I have to admit I have been guilty of falling into the trap where I foolishly think, “If only Mozart and Beethoven had been born in the twentieth century; our musical culture would be so much the better!”, but then I realize I’ve given that lament no genuine thought at all. While it may be true that the popular music which currently infects the radio is at an all time low in terms of harmonic structure and sonic diversity, just casually explore iTunes and you’ll find a wealth of great stuff. Beyond that, I was easily able to think of six living/working composers whose output has earned them a place in the immortal echelon alongside the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. I’ll add another installment of this kind of list soon.
1. Arvo Pärt
It would be hard to deny the genius of Arvo Pärt. His music is paradoxically both simple and profound to the ears of the musically educated, while exquisitely beautiful (or deliberately harsh) to even the most casual listener. Born in Estonia, Pärt began his career as a disciple of Schoenberg and the twelve-tone school of composition, but later in life developed his iconic “tintinnabuli” style, notably using voices to accomplish the sounds made when striking a bell. While that may sound simple (it is), his signature sound is overwhelming and is designed to get out of the way of his often religious texts. Arvo Pärt’s modern compositions sound unlike those of anyone else. Whether he is the greatest living composer is certainly fair game for debate, but his place among the greats is undeniable. If you’ve never seen an interview with him, do yourself a favor and watch this delightful discussion between Pärt and Bjork. You’ll like him even more.
2. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock is a superstar by any standard in multiple genres. His early mastery of the piano earned him a place in the Miles Davis Quintet, and led to a brilliant career as a solo pianist. However, it’s when Hancock embraced the synthesizer and the fusion movement in general (can you embrace something you helped create??) that he became the Godfather of both. His album “HeadHunters” is the very sound of a masterpiece. Its songs are played by jazz musicians so often as to borderline on cliché, but the album itself is infinitely listenable. Listening to Hancock’s sequence-laden solo on “Chameleon” still blows my mind every time I hear it. The album “Thrust” is every bit the equal of “HeadHunters”, featuring the exquisite “Butterfly”. It’s so beautiful that if it had been the only song Herbie Hancock ever wrote, there would still be a reason to consider him a genius. His faults are virtually a strength: he possesses a fearlessness that allows him to make an occasional misstep (“Feet”, his disco album) on the way to something even better through the process. His music covers the range from jazz to pop to film scores. What else needs to be said?
3. Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s orchestral scores have become as iconic to American culture as monster trucks and obesity. His music can be heard at the opening of “The Simpsons”, in every Tim Burton film, every album made by 80’s radio staple Oingo Boingo and “The Avengers” movies. His omnipresence is not why he’s great, though. His distinct sound, tonal, yet adventurous, is often characterized by pedal notes for the tubas, a mixed choral/orchestral texture and plentiful solo lines for reeds and strings. Elfman is a perfect match for Tim Burton, whose eerie movies would be far less effective with a different composer involved. “Nightmare Before Christmas” is essentially a Danny Elfman film (featuring his exceptional singing voice), visualized by Burton. In the tradition of Wagner’s leitmotif, Elfman uses music to describe characters and signal their presence. Although Burton’s most iconic film may be the first “Batman”, listen to the soundtrack of “Batman Returns” and you’ll discover what a musical triumph it is. Elfman’s music is unique and absolutely complete when listening to it out of film context.
It’s beyond me how and why Bjork became known as a pop artist. Perhaps it’s only because the Icelandic singer/songwriter has had a couple of hits and doesn’t fit into any other category. Her love of music is itself diverse. She and Arvo Pärt have declared mutual respect for one another (see above) and her jazz influence can be heard throughout her career in songs such as “It’s Oh So Quiet” and the entire album “Glin Glo”, from her early years. Complicated and somewhat of a personal enigma when interviewed, she is truly the picture of the classic frustrated genius. Her unclassifiable music sets her voice against synth beats, big bands, orchestras and even pipe organs. The latter, heard prominently on her 2011 release, “Biophelia” is so elegant and sparse that it completely gives away her admiration for Pärt. It’s endearing and obvious that she hears her music as simple sing-alongs, and they’re full of girlish joy, but the brilliance of her compositions leave us too spellbound to do anything but listen. Her greatest album may be “Post”, but don’t miss her many hidden gems, including the soundtrack to her outstanding (and disturbing) film, “Dancer in the Dark”.
5. Michael League
I’m ridiculously biased when it comes to Mike League and his music, because he’s the world’s nicest guy, a friend, and we were in a (metal!) band together many years ago. However, I’m convinced that anyone who’s ever worked with him is equally impressed by his spirit and incredible enthusiasm for great music. I first heard him play when I gave his quartet a venue to perform at a Methodist Student Center at the University of North Texas, where I worked, at least ten years ago. His playing was terrific even when he was eighteen. Around the same time we started playing in our metal band, he was forming his own group, Snarky Puppy. I remember having a discussion with some teachers and friends who were saying, “Have you heard the new charts Mike a League is writing? – Because you need to!” Michael has performed something amazing. He’s taken the jazz/fusion sounds of thirty years ago and breathed new life into them. It’s almost like a rewriting of jazz history, where an alternate path was taken in the 1980’s, branching off of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and this is where we ended up. It’s a great place to be. Snarky Puppy is a collective effort, but Michael has always been the genius driving the wheel. Beginning with 2006’s “the only constant”, curious attention quickly turned into critical accolades and awards, including a Grammy win. I always think that if a musician who makes the best music he or she can receives the respect they deserve, then maybe the world isn’t such a crappy place after all.