Top 100 (68) Composers
As with all the "Top 100" lists I've compiled or am compiling, this is just my personal favorites, it's not intended as an 'absolutely objective' list of composers who're 'unquestionably GREAT'. Obviously, I'm not familiar with all the work of all composers & what I like &/or love is based on personal criteria that will differ from the criteria of other people interested in the subject.
I have a preference for (M)Usic that strikes me as original, that's complex, that's innovative, that can surprise me, that I can listen to repeatedly without getting bored with it or feeling like I know it enough for it to be a closed subject for me. I tend to enjoy (M)Usic from 1885 to the present the most but I've listened to (M)Usic from hundreds of years before then too.
As with the "Top 100 Books" list, the people presented are simply those that occured to me off the top of my head - or, at least, that's the way it started out. There are very few women, which bothers me. This isn't intended to be a negative statement about women composers. I include myself because I love my own audio work but I generally prefer to call myself a "d composer" or a "Low Classicist" instead of a "composer". None of my friends are on here (except for Franz Kamin who's deceased) possibly because I don't want to favor some over others.
There are no jazz composers here (except for Bob Graettinger), that bothers me too. This seems to be because while I love jazz it's the overall music that I love rather than the compositions, per se. E.G. I love the music of Eric Dolphy but the compositions aren't as important to me as the way he & his fellow musicians play them. If I make a "Top 100 Musicians" list there'll be many more women & jazz musicians represented - as well as musicians in other genres not represented here.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found it very difficult to pick 100 composers. When I was picking the Top 100 Books it was hard to narrow the list down to such a small number. With the composers, it's the opposite problem: there're many composers whose work I like very much but I might find their overall body of work to be too conventional or otherwise limited. I've tried to pick composers the majority of whose work I've been passionate about at some point.
I like the work of basically all Musique Concrete composers but I tried to pick the ones I've liked the most. I love Terry Riley's "In C" but I find that he has at least a decade of work after that that overuses the delay technique. I think Vivian Fine's "Missa Brevis for Four Cellos and Taped Voice" is wonderful but her "Concertante for Piano and Orchestra" is too conventional for me. I love most of Igor Stravinsky's work but I dislike his neoclassical period.
I like what little I've heard by Ana-Maria Avram but I haven't heard enough. She'll probably make it to the list after I listen to her work some more. She & I were connected on Linked-In. While researching her today I was surprised to learn that she was 8 years younger than me AND that she died a few months ago in August, 2017.
So far today, November 4, 2017, I've rejected Lucia Dlugozewski from this list - partially because her "timbre piano" isn't different enough from John Cage's "prepared piano" & because it came later too. I've also rejected Otto Ketting even though I find his work very compelling. I particularly like his "Symphony for Saxophones and Orchestra" (1977-1978) but I don't like it more than Gilbert Artman's similar "Urban Sax" (their 1st record was 1977) & Artman has the extra plus of having worked with Pierre Henry. Some, or all, of those composers may make the list below (I haven't decided yet) or they may not.
Then there are so many Central & South American composers whose work I like such as Alejandro Garcia Caturla, Carlos Chavez, Alberto Ginastera, Silvestre Revueltas, & Amadeo Roldán - but which of these would I pick, if any? It's hard for me to rule out Roldán considering the historical importance of his "Ritmica" percussion series from 1930, the same year as Varèse's "Ionization" (1929-1931) but while I like things like his "Suite de "La Rebambaramba"" (1927-1928) I don't like it as much as Varèse's considerably more revolutionary works like "Amériques" (1918-21).
I'm more inclined in favor of the composers on the New Music from South America for Chamber Music record on the Mainstream label: Gerardo Gandini, César Bolaños, Marlos Nobre, Oscar Bazän, Manuel Enriquez, & Alcides Lanza but I've had so few opportunites to hear their work that it's hard for me to judge.
Or what about Tod Dockstader? Dockstader fascinates me as that rare individual: the person who in the late 1950s & early-to-mid 1960s had his own electro-acoustic studio & who worked in the extremely labor-intensive ways of those early days. I've heard his "Travelling Music" (1960), "8 Electronic Pieces" (Folkways Records FM 3434) (December 1960), "Apocalpyse" (1961), "Luna Park" (1962), "Two Fragments from "Drone" (1962), "Quatermass" (1964), "Four Telemetry Tapes" (1965). & "Omniphony" (in collaboration with James Reichert) (1963-1967). I like it all, especially "Omniphony", but there's not enough variety there for me.
