There’s something happening here.  What it is has become a bit clearer (to me, at least) with the simultaneous arrival on my desk of new CDs by Todd Reynolds, the Kronos Quartet, the Now Ensemble and Build. Listened to back to back, ther family kinship is easily recognized. They have lots of cousins out there in the marketplace already and each month brings new examples.  So, what’s happening here?  Is it a new…sound? Impulse? Musical category? Dare we call it a “movement?”

But, wait, let’s back up for a moment.  There hasn’t been a major new music movement since minimalism and, let’s face it, those cats are getting a little gray around the whiskers. For the past few decades, “contemporary classical” (our favorite oxymoron) has been pretty much a free-for-all. Even more so since the Internet came along and provided an inexpensive distribution platform.  There have been only a relative handful of composers who have broken through to the commerical mainstream–spirtualists like Arvo Part, John Taverner, Eric Whitacre, Morton Lauridsen, world travelers like Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun, new romantics like Aaron Jay Kernis, flavor of the months like Nico Muhly.  But, what they have in common is that the music they create has little in common with each other.

Not so, the new…what shall we call them?  Let’s borrow a word from the post-impressionists who wanted to distinguish themselves from the original impressionists:  synthetism.  The New Synthetists are all searching for the same Holy Grail:  a blend of classical, rock, electronics, pop and world music that is both serious and fun and will build an audience for the future. They are mostly young, conservatory-trained musicians and composers, and they frequently work in collectives designed to bring players and composers–quite often they are both–together. What they write and play is mainly a new form of chamber music that is often amplified, played on “hybrid” instruments, and has a contagious melody, or hook, and a backbeat you can’t lose.  It is music designed for people who grew up on rock and is designed to sound as good in a roadhouse beer joint as in a concert hall.

Many of the Synthetists are entrepreneurs and marketers and their godparents are the Bang on a Can founders–David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe–who realized many years ago that if they wanted to hear their music played they were going to have to build the production and marketing infrastructure to do it themselves.  Basically, BOAC succeeded by working around the record company/concert hall music establishment.  That is the model many of the new kids want to take.  The “hot” new record label–New Amsterdam, founded three years ago by composer Judd Greenstein and members of the Now Ensemble–describes itself as:  ”…a non-profit-model record label and artists’ service organization that supports the public’s engagement with new music by composers and performers whose work grows from the fertile ground between genres.”

This sort of “between genre” music is frequenty played by established supergroups like Ethel, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound and Kronos Quartet, which has been plundering sounds from the Third World for nearly 40 years now and always seems to be where the action is. It is played even more regularly by So Percussion, Now Ensemble, Newspeak, Icebreaker, JACK Quartet, Chiara Quartet, Victoire, Build and many others.

Its composers mainly belong to the past two generations although they seem to have absorbed all of music history and quote from it liberally. The latest generation to emerge–musicians centered around New Amsterdam Records and the Estatic Festival–includes composers like Missy Mazzoli, Judd Greenstein, Jefferson Friedman, Bobby Previte, Darcy James Argue, William Brittele, Matt McBane,  Sara Kirkland Snider.  The mostly older and longer established generation is more connected to the Bang on a Can/Cantaloupe/Innova/Ethel bloodline and includes Caleb Burhams, Neil Rolnick, Phil Kline, Tristan Perich, Evan Ziporyn and Todd Reynolds.  Especially Reynolds.

The ageless (try to find it in his bio) Todd Reynolds is the Eric Clapton of the electronically souped up violin. As a founder of Ethel in 1998 and a soloist, he has been one of–if not the–driving force behind the growth of synthetism.  His debut 2CD album Outerborough (Innova) is a dazzling display of genre-bending music and individual virtuosity. CD1 is devoted to Reynolds’ own compositions; CD2 contains pieces by other composers, including David T. Little, Phil Kline, Michael Gordon, and the Books’ Nick Zammuto.  Click on the first cut on CD1–Transamerica–and you immediately find yourself dancing down trip-hop lane as Reynolds lays some magic riffs over a groove from beatboxer Kid Beyond. It only gets better. Smoking, contagious, make up your own adjective. Outerborough is Reynolds’ Layla.

The same sense of contagious, genre-bending optimism fills the room when you cue up the opening track of the Now Ensemble’s sophomore album Awake. Judd Greenstein’s Change opens the set with a seductive and insistent flute line that is gradually grabbed and mashed up by the entire ensemble. If you’re not smiling by the end, try Prozac.  Patrick Burke’s Awake melds Javanese gamelan music with Western harmonic and formal techniques and builds to a frenetic ending. In a piece titled Burst, guitarist/composer Mark Dancigers asks the age-old musical question: What would happen if you melded the pentatonic guitar patterns of Ali “Farka” Touré with the counterpoint of Mozart?   The answer, of course, is synthetism.

Build’s second album–Place is a more demanding and coherent effort which is to be expected since all of the pieces were written by the violinist/composer Matt McBane. McBane’s writing, and the band’s playing, have both gotten a lot tighter since their debut EP. McBane uses not only the group’s standard instrumentation of violin, cello, piano, bass and drums, but also a 3-part trio for cello, piano and drums (Swelter); and a quintet (Anchor) that uses extensive arco bass, and vibraphone and concert bass drum instead of a drum set. The kickass piece on the album is called Cleave in which what sounds like a siren drone floats above a simple, repeated piano line and a funereal march on the drums.

