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Why Aren't Composers Writing More Symphonies Today?

Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel.
courtesy of the artist
Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel.

At 8 years old, I scrawled my first and last Symphonies — nos. 1, 2, and 3 — on ruled notebook paper. They were short duets for clarinet and trumpet for myself and my brother to play. Why did I call them symphonies? I can't remember, but I suspect that it was a desire to tie these efforts — and me, by extension — to a grand and venerable tradition.

Many of America's most eminent living composers — like John Corigliano, William Bolcom, Ollie Wilson, Charles Wuorinen, Philip Glass, John Harbison, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Steven Stucky and Stephen Hartke — have written at least one symphony, and a younger generation — including Aaron Jay Kernis, Kamran Ince, Lowell Liebermann, Christopher Theofanidis, Kevin Puts and Huang Ruo — demonstrate that there is more depth and beauty to be mined in this time-honored tradition. But having encountered thousands of submissions to the American Composers Orchestra over the past several seasons, I've noticed a dearth of works with "Symphony" in the title. At the ACO, where I am the artistic director, the 2007 strategic plan mandated a focus on 'emerging' composers, and programming has reflected that change. That's yielded a dramatic drop-off in the number of symphonies programmed in recent years. I asked several younger composers about this phenomenon and was intrigued by the thoughtful and thought-provoking answers they offered.

Berkeley native Gabriela Lena Frank, whose Manchay Tiempo will be performed by ACO this season, affirms an allergy to the title, but not necessarily to the form. "Maybe I'm rebelling against the reverential stupor that often greets the word 'symphony,'" she wrote to me. "When I listen to the symphonies of Mahler and Beethoven, I often call them something else in my head, so that they are actually approachable, even achievable." Virginian-turned-San Franciscan Mason Bates, whose Omnivorous Furniture was performed by ACO in 2006, wrote: "I avoid the old-school term because it misses a creative opportunity. Titles for me aren't just a setting of the stage; they're the first and most important part of a dramatic conceit." Chicago-based Anthony Cheung, whose Symphony was read by ACO in 2001, now avoids the term and is more comfortable with the more vague description symphonic. "The [noun] carries the huge weight of a glorious but rather specific tradition, and the [adjective] signifies any combination of length, instrumentation, and desire to express and communicate on a grand scale."

Many in the younger generation may be avoiding use of the word to free themselves — consciously or subconsciously – from the historical underpinnings it conjures, both in terms of private inspiration and public perception. But perhaps a greater deterrent is opportunity. Midwesterner-turned-Californian Andrew Norman, whose symphonic-scale work Play clocks in at 47 minutes, also finds practical disincentives. "I'm interested in long-form orchestra music," he wrote, "but orchestras are, for the most part, not interested in commissioning or performing it. Also, without an effective mechanism for getting repeat performances, there is very little incentive for a composer to spend a year or more writing a giant piece that will in all likelihood get one performance."

Texas native Clint Needham, whose Chamber Symphony was premiered by ACO in 2007, proposes one potential remedy: "I did recently string three works commissioned separately together as one larger 25-minute work — a la Phantasmata [by Rouse]. I guess that could be a symphony."

Or not. After all, many of America's most celebrated composers — Gershwin, Ellington, Cage, Varèse, Mingus, Henry Brant, Reich and many others — never wrote a symphony, perhaps because of a lack of opportunity or because they simply had little use for the term and the form. But, as the orchestra must evolve, so the well-worn "symphony" must be challenged too. And composers in the past decades have sought new approaches to not only their titles, but also instrumental forces, stylistic boundaries and conceptual frameworks.

Steve Mackey's Dreamhouse weaves an electric guitar quartet and amplified vocal ensemble into the orchestral complement, and Bates' Alternative Energy is a 21st century electro-acoustic symphony. Sebastian Currier's Microsymph squeezes a five-movement symphony into a mere 10 minutes. In Michael Gordon's "film symphony" Decasia and Julia Wolfe's Fuel, brilliant collaborations with the filmmaker Bill Morrison, visuals both propel and feed off the music. Improvisation is built into the very fabric of Vijay Iyer's Interventions and Uri Caine's Double Trouble. Ornette Coleman's Skies of America and Wynton Marsalis' All Rise infuse the orchestra with the spirit and rhythmic vitality of jazz.

Joan LaBarbara's In solitude this fear is lived extends the performance space out into the hall, and in Ray Lustig's Latency Canons, it extends beyond the walls, even to other cities, and continents. Glenn Branca is writing a symphony for 100 violins and percussion; Tristan Perich's 1-Bit Symphony is housed on a microchip. From the sublime to the outrageous, from the grandiose to the minuscule, American composers are stretching and prodding the fabric of the known orchestral universe, boldly forging and sculpting new sonic space.

Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel is the artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra, where he has served as creative advisor since 2009. As a composer, his many awards include the Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships and the Alpert Award in the Arts. He also serves as the Composer in Residence at Mannes College The New School for Music and as director of Copland House's emerging composers' institute, Cultivate. He has performed his own clarinet concerto with orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Learn more about his work at his website.

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