Contemporary American Composers

American pop culture is incredibly influential on a global scale. That, in combination with a shorter music history than Europe, has led some to believe that there aren’t that many good contemporary American composers. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the music scene in the US is flourishing like never before! That’s why we decided to list 10 contemporary American composers you have to check out!

10 contemporary American composers worth checking out

John Adams (born 1947)

What do you get if you mix minimalism, opera, a steady pulse, and repeated patterns? The answer is John Adam’s music. He has composed works like Nixon in China. This one is about the president’s visit to China as a strategic move to better the two countries’ relationship. There’s also Doctor Atomic, featuring the story about the first atomic bomb.

George Crumb (born 1929)

This is a composer who likes to think outside the box. Why not use a mallet to play the double bass? Or why not try to notate music differently than everybody else? What kinds of sounds can the human voice and instruments make that we aren’t used to? Makrokosmos and Music for a Summer Evening are examples of his avant-garde style music.

Philip Glass (born 1937)

If you like the minimalist approach with repetitive structures, you will love Philip Glass’ music. And there’s a lot of it! He has composed 12 symphonies, several operas and musicals, eight string quartets, and much more. He has also branched out and composed film music for a number of movies, like The Illusionist and Fantastic Four.

David Lang (born 1957)

If you want to listen to a composer that has a clear classical foundation, but mixes the old with the new and modern in an innovative way, David Lang is the perfect composer for you. He is the co-founder of Bang on a Can, which is an incredibly important organization for contemporary music. The Little Match Girl Passion is one of his most famous works.

Libby Larsen (born 1950)

Music is all around us and according to Libby Larsen, it is very much present in everyday sounds and especially our speech. She uses the English language to come up with interesting compositions like Bid Call, where a saxophone and a cello imitate an auctioneer. But she has also written classically beautiful pieces like Blue Piece. She is the co-founder of the American Composer Forum.

Steve Reich (born 1936)

Steve Reich is one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history” according to the Guardian. His minimalist approach to music with canons, repetition and slow harmonic changes has made a big impact on contemporary music. Clapping Music, Music for 18 Mucisians, It’s Gonna Rain, and Different Trains are just some of his brilliant compositions.

Missy Mazzoli (born 1980)

One of David Lang’s students turned out to be something extra. Missy Mazzoli is a young composer who already has accomplished much. One example of her work is SALT, an operatic retelling of the story of the wife of Lot from the Bible, arranged for voice, cello, and electronics. She is also recognized by many for her music featured in the TV-series Mozart in the Jungle.

Terry Riley (born 1935)

Another pioneer of minimalist music is Terry Riley. One of his most famous pieces is In C, which consists of 53 separate motifs that can be played on any instrument, anytime. One pianist plays a steady pulse of C, but other than that, almost anything could happen!

Eric Whitacre (born 1970)

This composer is particularly famous for his choral music, but has also written much for orchestra and wind ensemble. For a truly beautiful choral piece, listen to I Carry Your Heart. Whitacre has also put together thousands of recordings with singers from all over the world as a virtual choir. One example of this is the song Sleep.

Julia Wolfe (born 1958)

The Wallstreet Journal once described Julia Wolfe’s music as “a place where classical forms are recharged by the repetitive patterns of minimalism and the driving energy of rock”. Truly a fitting description. Listen to Four Marys if you want to hear some mellow music, or Big Beautiful Dark and Scary for something completely different! She was also one of the co-founders of Bang on a Can.

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