Choose your parents carefully.
That’s probably the best advice anyone can offer a young person who wants to become a composer. It helps a lot if your mom or dad is okay with you taking up a career that demands major training—the expensive kind—and no guarantees whatsoever of wide recognition, let alone financial reward. You have to love it, and you have to be really good at it.
Not just the notes-and-rhythms part. Also the believe-in-yourself part, the constant-self-promotion part, the make-influential-friends part, the can-I-sleep-on-your-couch-tonight part. Fortunately there’s more support now for struggling young composers than there was a hundred years ago. You no longer have to be the son of a court musician (Mozart, Beethoven, Richard Strauss) or the son of someone very rich. You don’t have to be anyone’s son.
Last month I got around to hearing more Icelandic music, which provided a further awakening. The young composers represented on Recurrence (Sono Luminus DSL-92213) are Thuridur Jónsdóttir, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Hlynur A. Vilmarsson, and Daniel Bjarnason. Yes, three of them are women, including the best-known of the lot. As Iceland’s patronymic naming tradition reminds us, they are daughters.
For the record, it’s a terrific record! I was particularly drawn to the tracks from Jónsdóttir, Sigfúsdóttir, and Vilmarsson. Right now, the cliché out there is that Icelandic music is All About Landscape. Maybe so, but each artist brings her own distinctive stylings to it. In his liner notes, Steve Smith of National Sawdust says that Jónsdóttir’s Flow and Fusion, “with its seamless blend of acoustic and electronic sounds, conjures the ineffable chiaroscuro of Iceland’s sky.” I prefer to think I’m hearing luminescent, fine-textured sheets of sound that continuously morph into new colors, interspersed with occasional crunchier interludes:
For Smith, “the barbaric jolts, judders, slides, and shrieks of Vilmarsson’s bd suggest the seismic forces that shaped . . . Iceland’s profile.” Well, I liked that it has a beat. Close your eyes, turn it up, see what these sounds suggest to you.
Vilmarsson played in rock bands and learned new tech tricks at the Reykjavik Media Lab. Sigfúsdóttir also has a “band,” amiina, and writes film and dance music. You will remember Thorvaldsdottir, at 40 not quite the Grand Dame of New Icelandic Music (Björk is twelve years older), from her album In the Light of Air. Hmm, maybe she brought The Dans to Reykjavik to record this collection in Sono Luminus’s usual glistening, spacious sound. Bravo.
Also from Sono Luminus: the Jasper String Quartet’s Unbound (DSL-92212), featuring seven works all written since the turn of the new century. I especially liked Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction (2010), her tribute to a strange little “town” on the California-Nevada border. One of its three residents, Marta Becket, restored a crumbling opera house there fifty years ago and performed one-woman shows weekly until her retirement in 2009. (She was 86.)
The Jaspers—two women, two men—focus on promoting and performing new music. Besides Mazzoli’s piece, Unbound includes engaging pieces by Caroline Shaw (Pulitzer Prize, 2013), Annie Gosfield (a Jaspers commission), David Lang (Pulitzer Prize, 2008), Judd Greenstein, Donnacha Denney, and Ted Hearne. The composers contributed their own unusually helpful program notes. Great sound, of course. If you’ve ever wondered why composers are still attracted to the string quartet, give this a listen.
Incidentally, Caroline Shaw was neither the first nor the most recent woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music; she shares the honor with five others—see a list here. She was the youngest person ever to win it, though. Her mother was her first teacher; she got her Ph.D. in composition from Princeton; she has co-produced several tracks with Kanye West, crafting remixes that highlight her vocals; her great-great-grandfather was Chang Bunker. Fun facts, right? (Somewhere an aging Princetonian is wondering why his brain hurts.)
Speaking of daughters, here are two more: Lisa Bielawa and Roxanna Panufnik. You may know Ms. Panufnik (b. 1968) through her collaboration with British violinist Tasmin Little. She contributed Four World Seasons, a concerto for violin, string orchestra, and Tibetan prayer bowl, to Ms. Little’s recent Chandos recording (CHSA 5175) of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Ms. Panufnik’s father was the renowned Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914–1991), who defected to the UK in 1954 and shortly thereafter became conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony, among other things. Roxanna was the happy product of his second British marriage, to author and photographer Camilla Jessel (some family photos here).
