I think this is a great question. It is really a question about what the value of art is as a whole – the things that make contemporary composers important are also what make every living artist important.
As with many of these questions, I think we have to define exactly what you mean by ‘important’. And when you say ‘what do they contribute?’, there is a piece missing – a contribution has to be made to something.
Artists in general have been valued over the course of human history for creating beauty and insight; they have helped us appreciate the extraordinary world we live in and look at it in new ways, they have allowed us experiences that might not otherwise be available to us, they enable us to explore our nature and that of the world around us.
Music, in particular, is often extraordinarily prescient. Look, for example, at what was happening in European music at the bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries. The very fabric of music was disintegrating, harmonic norms were being broken and with that, structure lost its foundations. Composers across the continent were searching for new ways to express themselves and at the same time reformulating the very language they were speaking.
This closely reflects what was happening in broader European society, intentionally or not. What happened in music was, to all intents and purposes, its destruction and rebuilding. What happened in society, through two World Wars and unprecedented social upheaval was remarkably similar.
I don’t know if this makes the composers of the time ‘important’ or not, but I think it is certainly an extraordinary characteristic of humans that we are capable – consciously or otherwise – of reflecting our situation so accurately.
For me, the greatest value of contemporary composers is that they keep the art form alive. I would include anyone alive making music in that category – from Harrison Birtwistle to Justin Bieber. Music’s capacity to tell us about ourselves is not limited to the ‘serious’ composers (for want of a better description) – it is a living language that constantly evolves and the judgement of what is important or what makes a valuable contribution is not so easy to discern from our position.
Looking back over history, composers that are considered to be valuable have changed over time. J.S. Bach, for example, was not considered to be a great genius until Mendelssohn revived his music in the 19th century. Many composers that were rock stars of their age have since disappeared and are rarely performed – Cherubini, for example, whom Beethoven considered to be his greatest contemporary, is little thought of today (justifiably in my opinion!, though that is not, perhaps, important here).
I think we can take it as axiomatic that having contemporary art is, in itself important. Given that, the biggest reason that contemporary composers are important is that speak the language and write music that is, in some way, connected to us. Which bits of that music will remain important is hard for us to tell and will no doubt change over time.
Composers’ contribution to the rest of us as humans is wide-ranging, and in many ways benefits even those who don’t care to actually listen to their music. Composers create beauty, they create wonder, they allow us to see our own extraordinary creative capability, they give us experiences we might not get elsewhere, they allow us to delve safely into parts of our nature that may be taboo anywhere else, they shine a light on our culture, they enable us to grow our ability to articulate the human experience.