A New New York School

Top row, from left: Paul Haas, Dan Deacon, Jefferson Friedman. Middle row: Timo Andres, Missy Mazzoli, Tyondai Braxton. Bottom row: Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly, Valgeir Sigurðsson.Photo: James Ewing (Haas); Astrid Stawiarz/Getty (Deacon, Mazzoli); David Andrako (Friedman, Greenstein, Andres); Courtesy of Warp Records (Braxton); Samantha West (Muhly); Thomas Humery (Sigurðsson)

For decades, New York has been a composers’ playground—or is it battleground? Modernists, hunkered in uptown music departments, developed early electronic tools. Minimalists sat on the floors of downtown lofts and attracted a patient public. Later, Bang on a Can renegades plundered and played for both camps. Now comes a roving band of entrepreneurial composer-performers who go merrily Dumpster-diving in styles of the past and of distant parts. Three recent, overlapping festivals—Ecstatic Music at Merkin Concert Hall, Tune-In at the Park Avenue Armory, and Tully Scope at Lincoln Center—offered a portrait of a new New York School, high on amped-up minimalism, percussion-heavy beats, shimmering textures, loops, drones, and washes of electronic color. These composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. They are not monkish craftsmen assembling six-minute miniatures, half an agonizing second at a time. Instead they churn out somber symphonies, wry pop songs, laptop meditations, filigreed chamber works, endearing études, and occasional film scores. This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom.

The quintessential opus of the new New York School is Tyondai Braxton’s 45-minute suite Central Market, selections from which got their New York premiere during the Tully Scope Festival earlier this month. Braxton may still be best known as the former guitarist of the rock band Battles, but here he’s fashioned a high-voltage score for orchestra supplemented by amplified and effects-enriched kazoos, electronically tricked-out voices, piano, a pair of synthesizers, and six electric guitars (one manned by the composer). The music pounds through a sequence of musical landscapes with the manic intensity of a movie foot chase. Insistent syncopations, deliberate sonic overloads, whistled melodies, music-box tinklings, jaunty motifs that repeat and trip over themselves—Braxton grinds these ingredients together with the exuberance of a sorcerer on speed. The piece is euphoric, crazy, and irresistible.

The city teems with conservatory-trained musicians who, like Braxton, have never experienced the Berlin Wall that once sundered pop from classical and art from entertainment. For the Ecstatic Music Festival, So Percussion’s quartet of player-composers courted the swami of dance-party electronica, Dan Deacon, and together they generated Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler. It opens as a lone percussionist starts tapping on an assortment of full soda bottles of various sizes and carbonation. The other players enter by turns, and their clops and knocks get funneled through a bristling arsenal of electronics. Deacon mans the laptop and knobs, shrouding the audience in shuddering loops, bleeps, and galloping rhythms. At its loud, complex, and powerful best, Ghostbuster Cook taps into the physical thrill of the rave, as Bach did with gavottes and Chopin with polonaises. But then Deacon loses his way and lets the energy dissipate in an endless passage of unaccompanied soda spewing out of holes in the bottles and plashing into plastic tubs.

Braxton and Deacon use computers as compositional tools and alchemizers of sound, but for the YouTube generation, technology also grants entrance to a virtually infinite thrift store of influences. A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography. No combination is too weird. Paul Haas, Bora Yoon, and the Colorado-based Paul Fowler share credit for ARCO, an 85-minute surround-sound symphony that rippled into the distant regions of the Armory’s cavernous Drill Hall last month. Lest three cooks be too few, they recruited Beethoven, Perotin, William Byrd, and Arvo Pärt to contribute sections to what they call “a modern creation myth that speaks of the human condition.” In practice, it sounded like a modest, pleasantly varied workout for the strange and thrilling acoustics of that indoor immensity.

These freewheeling mash-ups aspire to hip nonsectarianism, but the results can prove shockingly tame. Judd Greenstein, who co-founded the “indie classical” label New Amsterdam Records and curated the Ecstatic Music Festival, describes his own idiom as a fusion of “an urban, beat-oriented sensibility with a late Romantic classical harmonic language.” It’s hard to know exactly what he means: Rock meets Rachmaninoff? Hip-hop Mahler? In the genial chamber ensemble piece City Boy, he twines together breathy flute riffs and the cheery plunking of piano and electric guitar to produce a lively fabric. Whatever he may have extracted from the late Romantics, it’s not their heaving angst.

With their range of choices oppressively wide, several composers have taken comfort from the past, masking retrenchment with style and panache. Timo Andres conceived the defensively titled suite for piano It takes a long time to become a good composer as a companion piece to Schumann’s Kreisleriana and created a similar succession of tiny dramas and oddments of fleeting romance. Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 3 opens with a sleek and steely movement that hurtles along in pistoning rhythms and tooting long notes, recalling the somewhat arcane history of railroad music, including Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

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.

Listen Here:
Timo Andres

Dan Deacon & So Percussion

Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 3

Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction

Judd Greenstein’s City Boy

Valgeir Sigurðsso’s Past Tundra

A New New York School