Traditional Classical Music Through A Contemporary Lens

To preserve the Traditional Classical music to Contemporary music.

Contemporary composers in the 21st century often compose music that is outside the classical tradition in an effort to create music that is authentic and never before heard, departing from previous music techniques into the Minimalist or modern Styles. In contrast, Kevin Puts, unlike other contemporary composers, repeats in interviews that he does not feel pressure to compose in accordance with current contemporary styles whether it be, pop or other contemporary techniques. He a contemporary composer who keeps traditional classical music relevant in his own music. Puts’ goal is to take a broad view about “life and death and cosmic stuff” while using the form and instruments of classical composers to tell a story and let it unfold naturally. Although he does occasionally use some techniques of ascending and descending parallel fifths and false harmonics, he also creates beautiful harmonies and melodies along with that to allow the listener to understand and relate to the music better.

As a doctoral student under Christopher Rouse at Yale, Puts was mainly assigned to listen and evaluate 20th-century symphonies and ignore the pieces with “perky, with tongue-in-cheek titles, written in a clean or a dirty post-minimalist style.”[2]  Rouse also steered Puts away from the contemporary post-minimalist composition style which incorporated “lively, metallic…drums” such as “Adams or Torke.”[3]  Puts also rejected others’ advice not to write long symphonies because they will never be played, yet he has written four, exploring symphonic structure with patience in trying to “express the spiritual, the epic, the heartbreaking without shame or embarrassment.”[4]  

Puts sought a personal voice.  He flew to Rome the day after the September 11th attack needing to finish three orchestra pieces within a few months.  His first completed orchestral work was Symphony No. 2. The symphony is loosely divided into halves, unlike traditional classical symphonies with four movements.  Some hear “an echo of Aaron Copland” in the first half, but his goal was to create, not patriotic, but lyrical and unpredictable musical ideas.  In the second-half the emotion changes into the kind of atmosphere shadowing the attack after the Sept. ll.  Puts wanted to show the emotional shift that Americans were faced with through his music. He wanted the “unawareness of feelings of any kind of point of view but our own” to be expressed.[5]  Puts has written several other long pieces including, Falling Dream, Sinfonia Concertante, and a number of concertos for various instruments.

Puts has also written several operas, and he finds their composition both similar and different to symphonies.  A symphony often shares the program with the classics an audience comes for, but “an opera stands alone.”[6] Puts was offered the commission for the Pulitzer Prize winning opera Silent Night due to his control of the big picture, the long arc.”[7]  He considers opera “a symphony with singing.”[8] In Silent Night (2011), Puts calls the orchestration “practical” “not emotional.” His question is, “how do these instruments need to play this music that has already been written’. He thinks of the “broad picture” and looks down the road to see where the materials can go.”[9]    In Silent Night, he shows his connection to the classical tradition while composing in a modern manner with a 20th century story. He feels if a composer writes “optimistic” music, it’s hard to feel optimistic in society now and it’s natural to feel hopeless but, he doesn’t want to project hopelessness or at least dwell on it.[10]  His other operas are The Manchurian Candidate (2015) and Elizabeth Cree (2017)

Aesthetically when Puts thinks of an audience, he considers what could we use right now?  He supposes “we could use comfort,” a “musical balm” and says maybe he went there with Symphony No. 2 and thinks that is where he’ll go over the next few years.  Puts is a storyteller. He uses the form and instruments of classical composition to tell a story and lets it unfold to bring himself and audiences to feeling of being in a sanctuary.  He uses natural divisions, “huge, sweeping feelings and issues” and lyrical harmonies to achieve this goal.  Puts says there is a sadness to his music, but a lot of it is upbeat and expresses true emotion.[11]

Amy Miller


[1] Puts, Kevin. “A Pulitzer Winner Asks: Why Write Symphonies?” NPR. August 05, 2013. Accessed March 05, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Harris, Kyle. “Composer Kevin Puts on 9/11, the “Tragedy” of Trump, and Beethoven Envy.” Westword. November 08, 2017. Accessed March 05, 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Puts, “A Pulitzer Winner Asks: Why Write Symphonies?”

[8] Puts, “Kevin Puts Wins Music Pulitzer For World War I Opera ‘Silent Night’.”

[9] Ibid.

[10]Harris, Kyle. “Composer Kevin Puts on 9/11, the “Tragedy” of Trump, and Beethoven Envy.” Westword. November 08, 2017. Accessed March 05, 2019.

[11] Ibid.

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