Finally, for now anyway, there is the venerable Kronos Quartet’s musicial tsunami Uniko (Ondine), a seven-part work by the Finnish composer/amplified accordian virtuoso Kimmo Pohjonen and percussionist/sampling guru Samuli Kosminen. (If Todd Reynolds is the Clapton of the souped up fiddle; Pohjonen is the Hendrix of the souped up accordian.) The piece was premiered at the Helsinki Festival in 2004 and has been performed by Kronos and its composers several times since but it has just now made it to a recording, mixed BTW by Bjork’s producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. (Are those old dudes in the Kronos cool or what?) You have to hear Uniko to believe it but imagine that Phil Spector exploded over the North Atlantic and sent a 90-foot wall of sound hurtling toward Brooklyn.  I don’t know what that means either but let’s keep going.

While there is a lot of stylistic variation in how each of the musicians and composers mentioned here write and play music, they are bound together by a common ambition to redefine “classical” music for the 21st century by speaking to new audiences in a language they understand.  The infrastructure is coming together.  Bridges are being built.  Great music is being created and heard.  I have not been this optimistic about new music’s future in a long time.

Note: I made a few edits to correct a couple of sloppy facts pointed out by Matt Marks in the comments.

63 Responses to “The New Synthetists”
  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Terrific article. There is definitely something in the air that’s very hopeful. I want to add mention of two other terrific ensembles that are contributing mightily to this renascence: the janus trio and contemporaneous.

  2. Joe Phillips says:

    I call the music that myself and many of my friends and colleagues have been exploring for awhile now, “mixed music.” Seems to fit our age well. http://numinousmusic.blogspot.com/2009/11/mixed-music-stylistic-freedoms-in.html

  3. Garrett Schumann says:

    Jerry,

    You are right on. At least, this is one of the stronger trends among active and emerging composers (i.e. students like me and my colleagues). Your identification of the Bang-On-A-Can folks as progenitors of this *gulp* movement is also very astute.

    There is still a lot to be worked out, though; at least from my perspective knowing the peers of mine who favor this style. There’s a good deal of trite imitation out there, and I search for a more thoughtful synthesis of the depth and sophisticated sound world of the end of the 20th century (we’ll say) and the driving, gritty violence that is so much more engaging in the hands of someone like Julia Wolfe or – my personal favorite – Louis Andriessen who I don’t think you mentioned but should be up in your post because of his strong influence on the Bang-On-A-Can folks, Wolfe in particular.

    I think this music is a logical outgrowth of where the composers you mentioned come from, the music they – and my peers and I who list towards this style as will – grew up with, which wasn’t always classical. Also, look at where there is room to grow in the world of art music in America. Can anyone really say writing leviathan orchestra pieces is a wise proposition nowadays?

    I hope a HUGE discussion spawns from this, few other topics are more pressing to the state of our art (I believe) and I could not be happier you decided to use this forum, this website to share your thoughts on this subject. Articles like this are why I was attracted to getting involved here at Sequenza21.

    - Garrett

  4. An insightful, encouraging article. Thanks.

  5. Matt Marks says:

    Um, what are you talking about dude? Nico Muhly is a “flavor of the month”? “Composers” such as “Alex Sopp”? Caleb is of a “slightly older generation” than Darcy?

    Nico has been popular for years and is certainly inundated with commissions through the next few years.

    Alex Sopp is a flutist.

    Caleb (and Tristan I believe) is younger than Darcy, Judd, and Missy.

    Please do some research, this is kind of embarrassing.

  6. Jerry Bowles says:

    Research is great but crowdsourcing is so much more…fun. In terms of generations it seems to me that Caleb “emerged” as a composer to be reckoned with before Darcy found his groove so I think of him as part of an “older” generation although chronologically he’s a bit younger. I don’t know either of them but I think I confused Alex Sopp with Sara Kirkland Snider. I meant to mention Alex and Nadia Sirota as two of the brilliant young players who specialize in this sort of music. My bad. As for Saint Nico, mileage may vary.

  7. Stanley Moon says:

    Well yeah, it’s a little loose with the facts, but what I like most here is the point that the new stuff being made by the 20 and 30-somethings right now is not so much an unprecedented new wave, but the successor to the wave of the early 90s that was associated with Bang.

  8. Steve Layton says:

    There are ‘facts’ and there are perceptions, And I think that to dismiss Jerry’s perceptions is to miss an important point about what the public-at-large hears and sees. A lot of the time, for musicians involved in this world daily, to be ‘in it’ is to be in some measure ‘out of it’. Whoever belongs to what generation and comes first or second, Jerry’s main point is a pretty valid observation — that in my own experience goes far beyond the two or three geographical points he mentions.

    Some part of this relates as well to Colin Holter’s recent post over at NewMusicBox, too, so be sure to check that out:

    http://www.newmusicbox.org/chatter/chatter.nmbx?id=6848

    Whether you see something new approaching, or see some kind of retreat, well, says much more to your own accumulations than it does the scene itself. My own take is that what’s happening is all these new ‘classical’ music approaches are shedding the ‘classical’ part of the moniker; that aside from the die-hard nominalist and joiner, there really is no new ‘classical’ music movement. There are really only two types of music: one that strives to make entertainment, and one that strives to make art. …That is, there aspects of some music that can be fully explained, and there are aspects of some music that can never be fully explained. All music across the spectrum shares in both things, though our cultural tendencies have been to promote the notated, orchestral tradition as the highest form of ‘art’ music. Really, I just think that there’s been a lot of defection away from the high art/classical model towards the recognition of the ‘art’ found in the other musics outside the classical tradition.

  9. Matt Marks says:

    Thanks for clearing that up. In retrospect, I was kind of unnecessarily bitchy..

  10. Pat Muchmore says:

    Interesting. Most names I’ve seen for the new “movement” are pretty dumb, but I have to admit that New Synthetists is kind of cool. I understand that people feel a tad strange about naming and defining a movement, but frankly I think it makes sense. There’s something in the air being shared by a lot of artists.

    I disagree with Steve Layton, at least to some extent, in that I don’t think it’s a shift from “Art” to “Entertainment” so much as a recognition that the dichotomy is largely false. These composers seem to prove that entertainment can be high art and vice versa.

    I’m sad not to see mention of Corey Dargel or Ken Thomson or Kamala Sankaram in the article. Everyone should definitely check them out. Also, more self-servingly, the collective Anti-Social Music has been around for 10 years now, and I think has had influence on some of these composers just as we have definitely been influenced in turn by some of them. I know that we were definitely modeled after Bang on a Can to some extent. http://www.antisocialmusic.org.

  11. Steve Layton says:

    Pat, sorry if you misunderstood. I didn’t at all mean there was any shift from ‘art’ to ‘entertaiment’; this is most definitely still about the pursuit of art. Rather, it’s where we’ve gone looking for the ‘art’ itself that has shifted, or perhaps broadened. Of course it’s been going on in different musics for decades now; what hadn’t changed was where the arbiter, the ‘keeper’ of the ‘high art’ notion resided. That’s the part that’s been slowly losing its relevance.

  12. Jerry Bowles says:

    I’m sorry to have overlooked Anti-Social Music, Pat, because it has certainly been a very important part of the new music scene over the past decade and I’ve been a big fan and supporter of Corey for years. An interesting point about Anti-Social is (I believe this is true) that many members are not conservatory-trained and, thus, it provides a useful antidote to the perception that the movement is mostly a bunch of rich white Yale kids. One of the great things about blogs is that they provide an opportunity for others to add parts of the story the writer may have missed or not known in the first place. Thanks for weighing in.

  13. Pat Muchmore says:

    Sorry Steve, I think I did misunderstand, and I agree that the arbiter has changed or even dissolved.

    Jerry- Yes, I think the conservatory-trained vs. non-conservatory members ratio in Anti-Social Music is roughly 50:50, though I haven’t really thought about it.

    I can say with absolute authority that VERY few of us are rich, if any!

  14. Steve Layton says:

    Pat wrote: “I can say with absolute authority that VERY few of us are rich, if any!”

    Well, that hasn’t been any different about as far back as you’d care to look! :-) The main modes of compositional survival have for a long time been 1) get an unrelated day-job, 2) get a related day-job (i.e., teach, conduct, write, advocate), 3) compose/arrange to order, 4) hustle some performer chops. A last category — the composer who only composes — has been so few and rarified as to be the equivalent of winning the Powerball lottery. It’s the ever-present, unreal dream aspiration, guaranteed to break the hearts of 99.999999999999999% of those that follow it.

  15. Garrett Schumann says:

    Jerry,

    I like the line about Yale because it is a nexus for this music beginning with the Bang folks and continuing with its current students – a Senior there named Stephen Feigenbaum comes to mind, he is an absolute disciple of the Bang folks, David Lang in particular, though he constantly referenced the impact of Martin Bresnick on his music in the period we were in close contact a couple summers ago.

    Look at the music of other Yale descendants, Michael Daughery’s in particular. Though his focus is obviously more traditional than the “Synthetists” he values the same kind of flashy, glossy surface and rhythmic constructions as the Bang folks and others. I agree with Steve and think there is no shame in saying this trend towards clearly active and exciting textures results from a new focus on music’s “entertainment value”, something Daugherty freely admits. Nailing down the “Synthetists” with the same logic may be a little more slippery (I speak on the Bang folks here, specifically, as I am most familiar with their music, Wolfe and Gordon’s namely) but I don’t think it is possible to deny the role of “entertainment value” in the reasoning behind their affinity for amplification and driving rhythms, whether conscious or otherwise. Like Steve makes clear, this does not mean these composers are sell outs, rather they operate under a refreshed definition of “art” in music, which I think is obvious just from listening to their music and what was hot 10, 15, 20 years prior.

    Although a composer like Michael Gordon may shun the orchestra (he told a master class at Michigan he, “never wanted to write for orchestra”) more quickly than Michael Daugherty, I feel like these two and their peers/followers search for a similar level of heightened, clarified dramaturgy in their music, which is definitely change from the abstruse narratives of serialism/modernism. Ironically, Roger Reynolds has the same value set in his music – i.e. he desires to put forth a clear dramatic arc – but employs drastically different means to do so. Are he and his ilk somehow related to the “Synthetists”?

  16. Chris says:

    I’m curious about this composer you mentioned… I’ve never heard of him and I can’t find anything online when I google “Nico Mulhy”

    Maybe you can tell me which month, specifically, he was the flavor of and I can search for him that way?

  17. Chris Becker says:

    My experience in NYC with its musical, composer, and improvising community began with Tonic and Tzadik. I don’t understand why Tzadik’s roster isn’t taken into account in discussions like this, as it includes several people of the same generation as the younger folks Jerry is touting as well as many long standing members of New York, Japan, and the rest of the U.S.’s avant-garde community.

    I think this may be in part because Tzadik’s roster includes musicians who actually can play rock and roll in all of its forms as well as improvise in mediums outside of the classical world – particularly those developed out of the AACM network. To put it bluntly, the influence of African American music is generally absent from much of the music we’re describing here.

    Taking it further, you will find that as you travel around the U.S. you will hear music that is as fresh as but sounds nothing like Bang on a Can, New Amsterdam, etc. I’m happy you’re all happy for the future of music now based on the…the music you’re composing. But as a former New Yorker and now Southerner, I find these articles sort of silly, and even frustrating (but hey, that’s why I write about the South for Sequenza 21!)

    Even Judd G. said it in a Times article, that he and Zorn just moved “in different circles.” So where is the “movement” happening? Depends on who’s doing the most yapping apparently.

  18. Steve Layton says:

    Chris (Thompson): Gee, Nico’s right up there with Philp Galss, & we’ll make his month August in honor of his birthday! …There must be some nefarious reason that Jerry’s finger always slips on that name ;-) (Though I notice that Googling even “Nico Mulhy” brings up “Nico Muhly” first thing, which kind of weakens the overall snideness of your comment.)

  19. Jerry Bowles says:

    Hi, Chris B. To your point about the larger music scene across the U.S., you are right, of course. Those of us who live here in the Center of the Universe really do believe we live in the center of universe. One of the many great things Steve Layton has done since he’s been editor is expand Sequenza21 coverage beyond Manhattan and selected parts of Brooklyn by seeking out good writers and thinkers elsewhere. After 45 years of living here my outlook is hopelessly provincial and should be regarded as such. I didn’t mention Tazdik and Tonic simply because while I admire the musicianship of the people on their rosters I personally don’t like the music they make. We all have our little quirks.

  20. davidcoll says:

    There are many reasons, most of them unsatisfying and insufficient, to summarize why there hasn’t been a new ‘new’/movement in the us in a long while. It’s probably outside the interest and scope of this discussion to point out that there have been plenty of movements that have developed outside of NYC/ ‘America’.

    Am I in the minority when I find articles like this to be extremely short-sighted? Articles like this fail to contextualize location of movements, and furthermore take no account of how it spreads, moves, dissipates, combines. It strikes me that ownership is in the subtext, as well as commodification. These two terms are verging on irrelevance, and are increasingly outdated.

  21. Chris Becker says:

    Jerry, at the expense of your sarcasm, you might acknowledge that I am one of the writers who has expanded your website’s coverage of music outside of the center of the universe.

    Gee, why pick on me? David Coll brings up the same issues I do, only I was more specific and based my comment on my own on the ground experience as a composer and a writer.

  22. Jerry Bowles says:

    Actually, I was trying to be complimentary, not sarcastic, Chris. You are absolutely one of the people I had in mind when I said Steve has greatly expanded the geographic and content range of S21 and provided a much-needed boost in quality. Memo to DavidColl: I am a journalist by trade not a composer or musician and therefore my view on most things is, by definition, shallow. Sorry. But, I”m always happy to provide space for those who have a more informed viewpoint,

  23. Steve Layton says:

    I don’t think Jerry was writing his dissertation, David, and in this case the context is pretty clear — a few new CDs showed up in the mail, and seem to have a family resemblance of some kind. However anyone wants to parse it, spin it, name it, slice it / dice it is all welcome and good in my book.

  24. Chris Becker says:

    Jerry you’re not shallow or provincial unless I’ve totally misread you over the years. So frankly, I assumed you were on the defensive. That’s what I’m used to from New Yorkers.

    So 1.) I don’t think you’re shallow and 2.) thanks for the compliment?

    And 3.) I picked out Tzadik as their roster was notably absent from a recent New York magazine article that tried to critique a handful of composers and treat them as representing a “movement” in music. I thought the article sucked, but did wonder why there seems to be these divisions among creative circles in NYC. That was something I experienced, and I could never figure out why musicians I knew in one borough were totally oblivious to musicians in another.

    If you were being serious about Tzadik (and I assumed you weren’t) there is a ton of great music on that label. Maybe check out Paola Prestini’s CD Body Maps. In fact, some of the composers / performers you name – Caleb for one – appear on recordings on that label. In fact, something Zorn wrote about Caleb in the liner notes to his CD Last Supper is relevant here:
    “Caleb…typifies today’s new musicianship in being a composer/performer who sings countertenor, plays violin/viola and specializes in contemporary music, early music, pop, rock and free improvisation. Twenty-five years ago there were only a handful of musicians with such versatility but now it is becoming more and more the norm – a great sign for future directions in new music.”

  25. Being a “young, conservatory trained” composer, I want nothing to do with a music that has a “contagious melody, hook, [and/or] backbeat”. It’s trite. And, frankly, I’m actually a bit offended that “this” is the biggest thing since minimalism. If all I have to do is drop a catchy beat into a piece, I quit.

