Curating contemporary music has never been a trivial task. The aesthetic & conceptual diversity present in the repertoire means that, in order to begin to conceptualise how one work may relate to another in a specific context, we must inevitably begin with archiving, that crude act of judging and sorting things into neat little boxes, drawers & shelves. This task is not rendered any less strenuous by virtue of the fact that defiance - against localisation, against conformity, against stability, tradition & labelling - is ingrained at the deepest level of the artistic conception of these works. It is therefore hardly surprising that new music - considering its 'revolting' (pertaining to the etymology of the word 'revolt') nature - remains considerably divisive, embraced by the audacious few while abhorred by others who feel more at ease dwelling inside their walled-in sterilised zones.
When I was invited to curate a short programme for HKNME to be aired on radio (in partnership with the RTHK), the first word that resonated in my mind is middle-ground. Rather than being a placeholder term for mediocrity, I see middle-ground as a zone of reconciliation, a place where both initiates & veterans in new music can find enjoyment. It may be argued that none of the three works are on any account 'recent' works - the newest, Muhly's Motion, was written in 2010 - and it is always safe to resort to the 'classics'. Sometimes, however, what is truly revelatory resides not in that which is fresh off the press, but in the degree of attentiveness with which we actively perceive and listen to the music. The real revolution lies in our ability to render our 'selves' more open, to allow the unexpected, the unforeseen and the inconceivable to take flight in our imagination, and to take root in our hearts.
Motion (2010) by Nico Muhly
Nico Muhly. Photo credits to Heidi Solander.
I first heard of Nico Muhly (b. 1981) when he was handpicked by Matthias Pintscher to take part in New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! New Music series in 2009. A student of John Corigliano & Christopher Rouse - both towering figures in the American symphonic repertory - Muhly began his career working as Philip Glass' studio editor & conductor.
The piece Motion (2010), written for clarinet, piano & string quartet, embodies two of Muhly's "main identifiable influences", namely - in his own words - "the American Minimalist tradition & Renaissance choral music". Inspired by Renaissance composer Orlando Gibbons' verse anthem titled See, See the Word is Incarnate, Muhly's piece extensively quotes fragments from the choral work in a capricious & playful manner, subjecting the main melodic motive from the verse anthem in a quasi-double canon transformation, building the piece toward a powerfully refreshing & cathartic conclusion.
spur (1998) by Beat Furrer
Beat Furrer. Photo credits to Manu Theobald.
While Nico Muhly's work has an unashamedly youthful & innocent flavour, endlessly curious & tirelessly energetic, then Beat Furrer's spur (1998) is a work that is entirely content with its own resourcefulness, masterful in its kaleidoscopic transformation processes, the beauty of which is only rivalled by mathematical axioms & logical deductions.
Beneath the facade of its constant self-effacement, spur is a highly ornate (almost Baroque, if one may use the word) work that concerns itself with material: how the materials are juxtaposed, how they become partially concealed, and in what guise do they reappear... As sophisticated as this may sound, Beat Furrer himself once said that "there are often algorithmic structures but usually always quite simple ones which, by overlapping them, create complexity and a rich spectrum of variations."
Premiered by the renowned Arditti Quartet and pianist Ian pace at Wien Modern in 1998, spur has, despite its fiendish virtuosity, continues to enjoy popularity amongst both performers and audiences alike.
Shaker Loops (1978) by John Adams
John Adams. Photo by Deborah O'Grady.
Considered one of the cornerstone works of the American Minimalist repertoire, Shaker Loops is today considered one of the most critically & popular acclaimed works written by John Adams, arguably one of the most frequently performed American composers of today. Known as a 'second generation Minimalist' (the first being the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley & La Monte Young), Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory in the 1970s, leading the school's New Music Ensemble at the invitation of Conservatory president Milton Salkind. With the Ensemble, Adams has performed not only an array of experimental and canonical repertoire, but also his own compositions, chiefly among which is Shaker Loops.
Shaker Loops emerged out of The Wavemaker, a work was a spectacular failure at its premiere (recalling philosopher David Hume's remark of his Treatise on Human Nature falling "stillborn from the press"). Adams reworked Wavemaker, expanding the instrumental forces & expanding the scale of the work, creating what is now known as the 'modular version' of Shaker Loops, which consists of fragments of music to be looped indefinitely. The work would later be revised into a fully notated version, which is in effect "one of the many possible realisations of the modular version." Commenting further on Shaker, Adams remarked that while the piece is certain rooted in the Minimalist tradition, it differs from other purist "minimalist" compositions in its extreme range of emotions, as well as its complex formal & structural design.
Alongside the likes of Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Harmonielehre & Doctor Atomic Symphony, Shaker Loops is one of Adams' most iconic works that continues to be performed by groups & orchestras around the world.