DePauw Musicians

What is a 21st-Century Musician?

There are many ways to define a 21st-century classical musician, which makes sense, because as the century evolves, so does the idea of what it means to play classical music. Many people reading this – especially younger ones – are forging that definition right now.

But here are some things I think these artists might be.

  • They go their own way.
  • They perform or compose the music they like, in the way they like. And that music isn’t always classical.
  • They make their own opportunities. They shape their careers like entrepreneurs, and might produce their own performances.

This contrasts with the way things used to be.

Under the old rules, if you played the clarinet, the music you played was the clarinet repertoire. Your musical life was defined by that music. Your role was to serve the composers who wrote it, and your own identity mattered much less.

You didn’t control your performances. Others – whoever booked you to perform – would decide how your performance would look and what the program notes would say. Your audience would be their audience. You wouldn’t have one of your own.

But times have changed. Here are musicians who play by new rules:

Anderson & Roe

Anderson & Roe: Entrepreneurial wizards

They’re duo pianists, Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Roe. They have, in their own words, “a nonstop touring schedule.” And a diverse repertoire.

The key to their diversity? They don’t just play music written for two pianos. They’ll arrange anything they want to play, whether it’s a Michael Jackson song or the first act finale from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte (which they feature on the third of their three albums, An Amadeus Affair).

And they do all this with fabulous visual flair, as you can see on a page of their website devoted to their many videos. Here are links to two of them, which also show their musical range:

  • Der Erlkönig” – one of Schubert’s most famous songs, now transformed into a musical/video production so dramatic, so intense, that Roe is literally swept off her piano bench.
  • A Rain of Tears” – an aria from a Vivaldi opera becomes a quiet soundtrack for images of rain and melancholy.

Now, extending their success, they’re selling scores of their transcriptions. And coming soon: Anderson & Roe merchandise.

Stewart Goodyear

Stewart Goodyear: Follow your dream

Stewart Goodyear is a pianist born in Canada, who studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, at Curtis, and at Juilliard. Has played with many leading orchestras.

Many would be satisfied with such success. But Goodyear had a crazy dream – to play all the Beethoven sonatas in a single-day marathon – for which, he said, he’d have to train like an athlete.

And he did it. Every year, he plays his marathon at major venues: the big opera house in Dallas, the Mondavi Center in Davis, Calif., Toronto’s Luminato Festival.

He also composes – most recently a piano concerto, which he premiered at the Peninsula Music Festival, and Count Up, a fanfare, written for the Cincinnati Symphony.

He’s made recordings. Beethoven, of course – all the sonatas. And, just released, the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Who writes the liner notes? These are his performances played his way, so he writes the notes himself.

UMD Symphony Orchestra: Appalachian Spring, Copland

James Ross: Empowering his students

Ross teaches conducting and conducts the orchestra at the University of Maryland School of Music. Two of his conducting projects have just about gone viral – performances of “Afternoon of a Faun” and “Appalachian Spring,” in which the students played the music from memory and danced it while they played. This empowered them, bringing out a creative force they may not have known they had.

Another empowering project: a performance of Petrushka, with the musicians doubling as actors. This was so impressive that the New York Philharmonic did it, too, empowering its own musicians.

Ross also empowers the students in his Maryland orchestra to help create a new kind of concert dress – informal black, with an accent color picked for each performance and applied (or not!) in creative ways by the musicians.

Ross has also run the National Orchestral Institute, a summer program for young professionals, where he gave musicians power to produce concerts on their own. Their programs featured classical performances alongside rock arrangements and improvisations.

Mason Bates

Mason Bates: Fusion of opposites?

Not so. No opposites here. Yes, Mason Bates is a classical composer and a dance DJ. But in the 21st century, why should these things be opposites?

Here’s proof of that. Who likes what Bates does? No less a maestro than Riccardo Muti, who personally picked him (along with Anna Clyne, whose work also isn’t in a normal concert style) to be composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony.

Bates also does projects with his hometown band, the San Francisco Symphony – and with many other orchestras, including the YouTube Symphony, with which he performed in 2009 and 2011 as electronica soloist, as he often does, in symphonic pieces that he wrote. You can watch those performances, here and here. You’ll find an outline of his thriving classical career, along with details of his DJ work, on his website.

And, proving that all of this has an audience, he and Clyne exploded the Chicago Symphony’s new music series, MusicNOW, into something that attracts huge, young crowds.

