New Music at Tanglewood: Beauty’s Turn

Check my ears here: I hear a turning toward humanity among the rising star composers at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood this week.

I go out to the new-music feast listening not just for unfamiliar sounds but for clues about whatever it is we are all going through in the globalizing Age of Obama.

For young musicians it is more particularly the age of universal access to musics new and old, the age of YouTube and file-sharing, an age past any aesthetic orthodoxy when every combination of sounds is possible, when nobody’s left to decree what is good.

The expansive moment for the composer class is an engaging time for listeners, too. Through a 5-day festival of nearly 40 works, I kept asking: is it me? or is the music less off-putting than it sounded 10 or 20 years ago? Maybe it’s the times: with capitalism and climate change careening toward ruin, how could mere man-made music add much to the cosmic dread?

Our conversation mid-Festival is with its director, Augusta Read Thomas, and three among the younger artists strutting their stuff at Tanglewood. I am wondering with them: what is it about our times that their composing reflects? Who do they imagine as their counterparts in other expressive fields? As Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony finished a 50-th anniversary performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto (1959), I was asking them how the new music of 2009 will sound in fifty years? and what it will tell us in times to come about the era that produced it?

Aaron Travers, 33, looks like an MLB second baseman and talks like a student of Latin and other classical poetry. He grew up in Florida, wanting to write music for movies, then music to match the craft of his favorite poets, like the 19th Century American Stephen Crane and Portugal’s Eugénio de Andrade. The music scene feels like buzzing chaos. “We’re in a period of weird Brownian (random) motion in which everything is almost at a standstill; there’s so much going on, on a small scale… everything is swarming all at once, yet there is no large-scale trajectory in all this. I’m still discovering where I fit into that.”

One of the reasons I compose music, or that I compose the music that I do, is that I think it is important to keep creating art that puts us in a poetic mindset, as opposed to a prosaic one. I remember Robert Graves — a very interesting personality– saying that we have lost our ability to think poetically. I think that music has that ability to bring us into that mindset. If we are able to bring back that poetic way of thinking, I think we can engage with our world in a more meaningful way.

Cynthia Lee Wong, 26, a Juilliard piano graduate, writes what one German review called “shamelessly beautiful” music, beyond any rules of the old avant-garde. From a Chinese family deeply rooted in the States, she fends off the market’s “Asian” label with music that reaches into the universals of human fear and fantasy.

I like to read the poems of [Rainer Maria] Rilke. I love to read in general… any sort of classics, any sort of poetry… In terms of music, I love Stravinsky. When I was young, in high school, I would listen obsessively to Rite of Spring, and I would wake up to the music; I set my alarm to the fast movements… I love Stravinsky because of his boldness… And I love Rilke because of his awareness of his interior self.

Jacob Bancks, 26, is a child of rural Fairmont, Minnesota. In Chicago now, he is going urban in a hurry, as in the orchestral piece “Rapid Transit” which had its premier this week at Tanglewood. His closest artistic counterpart, he says, may be the Chicago photographer Becky Foley, who makes images without a camera by exposing hydrangeas, for example, or fireflies, to photographic paper. He gets the last word here on what is or isn’t “scary” about the new music.

In the world of music today there is no real orthodoxy… I find that it’s much more exciting to be a composer than I imagine it was in other points in history… It’s never been easier to reach a global audience, and as we are more aware of the differences across cultures, I think we have more in common than we used to… I love scary music. So, the scarier the better as far as I’m concerned. I could listen to scary music and beautiful music, and I think that’s where we’re at right now. We can hear it all, and not be scared by any of it.

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