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Commissioning 125 New Works

Q: How does a leading concert hall demonstrate its support for today’s composers?
A: Commission 125 new works. (Yes, you heard right. 125.)

Ben Finane reports on a bold—and massive—Carnegie Hall commissioning project that involves the Kronos Quartet, John Adams, Magnus Lindberg, and, well, just about everyone.

Classical music today finds itself in a post-Ligeti, post-postmodernist landscape. What Igor Stravinsky termed the “German Stem” has come to an end. The train has reached its terminus. Some are exiting to explore on foot, while others are riding back and looking out new windows for a fresh perspective on what was missed along the way. Never has there been a greater sense of stylistic individualism or parity—or possibility!—within the classical genre. “Each composer,” notes John Adams, “has to invent his or her own voice; we’re staring into the void every time we start a new piece. To be a composer now is therefore a little more existentially risky.”

In its 125th anniversary season, in a bold commitment to the future of music, Carnegie Hall launches its five-year 125 Commissions Project, an initiative to commission 125 new works from varied composers for varied musical configurations. The project is rooted, notes Carnegie Hall Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson, in the Hall’s “central commitment to creating the music of tomorrow and showcasing the greatest music of today and the past.”

The 125 Commissions Project should temper some of that existential risk and prove a creative boon to commendable composers as they seek to add to the dynamic, vibrant, living repertoire.

“The tradition of concert music will die and petrify,” warns composer and guitarist Steven Mackey, “if it’s not constantly being renewed.” Fortunate, then, that from the 2015–2016 through the 2019–2020 seasons, at least 125 new works will be commissioned from leading composers—both established and emerging.

Mackey himself will be offering a piece for soprano and percussion quartet in the 2015–2016 season titled Before it is Time. Mackey has likened his music to exploring “fringe states of consciousness,” and the composer says he is fascinated by music that produces the “sensation of movement.”

In addition to Mackey and Adams, featured composers in the 125 Commissions Project include Aaron Jay Kernis, Caroline Shaw, Gabriel Kahane, Shara Worden, and Kevin Puts, as well as Glenn Kotche, Magnus Lindberg, Brad Mehldau, and Olga Neuwirth.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis has found increasing freedom in his musical language through the years, passing through Latin rhythms, jazz, and rap alongside the more terra firma harmonic landscapes of the Romantic masters, the Renaissance, and Hildegard von Bingen. “What is so brilliant about this time,” notes Kernis, “is that there are so many fascinating individual voices coming.” Kernis will see the New York premiere of his String Quartet No. 3, “River,” in 2016.

The youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music (at the age of 30) for her a cappella work Partita for 8 Voices, composer Caroline Shaw continues to freelance as a violinist and singer, performing primarily contemporary classical music. On her inspiration, Shaw says “sometimes it comes from having a sound in your head that you really want to hear, that you’ve never heard before, and struggling to make that sound happen in any way you can.” Shaw’s The Mountain That Loved a Bird sees its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in April.

Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane will give the New York premiere of a new work for piano and vocals by Timo Andres—who will conversely premiere a new work for solo piano by Kahane—during this 2015-2016 season. Kahane is perhaps best known for his work Craigslistlieder, which set text appropriated from Craigslist ads to music. “I build things in layers,” the composer says of his process. “I sometimes have a vague, grand vision, but it’s very blurry, almost like I’m squinting at this thing that is 50 feet away … I do what probably the painter would do by first making the pencil drawing and then going to the canvas.”

“Each composer has to invent his or her own voice; we're staring into the void every time we start a new piece.”

Composer Shara Worden—who is also a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and frontwoman for My Brightest Diamond—rejects musical classification. “I’m not thinking in terms of pop or classical,” says the composer. “What I’m interested in are the building blocks of music and playing around with them.” Worden will be performing in Mackey’s Before it is Time as well as premiering her own co-composition Timeline with Sō Percussion in the same February concert.

Kevin Puts, a Pulitzer Prize winner, will see the New York premiere of a new work for film and orchestra in April, paired with no less than Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Marin Alsop. Puts looks forward to when “that first note is played—[it’s] like church for me, it’s that moment when we are all listening together and are completely with the music.”

As part of the 125 Commissions Project, the Kronos Quartet and Kronos Performing Arts Association are embarking on Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire. Collaborating with Carnegie Hall and other partners over the next five seasons, Kronos will commission 50 new works—25 by female composers, 25 by male—devoted to contemporary approaches to the string quartet, designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals. Kronos will premiere each work and create companion materials, including recordings, with all project materials being distributed online, available at no charge.

David Harrington, founder and first violinist of the Kronos Quartet, takes inspiration from the past, expressing the hope that the project will “create a body of music for the next generation,” and yield “music that can give a sense of a wider world of music … a place to start and grow into.”

“Music,” says Harrington, “helps us understand a little bit more about mysteries, the mystery of being alive. There is nothing quite like music just to be a place for one’s innermost thoughts and feelings.”

This article first appeared in Carnegie Hall: 125 Years of an Iconic Music Venue’s Most Remarkable People and Memorable Events, available at

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