The Donut-Shaped World of New Music


On Sunday night, I had the delightful (and all too rare) experience of hearing an excellent composition by a composer who was new to me: Giya Kancheli. The piece was his Styx, for orchestra, chorus and solo viola; and the performers were Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra, the Elmer Iseler Singers, and violist Teng Li (principal viola of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra).

In my review for Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, I wrote: "Kancheli’s broad yet sparse musical landscape, marked by sharp contrasts (including a few Beethovenian outbursts), seems to come from a parallel universe, arrestingly beautiful and beyond common experience." That’s pretty high praise, coming from me: I’m quite fussy about contemporary music.

In fact, there are only a handful of living composers whose works consistently impress me. On the way home from the concert, I made a short mental list of my favourites: Arvo Pärt, John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov, John Tavener, R. Murray Schafer, Tan Dun – and now Giya Kancheli. And then it occurred to me to consider where these composers are from: Estonia, the USA, Argentina, the UK, Canada, China, and the Republic of Georgia.

What strikes me about this list, and its geographic mapping, is the conspicuous absence of composers from the three countries that were long considered central to classical music: France, Germany and Italy. With the exception of the nonagenarian Henri Dutilleux, I cannot name any living composer from these three nations whose music impresses me very much.

Maybe it’s just me and my particular tastes. But I can’t help wondering if the intense "mining" of music that went on in France, Germany and Italy for 500 years or more has led to an exhaustion of resources. The word "decadent" springs to mind (in the both senses of the word: decaying and self-indulgent), to describe the music composed in those countries today.

It’s sad to see great nations enter a period of decline – but consoling to know that composers in other countries are willing and able to fill the vacuum with fresh ideas. If the map of the new-music world now looks donut-shaped, with a hole where the centre used to be, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.