Thursday, January 7, 2016

The best music of the past 20 years (says Q2)

Q2 Music's annual poll was different this year: previously, listeners have been asked to pick their favourite works from the last 100 years, but this time round the timeframe has been reduced to a more "new" 20 years. So farewell then, Music for 18 Musicians, which had come top for the last three years (The Rite of Spring won the inaugural poll).
Caroline Shaw. She won!
In fact, looking at last year's poll (which had 100 works rather than this year's 50), the highest now-eligible entry was John Luther Adams's Become Ocean, at #37. Six other post-1995 works appeared: the other John Adams's Dharma at Big Sur (#43), Thomas Adès's Asyla (#52), Caroline Shaw's Partita for 8 Voices (#53), David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion (#72), George Friedrich Haas's In Vain (#74), and Steve Reich's Double Sextet (#85). Other pieces had featured in previous years.
It's hard to know with any audience poll just how (a) large and (b) stable the voting population is. The latter can be answered by noting that the above seven works all appeared in this year's top thirteen. So either the list reflects the tastes of a tiny handful of people whose opinions haven't changed much, or (much more likely) it demonstrates that there are some definite crowd-pleasers that stand a chance of eventually becoming enshrined as classics.
You can see the countdown on Q2's site, but here it is as a count-up:

1. Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Voices (2012)
2. John Luther Adams – Become Ocean (2014)
3. Andrew Norman – Play (2013)
4. Anna Thorvaldsdottir – In the Light of Air (2014)
5. David Lang – Little Match Girl Passion (2008)
6. Donnacha Dennehy – Grá agus Bás (2011)
7. John Adams – Dharma at Big Sur (2006)
8. Thomas Ades – Asyla (1999)
9. Georg Friedrich Haas – In Vain (2000)
10. Meredith Monk – Songs of Ascension (2011)
11. Ann Southam – Simple Lines of Enquiry (2009)
12. Kaija Saariaho – Orion (2002)
13. Steve Reich – Double Sextet (2008)
14. George Benjamin – Written on Skin (2012)
15. Thomas Ades – Tevot (2010)
16. John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)
17. Tristan Perich – Surface Image (2014)
18. Andrew Norman – The Companion Guide to Rome (2010)
19. Philip Glass – Songs and Poems for Solo Cello (2008)
20. Esa Pekka Salonen – Violin Concerto (2009)
21. Julia Wolfe – Anthracite Fields (2014)
22. David Lang – Love Fail (2012)
23. Peteris Vasks – String Quartet No. 4 (2003)
24. Gerard Grisey – Vortex Temporum (1996)
25. Jennifer Higdon – Violin Concerto (2008)
26. Osvaldo Golijov – La Pasión según San Marcos (2000)
27. John Luther Adams – The Wind in High Places (2015)
28. Michael Gordon – Decasia (2002)
29. Philip Glass – Suite from The Hours (2005)
30. Anna Thorvaldsdottir – Aeriality (2011)
31. Magnus Lindberg – Clarinet Concerto (2005)
32. Nico Muhly – Two Boys (2011)
33. Julia Wolfe – Steel Hammer (2009)
34. Ted Hearne – Law of Mosaics (2014)
35. Kaija Saariaho – D'om le vrai sens (2010)
36. Enno Poppe – Keilschrift (2006)
37. Missy Mazzoli – Vespers for a New Dark Age (2015)
38. Thomas Ades – Concentric Paths (2005)
39. Jefferson Friedman – String Quartet No. 2 (1999)
40. Hans Abrahamsen – Schnee (2008)
41. Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered (2011)
42. Donnacha Dennehy – That the Night Come (2010)
43. Elliott Carter – Clarinet Concerto (1996)
44. Thomas Ades – Polaris (2010)
45. Osvaldo Golijov – Ayre (2005)
46. Jonny Greenwood – 48 Responses To Polymorphia (2012)
47. John Luther Adams – Dark Waves (2007)
48. Louis Andriessen – La Passione (2002)
49. Einojuhani Rautavaara – Harp Concerto (2000)
50. John Adams – Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

It's a good list, isn't it? I know most of the pieces - although some rushed listening was necessary in the last few days. Voters could pick five works, and three of mine got in - Become Ocean, Grá agus Bás and Steel Hammer (the other two were Per Nørgård's 8th string quartet and David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field). It's especially pleasing that the very Irish Grá agus Bás has proved so popular. Do I have quibbles? Not really. I like some things more than others, naturally, but nothing makes me go "really?". Of course probably the most significant thing about the list is that it very much reflects Q2's "downtown" New York audience. I can imagine some modern-music fans scratching their heads, or even tearing their hair, at all the minimalism, post-minimalism, and post-classical, or whatever we're calling it.
Something else that caught my eye is how the Pulitzer Prize-winning works have done: the last three winners have been Anthracite Fields, Become Ocean, and Partita for 8 Voices - they came #21, #2, and #1, respectively. We also see the winners from 2010 (Higdon, #25), 2009 (Lang's Passion, #5), 2008 (Reich, #13), and 2003 (Adams's Transmigration, #16). On the broader polls of previous years, older Pulitzer winners didn't do well (Appalachian Spring being an exception) - but then, would (for example) Stephen Albert's first symphony ever stand a chance in a field that included Bartók, Shostakovich, et al?
So, can we make any sweeping statements about contemporary music? Not quite - the specificity of the Q2 audience precludes anything too general. But certainly "this kind of music" has an audience, not just on an Internet radio station - you can see it in various end-of-year lists, which in 2015 have welcomed the new works from Julia Wolfe, Sarah Kirkland Snider, John Luther Adams, Andrew Norman, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Oh - that reminds me of another interesting thing about Q2's list. Notice how three of the five names I just mentioned are women? Things are changing. Almost a quarter of the works on the Q2 list (12 of 50) are by women. Last year's poll with 100 works from 100 years had... two (Shaw's Partita and Meredith Monk's 1979 Dolmen Music). So there's your sweeping statement about contemporary music: the gender balance is much better.