Lara Downes

Lara Downes: Doing it her way

Downes, a pianist, recorded an album not long ago that’s not a standard classical release. She and cellist Quill Bailey play American music: Barber, Copland, Bernstein, Lukas Foss. But with a twist. Yes, they play the Barber’s Cello Sonata, a formidable work written for their instruments. But they also play music they’ve arranged from songs by Barber, Bernstein and Copland, including two from Bernstein’s musicals. They play the music that they like.

In San Francisco, where she lives, Downes founded what she calls an “alt-classical” concert series called The Artist Sessions, which is hosted in clubs and performance spaces for people who never go to classical events. Downes has written about how hard she works to attract these people and to make the concerts memorable.

Other recordings? Highly varied.

13 Ways of Looking at the Goldbergs: 13 composers write their own takes on you know which Bach piece.

Exile’s Cafe: poignant works by composers living in exile.

And Downes’ latest: “But Beautiful,” a heartfelt tribute to the greatest of jazz singers, Billie Holiday, featuring arrangements that evoke not just her songs but her singing.

If you follow the links, you’ll see that Downes promotes these highly individual releases with video trailers.

Greg Sandow

Greg Sandow spent many years as a pop and classical music critic, and now is a composer and specialist in the future of classical music. …more 

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11 Responses

  1. I know it’s hard to draw lines between musician/non-musician, classical/non-classical, but I’m wondering, in the most approximate, hand-wavy way possible about a couple of percentages: what percentage of the people in the world are musicians, and what percentage of those are classical musicians?

  2. Anna G says:

    I first became aware of electronic classical musicians, such as Mason Bates, from NPR. They posted an interesting article on their website highlighting major composers that are bridging the gap between the electronic music and classical music genres. I think labeling the genres can be tricky—is Karlheinz Stockhausen a classical or electronic composer? Or both? Was Beethoven classical or romantic? For the time being, I think we depend on labels because we have used labels to define historical composers. The challenge for the 21st century is to embrace and uphold traditional “classical” music while exploring and challenging the boundaries of music and sonic artistry. Greg Sandow’s article gives a brief overview of the 21C Musician; i.e., the criteria to be a 21C Musician defies boundaries and labels.

  3. Mark says:

    What a great definition, Greg– and great exemplars, all.

  4. charles says:

    The creative spirit is the heart of any great people! I like this article – understandable challenges as jazz is my heart. To promote & enhance life through music we shall do.

  5. Allan Whitehead says:

    I really like the author’s definition of what the 21st century musician is. The 21st century musician pretty much makes their own success. They are hard working and determined individuals that don’t follow the “rules” that have been set over the years. All of the different perspectives were also a great touch. It is great to be part of a university that is dedicated to shaping successful musicians in the 21st century.

  6. Megan says:

    I like the idea that a 21st century musician is in charge of their performance. They are the entrepreneurs of their own businesses and they control where and when they perform. Their audiences are their own, and they control their interactions with them. I think the ideal 21st century musician is very personally empowered and self reliant.

  7. Abigail Martin says:

    It seems, in this article, that the definition of a 21st Century Musician that has been arrived at is that they are an innovator. It is no longer viable to simply accept what is handed to you as a musician. You can’t expect to simply excel at the performance of your instrument. It won’t get you anywhere. What will is creativity, artistry, and innovation. The irony is that those are the very traits being squashed out of musicians by the increasingly competitive auditions for spots in major orchestras and opera companies.

  8. Kevin Salinas says:

    I really liked that they put the idea of a 21st Century Musician entirely on the musician, but very often we find people asking “what is 21CM, what am I supposed to do?” The answer is something that you have to work to find for yourself no one can tell you what to do. It has to be your own process to find success.

  9. Saige Trottman-Huiet says:

    It is always so inspiring to see real examples of 21st Century Musicians. I love the concept that “they perform or compose the music they like, in the way they like. And that music isn’t always classical.” It is so important to remember to be truthful to your musical and social desires because you are the only one with ideas that are entirely your own. I love that performance practices and traditions are being pushed, even just what to wear. These musical traditions have lasted for so long and it is time to question and innovate them. I love that there are so many professors and professionals that are consistently challenging and pushing students to innovate and create.

  10. Isabel Lopez-Roldan says:

    As Saige pointed out, it’s essential to not lose touch of your personal desires as a musician. No one can set a generic definition to 21CM; it has a different meaning to all of us as individuals. The main point of it is to be adventurous, be unique and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. I really think that’s what being a musician today should be all about.

  11. Tyler Schaefers says:

    I agree with Kevin, there isn’t really a set definition of a 21CM. Each individual has their own definition of it and they will take their own path in order to do something that hasn’t been done before. Even if they don’t succeed, it makes them one step closer to becoming a 21CM.

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