In the first of a four-part series, Peter Reynolds looks at different strands in contemporary music with a focus on composers in the immediate here and now. This week he writes about five composers now in their 30s and 40s, all writing very different kinds of music.

Michel van der Aa
Michel van der Aa

Alex Ross’ influential history of 20th-century music The Rest is Noise opened many listeners’ ears to a world often fenced around with barbed wire and “Keep Away” signs: contemporary classical music (you see – we don’t even have a proper name for it). In a world where gratification is increasingly instantaneous, contemporary music can ask the listener to take a leap into the unknown. These days, though, the range of different styles is enormous: from the mind-bending complexities of Brian Ferneyhough to the soft-focus choral style of Eric Whitacre.

30 years ago, musical genres were strictly demarcated, but now it’s difficult to know where “contemporary classical” ends and, say, the world of Björk begins – something that’s reflected in BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction slot on weekday nights. This ethos can be found in the work of many younger composers, maturing in an internet-dominated, pluralistic age, taking their influences and inspirations from whatever music comes to hand.

Anna Meredith shot to public fame when she was commissioned for the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2008. With typical flamboyance she composed a work for five orchestras, linked up through simultaneous broadcasts from around the United Kingdom. With an estimated listening audience of 40 million worldwide, it was a high-risk strategy, but also typical of her boldness. Recent commissions have included her Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra (2010), an opera for Aldeburgh, Tarantula in Petrol Blue (2009) and HandsFree (2012): a work for body percussion for the National Youth Orchestra.

Watch an interview with Anna Meredith Read our Composers Project interview with Anna Meredith

On the other side of the Atlantic, Vermont-born Nico Muhly has been dubbed the “planet’s hottest composer”. He casts his stylistic net wide, having worked with Antony and the Johnsons, Bonnie Prince Billy, as an editor and keyboard player for Philip Glass, and composing the music for the film adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. Yet he’s also on record as saying, “for me William Byrd’s music is the most fascinating thing ever, maybe because it’s so severe and restrained”. Muhly has a large portfolio of choral and orchestral works, including his violin concerto Seeing is Believing, and his first opera, Two Boys, seen at ENO in 2011 and coming to the Metropolitan Opera in New York very soon. It deals, says Muhly, “with the romance and the violence that come with living a life online”.

Technology, even in its most basic form, is a part of every young composer’s technique these days. Dutch-born Michel van der Aa puts it at the centre of what he does. Neither opera nor music theatre sum up the his series of stage works over the last ten years, fusing music, text, electronics and video into an elegant high-tech whole. In his Sunken Garden, recently seen at the Barbican with ENO among many other international locations, much of the drama’s tension arose from an increasing ambiguity between the live and film element of the production.

Watch an interview with Michel van der Aa

There’s almost no connection between the sophisticated technological approach of van der Aa and the highly finished elegance of Welsh composer Paul Mealor. But, after decades where composers have fought shy of choral forces, he’s part of a new generation, also including Gabriel Jackson and Tarik O’Regan, that has bought the genre back to life. He shot to prominence when his Ubi caritas was performed two years ago at the Royal wedding to a television audience of millions.

Watch an interview with Paul Mealor


In the last fifteen years, Thomas Adès has had the kind of impact that Britten or Peter Maxwell Davies made a few generations ago. Famously reclusive and allergic to the media, Adès caught the public’s attention in 1995 with his opera Powder Her Face. He won the world’s most prestigious contemporary music prize, the Grawemeyer Award, before the age of 30, and conducted his first grand opera, The Tempest, at the Royal Opera House to a storm of media attention in 2004. Recent scores such as the breathtaking Tevot (for Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker) and Totentanz (at this year’s Proms) suggest Adès is only just getting into his stride.

Watch an interview with Thomas Adès

For more information, check out Tom Service’s Guide to Contemporary Classical Music for the Guardian, or visit the Sound and Music website.

This article was amended on 05/01/2017