The Washington Post

A new music primer: your ABCs here.

In the Washington Post this week, I offer a basic introduction to some contemporary music for people who are interested but don’t know where to start: Contemporary music, a primer. This is accompanied by an equally basic video (see below).

I wrote this because I often get queries from people — often very musically sophisticated people — who want to know more about a world that, to outsiders, can seem confusing or impenetrable. There’s still a considerable gap between the newcomers and the cognoscenti: people who have never heard of Steve Reich on the one hand, people who think Nico Muhly, age 30, is yesterday’s news on the other. (Speaking of new music, this week I finally listened to Muhly’s new CD, Seeing is Believing, and highly recommend it to both sides of this straw-man equation.)

Of course, trying to reduce the rich and colorful field of contemporary classical music into a few names and bullet points is like trying to make a list of a couple of good European authors for someone who has only read American literature: you’re forced to leave out more than you can include, and you could make ten or twelve completely different lists, all of them equally valid. I chose to focus the selection on composers who are currently very active — whom a reader would have a good chance of encountering on an orchestra program in the next couple of seasons. But you could make an alternative list of classic works by an older generation: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Pierre Boulez’s Pli selon pli.

So, for those of you who know your way around this area: what three pieces by living composers would you pick to give as wide a cross-section as possible to a newcomer?

And for those of you who are new to new music: what are your experiences of this area, and what would you most like to know about it?

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.


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