9 Brilliant Contemporary Composers Who Prove Classical Music Isn't Dead


When you say you like classical music, nine out of 10 people assume you mean stuff written by dead white guys. If you claim that you love contemporary classical, they'll probably assume you're talking about something like the orchestral re-interpretation of Sir Mix-a-Lot. What classical fans really mean, though, is that they love music that's artful, complex and composed in certain forms with rich traditions. A lot of people think classical is dead and done. It's not.

We're actually living in a classical revolution. Now more than ever, brilliant classical composers the likes of which we haven't seen in years are emerging and becoming dominant in the music world. Contemporary classical composers show a bravery and nerve that many pop stars would avoid. From taking on Anna Nicole Smith to the Palestine Liberation Front, these nine contemporary composers show that classical music is as vibrant and relevant as ever.

1. Mark Anthony Turnage

If you think classical is stuffy and pompous, get this: Mark Anthony Turnage wrote an opera called Anna Nicole based on — you guessed it — Anna Nicole Smith, Playboy Playmate and tabloid darling. It's not even his most adventurous work. His Blood on the Floor is about drug addiction, and also mixes classical music and jazz. Turnage isn't afraid to tackle hard subjects. He's proven an incisive and beautiful voice on the pressing matters of modern fame and excess.

2. John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams (no relation to the other John Adams on this list) is the great naturalist composer. His music is inspired by (and sometimes performed in) natural landscapes, particularly the Alaskan environment where he lives.

His recent Become Ocean won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. He has also created a museum installation called "The Place Where You Go to Listen" which uses computers to translate data from magnetic, seismic and meteorological data into music. His work is the music of the planet.

3. Frederic Rzewski

This American composer has made his name with bold, gritty takes on big political topics. Rzewski's Coming Together is based on letters by inmate Sam Melville, who was at Attica State Prison during the riots there in 1971. Antigone-Legend, based on the Bertold Brecht poem, takes on the U.S. government's strong-arming policies (and happened to premiere the night the U.S. began bombing Libya in 1986). It's also revolutionary in its use of the "Twelve Tone Technique."

He's most famous, though, for The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a piano composition based a series of variations on the Chilean song "¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!," which took on the Salvador Allende government. His interest isn't nationally-specific, he cares only about the most important issues.

4. Saed Haddad

Jordanian composer Saed Haddad now resides in Germany, but his music is firmly rooted in his Arab upbringing. Mainly inspired by his "double 'otherness' (stranger-ness) towards the West and the Arabic culture," he often addresses cultural imperialism with his music.

He is a firm believer that music is the best vessel for sorting through your identity. He writes, "Like it or not, I definitely regret the present scenery of my Western culture." His music is a bold strike against the cultural closed-mindedness he sees all around him, and a celebration of his own culture.

5. Unsuk Chin

This South Korean composer is one of the most playful and versatile musicians in any genre. She has won various awards, among them the esteemed Arnold Schönberg Prize. Her music mixes electronic and acoustic sounds, and her first opera, Alice in Wonderland, is every bit as mind-expanding as the Tim Burton movie wanted to be. Her "Acrostic Wordplay," above, is similarly mind-altering.

6. Ann Cleare

Irish composer Anna Cleare loves indie rock (she counts the Smiths and Arcade Fire among her influences). You can tell: Not afraid of including "squeaks, squeals or clomps" in her music, she also loves experimenting with instruments, which she collects. Her "I Am Not a Clockmaker Either" combines the sounds of electronica and the accordion to interesting (and slightly terrifying) effect. Her excellent "Dorchadas" (the Irish word for darkness) takes the primal fear of the dark and explores it with various instruments — kind of like Funeral by Arcade Fire.

7. Thomas Adès

Adès's chamber opera Powder Her Face is about the 1960s so-called "Dirty Duchess" Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Fittingly, it features a scene where fellatio is performed onstage.

His "Ecstasio" stems from club techno music. His orchestral work These Premises Are Alarmed was inspired by the time the composer accidentally set off the security system in a building. In short, this is modern music. As Asyla reveals, it's also pretty fun.

8. Angélica Negrón

Angélica Negrón isn't just a composer; she's also a singer in the band Balún. In her compositions, Negrón loves to take toy and orchestral instruments, electronica and "found sounds" and combine them all into vibrant melodies.

She also has a piece titled "Bubblegum Grass/Peppermint Field," which is just as great as its title sounds. Negrón is more or less the ultimate hipster of classical composers. She even lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

9. John Adams

In 2003, John Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for arguably the most important classical music composition of this century: a choral work about 9/11 called "On the Transmigration of Souls." He was recently nominated for this year's Pulitzer for a work called The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which NPR called a "psychedelic oratorio." It's Adams who shows us most clearly that we still need classical — that music can convey something other art simply can't, and that classical can do it better than anything else.