For those of us who have been lazily, unsuccessfully looking for a way into contemporary classical music, NPR offers a rare enticement: They polled their listeners about their favorite composers under 40 and have culled a top 100 from over 800 suggestions. The resulting list is a fascinating one, with more traditional musicians sharing space with indie innovators including Jónsi, Dan Deacon, Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife, Joanna Newsom, and Andrew Bird. Considering that just about all of history’s best-known composers are male, we were excited to see how many women made the list. And while we love Andersson and Newsom, we thought we’d take this opportunity to explore a handful of young, female composers that we — and our readers — didn’t know quite as well. Ten of our favorites are after the jump.
Lera Auerbach is a composer and pianist whose works, which range from string quartets to operas to ballets, have been performed around the world. Something of a child prodigy, she’s been performing since she was only eight years old. Also a respected poet in her home country, Russia, Auerbach’s compositions reflect her dreamy, unconventional aesthetic.
Irish composer Ann Cleare isn’t your traditonal Celtic songsmith. An indie rock fan and instrument hoarder, she isn’t afraid of squeaks or squeals or clomps, creating minimal pieces that give every twisted sound its moment in the sun. “I find the sounds that many composers use so captivating and otherworldly but… I find that they fail to place these sounds in any sort of interesting energy field, or infuse the sounds with any sort of physicality,” Cleare once told Dusted. “To my ears, a lot of contemporary music feels like a colorful but flat surface.” Listen to a generous sampling of her music here.
British-born, New York-based Anna Clyne bills herself as a “composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music,” and collaboration with artists across mediums is her passion. Among those high-profile collaborators and fans are the likes of Björk and Martin Scorsese. For those who are looking to dip their toes into the ocean of new classical and avant-garde music, Clyne’s dramatic and appealing work may well be a good first step. New Yorker critic Alex Ross is a fan, writing that her piece “Within Her Arms” “is a fragile elegy for fifteen strings; intertwining voices of lament bring to mind English Renaissance masterpieces of Thomas Tallis and John Dowland, although the music occasionally breaks down into spells of static grief, with violins issuing broken cries over shuddering double-bass drones.”
Indie fans to whom the name “Rachel Grimes” sounds familiar might well know her as the pianist for the classical-influenced post-rock trio Rachel’s. But Grimes’s more recent work has been solo — namely, 2009’s meditative Book of Leaves, recorded at a monastery. The album was released to raves, including a review from The Wire that named Grimes “one of American music’s few truly inspired technicians.”
Brooklyn-based jazz guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson is known for her improvisation and collaboration. Her projects are too numerous to list, ranging from a spot in Marc Ribot’s Sun Ship to her duo with violist Jessica Pavone (who also made NPR’s list) to her own trio and quintet. A glowing Pop Matters piece praises the mysteriously addictive quality of her work, nothing that “Halvorson’s style is fragmented and cuts utterly loose from conventional jazz patterns. And while she plays a huge hollow-body Guild guitar with a fairly clean sound, she is quick to bend her notes, frazzle her lines, leap and crackle, pluck and pull and strike her strings against convention.”
The first thing you notice about Zoë Keating is how completely out of place she’d look at a stuffy chamber music performance. But her uniqueness goes well beyond her bright-red dreadlocks. This “one-woman orchestra” layers her cello music — live — using a laptop, and her singular sound has won her a spot on several film soundtracks, as well as collaborations with everyone from DJ Shadow to Amanda Palmer.
A staple of New York’s avant-garde scene, a participant in genre-crossing events like Bang on a Can, and a composer whose work has been performed by the Kronos Quartet, Missy Mazzoli performs solo and leads the all-female ensemble Victoire. Mazzoli’s music, which encompasses operas, chamber compositions, and even film scores, falls somewhere between new classical music and the artiest reaches of indie rock. And if that isn’t intriguing enough, Time Out New York offers the following high praise: “If Brooklyn is becoming a Vienna of the new millennium, Mazzoli may well be its Mozart.”
Angélica Negrón’s brightly colored instruments and echoing melodies are sure to evoke childhood fantasy. According to her website, the Puerto Rican-born composer is “interested in creating intricate yet simple narratives that evoke intangible moments in time, she writes music for accordions, toys and electronics as well as chamber ensembles and orchestras.” Like many of the artists on this list, she’s known for her pop music — as the singer in a band called Balún — as well as her classical work.
Sarah Kirkland Snider has been on the classical circuit for years, but her breakthrough came with last year’s arresting Penelope. A collaboration between Snider, playwright Ellen McLaughlin, singer Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), the Signal chamber orchestra, and conductor Brad Lubman, Penelope is a song cycle about a woman whose amnesiac husband returns to her after 20 years. To help the two of them deal with their separation and reunion, she reads him The Odyssey. While these mirrored stories might scream “meta,” there’s nothing inaccessible about Snider haunting and epic work. Writing for The New York Times, Steve Smith observed that Penelope “had an elegiac quality that deftly evoked sensations of abandonment, agitation, grief and reconciliation.”
A daring an eclectic bassoonist, Katherine Young is invariably described as odd by critics who have certainly heard their share of bizarre experimental music. Young performs solo, with the aid of effects pedals, and as part of the band Pretty Monsters. One of her fascinations is science fiction, which is a clear influence on her lively, eerie Inside UFO 53-32. Listen to a selection of Young’s works at her website.