NeologisticsMusicSelahBuying Records → Influential Composers

Below is a lineup of some of the most influential composers in the world of modern music during the twentieth century, though be no means all of them. These are the ones I mentioned that had a significant influence on me in my early musical thinking, shown in the chronological order in which I became aware of them.

John Cage

John Cage is perhaps the most important musical philosopher of the twentieth century. Most of his music was more significant for the viewpoint it expressed rather than how well it sounded. Cage introduced randomness and unpredictability into music, a concept that was foreign to the aesthetic of the Western world. Most people simply hate listening to most of what he wrote, but the fact remains that there is hardly a composer in the world today who was not in some way directly impacted by what he did.

Cage is shown here with the warmest of smiles. Rather than being a cold, isolated, ivory tower idealist, he was a legendary nice guy, a gregarious fellow that everyone instantly loved. I had the pleasure of meeting him myself, the first time briefly at a party, and the second when I phoned him to try and convince him to write a piece of music for my newly formed rock band. However, he had other projects going, and was not interested, but he suggested other works of his we might consider performing. However, I was interested in an exclusive commission, not merely in the idea of a rock band performing something by John Cage.

As I indicated in my story, I first became aware of John Cage when he appeared on television when I was in high school.

Charles Ives is the earliest modern American composer, and a true original. His music shows influences from many resources, and also an individuality that was unmatched at the time. He did things that were utterly unlike anything that was being done by any his composers in either Europe or the US.

As a practical man, Ives determined while still a fairly young man that he needed to devote time and attention to supporting his family. Accordingly, he became a successful and wealthy executive in the insurance business. After he started down this path he never composed again, although he lived for several more decades.

Charles Ives
Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter can claim roots from the line of Americana school composers that others such as Aaron Copland also came from, although listeners who don't know otherwise often associate most of his music with the realm of serial composers that came from the line of Schöonberg through Webern. Beginning in the forties, Carter's music became increasingly complex, and his musical language and techniques highly individual.

My introduction to Elliott Carter was listening in a booth in Paul Siebenmann's record store to a recording made by the University of Illinois' resident Walden quartet of Carter's massive first String Quartet, which won a Pulitzer prize. I found the work astonishing and incomprehensible at the time, but so intriguing that I couldn't stop listening to it over and over again. Today it remains one of my personal favorite compositions of twentieth century music.

Carter has been spectacularly prolific his entire career. At this writing he is age 89, and has recently completed both a lengthy work for full orchestra, and an opera, appropriately entitled: What Next?

I had the semi-pleasure of having one private composition lesson with Elliot Carter when he came to University of Illinois as a visitor. I brought to him my Sonata for Piano, but of course could not play it myself, and Roger Shields, for whom I wrote it, was not available to demonstrate it. Carter stared at the first page for a while (which is quite simple), and asked some question about the rhythmic transition from the first part to the second, and apparently was disappointed that there was not some structural relationship as there would be in his own music. When he paged a little further through it, he commented, ``This is quite difficult, isn't it?'' I admitted that it was, because it was written for a friend who was a colossal virtuoso. The lesson ended rather abruptly when the time expired and I had to make way for the next visitor. I can't say I got any benefit from the lesson, but I was honored to have had a small opportunity to meet the man. Carter is still one of my favorite modern composers.

Edgard Varèse is another composer I became acquainted with through a recording first heard in Paul Siebenmann's record store, an album conducted by Igor Stravinsky's protegée Robert Craft. Later there was a second volume. The two together constitute most of the output of this composer, who was also active as a conductor and organizer of new music concerts in the US for many years.

Varèse, like Ives, stands alone in twentieth century music. There has never been another composer like him, before or after. He dealt in blocks of sound and composed what might best be described as sonic structures. He was also one of the first persons to create electronic music, with his work Poem Electonique.

Edgard Varese
Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen is one of the two principal students of Olivier Messiaen. It is fair to say that no two compositions of Stockhausen bear any resemblance to each other. I've often described it as being as though Stockhausen reinvents music from scratch with each new work.

Some of Stockhausen's works are Wagnerian in their scope. Others are quite small.

For some time Stockhausen has exercised almost total control over his music, to the extent that it's virtually impossible to buy new recordings of his work except through his own company. Although these productions are apparently of the highest quality, coming with extensive notes and bonus materials, they are so outrageously expensive as to be prohibitive. I would love to have much more Stockhausen in my collection than I have, but am unwilling to pay the price of ordering directly from Stockhausen Verlag plus shipping from Germany, rather than going to a discount channel like Amazon.

I met Stockhausen once, when he came to University of Illinois to give a lecture and play some tapes of his works. He graciously met with inquiring students backstage. One naive trumpet-wielding student asked him: ``Why do you always write for muted trumpet?'' Stockhausen looked at him incredulously and replied, in his thick German accent, ``Because I don't like ze trumpet!'' As things have turned out, Stockhausen's son Marcus has grown up to be one of the most spectacularly gifted trumpet players in the world, who plays not only music with his father, but all kinds of classical and jazz music as well.

Pierre Boulez is the other principal student of Olivier Messiaen. His music is highly serialized, and his technique has not ranged into as many different venues as has Stockhausen's. Again, my first exposure to his music was through a Columbia recording of his most well-known masterwork, Le Marteau sans maitre which I heard at Paul's record store.

One reason for this is no doubt because Boulez has become world famous as one of the greatest conductors in the world. I was quite familiar with him as an avant garde composer before I ever realized that he could conduct, and was quite surprised to see him emerge as the conductor of some well-known mainstream ensembles. Of course, he is now world famous, and his reputation as a conducting far outweighs his composition, which has taken a back seat to his performance activities for decades, and will probably remain that way.

Boulez also visited University of Illinois one weekend, to attend, but not participate in, a performance of one of his works by a visiting new music ensemble. He received a small group of students over at the student union for a couple of hours while present, so we got to meet and talk with him. Afterward, he graciously autographed my well-worn copy Le Marteau sans maitre.

Pierre Boulez
Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio has always been one of my favorite avant garde composers, because I consider his music deeply emotional any intensely lyrical.

It was my desire to study with Berio in Europe, but at the time I was exploring the possibility, Berio was teaching at Harvard and Julliard in the US.

I barely missed an opportunity to meet Berio when he too came to Urbana to support a performance of one of his works. But I was able to meet him through the mail by having found myself in the unique position of being able to do him a personal favor as recently as 1999. The story is told in the anecdote An Encounter with Luciano Berio.

Morton Feldman is certainly one of a kind. Almost all of his music is so extremely sparse that you wonder if the musicians are actually playing, or are just getting ready to play, with only occasional quiet sounds separated by long silences.

Once again, I first heard Feldman on a Columbia recording at Paul's record store. The first piece on the album sounded like monkeys jumping on a keyboard. The rest of it, all string music, and in fact the remainder of Feldman's output for the rest of his life, was of the type described in the previous paragraph.

Morton Feldman