& Diamanda Galas? Obviously, an incredible performer, her "Plague Mass" is astounding. But, as with Dockstader, I find there to be insufficient variety. There's an intense emotional sameness that gets dull because of its lack of comedic contrast, e.g.. Still, both Galas & Dockstader might make it here.
Because the introduction of all sounds as valid musical material has been so central to the music I love I tend to favor the composers who worked with instruments outside the conventional traditional instruments & composers who worked with electronics & tape. Nonetheless, I'm not that enthusiastic about Otto Luening & Vladimir Ussachevsky - even though they're certainly tape music pioneers & I like their work. But Luening, e.g., composed some very conventional, &, to my mind, dull, music for traditional instruments.
There are so many pre-1885 composers that I've had some enthusiasm for such as Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, & Ludwig van Beethoven but I ultimately find them a little boring to listen to because the innovations of the 20th century have been too important to me for music before the innovations to be exciting. As for the 21st century? Too little of it has done anything for me yet. I primarily think of my own work - which means that I know entirely too little about other people's.
Compiling this list turned out to be much, MUCH harder than I expected. Initially, I decided to reject Sofia Gubaidulina because none of the work strikes me as that innovative & the few recordings I have of it have too much cello & accordion & no matter how great the writing is for them I still get sick of the tonality so the work seemed too narrow-focus. THEN, I decided to include Gilbert Artman's Urban Sax & Giacinto Scelsi both of whom are even more narrow-focus than Gubaidulina is so it didn't seem fair to exclude her. Besides, given that I'm a pianist & not a cellist or accordion player, I recognized my bias in favor of the piano since I don't exclude Alkan whose work was almost exclusively for the piano. THEN, I listened to all the Gubaidulina work I have recordings of & rejected them AGAIN even though I like them & even though I think she has an important place in post-Socialist-Realism music because I don't feel passionately moved by them.
After waffling over Gubaidulina & others (such as Milton Babbitt) for days I decided to NOT push for meeting the number 100. Instead, I'll just include the composers I feel comfortable with including here & settle for whatever number may result.
& what to do with composers such as Denis Smalley & Josef Tal? I only have 3 recordings by Smalley & these are of a similar ilk. I certainly like them but I'd need to hear more by him before adding him here. Tal's case is even more extreme: I only have a recording of his "Shape". I remember being very impressed by it but what else has he done? Or what about Elizabeth Vercoe & Tui St. George Tucker? They're 2 more composers whose work I've barely heard, on fairly small classical labels that I've been lucky to find. Or Walter Zimmermann? I have recordings of 2 vocal pieces of his that I like very much but I've never heard anything else by him & the 2 pieces aren't enough to conclude from.
In short, there are far more composers left off this list whose work I like.. but don't quite love enough to include here. There's George Antheil. I do love much of his early work but his Hollywood drek in 'unforgiveable' (I've decided to include him anyway). There's Olly Wilson, I haven't heard enough, there's Karl-Birger Blomdahl, interesting.. but not quite interesting enough. There's Anthony Braxton, an astouding musician but the compositions just end up being too much 'beautiful music' for me, there's Leslie Bassett, just a tad too academic.
Or what about Henri Lazarof? When I remembered him I got excited: maybe he'll 'make the grade'. SO, I listened to the 4 records I have by him in roughly chronological order. He was off to a good start: I liked "Textures" (1970), "Cadence III" (1970), & "Partita" (1971). The latter being for brass quintet & tape. I'm always interested in pieces that combine live instruments with prerecorded material. Lazarof does what many people do: has the tape material extend the instruments without being obviously dramatically different from them: hence no electronics. That approach is ok by me but I hoped that the other instruments-plus-tape pieces would be different. They weren't.
