Missy Mazzoli, one of the pillars of New York’s new music scene, for instance, is heir to a century’s worth of cultivated originality stretching back from Brooklyn and Yale to Hapsburg Budapest. She studied with Pulitzer Prize–winner David Lang, now a colleague of his Yale professor (and New York native) Martin Bresnick, who once sat at the feet of the Hungarian master György Ligeti, whose teachers, Ferenc Farkas and Sándor Veress, also taught Béla Bartok — who spent the last years of his life laboring in the music library at Columbia.

I was drawn to Columbia by the music of Mario Davidovsky, then the senior composer on the faculty. (He later moved to Harvard.) In the 1960s and 70s, Davidovsky had composed a series of “Synchronisms,” pairing live instruments with pre-recorded electronics and combining rigor and inventiveness in a way that I thought would do my own music good. On recording, which was how I first got to know them, these brief works had a Kandinsky-like delicacy: bright pinpricks, precise slashes, and fiery colors, all assembled into mysterious, wizardly abstractions. Davidovsky himself turned out to be nothing like the slender, rapturous being that the “Synchronisms” suggested to my fantasy.

I had hoped to join a fellowship of composers; instead I found a self-important Order of Modernists. The Yodas of uptown were Milton Babbitt, whose musical lineage extended back through New England musical aristocracy to the most august academies of Central Europe and whose students included Davidovsky; Elliott Carter (whose teacher, Nadia Boulanger, also taught Philip Glass), and, though he lived in Europe, Pierre Boulez. If the new-music schism lasted for so many years, it was partly because all three of those wise men had such long, productive lives. Babbitt died in 2011 at 94; Carter in 2012 at 101; Boulez in 2016 at 90. Babbitt was a mathematically inclined Princeton professor, with heavy glasses and white wisps that clung to the side of a great bald pate, giving him an owlish air. He played jazz clarinet and was rumored to compose while watching baseball on television. But his down-to-earth demeanor coexisted with a fondness for erudite sentences and music of prickly sophistication. In 1958 he had written an article for the magazine High Fidelity, in which he claimed for contemporary music a status analogous to that of pure mathematics: a sublime intellectual activity, rightfully mysterious to all but a few. “Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?” he asked.

Babbitt was one of the founders of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a futuristic facility in the 1960s and a largely obsolete one by the time I was spending many of my evenings fiddling with its antique knobs. Night after night, I trudged past the windswept, vaguely menacing McDonald’s parking lot on the corner of Broadway and 125th Street, and east to Prentis Hall, which housed that time capsule of antique technology. There, we composition students banged, played, and hummed into a microphone, ran tape backwards, sped it up to chipmunk speeds or slowed it down to thunderous rumbles, chopped it up with a razor blade, mixed the results with irritatingly pure sine wave tones or horrific square-wave buzzes from a bank of oscillators, and came up with sounds whose origins we deliberately obscured. Later, I moved to the computer music studio down the hall, where composers sat at workstations laboriously coding bleeps. I accomplished very little there, apart from one sort-of-Synchronism of my own, for electric bass guitar and tape. I handed the piece off to a jazz virtuoso, who promised to learn it but never did.

For a few years, I attended three or four contemporary music concerts a week, almost never paying more than $8 a ticket. (I even produced a few.) They were always the same: a scattering of audience members listened to pieces that varied widely in instrumentation but stuck to the same squeak-fart earnestness. The best performances were given by Speculum Musicae (which sounds like a medical instrument but means “mirror of music” in Latin), a collection of players who prided themselves on being able to handle even the most intricate rhythms and acrobatic lines. I listened to live music the way people once used to watch TV, sitting through whatever happened to be on. Much of it ranged from terrible to okay, but I clung to the possibility of excitement and revelation. Afterwards, when I stepped outside, most of the sounds I had just heard would whip out of my mind.

From my uptown perch, I eavesdropped on the goings-on below 14th Street with a mixture of disdain and wistfulness. Columbia had taught me to cram my music with obsessive minutiae, to differentiate every millisecond from every other. Uptowners saw literal repetition as evidence of laziness. Downtowners believed in repetition as an essential metabolic function, and they indulged in it for hours on end. Their scores abounded in the symbol that looks like a filled-in percent sign: repeat previous measure. Just do it again, and again, and again. Oh, how I wished I could get away with that simple sign.

I also craved the laid-back ease and raucous excitement that minimalism offered in its early days, the way musicians had hammered together their own society rather than politely apply to the big institutions. That party had long since shut down and moved on by the early 1990s. Downtown Manhattan had gone bourgie and its rebel leaders had joined the musical equivalents of the Knickerbocker Club. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned Philip Glass’s Christopher Columbus opera, The Voyage, which had its premiere in 1992. Steve Reich, who in his youth composed for clapping hands, drums, and loops of tape, now began writing for symphony orchestras. Their influence can be felt in several generations of performers, acolytes, and collaborators. Nico Muhly spent years copying and editing Glass’s operas and film scores, and translated that experience into his own brand of delicately deceptive simplicity. After all the years of resisting the uptowners’ thou-shalt-nots, the downtowners assessed their place in history with the quiet triumphalism of liberators. “John Cage gave me permission to do whatever I wanted to do,” Glass once told Muhly in a published conversation. “And then I gave you permission to do whatever you wanted to do. That’s what one generation can do for the next.”

That was not quite true—both sides had its shibboleths and regulations—but New York’s contemporary music scene had far more going on than the endless squabble between Big Enders and Little Enders. Ned Rorem continued turning out songs in the same elegantly lyrical style he had been employing for decades. At Columbia, a contingent of composers who had grown up in Mao’s China, including Bright Sheng, Tan Dun, Zhou Long, and Chen Yi, were struggling to fuse two radically different traditions. Orchestras, including the Philharmonic, were lapping up scores by neo-Romantics such as David Del Tredici and Richard Danielpour.

And then there was Bang on a Can.

At around the time that I moved to New York, so did a trio of Yale School of Music graduates, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang, all students of Martin Bresnick (and therefore heirs to the maverick Hungarian tradition that ran through Ligeti). They started a seat-of-the-pants organization that grew into an establishment force: Bang on a Can. The movement had its own distinctive pre-hipster style. Did the three composers really wear Converse All-Stars, or do I just think so because they also founded a hotshot chamber ensemble called Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars? In 1987, they pioneered the 12-hour all-you-can-hear marathon concert, in which audience members were invited to wander in and out as they pleased. Those who made it through the whole thing were almost guaranteed to hear something they loved, even if dozens of 10-minute pieces merged into a barrage of earnest weirdness.

Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang have been around long enough now to become proper eminences, complete with followers, tenure, awards, and, of course, prejudices of their own. As impresarios, they created a new ecosystem. As composers, they have filled it with some very fine music. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side, while Bill Morrison’s film Decasia, an assemblage of melting images on ancient, crumbling film stock, played across multiple screens and Gordon’s dark, pitiless score shuddered through my limbs. Saxophones and electric keyboards rent the air; trombones uttered glissando roars. Gordon is married to Wolfe, and she too is partial to loud, intense music that is elbow deep in history. In her 2015 multimedia choral work Anthracite Fields, she paid tribute to the sufferings of Pennsylvania coal miners with music of lyrical violence. Lang, on the other hand, has pursued extremes of quiet—literally in the whisper opera, in which performers hiss their lines; spiritually in Little Match Girl Passion, a fairy tale set to luminous blocks of choral sound.

Nearly 20 years after the Yale trio set up shop in Manhattan, a fresh crop of composers with pop-infused sensibilities and elaborate educations showed up, this time in Brooklyn. Judd Greenstein (Williams, Yale, Princeton), William Brittelle (Vanderbilt), and Sarah Kirkland Snider (Wesleyan, Yale) aspired to bust new music out of its specialist niche. They saw themselves as advocates, not just for themselves but for the kind of community I had hoped to find in the late 1980s. Composer/performers gathered around New Amsterdam Records and (Le) Poisson Rouge, founded by a pair of young classical musicians, cellist Justin Kantor and violinist David Handler. The forest planted in the early 2000s spread quickly beyond the confines of those two institutions and has yielded, if not broad renown, then at least widely scattered pinpoints of recognition. Starting next fall, the violist, proselytizer, and podcast host Nadia Sirota will be curate and emcee nine new music chamber concerts for the New York Philharmonic. The composer, singer, and violinist Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize in music for gorgeously textured Partita, collaborated with Kanye West, appeared as a key plot element in the Netflix series Mozart in the Jungle, and now has a piano concerto for Jonathan Biss in the works. Proud collaborator rather than loner auteur, Shaw appears as a violinist on New Amsterdam’s latest release, The Hands Free, which sounds as though a bluegrass band, a jazz collective, and a modernist chamber ensemble had holed up for the winter in a remote cabin in the woods.

I sometimes wonder why New York still has a new music scene at all, now that composers can go hunting for influences by meandering through YouTube and form a social circle on Twitter. And yet they continue to rely on the happenstance and physical proximity that only a major city can provide. Many do what they must to live here, others pay the electric bill in other states or countries but keep converging here. In music, New York is finally living up to its reputation for globalism, transience, and cosmopolitanism. Dutch composer Louis Andriessen; Esa-Pekka Salonen, a Finn by way of London and L.A.; Irishman Donnacha Dennehey; Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir; Chinese-American Du Yun; jazz guru Wynton Marsalis; Egyptian-American composer Mohammed Fairouz; Russian-born Lera Auerbach; jazz pianist Vijay Iyer; electronica guru DJ Spooky; indie rocker Bryce Dessner; Californian Andrew Norman—all of them and many more are fixtures of New York’s “contemporary classical” programs, even if some make their homes in other countries or inhabit disparate musical worlds. Even John Luther Adams, who spent decades sending musical dispatches from a remote ridge in Alaska, moved to Harlem a few years ago, adapting a sensibility bred in the wilds to a new urban context.

A decade into the so-called indie classical era, I would have expected this elastic community to harden, to codify laws and stigmas, to develop irrational loathings and arbitrary stylistic borders. Instead, New York’s new music world just becomes ever more varied and excitingly disorienting. Venues have multiplied, and I relish not being able to predict what I’m going to hear. Old aesthetic geographies have lost their meaning, and so has the distinction between establishment and guerilla. Carnegie Hall, the Philharmonic, and even the Mostly Mozart Festival monitor young composers and new ensembles the way college baseball coaches scout high school games. Nico Muhly was only a few years out of college when he had a lavish one-man concert at Zankel Hall. (Now he’s working on his second opera for the Met.)

Whenever I emulate my graduate student days and whip from premiere to premiere, I find myself dropping into a variety of overlapping yet distinct worlds. Young Brooklynites pack into National Sawdust in Williamsburg to listen with beer in hand. Suspicious habitués of Carnegie Hall sample the underground offerings at Zankel. Devotees of Alarm Will Sound or Yarn/Wire or yMusic follow their favorite ensembles around. The whole messy scene looks more like the pop world than the preserves of classical music. Audiences for symphony orchestras have traditionally expected perfect performances of precertified masterworks; greatness is the baseline. But audiences for new music have a more forgiving attitude: if tonight’s program disappoints, tomorrow’s may inspire. And so we avid listeners bounce around the city with ears cocked, eager to see what the next cohort will produce, constantly hoping for another dose of gorgeously disquieting sounds.

On 10 Years of the New New-Music Scene