By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The musical buffet is well-stocked at century’s end. Over here there is the curious mix of the so-called "holy minimalists," Estonia’s Arvo Pärt and Poland’s Henryk Górecki, with music that looks far back into history and tries to reconcile the pre-tonal harmonies of the Middle Ages with a contemporary awareness, both the 11-minute Frâtres of Pärt and the nearly hourlong Third Symphony of Górecki spinning their webs of enchantment by obsessive reiteration of austere, ancient-sounding harmonies. Over there is the growing influence of the Pacific Rim, with China’s Tan Dun and Chen Yi, Cambodia’s Chinary Ung and Japan’s Toru Takemitsu casting their shadows over their eager American admirers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Among us also, the smiling countenance of John Cage encourages all comers to continue to dare, to question; his old friend and disciple Morton Feldman hands off his four- and six-hour concoctions of few notes and many silences, and rewards our patience. An extraordinary generation of Russians — Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and the Georgian Giya Kancheli — bursting out of captivity after the end of Soviet artistic repression, writes symphonies, quartets and operas that pour into these venerable molds music of extraordinary vitality that, once again, sounds like nothing else in this wide musical world.
I was attracted to California, 20 years ago come September, by the new-music scene here: the electronic music at CalArts and Stanford; the mix of acoustic instrumental virtuosity and natural sounds at UC San Diego as taught by Robert Erickson (whose Night Music is one of only two works on my "100" list unavailable on disc); the Monday Evening Concerts at the County Museum, with their tradition reaching back to 1939; the Ojai Festival, with its unlikely mix of Pierre Boulez’s music in a rural setting; the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s ongoing service to new music, more ardent than the work of any other American orchestra I know, via the "Green Umbrella" concerts and similar projects. With the noble music patrons Betty Freeman and Judith Rosen, I helped produce in-home concerts of new music, which allowed me to shake hands with György Ligeti, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Morty Feldman . . . you name ’em.
That all actually happened during my second California incarnation. In the first, I studied music at UC Berkeley during the days of Roger Sessions and Ernest Bloch, and with Darius Milhaud a few miles away at Mills College. I helped start KPFA, the first-ever venture into public radio. We put Harry Partch’s music on the air, and when the rapturous phone calls came in after a live studio performance of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (music still terra incognita in 1949), we simply had the players repeat the performance on the spot.
A few other memories: Shaking hands with Bartók in Boston after the world premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra. My first hearing of Mahler’s Ninth, conducted by Bruno Walter in Carnegie Hall (and a revelatory later performance conducted in Los Angeles by Carlo Maria Giulini). Pushing my car with its dead fuel pump into an illegal parking space in order to get to the Metropolitan Opera House for the premiere of Einstein on the Beach (and finding it neither towed nor ticketed five hours later). Discovering for the first time the music of Schnittke and Gubaidulina, on tape in a Soviet information office in Boston. Sitting for four hours on a chair carved out of stone at the Ace Gallery, transfixed by Morty Feldman’s For Philip Guston. The ovation after Esa-Pekka Salonen’s L.A. Variations at the Music Center.
I’m not a composer — the world isn’t ready — but I’ve spent most of my life close to creative people, and I think some of their sweat has rubbed off. I know that if I go to a new-music concert in Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, I’ll run into lots of old friends; when I went to a Kathleen Battle recital at UCLA a few weeks ago, I ran into nobody. Among living composers, I listen to György Ligeti’s music with the greatest pleasure. I found Salonen’s 1997 L.A. Variations — the other as-yet-unrecorded work on my list — enormously appealing and reassuring: complex, sometimes even gritty, music that has the same sense of confident propulsion that I hear in Ligeti.
All but five among this final 25 are still active, including the 90-year-old Elliott Carter. If there were room for No. 101 in this list, it would surely be some brand-new work by the immensely talented young Brit Thomas Adès, still in his 20s, whose opera Powder Her Face is currently making the rounds. Rather than defining the century now slouching to its end, his success so far stakes out the solid ground on which to plant our hopes for the future. Onward!