On June 8 I attended an informal presentation, organized by th Philadelphia Fans of Classical Music, on the wide range of concert music that is being written today. Neil Sussman played snippets of 28 compositions by 27 composers (the American Arlene Sierra was the one repeat), whom he organized into eight categories: neoromanticism, neoclassicism, minimalism, modalism, drone music, atonality, serialism, electronic music, world music, and high energy pop elements. I have long feared younger, contemporary composers are essentially out of ideas, doomed to repeat the formulas and the techniques of the past. While I heard nothing to challenge that opinion significantly, I was impressed by the occasional display of freshness and energy — by the personality of this or that composer — and I came away more optimistic about the state of contemporary composition than I was when I went in.
If Neil had a thesis, it was that today, "anything goes." Words like "dissonant," "atonal," and "serial" were thrown around a little too freely, without much regard for precision, and "high energy pop" is not a wave I care to ride (the music of Hartke and Kernis, entertaining as it was, seemed content to be shallow), but I was struck at how much overlap there was among the categories. Many of the compositions resisted easy pigeon-holing. I heard traces of minimalism and romanticism in the so-called atonal music, and polytonalities in the neoclassicism. Perhaps someday soon, a unique voice will emerge from a synthesis of styles, even if, indeed, “anything goes” and rhythmic and harmonic innovations might no longer be possible.
All of the music was new to me, if some of the names were not. My favorite piece of the afternoon was Sierra's sextet Surrounding Ground, which reminded me, in spirit, of Carter's Triple Duo. I would never have mistaken it for Carter — there were too many repeated figures and a more regular beat — but I found the lively interplay of the instruments and polyrhythms decidedly Carterian.
The little seminar was held at the Wyncote at the home of Dr. Sydney Kahn, who assured me his was one of only two private houses in Montgomery County to achieve Leed Platinum certification.