    … maybe that’s why I don’t snag any performances. Whatever. I’m writing the music I want to write. Screw “synthetist” aesthetics; my view is that why write something that any talented songwriter could? I’m a composer and like to, you know, compose music that is artful and thoughtful.

  26. Matt Marks says:

    @Brian “I’m a composer and like to, you know, compose music that is artful and thoughtful.”

    That’s fine. Then write the type of music you want to write. Nobody’s stopping you.

    “I want nothing to do with a music that has a “contagious melody, hook, [and/or] backbeat. It’s trite.”

    Seriously? Having a “contagious melody, hook, [and/or] backbeat” doesn’t automatically make anything trite anymore than having no discernable “melody, hook [and/or] backbeat” does. I’ve heard unoriginal atonal modernist-style music and I’ve heard unoriginal pop-influenced (or “synthetist”, whatever that means) music. The type of people you suspect are somehow hindering you from ‘snagging performances’ (if they exist at all) are the type of people who espouse the same narrow-minded point-of-view as you. I’m sure you’re attitude isn’t helping you “snag any performances” either…

  27. [giggles] You’re fun.

    In all seriousness, if you would actually inquire as to my own aesthetic and sensibilities, you would find that I’m far from narrow-minded. Ok, fine, I can accept the fact that I was a wee bit snarky, but nonetheless, the points stand. Defining a new movement based solely on the extremely small sample size that consists of the post-BoaC generation and their disciples is overstatement and that’s actually been admitted to above.

    And, for the record, I didn’t accuse anyone of hinderance, Matt. What I said was, “… maybe that’s why I don’t snag any performances.” “That” was referring to the absence of a hook, etc in my work… and *not* to an individual. It was an open-ended rhetorical statement about my own music and it’s “acceptance” and not an accusation of any shadowy entity that has it in for me. I’m no Glenn Beck, looking for conspiracy in every corner. ;-)

    As for being trite, truth be told, yes, of course it applies “unoriginal atonal modernist-style music” — which is, guessing by context and by dint of your irritation, directed at me — as well. To me, however, it so often feels *forced* when I hear it. Like it’s almost expected of them at this point (hence, trite). Hope that clears some of that up.

    And do smile. :-)

  28. evan kuchar says:

    Hello Brian!
    I don’ think you are any different than the composers whom you are decrying: aren’t they just writing the music they want to write? I think that is what is novel in this day and age; the successful composers are the one writing with their gut and not with their superego. It just so happens, for those of us who listen to both streams of music, that the result is some sort of hybrid. Let the music you output reflect the music you input.

    The article doesn’t seem to be proclaiming this “synthetic” model as the “right” model for right now but is, rather, trying to describe it as a phenomenon, albeit a popular one. Write what is endemic to your being no matter if it is ahead or behind its time: just look at Ives and Rachmaninoff, respectively.

  29. Matt Marks says:

    Word, I’m having fun too (though, not gonna lie, the “[giggles]” kinda creeped me out).

    If it seemed like I was defending this “article”, then that was my mistake. I actually think it’s pretty ridiculous. What is, in my opinion, unique about many of the young composers of today is that they/we don’t take stylistic limitations as seriously as earlier generations/movements. It’s more of an anti-movement I suppose, but I think even that label is silly. It’s not an active decision to combine styles, it’s passively not feeling compelled to.

    I know several composers who write some pieces that have “contagious melody, hook, [and/or] backbeat” and write others that don’t. It’s not really a big deal to those of us who simply care about good music, regardless of labels.

    Your comment was pretty stupid and normally I’d ignore it but hey, it’s my day off, so I’ve got plenty of time to spend arguing on the internet. I haven’t listened to your music, so I don’t know if yours is “atonal modernist-style” or not. You directed a lot of hate at songs with melody, etc. so I was just referencing the other extreme.

    I think there are plenty of criticisms to be made of the music of many “post-BoaC generation” composers, but to write them all off is as silly as assuming they’re the only ones that matter.

  30. Hi, Evan — fancy seeing you here. :-)

    “I think that is what is novel in this day and age; the successful composers are the one writing with their gut and not with their superego.” — Eloquently stated.

    “Let the music you output reflect the music you input.” The music I tend to listen to runs the gamut: anything from the quirky awesomeness that is Elvis Costello to the trashy, drunken fun that is Ke$ha, to the wonderful chamber music of Mélanie Hélène Bonis, to the smooth, West Coast vocals of Nate Dogg, and finally stopping at the delicate Alpine flowers of sound in Webern … oh, and all points in between (“plus all that music that you’ve never heard of” … that was a hipster joke … hehe). Yet, what I aspire to is silence. All of this clamoring, all of this cacophony, all of this “mashing” of cultures, ideologies, textures meld together to become nothing more than pink noise on a white background, without distinction or discrimination. I miss the space to breathe … that’s what I’m all about. :-)

    (Love your tweets, btw!)

  31. Arun Sethi says:

    It was an inevitable stage… today’s cultured listener has access to more than ever before, and there are clever ideas, interesting timbres and more to be found all around. Considering that classical music means ‘art music’ to a lot of people, it is vital that it takes from all of the advanced musical ideas from anywhere it can! Just as you mentioned, this ‘synthetism’ has happened before, and even those that went before the synthetists borrowed from world and jazz music, and whatever they could get their hands on!

