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5 Living Composers Worth Checking Out

(Even if you're not into classical music)


Ralph Graves

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

More from Ralph Graves

You've spent the time and money to build a truly superior A/V system. How about some high-end music to go with it? Regardless of what you normally listen to, there is compelling, complex, subtly textured and exciting music being created right now for you — music that sounds its best with a sophisticated audio system. And it's classical music. Surprised? You're not alone.

At an orchestra's pre-concert reception recently, a wealthy matron of the arts struck up a conversation with composer Walter Ross. "And what do you do?" she asked him. "I'm a composer," Ross replied. The woman stared at him in surprise. "But," she gasped, "I thought all the composers were dead!"

Hardly. Thousands of composers are alive and well and creating new classical music that speaks to contemporary audiences. Just as some eagerly await the latest release from their favorite pop star, others look forward to new music from John Corigliano, Tan Dun, John Tavener and many others. Even though labeled "classical," you'll find the five composers listed below writing in listener-friendly styles you won't need an advanced music degree to enjoy!

1. Philip Glass
Even if you don't normally listen to classical music, there?s a good chance you?ve heard some Philip Glass. In addition to setting the classical world on its ear with his concert music, Glass has written or contributed to scores for almost sixty movies to date, including Secret Window (2004), The Hours (2002) and The Truman Show (1998).

In the 1970s, Glass became one of the main proponents of minimalism. This compositional technique employs repeated patterns that gradually change over time to move the music forward. Using mostly broken major chords, Glass' music (especially when he uses a keyboard instrument) can sometimes sound like '70s prog rock. This isn't entirely by accident. Glass has been involved with popular artists throughout his career. He's written two symphonies based on the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno, and has worked with Ravi Shankar. His Songs from Liquid Days uses lyrics contributed by David Byrne, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson and Suzanne Vega.

Philip Glass' music stays in constant motion. His accompanying figures can remind you of a rock instrumental groove, or a pop hook, or even an ambient chill-out, depending on the context. Rather than long, involved melodies, Glass lets the harmonies speak for themselves.

What to listen for
Glass tends to favor transparent orchestral textures, so it's important that your audio system accurately reproduce both highs and lows. The more detailed the sound your system can reproduce, the more you'll appreciate his music. Your subwoofer won't get much of a workout, but your woofers and tweeters will have an opportunity to really shine!

Recommended recording
"Low" Symphony (Point Music 438150)
Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

This isn't another lame release where an orchestra plays transcriptions of rock tunes! Inspired by the Low album of David Bowie and Brian Eno, Philip Glass selected themes from three of the instrumental tracks. These became the starting points for the movements of his symphony. Although the tunes are recognizable, Glass treats the material as his own, and takes it in surprising directions.

The murmuring arpeggios of the strings and the open voicing of the chords are classic Glass. For folks familiar with Bowie and Eno, this is a great place to start, and the "Low" Symphony is also an excellent overall introduction to Glass' music.

2. Arvo Pärt
If you're into ambient music, Arvo Pärt may be more your style. This deeply religious Estonian composer struggled under Soviet rule in the 1960s, at one point giving up writing music entirely. When he broke his self-imposed compositional silence in 1976, Pärt's new-style works quickly took hold, particularly in the West. He's currently one of the most sought-after composers for new music, especially for choirs.

When Pärt began composing again, he turned his back on the strident, angular music that was the fashion for classical avant-garde, and adopted what he called a "tintinnabuli" (Latin for "little bells") style. Like the ringing of small bells, his music has many quiet moments. Silence is an important element in Pärt's music, and especially as it contrasts to the sounds that precede and follow it. Pärt was also inspired by medieval religious music. Like Gregorian chant, his compositions move along serenely at their own pace, sometimes just a single note at a time.

What to listen for
Pärt's tintinnabuli style is almost equal parts silence and sound. To fully appreciate this subtle texture, your high-end system should be using the best possible connectors and a clean power source to minimize electronic noise. Pärt's also concerned about the way sound decays, especially in his choral music, which sometimes treats the acoustic space as another instrument. Your speakers should give you good stereo separation, while maintaining a continuous soundfield across your listening area.

Recommended recording
De Profundis (Harmonia Mundi 907182 for CD, 807182 for SACD)
Theatre of Voices; Paul Hillier, conductor

Pärt's choral music on this disc sounds like something from the Middle Ages — sort of. With no audible pulse, the music glides from one note to the next like dandelion seeds in a gentle breeze. If your system can play SACDs, that's the version to get. You'll get the full effect of Pärt's tintinnabuli style, where the echoes of one note can provide harmony for the next. Included in this disc is the "Magnificat," one of Pärt's most popular choral compositions.

3. Leo Brouwer
Cuban-born Leo Brouwer is best known for his guitar pieces, which draw on Cuban folk traditions for inspiration. He's scored over 35 films, including Like Water for Chocolate (you can also hear one of his classical pieces in A Walk in the Clouds).

If you're into genres that favor the acoustic guitar, such as folk or world music, Brouwer will appeal to you. He continues to celebrate his Cuban heritage in his music, which gives even his most formal works a strong Latino undercurrent. Brouwer's music for solo guitar evokes the Cuba of the Buena Vista Social Club, while at the same time using the more sophisticated textures and forms of classical music.

What to listen for
The better your system can accurately reproduce acoustic instruments, the better Brouwer will sound. His guitar music is intimate by nature, and he carefully sculpts his phrases to take full advantage of the guitar's inherent strengths. You should be able to hear the sound decay of each plucked string as well as the overtones of every note. You won't hear a lot of fingers scraping across the strings, though — that's a stylistic no-no for classical guitar. If you're a guitar player, you'll appreciate the skill involved in rapidly traversing the fingerboard without audible finger slides.

