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From One Generation to the Next

Composer Steve Reich, holder of this season’s Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair, has curated Three Generations, a series of four concerts charting the major shift from the 1960s—when, as he says, “there was really one way to write music: no discernible harmony, no discernible rhythm, and no melody”—to a restoration of all those basics in a totally new way.

The composers of the first generation, now in their 70s or 80s, are Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, and John Adams. It fell to this generation to wrench music in a different direction.

Reich has asked a cadre of America’s finest performers to explore how his pioneering generation influenced the work of younger generations that have come since.

The first concert includes Riley’s famous and decisive break from the past, In C. Reich not only performed in the 1964 premiere, but also contributed the pulse now commonly used in performances. On this series at Carnegie Hall, the original version of Riley’s piece will be featured without Reich’s pulse.

From the buzzing intensity of Adams’s Shaker Loops to Reich’s deeply personal Holocaust memorial Different Trains, from the warm romanticism of Glass’s String Quartet No. 5 to the glacial calm of Pärt’s Für Alina, Reich has chosen works that encapsulate the broad span of his generation’s approaches to minimalism.

Conductor Brad Lubman, whose Ensemble Signal performs on the Three Generations series, says that the first generation’s revelation was to be “true to themselves. They looked at what was around them, and said, ‘This is not where we fit in.’” The attitude of these strong-willed innovators was to “build the world that you want to see.”

“They looked at what was around them, and said, ‘This is not where we fit in.’”

Reich, Riley, and Glass founded their own bands, a move that was rare in classical music at the time. According to composer Nico Muhly, this simple, radical notion—“the idea of going your own way, the idea of creating your own ensemble, of claiming a corner of the sonic world”—had a profound effect on the next generation of musicians.

In a SoHo loft in 1987, three young composers nailed their colors to the mast. Calling themselves Bang on a Can, composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang cajoled a large group of young performers and composers to take part in a 12-hourlong musical marathon, showcasing creative artists whose work didn’t belong in any particular box. It was art that fell, as David Lang has often recalled, “between the cracks.”

Bang on a Can’s central tenet is a sort of radical openness. Violinist and composer Todd Reynolds, who works often with the Bang composers, says that the trio encouraged a healthy musical ecosystem where “there’s a lot of voices and a real blur in all of the labels.” Lubman cheers this trio’s breaking of boundaries, and believes that we now live “in one of the healthiest and all-encompassing times in music.”

“... there’s a whole new generation of people in their late 20s and early 30s ... but they’re thickening the plot.”

This “middle generation” of composers is represented on the Carnegie Hall stage by classic early works, tearing down classical music’s carefully constructed barriers. Wolfe’s Lick embraces a love of funk and rock; Gordon imagines three salsa bands playing simultaneously in Yo Shakespeare; and, in cheating, lying, stealing, Lang turns classical music’s culture of nobility and sensitivity on its head, reveling in the “low-down and underhanded.”

With its influential summer festival, a self-described “musical utopia for innovative musicians,” Bang on a Can has fostered its values in thousands of young composers and performers. According to Todd Reynolds, the three older composers want to know, “‘Are you passionate about what you do? Are you passionate about what you’re thinking? Come join us.’”

While programming these Three Generations concerts, Reich realized “there’s a whole new generation of people in their late 20s and early 30s who have taken off from the Bang on a Can generation and my generation, but they’re thickening the plot.”

Reich has programmed music by two “plot thickeners,” Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner. Close friends and frequent collaborators, Muhly and Dessner work as composers and performers in every conceivable musical world, writing for cinema and concert hall, arranging for indie musicians, playing in bands, and crossing the globe to work with visual artists.

According to Dessner, community is central. He sees classical music as a collaborative art, bringing together creators “from different places, different types of expertise.” He makes music to broaden his horizons, “and the best way to do that is exposing myself to other people’s creative ideas and their creative process, whether it be other musicians, composers, visual artists, or filmmakers.”

Muhly celebrates this sense of community in a brand new piece, which closes the series. “Steve [Reich] told me that I need to ‘find my band,’” says Muhly. In response, the young composer has written a work for an ensemble comprising his closest friends. “We’ve all been to each other’s mom’s houses, we’ve all seen each other naked,” he says. “It’s an excuse to share space, coming from everywhere to do one thing.”

“Having had those battles fought has been incredibly useful,” says Muhly. “Our elders have done a lot of the work, for one, and we have more tools now than they did.” The new piece opens with the first chord of Reich’s seminal Music for 18 Musicians. “It’s not just an homage. I’m taking this music and running. It’s a generational relay race.”

John Adams and Terry Riley
John Adams | Terry Riley
Thursday, March 30 at 7:30 PM
Three Generations:
John Adams and Terry Riley
Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Steve Reich
Arvo Pärt | Philip Glass | Steve Reich
Thursday, April 6 at 7:30 PM
Three Generations:
Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich
David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon
David Lang | Julia Wolfe | Michael Gordon
Wednesday, April 19 at 7:30 PM
Three Generations:
David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon
Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly
Bryce Dessner | Nico Muhly
Wednesday, April 26 at 7:30 PM
Three Generations:
Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly
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