  32. Arun Sethi says:

    PS thanks for that, that’s this month’s listening list sorted!

  33. What’s great about many cities, New York being only one of them, is the number of “scenes” they can foster. I like Jerry’s term “Synthetists” – and am writing about several of the releases on his listening list for a variety of pubs. I think both items are a useful takeaway from this post.

    Jerry never suggested that they were comprehensive descriptions of all the good CDs in the queue or all the good scenes in New York.

    FWIW, last month Zorn and Tzadik got a ton of publicity locally when his opera premiered. Next month is a huge Tzadik event centering around PITOM that’s getting a ton of ink: some of it in these very pages.

    In this economic climate we hear all the bad news about the arts: about orchestras folding, jobs drying up, and Grammy categories being collapsed: it’s easy to feel that music is under siege. So while Jerry didn’t mention everything – as Steve Layton mentions above, who could in a blog post? – I’m glad he mentioned some optimistic activities and releases that are afoot around here.

    And I’m equally glad we have correspondents elsewhere – they make me want to pack my bags and soak up some of their local scenes (plural intended)!

  34. I’m with @Matt Marks on this one, more or less (hey, Matt!). I think the idea that composers my age, +- a generation, are writing music “designed” to appeal to rock/pop listeners is pretty ridiculous––it’s more that we no longer care about the prestige that once required composers to NOT appeal to those people.

    Most of us aren’t making these compositional choices because of our egos; we’re writing the music that sounds like who we are as people. We’re not making decisions about which influences to let in and which to keep out; we’re making the decision to STOP MAKING THAT DECISION. I, personally, am writing music that both satisfies me and doesn’t completely alienate and confuse, say, my family, who aren’t musicians and whom I would love to keep coming to my concerts *because they want to*, and not out of some familial obligation/guilt.

  35. Judd says:

    Point of clarification: I was quoted dramatically out of context in that Zorn article. There’s respect all around between many artists (can’t speak for everyone) who are normally associated with, to use shorthand, the Tzaddik and New Amsterdam ‘communities’. John Zorn himself has been a huge influence on me and many of my friends. There’s no dismissal or anything else.

  36. Thomas says:

    I like music..

  37. To merit your own moniker, as an artistic movement, you have to have a startlingly original sound that deserves its own semantic recognition.

    The swallows are back here in France…

  38. Seth Gordon says:

    Hmm…

    “…a blend of classical, rock, electronics, pop and world music…”
    “…they seem to have absorbed all of music history and quote from it liberally.”

    I have to admit, I’m not really seeing any difference between any of that and good ol’ Postmodernism. Or perhaps Post-postmodernism, which sounds the same but lacks the ironic detachment.

    Over the years there have been any number of other terms for essentially the same thing, or sub-categories of: Polystylism, Transethinicism, Postminimalism, Totalism, etc… Not sure what fundamental difference “New Sythesism” has from any of the above, but perhaps I’m just a bit daft. And then of course there’s all those “isms” that haven’t quite crossed into music yet, but could arguably describe the same thing (or yet another sub-category of it) like Post-millenialism, Performatism, Metamodernism, Altermodernism, etc…

    The lines are quite blurry between them, often, and one has to wonder why anyone bothers coming up with these terms except that perhaps they’ve nothing better to do with their time. Perhaps we’d just like to think there’s something “bigger” going on than there really is.

    The “real” (for lack of a better term) movements become so evident there’s no denying them – the New York School, the High Modernists, the Minimalists, Free Jazz. One knows instantly what we’re talking about. I have no better idea of what a “New Synthesist” is now than I did a half hour ago, and I’m not even sure we should be jumping into “New” Synthesism when for the life of me I can’t remember any “Old” Synthesists.

    I think it might be as fundamentally flawed concept, no disrespect intended. When you readily admit that “what they have in common is that the music they create has little in common with each other” – well, if you feel that way, why are you trying to lump them together in the first place, then? You could also, I suppose, coin a nice catch-all term that would include apples and Buick LeSabres. What good it would do anyone, I dunno.

    That aside, I actually do find some similarities between the above reviewed albums – I just think one of our many existing terms would’ve done fine, rather than trying to pare down yet another sub-sub-sub-category of post-post-post-minimalism.

  39. Jerry Bowles says:

    All excellent points, Seth, although I must admit that I wouldn’t know the difference between a ‘high” modernist and a “low” modernist. A gap in my musical education, no doubt, of which there are many. As I mentioned early on in the piece the “synthetism” idea suggests to me, at least, what all of these different approaches have in common–they are a synthesis of many different musical styles. It is an idea that the average non-music educated person (like myself) can immediately grasp or guess. The ones you suggest are, at minimum, esoteric and could even be construed by a more sensitive person than me as elitist. (I have a special language and you dont,,,na, na, na na.) This is precisely the kind of crap that makes Republicans want to cut off funding for NPR. The word synthetism was coined by Gauguin to distinguish what he and other post-impressionists were doing from the original guys which–you guessed it–was a synthesis. In any event, you should feel free to call it whatever you like.

  40. davidcoll says:

    I say skip Gauguin and go straight to calling them WILD BEASTS! Maybe there’ll be a Matisse among these guys….

