What’s the Score?

The Juilliard School’s fifteenth annual Focus! festival of new music bravely attempted the impossible: a broad overview of what’s happening right now in American composition as the century draws to an end. No one knows for sure how many people in this country consider themselves composers of concert music, but according to Joel Sachs, Focus!’s indefatigable director, various counts put the number at somewhere between an astonishing 20,000 and 40,000. That’s rather more than this week-long festival could accommodate, so Sachs had to make do with seven programs containing just 47 scores, all written in the nineties by composers between the ages of 22 and 90. Practical considerations also dictated a preponderance of short pieces for small instrumental groups, which meant that operas, most large-scale orchestral works, and complex mixed-media creations had to be ruled out – a pity, since such ambitious projects are occupying American composers more and more nowadays. Still, there was plenty of interest to be heard at the six concerts I attended, along with more than enough information to draw some conclusions.

One thing is certain: Diversity rules. Not so long ago, the new-music scene was a battlefield where opposing factions fought viciously over the sort of music deemed proper for an American to write: traditional European refinement versus native cussedness, uptown academicism versus downtown experimentation, maximalism versus minimalism, rock grunge versus slick neo-romanticism. Those wars are now over, politeness reigns, all styles are acceptable, and virtually no piece I heard sounded like any other. Each composer apparently functions happily in a world of his or her own (the idea that a woman can write music, once controversial, is also no longer an issue), and everyone now seems to live in peaceful cohabitation.

Concert No. 5 typified a new era of good feelings in which everything goes, a program framed by the salsa rhythms of Paul Marquardt’s Test Pattern on the one hand and the spiraling particles of sound that drive Spin 2, by Lois V Vierk, on the other, both pieces written for two pianos. In between came Kokoro for solo violin by Roger Reynolds, a magisterial Zen-like exploration of the mind’s “extreme and alternative worlds”; Bernard Rands’s delicately impressionistic “… sans voix parmi les voix …” for flute, harp, and viola; Four Movements for Piano Trio, another flavorful East-meets-West amalgam by Bright Sheng; and Robert Constable’s explosive This Is No Sonata, a piece for solo percussion inspired by that classic horror movie The Fly, in which a futuristic device breaks down an object into its smallest parts, transports them to another location, and reassembles them.

While all this freedom of expression and warm collegiality is very well, it does have a downside. Tightly organized groups of composers with common agendas have traditionally been a powerful force in winning Establishment attention in this country – finding ways to get performed is still the American composer’s biggest headache – but when thousands of composers are working on their own, the chances that they will go unrecognized and unplayed rise dramatically. Even concertgoers with a welcoming attitude toward new music are liable to be confused when confronted with so much multiplicity, and most will probably prefer to retreat into the comforting arms of the past. Mozart, after all, for all his originality, worked within a shared style that audiences of his day instantly recognized and accepted.

Could that possibly explain why too much music played at this year’s Focus!, despite the variety and craftsmanship, lacked any real sense of mission or expressive urgency? That was especially true with the works by composers under the age of 40, perhaps inevitable when a young generation has so much free choice and no rigid dogma to rebel against. Their battle-scarred elders, ironically, usually generate a good deal more energy. For sheer cannily organized, gut-appealing instrumental drama, there was little to compete with Charles Wuorinen’s Big Epithalamium for eight trumpets, short as it was. Nor did I hear anything more exquisitely articulate than Mario Davidovsky’s Quartetto No. 2 for oboe and string trio. Both composers, now in their sixties and still misperceived by some as arid uptown academics, have held their own, continue to be prolific, and, I suspect, will eventually be ranked among the finest composers late-twentieth-century America has had to offer.

Otherwise, the most immediate and vital music I heard came from composers, young and old, who uphold the time-honored American tradition of musical mavericks. At 81, Lou Harrison positively luxuriates in a style that reflects a lifetime of absorbing a surprising diversity of musical materials. His imagination has been fired by everything from neo-medievalism to Asian influences and unusual instrumental tunings, all of which blossom grandly in his expansive Symphony No. 4. John Luther Adams (who is about half Harrison’s age) also creates a vivid personal vision in Sauyatugvik: The Time of Drumming. I suspect that the visceral thrill of this piece derives from Adams’s strong commitment to Alaska, where, he says, he hopes “to make music which belongs here, somewhat like the plants and the birds” – surely such an exciting score for percussion, timpani, and two pianos could have been written nowhere else, an evocation of Eskimo drumming and dancing that verges on the ecstatic.

As usual, Juilliard students seem more than enchanted with the opportunity to tackle music of their own time. One of the pleasures of Focus! is listening to so many young talents tear into tough new scores with such enthusiasm and instrumental virtuosity, and right now the school appears to be particularly blessed with fabulous string players. Few violists succeed in getting the big career, but Masumi Per Rostad is surely headed for one, judging from the heady combination
of lyricism and klezmer abandon he brought to Paul Schoenfield’s spicy Viola Concerto. And having mastered the intricacies of Reynolds’s fiendishly demanding Kokoro so completely, Ju-Young Baek should find the solo-violin works of Bach and Bartók a breeze. If American music really is entering the new millennium as a disorderly free-for-all, at least there will be plenty of gifted instrumentalists to focus the picture.

What’s the Score?