Recommended recording
Black Decameron (Sony Classics 63173)
John Williams, guitar; London Sinfonietta; Steven Mercurio, conductor

John Williams (the guitarist, not the film composer) plays with a facility that belies the difficulty of the music. Brouwer's solo guitar music has a very transparent sound, and usually has some very delicate and introspective passages. The Black Decameron is a perfect example of this, reminiscent of the kind of music you might hear a really talented guitarist such as Baden Powell or Charlie Byrd improvise.

In addition to several short solo works, Williams also performs the "Toronto" guitar concerto with the London Sinfonietta. Brouwer's writing for orchestra fleshes out his harmonies, but it's still a very declamatory style, with the guitar always to the fore.

4. Steve Reich
DJs who remix sampled sounds are nowadays considered legitimate artists, admired for their skill. Manipulating pre-existing sound, though, actually began back in the 1950s with classical composers splicing sounds together using reel-to-reel tape. Steve Reich, whose earliest works date from the mid-60s, may not have invented the concept, but his sound pieces such as "It's Gonna Rain" (1965) use sampling and loop techniques that are now part of every DJ and sound engineer's repertoire.

Reich, like Glass, uses a minimalist approach. His music usually has a strong pulse, with repeating patterns that change slowly over time. Unlike Glass, his music tends to have short catchy hooks. Listen long enough, and you'll hear the patterns slowly go out of phase with each other, only to come back together to create an entirely new pattern. If you enjoy extended techno mixes, or trance, then Reich is your man.

What to listen for
Reich usually has four or five different things going on at the same time, and it's only when they start to pull apart that you become aware of it. Reich's music is very rhythmic, and percussion instruments are a big part of his musical language. His fondness for electronic instruments and sound samples usually results in music that's a little more compressed than normal (for classical), and tends to sound good on almost any system.

The better your speakers, though, the more details you'll hear in Reich's compositions. Proper separation is key, as Reich always has a firm idea of what his music should sound like not only in the concert hall, but coming through a two-channel system as well. Most of his music is recorded and mixed under his supervision to make sure it will sound exactly the way he intended.

Recommended recording
Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint (Nonesuch 79176)
Kronos Quartet; Pat Metheny, guitar

"Different Trains" picked up a Grammy™ in 1989 for best classical composition. Reich uses sampled voices from three interview subjects to create the melodies for this work, mixed in with a string quartet and sampled train sounds to provide punctuation and a rhythmic groove.

An even more amazing engineering tour-de-force is the "Electric Counterpoint," which has jazz guitarist Pat Metheny playing live off of ten pre-recorded overdubs of himself. Sometimes it sounds like eleven different guitarists, and sometimes it all blends together into one sound. The "Electric Counterpoint" (one of a series of pieces written for various soloists) takes the familiar sound of Metheny's smooth electric guitar and turns it into something previously unimagined (but very cool).

5. Lowell Liebermann
The youngest composer on the list also has the most traditional-sounding classical style. If you thrill to big orchestral movie soundtracks such as Lord of the Rings, then Lowell Liebermann's music should appeal to you. Liebermann's style traces a straight-line progression from the post-romantic composers like Mahler and Richard Strauss, and is focused on creating expressive music with beautiful, singing melodies. His harmonic language uses fairly complex chords, moving in ways that reflect current pop sensibilities (without sounding tired or clichéd).

Liebermann's star continues to rise, and among classical audiences his music generates the same kind of anticipation usually reserved for the next Howard Shore or John Williams score. If you're already comfortable with mainstream classical music, or if you just like the sound of an orchestra, Liebermann's music might be right for you.

What to listen for
Tone color is important in Liebermann's music; the way he combines different groups of instruments (or even solo instruments) helps outline the structure of his works. Your sound system needs to be able to reproduce highs and lows accurately, and give you a seamless blend from left to right across the soundstage, to deliver the full impact of Liebermann's orchestrations. If your system has a lot of power, you can just turn it up and let the sound wash over you.

Recommended recording
Symphony No. 2; Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (Delos 3256)
Eugenia Zukerman, flute; Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Andrew Litton, conductor

Delos is internationally known as an audiophile label, and their recording in the acoustically rich McDermott Hall in Dallas makes this a sonic showpiece to begin with. Lowell Liebermann wrote his second symphony while serving as the Dallas Symphony's composer-in-residence, and the work plays to all the strengths of the orchestra and chorus. Like Beethoven's Ninth, the symphony uses big themes to convey big ideas — in this case, the dawning of the millennium (and the centennial of the Dallas Symphony). The text is by Walt Whitman, and sung in understandable English, which adds to the emotional impact of the piece.

The "Concerto for Flute" is for a smaller orchestra, and was originally written for James Galway. It has a decidedly lighter sound than the Second Symphony, and is even more tuneful and accessible to non-classical listeners (while still providing the solid compositional ideas that hard-core classical listeners expect).

Five plus one: Walter Ross
Walter Ross, whose anecdote partially inspired this article, also writes accessible, listener-friendly music. According to his business card, he's "the world's last Art Deco composer," and of the five composers listed above, his good-humored modal compositions are closest in style to Liebermann's.

Recommended recording
Three Concertos (MMC Recordings MMC2100)
Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Marjorie Mitchell, piano; Svend Rønning, violin; Warsaw National Philharmonic; George Manahan, conductor (et al.)

Now comes the fun part
Depending on what other kinds of music you like, you now have a starting point for exploring new classical music, and getting some new sounds out of your A/V system. You might discover something close to what you already enjoy — music that makes your A/V system shine — music that speaks to you. Who knows? You may even end up adding a modern composer or two to your list of new releases to watch for.

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