  41. Seth Gordon says:

    I suppose I had my own gap when it came to the Old Synthetists. Did not know it went back to Gauguin.

    Anyway… “what all of these different approaches have in common–they are a synthesis of many different musical styles”

    – well, like I said, that’s essentially the same thing as Polystylism or Transethnicism or whatever. I’d venture to suggest that those terms are less esoteric than “Synthetism” – I mean, anyone can figure out what “polystylism” means.

    I’m not sure it counts as a movement, per se, to blend styles. People have been doing it for a long time. Were Ives, Copland and Bartok “New Synthetists” for incorporating folksong into their work? It seems too vague a term. I mean, I honestly can’t think of many composers (outside the Modernism camp) who DON’T incorporate multiple different stylistic influences.

  42. Steve Layton says:

    Like I said before, I could care less what it’s called. This kind of naming is usually done by and for writers, critics and musicologists; the artists just *do*.

    The most prominent trait I see in this and other scenes mentioned (and missed) is the infiltration into classical of aspects of the “band” culture that’s grown concurrently these past 90 years or so. A culture of small groups freely pulling from the vernacular, with their own compositional & performance practice, venues, recording, theatrics… And it’s not so much a studied and intentional ‘movement’, as simply a natural acknowledgment of the enormous daily influence of that culture through their whole life.

    For a long while it’s been the Dead White Guys (and their succesors) on this side of the line, and everyone else on the other side. There are still a lot of institutions that will continue to cling to that view, too, but I think that more and more we’ve been seeing the distinction rendered pointless or irrelevant. But it’s not a capital-R Revolution, manning the barricades & etc.; it’s more just a revolution, a natural turning.

  43. Ah, you’re all so Post-Post-Meta. (Or is that meta-meta-posting?)

    Many educated opinions here, and great discussion. Audio is available from each of the albums mentioned in Jerry’s original post. I’d like to hear some alternative assessments from those who disagree with Jerry’s thoughts. Any other takes?

    Build “Place”: https://www.newamsterdamrecords.com/#Album/Place

    Todd Reynolds “Outerborough”: http://soundcloud.com/innovadotmu/transamerica

    NOW Ensemble “Awake”: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/awake/id428095872

    KRONOS “Uniko”: http://kronosquartet.org/recordings/detail/286

  44. I can understand if people don’t like a certain style of music. What I don’t understand is placing some kind of superiority of one aesthetic over another. I do like certain things more than others, I tend to enjoy this “New Synthetist” voice quite a bit. I don’t write music that sounds anything like it nor do I feel that I must write that way. I certainly shared this article with my composition students because they need to know what is happening in the larger world.

    It has been my experience that young musicians don’t know this kind of music. They may be aware of Sigur Ros. When they start “studying composition” they try to write music that they think they are “supposed” to write (be it Schoenberg or Liszt). The music they are writing doesn’t connect to their own musical experiences. If I loan out a disc of Julia Wolfe or Newspeak or Build or the Now Ensemble, they seem to universally dig it and “not know they could write music like that.”

    The larger point is: you write the music you write. All that matters is if what you write is genuine to you. Surely we can appreciate styles we do not like. I can appreciate a good steak even though I would never eat one (being vegetarian). I can appreciate Jerry looking around, taking the temperature of a certain place and time, and saying “Hey, look at this!” And I can appreciate misspellings on the internet.

    Sorry to go all “kum by ya” there.

  45. Steve Layton says:

    No problem, Jay. Hey, you gonna eat that last s’more?

  46. Rusty Banks says:

    I’m never one to get caught up in linguistics, but I do want to address the idea of a new term being useful.

    Several have pointed out that Jerry’s criteria to count as a “new synthetist” contain many criteria that could describe other styles. Does this make it useless to have a new term?

    I don’t think so. For example, the “Impressionist” composers could be described as emphasizing timbre over melody. The same could be said of “spectral” composers. Is there a usefulness in having both terms? Certainly! Both terms get us in the same ballpark in a discussion on music. Even terms fraught with linguistic problems, like the term ‘classical music,’ are useful for getting us to talking the same game.

    Is it possible for a term to perfectly nail down a style? If so, I’d say that style would have to be very limited.

    It’s not so much that the words are woefully inaccurate; it’s more that art is so wonderfully messy.

  47. To be less aphoristic, my main problem with a new name for this stuff is that all these folks are still basically minimalist note-counters. That is, they may be writing pop tune-ish influenced stuff (as I have for over 20 years – heh!) but that in the end it’s the ‘glitches’ – some overlapping phase event that demonstrates to the listener that this ain’t all fun, it’s minimalism. It’s the lack of a contrasting section or a chorus, the fact that all of a sudden the music is totally off kilter for no reason at all, except that that number came up. This still indicates to me that what’s formally important is the counting form – which means it’s minimalism.

    That and it really doesn’t sound new – at all! Why give a genre of music a new name merely because it’s a new generation doing the same stuff?

  48. Jeff Harrington + 1

    Jay C. Batzner + 1

  49. Tom Myron says:

    Jerry- Epic post which I am enjoying immensely. Layton, Becker and Beck all raise points that resonate very strongly with me. I could almost write an S21 blog post about them, but I’m really busy at the moment composing & arranging to order ;-) Carry on you Krazy Kats.