Next up by Lazarof were "Third Chamber Concerto for Twelve Soloists" (1974), nice. "Cadence VI for Tuba and Tape" (1973) played by Roger Bobo, Bobo's the tuba virtuoso that seems to have the repertoire of most interest to me. "Duo - 1973" for cello & piano, sure, fine. "Adieu" for Clarinet (Bass Clarinet) and Piano (1974), yeah, ok, fine, not really that interesting to me. Then "Spectrum" for Solo Trumpet, Orchestra and Tape (1973), my interest perks up again, Thomas Stevens's the soloist, he's astounding. "Concerto for Flute and Orchestra" (1973), also good but no tape part so not as interesting to me as it would be if it had a tape part. "String Quartet 1980", ok, fine, I like string quartets but it takes alot for me to find one remarkable. "Inventions for Viola and Piano 1962", I could barely care. "Trio for Wind Instruments 1981", I'd pretty much lost interest by this point. "Intonazione e Variazioni 1980 for Solo Organ", I thought this might bring my interest back enough & it almost did.. but not quite. SO, after all that, I rejected Lazarof even though he's obviously a fine composer.
In fact, if I were to really strip this list down to the composers that're 'essential' to me it might only be 20. Nonetheless, this list leaves out more than it puts in - it leaves out all music that I wouldn't categorize by composer. As such, it leaves out improvisation &/or world music, etc.. For the moment, I want to praise these composers. As these lists multiply, I hope to include what's temporarily omitted.
The list is in alphabetical order organized by composer's last name (or by whatever name is available) & does not represent a hierarchical organization. The links are mostly or entirely to pages that I've created to show what pieces by the composer I'm familiar with (usually by having recordings of them that I've listened to extensively) &, rarely, to other relevant materials.
In order for this list to really amount to something substantial I should write a detailed essay about each composer's work, add pictures of all the recordings that the pieces are from that I'll list & give complete scores whenever I have them in my collection. That, though, is asking entirely too much of myself. I don't even know if I'll ever find the time & energy to even create a separate web-page for each of them, I've got so much going on in my life as it is. SHEESH!
Alas, many of the composers who're the most important to me are the ones I'll put off creating pages for because I have so many recordings by them & so much to say about them & so many scores of theirs that I'll avoid the anticipated work. As such, some of the composers who I'll create pages for may seem like strange choices because the pages will be so minimal.
Finally, the composers who've been most important to me have their numbers in red. I 'just had to' distinguish them somehow. Even making that determination has been the cause of some internal controversy.
- October 31, 2017 note from tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
001. Alkan, Charles-Valentin Morhange
002. Antheil, George
003. Artman, Gilbert
004. Avram, Ana-Maria
005. Bandt, Ros
006. Bayle, François
007. Berio, Luciano
008. Boulez, Pierre
009. Brant, Henry
010. Brown, Earle
011. Cage, John
012. Carter, Eliot
013. Chavez, Carlos
014. Cowell, Henry
015. Crumb, George
016. Curran, Alvin
017. Davies, Peter Maxwell
018. Detoni, Debravko
019. Dodge, Charles
020. Druckman, Jacob
021. Dumitrescu, Iancu
022. Dun, Tan
023. Dunn, David
024. Feldman, Morton
025. Foss, Lucas
026. Gaburo, Kenneth
027. Graettinger, Robert
028. Hába, Alois
029. Harrison, Lou
030. Henry, Pierre
031. Hiller, Lejaren
032. Hodgkinson, Tim
033. Hunt, Jerry
034. Ichiyanagi, Toshi
035. Ives, Charles
036. Kagel, Mauricio
037. Kamin, Franz
038. Ligetti, György
039. Lockwood, Annea
040. Lucier, Alvin
041. Malec, Ivo
042. Mayazumi, Toshiro
043. Messiaen, Olivier
044. Milhaud, Darius
045. Miki, Minoru
046. Nancarrow, Conlon
047. Ohana, Maurice
048. Parmegiani, Bernard
049. Partch, Harry
050. Penderecki, Krzysztof
051. Reich, Steve
052. Revueltas, Silvestre
053. Reynolds, Roger
054. Rzewski, Frederic
055. Satie, Erik
056. Scelsi, Giacinto
057. Schoenberg, Arnold
058. Scriabin, Alexander
059. Stockhausen, Karlheinz
060. tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
061. Varèse, Edgard
062. Wishart, Trevor
063. Wolff, Christian
064. Wolpe, Stefan
065. Wyschnegradsky, Ivan
066. Xenakis, Iannis
067. Zappa, Frank
068. Zimmermann, Bernd Alois
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