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A New New York School

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These well-crafted but oddly familiar works display the virtues of facility, versatility, and curiosity, but they also showcase a group that seems disoriented by its own open-mindedness. Composers who could do anything somehow don’t. Missy Mazzoli and the Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson (whose partnership with Nico Muhly has made him an honorary New Yorker) both have refined ears and deep talents. But in a blind test, it would be hard to distinguish Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction—a moody depiction of a flyspeck desert town where Debussy-ish chords go slip-sliding along a hyperactive bass line—from Sigurðsson’s Past Tundra, in which clapping rhythms and a drone expand into an electronic vision of a polychrome sunrise. Both works abound in sonic beauty, yet they lack, say, Messiaen’s violent awe at a landscape’s revelations.

Rules can be a crutch or a cage, but they can also act as stimulant. We idolize the radical who shreds the previous generation’s conventions, but every aesthetic revolution begets an ardent rigor of its own. The new New York School has a healthy distaste for tired conflicts and old campaigns. Despite their gifts and alertness to the moment, its composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal. What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.


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