  50. Jerry Bowles says:

    Thanks, Tom. I hope when you get a little time you’ll write that post. Post it over here on the front page and we’ll work up another great conversation. Side note: it sort of amazes me that nobody has apparently listened to the links that Sarah Baird Knight left and commented on the actual music.

  51. Carol Gimbel says:

    http://canadaartsconnect.com/magazine/2011/04/3199/

    Greetings from Toronto! A good friend of mine sent your article my way via Montreal and I was happy to get it one day before my post….We are feelin’ the same wave up here.

  52. Jerry, I listened to all except the captive iTunes one, but prefer not to do a public critique of individual pieces. I suppose others probably feel the same.

    (As I mentioned on NMBx, none especially caught my attention.)

    Dennis

  53. Jerry, that’s a pretty offensive and dismissive thing to assume… Especially in light of the fact that once again, you’re merely promoting what is already being promoted up our collective asses.

    Like Dennis, I don’t comment on particular pieces, especially when they’re part of the new mafia that only promotes their own spawn, and monopolizes all the prizes and grants. The winners were chosen long ago, there is no living culture in America, just a culture of self-promoting elites. And each of those artists you recommend hasn’t sold enough product to even merit a mention in the real world. We’re talking 5,000 copies…

    When we first got our apartment here in France I was shocked to have a discussion with the wife of our landlord. She characterized herself as somebody who didn’t really like classical music – yet – she was arguing with me whether Dusapin was really a spectralist or not. She doesn’t even consider herself a cultured person!

    Go onto the street of our most cultured city, NYC, right now and ask anybody who Nico is… good luck! Again, this is not a living culture, it’s a culture of self-promoting elites doing the same old thing…

  54. This is quite an essay, and right as they say, in my wheelhouse as a listener. I saved a copy out as a Word document so that I can print it and read it in depth. Thanks.

  55. Jerry Bowles says:

    Thanks, Richard. But, tell us, Jeff, what do you REALLY think?

  56. David Friend says:

    i am super late to this party, but just wanted to say that this article (and subsequent discussion/arguments downthread) is a WONDERFUL counterpoint to that POS that New York Magazine published last month!!!

  57. You guys are an amusing pile of bitter white men. Keep it up!

  58. Steve Layton says:

    A little bitter in your bitter, ICMN? Feel perfectly free though, to insert anything more substantive than drive-by snark; the door’s always open here.

  59. New commenter here, so bare with me please. (Late to the game, gotta catch up!)

    Jeff Harington- Don’t like the competitions? Take it up with the judges. I don’t get any respect either, but that’s the way it goes.

    Lots of people- re: naming a movement? I think it is wonderful that Jerry enthusiastically acknowledges one of the many trends in NYC these days (without dismissing others, although those defensive members of our community may want to read it that way- it’s journalism, guys). If the composers are down with a title, let them have it! Otherwise, however, it could be potentially damaging, since even the most similarly-minded composers will diverge from time to time. The ball’s really in their court as members of the community we’re talking about, and we should leave it up to them.

    My 2 cents: I’m from Baltimore, but living in Boston, land of old fogies, electroacoustic odd-balls, and microtonal music conventions. I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into! But I envy New York’s music scene sometimes- so many people allow for so much music.

    I am not too knowledgeable about this new group of composers. I often like what I hear of Mulhy’s music, and the other day I really enjoyed listening to a performance of a trio by Sarah Kirkland Snider (my first!). Didn’t love Judd’s piece, but you know, one hearing of one piece hardly qualifies me to judge.

    I have an issue though, if what Jerry articulates is true (and this also goes back to what Arun wrote a few days ago). If, indeed, this group of composers values the absorbtion of non-classical styles and traditions into modern classical music, then an ethical issue is immediately raised. Much as I may love listening to Brahms, it is NOT MY MUSIC TO WRITE. I say this because influence, inspiration, and mimicking are vastly different forces. I don’t want to suggest that these composers simply mimick, and again I’m not qualified to say anyhow. Still, the issue remains that we classical composers largely view other music as tools for our own purposes. It is dubious for a well-educated white guy to reference early rap and hip-hop (protest music directed against white mainstream culture). And more than that, writing music which channels other music is manipulative of the audience. Again, I love Brahms, Sonic Youth, Merzbow, and Scelsi, but it would be manipulative for me to insert elements of their music into my own simply because I’m aware of the positive effect they have on many listeners.

    All that said, I may very well come by my own path to the same sound, and while I am still obligated to understand my music’s position with respect to other musics, it is justified because it is my own. And I give the benefit of the doubt to all these composers associated with the movement named in Jerry’s post. I just hope that they live up to my expectations, because the last thing we need is classical musicians (in this day and age), coopting other musics in an imperialistic way.

    Thanks for reading! That was a lot more of my head than you all probably needed.
    Mischa

  60. Stanley Moon says:

    Snarky, yes, but rather sadly to the point. The “revolutionary” quality of this new flow of music doesn’t matter that much. (AFAIC, most of what I’ve heard isn’t too bad or strikingly good. ) What is revolutionary is that a new generation is writing and producing like crazy, while setting up networks for their own survival. If this keeps up, it won’t be long before some more remarkable stuff gets written. The conditions will be there for things to happen.

  61.