Lisa Bielawa (also b. 1968) is the daughter of composer Herbert Bielawa (1930–2015), active in the Bay Area for many years; you can read about the community values Lisa absorbed from her dad here. Incidentally, like Caroline Shaw, Kati Agócs, Sylvia McNair, and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, she’s a violinist/singer. Has that become a Thing? (Only if you’re good enough, I suspect.) Bielawa and composer Kati Agócs are both soprano soloists on a recent SACD from Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Kati Agócs: The Debrecen Passion (BMOP/sound 1046).
Lisa Bielawa got her own double-disc collection (BMOP/sound 1017) out of a three-season residency she held beginning in 2006. One disc is taken up by 15 Synopses, brief solo sketches made for and with individuals in the orchestra that explore the range and character of an instrument—and often the personality of the player as well. Each gets a six-word title inspired by Hemingway’s famous “For sale, baby shoes: never used.” Here’s I Don’t Even Play the Bassoon, written for violist Kate Vincent:
Program annotator Robert Kirzinger notes that Bielawa initiated the Synopses “as a way to enrich . . . her relationships with core members of the orchestra.” These were eventually folded into a culminating orchestral work, In medias res, where they served as “flashbacks” or concertino sections within a large-scale concerto for orchestra. Also on the other disc are Roam, a tone poem inspired by a passage from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and a Double Violin Concerto for the Silk Road Ensemble’s Colin Jacobsen and violinist/singer (!) Carla Kihlstedt. The process reflects Bielawa’s embrace of her colleagues as the “direct source of the contexts and content of her work.” She is a born collaborator, a nurturer of communities who translates her interactions into new music. It doesn’t seem wrong to add that, in doing so, she is playing a role more often associated in Western culture with women than with men. Here’s a bit of In medias res:
Whereas Bielawa typically builds musical sentences and paragraphs in steady, low-key fashion (the NY Times once described her work as “ruminative and . . . slightly tart”), her younger colleague Kati Agócs (b. 1975) draws upon a headier mixture of cultural references—she’s Canadian (born in rural Ontario), American (educated at Sarah Lawrence and Juilliard inter alia), and Hungarian (via her father’s family). The music on her BMOP collection is correspondingly more dramatic, spicy, and culturally specific.
Agócs’ album is available on YouTube, the first track and biggest work being Debrecen Passion. Just as Bach’s Passions use diverse textual sources (the Bible, old German hymns, operatic recitatives and poetically subjective arias), so does Agócs juxtapose the work of Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély, a Kabbalistic prayer, a Medieval Georgian hymn, and other Medieval lyrics, including a joyful parody of the old Latin sequence Stabat Mater Dolorosa. (See complete text here.) But whereas a traditional Passion setting attempts to assign meaning to the suffering and death of Christ, Agócs goes for a mystic but universalizing celebration of ways in which life and hope are renewed, implicitly focusing on the work of bearing and raising children. This music is indeed spicy and dramatic enough to make her celebration enjoyable even if you can’t follow the texts—you’ll hear a mixture of Messiaen, Bartók, Ligeti, and Gregorian chant that somehow emerges as pure Agócs. It’s about 20 minutes long, so you may want to start with a highlights reel: begin at 3’20”, a colorful instrumental interlude that leads to 3’55”, the Stabat Mater parody, which builds to an ecstatic climax at 7’15”, which leads to “En nem tudok…” at 8’40”. Further along, listeners are rewarded with an even more ecstatic, loopy finale that shows off the vocal talents of the all-female Lorelei Ensemble in a breathtaking manner.
I could finish by telling you about one more daughter, Milica Djordjević (Wergo WER 6422 2), but we’re over the word count already. It’ll have to wait. In the meantime here’s a taste of her “non-communication for solo contrabass,” Do you know how to bark?!: