Kevin Puts on Different Ways to Perceive Beauty

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The winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, composer Kevin Puts's music has been performed by an impressive array of renowned soloists and ensembles including Yo Yo Ma, Tim Fain, the New York Philharmonic, Eighth Blackbird and the Minnesota Orchestra. Puts, a former Rome Prize recipient and Guggenheim fellow, is currently on faculty at the Peabody Institute of The John Hopkins University.

Kevin Puts writes the following of his mixtape:

I am a composer fascinated by a wide array of styles and voices, from Mozart's to Ligeti's to Steely Dan's. But above all, I suppose it is "beautiful" music which speaks to me most powerfully. I know "beauty" means something different to everyone, but I feel certain that if you listen to this mix you will know what I mean by it. This doesn't mean it has to be strictly tonal, and it doesn't mean it has to be slow, soft and lush. I need the music to be expertly crafted. I also love the orchestra."

Of course, this mix represents only relatively recent "classical" works I listen to. I'm sure performing a "most-played" search on my iTunes this week would put Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 24, Britten's Peter Grimes, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 1 and Bjork's "Vespertine" album near the top of the list. But here are seven pieces I listen to all the time.

I have always admired the way, in his first violin concerto, Philip Glass manages to bring his own voice to a form that's hundreds of years old and produce something fresh and darkly beautiful. 

Michael Torke's Four Proverbs, "Drink Water", begins with quirky, beautifully-scored harmonies which give way to a sublime melody. Torke was playing around with fragmenting and reassembling melodies as a means of development during this period (also check out Book of Proverbs for chorus and orchestra) and the results are, to my ear, fascinating.

I first heard Thomas Adès's piano concerto In Seven Days when he performed it with the New York Philharmonic, and it is my favorite work of his to date. I am always listening for fresh approaches to tonality, and here Adès has developed a way of cycling endlessly through triads related by common tone such that the result is both tonal and—on a more macro level—entirely atonal. 

The bold juxtaposition of angular, chromatic music with a gorgeous, richly-scored, four-chord progression in D major is what makes me keep coming back to the Flute Concerto of Christopher Rouse.

John Adams is an inspiration to me not only because he is a consummate craftsman, but because, as he has allowed his vocabulary to develop over the years, his identity remains. Here one catches moments of the Adams of The Chairman Dances, the newer, post-Chamber Symphony Adams, also a healthy dose of film-noir sultriness. And a truly infectious groove in the strings near the end.

Aaron Jay Kernis's Air is touching and elegantly crafted, a lesson for composers in the shaping of long lines and broad architecture. 

I could include any number of Reich pieces, (Music for a Large Ensemble probably at the top of my list) but they only gave me an hour! So here is the the thrilling last movement of The Four Sections, a kind of concerto for orchestra. When Reich brings his trademark pattern-building to the full orchestra the results are pretty astounding. 

I hope you enjoy this small sampling of my favorite music!


Philip Glass - Violin Concerto no. I: Movement I (Vienna Philharmonic; Christoph Von Dohnanyi, conductor, Gidon Kremer, violin)
Michael Torke - Four Proverbs: "Drink Water"
Thomas Adès- excerpts from In Seven Days: III. "Land-Grass-Trees" and IV. "Stars-Sun-Moon" (London Sinfonietta; Thomas Ades, conductor)
Christopher Rouse - Flute Concerto: (III. Houston Symphony; Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Carol Wincenc, flute)
John Adams - City Noir:  "Boulevard Night" (last movement) (12:23) (Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor)
Aaron Jay Kernis - Air for Violin and Orchestra (Minnesota Orchestra; David Zinman, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin)
Steve Reich - The Four Sections: IV (The London Symphony Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor)