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Thread: Contemporary classical music

  1. #1

    Default Contemporary classical music

    Hey there! Here's a little post about music!

    Most of the "classical" music as a tradition today lost its connection with the general public/audience around the 1950s, because it became "too weird". But there's really a lot of great contemporary music out there, people just don't know about it, because it's a small "genre" (but it's not only one "genre", there are dozens of genres of contemporary music).
    So, to all of you who have open ears and want to listen to some new/strange/unknown music, and maybe even like it; here's my list of contemporary music I would recommend you to try listening to!

    György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna
    This is a choir piece written in 1966, for 16 singers. It's been used as a soundtrack in a number of movies, most famously in "2001: A Space Odyssey" by Stanley Kubrick. It has no melody, no rhythm, that's not the focus of the piece. It's process piece; going from one constant state to another. All they basically sing is long notes, but these notes are very beautiful!

    Steve Reich: "Music for winds, strings and keyboards" (just the opening of the piece)
    Reich writes music within the genre called Minimalism, where the philosophy is "less is more", and music is written on the basis of as little material as possible. If you just listen to this music halfhearted, you will hear nothing but a little melody that is constantly repeated, over and over again. But if you listen closely, you can hear all the small details that change all the time, and those small changes are the ones who drive the pieces forward. I also recommend Music for a Large Ensemble, by the same composer! It's basically classical music's equivalent to "trance music".

    Iannis Xenakis: Metastasis
    This is a piece for a giant symphony orchestra, and it's a great piece of music, even though some might call think of it more as an effect soundtrack than as music in the traditional sense - nonetheless it's played by actual musical instruments, like violins and trumpets etc. etc. It certainly has a clear musical form, but it mostly consists of contrasts between different types of sounds.

    Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (hard to spell his name)
    Ok, I now warn you, this piece is hard-core! It's written for a huge orchestra of string players (I think 106 is the number), and, as the title says, it's written in memory of the innocent civilians who died in the nuclear bombings in 1945. There are lots of strong emotions in this piece, you can literally hear the sounds of alarms, crying, death and general horror. It's a nice contrast to the cliché pop-songs about war.

    John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
    A quite famous orchestral fanfare. It's also within the genre of minimalist music, but it's on the other end of the spectrum. I think it has been used in a lot of other settings. I also recommend "Phrygian Gates", by the same composer, which is a quiet piano piece.

    Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (just an excerpt)
    This is probably one of the most famous contemporary classical pieces. This is also written for orchestra, and it's based upon an old pagan history of a young virgin who is offered to the Gods to please them - she is forced to literally dance to death. It's an example of "primitivism" - the music is extremely complex (if you look at the sheet music), but still it's intended to sound like a primitive ritual.

    So that's a little intro to what the world of contemporary classical music has to offer - but it's way too short to give an adequate picture of what's going on in this area of music. I hope some of you will listen to it and maybe find it a bit interesting, at the least!

  2. #2


    You have some fine taste in music there. If you are going to include the Stravinsky (which I think dates back to 1910 or so), there's a whole raft of stuff I could add, but I think I'll restrict myself to the last 50 years, and add:

    Benjamin Britten - War Requiem
    This just slips in under the tape, premiered as it was in 1962. It's a setting of the Latin Requiem mass combined with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, written in the trenches during World War One. It can be terrifying listening (put the Dies Irae on LOUD in the middle of a thunderstorm), but there are other parts which are glorious. The beginning of the Sanctus, running up to the first Hosanna, is the nearest approximation I can find to the biblical account of the first Pentecost morning in Acts 2.

    Arvo Part - The Beatitudes
    This is a gorgeous setting of the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount - the harmony is incredibly tight, and it just builds and builds. I've not put a link on here, because the version that tends to appear on Youtube (the Elora chorale) is very slow at about 8 minutes. My preferred version - Stephen Cleobury and Kings College I think - comes in at just on six minutes.

    I'm with you on John Adams, but I go to a different fanfare - Tromba Lontana.

  3. #3


    In the UK we have a radio station named Classic FM. Over the Christmas period they have been playing carols. I have loved the ones by John Rutter - quite exquisite. Others that make the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up: Britten's Four Sea Interludes; Ravel's Piano Concerto for left hand in Dmaj; Walton's Belshazza's Feast; Gorecki Symphony of Sorrowful Songs ...

  4. #4


    Aina: go out and get Rutter's Magnificat - it's glorious!

    Oh, and while I remember: not all contemporary classical comes out of Europe or America. The arrival on the scene of Gustavo Dudamel as principal conductor of the LA Philharmonic means we can expect to see a lot more classical music out of Central and South America - like as not, the sensational Venezuelan youth orchestra (Simon Bolivar YO) will be where you hear it first.

    An example is the Mexican Arthur Marquez's Danzon no 2, written in 1994.



  5. #5


    Thanks for the link! Yup, I know The Rite of Spring is really a much earlier piece, it's from 1913. I was going to mention that, but I forgot. It's too good to be left out, even if the topic is about music after 1950 ;-)
    And Britten writes some very nice music. I haven't really listened a lot to his War Requiem though - I will probably soon. In May I'm going to play an opera written by him!
    And the Venezuelan youth orchestra is such a great ensemble! Seen their performance of the "Mambo" from West Side Story?
    Another of John Adams' short pieces is Lollapalooza, written to Simon Rattle. It's a very cool piece!

  6. #6


    Quote Originally Posted by Aina View Post
    In the UK we have a radio station named Classic FM. Over the Christmas period they have been playing carols. I have loved the ones by John Rutter - quite exquisite.
    Personally I cannot stand John Rutter, but hey!

    I sing in a church choir, and we sing anything from Bach to very modern, sometimes yet-to-be published works. I can't think of any modern stuff of the top of my head, but it is always fantastic. There's a lot of very good classical music out there.

    Personnal favourites in general include Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace" and a very obscure peace which I have never been able to find a recording of by Paul Patterson called "The Fifth Continent".

    Modern marches written for Brass Band are awesome aswell

    ---------- Post added at 02:41 AM ---------- Previous post was at 02:37 AM ----------

    Quote Originally Posted by BabyArtie View Post
    The arrival on the scene of Gustavo Dudamel as principal conductor of the LA Philharmonic
    Does that mean he has left the Simón Bolivar YO?! Seeing them play in the Proms a few years ago under him was incredible. Very inspiring. He had clearly done a lot of work with them, and it would be a great shame if he had left that post.

  7. #7


    One of my favorite contemporary composers is probably Michael Daugherty, but this is likely only because I have actually met the man, and he once guest-conducted our band.

    YouTube - Michael Daugherty: Bells for Stokowski (2002) for symphonic band (1 of 2)
    UFO (Objects) - some amazing solo percussion work in there
    Niagra Falls

    I'm also a big fan of Danny Elfman and I find John Williams pretty good.
    Really, I need to get back to playing trombone sooner or later, so I could get a bit more familiar with some people's work.

  8. #8


    There's also composers like Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives.

  9. #9


    Quote Originally Posted by babypete42 View Post
    Does that mean he has left the Simón Bolivar YO?! Seeing them play in the Proms a few years ago under him was incredible. Very inspiring. He had clearly done a lot of work with them, and it would be a great shame if he had left that post.
    His website says that he is still Music Director for the SBYO alongside his commitments to the LA Phil and the Gothenburg Symphony (busy boy!) - so I'd expect to see him conducting them sometime.


  10. #10


    The Ligeti is interesting. I hadn’t heard it before. I’m going to hunt out a CD of this. Any recommendations? But I couldn’t buy your thesis that this is a counter example to contemporary classical music becoming too weird for popular taste. I would definitely put this in the trajectory of Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg... On a first hearing it seems like he has taken Schoenberg’s idea of completely casting you adrift from a tonal centre and then also casting you adrift from a rhythmic centre and the vocal word underlay as well. I reckon that this is the sort of music is what turned the Brahms’ loving grannies away from the concert halls. Which is a shame because you can’t deny this piece it is powerful and moving.

    I loved the fact that the Xenakis you-tube recording showed the score. It shows you how much the performance relies on the interpretation and improvisation of the ensemble.

    I was listening to an interview with Stockhausen on ABC Radio National ‘The music show’ and he was talking about his ‘music of chance’. He explained how much it relied on him having at the time the use of an ensemble that understood each other and were able to react to each other. After this interview I would like to listen to some Stockhausen. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    The only other Xenakis I have heard was “Shaar” performed live by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. This was pretty amazing live. A bit of a shame I didn’t understand then how Xenakis notated his music or I would have had even more respect for the ACO. If the ACO ever travel your way I definitely recommend you catch them.

    I know the Penderecki. I imagine, like the Britten War Requeim, that Artie mentioned, that this would be astonishing live. I sang in the War Requiem last year: something to tick off on my life’s resume. The Tenor/Bass duet about the Abraham’s sacrifice is heart wrenching. “…But the old man would not do so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one”. Eeek. But this isn’t a work I would recommend to a new listener of contemporary music. It think it can be pretty hard work and is certainly a work that is more powerful when seen live.

    I love Stravinsky. Isn’t it amazing to think ‘The Rite of Spring’ was first performed almost 100 years ago. It still sounds so fresh and modern. I have an especially soft spot for the Pulcinella Suite. Would it be too geeky to admit this was the first disc I ever bought?

    There is a quite lot of twentieth century music that has become quite popular. I think the composers that didn’t take up Serialism and twelve tone technique are more likely to be liked by a more general audience. (Carmina Burana anyone?)

    BabyArtie’s suggestion of Arvo Part’s beatitudes is a great one. I have Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices performing this, at 8:08, so I can’t imagine it faster than this. I would have thought that the inevitable building through the piece requires the space of the languid tempo but I would be happy to be proved wrong. Although the whiteness of King’s college? I mean the meek may inherit the earth but doesn’t this music needs more balls?

    Part was definitely is someone who hasn’t discarded/transcended tonality. With this piece he went in the opposite direction and there is almost an oppressive feeling built up through the repetitive use of the triad, so when there is a tonal shifts come it almost comes as a slap.

    If you like Part, try the Estonian composer Peteris Vask. Of his works I know, read performed, he almost seems to have two faces. Mystical and melodic : Pater Noster. Vital and rhythmic : Ziles Zina. Not a great rendition..get the Latvian Radio Choir edition and swoon.

    Part’s structure of building to a sudden orgasmic release brings us to back to one of the great 20C masterpiece: Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ or if you prefer it for voice, ‘Agnus Dei’. Does music get sadder yet more resolute than this? I can’t help tearing up when I listen to it.

    Perhaps in brief aside, let’s go back 400 years to Thomas Tallis and his forty part motet “Spem in Alium”. If this was composed today it would barely seem out of place in a contemporary music festival. When the forty voices first join together in the mighty chord it is spine tingling, the template for Barber and Part? OMG I am listening to this now and the hairs are rising on my neck.

    Well if Kabom can use Stravinsky in 1913, and you can’t say that this wasn’t modernism, I can stretch the subject back to 1910 and suggest Ralph Vaughn William and his “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” (ahah the link to Elizabeths England ). Edward Elgar was supposed to have been found with head in his hands in the cloister of Gloucester cathedral, after hearing the first performance of that. He understood that the world had turned - and his “Dream of Gerontius”, the next thing on the bill could only sound ridiculously old fashioned in comparison.

    And in passing, how about Aaron Copland’s 'Appalachian Spring' or Charles Ives ‘The Unanswered Question’?
    Oops I see I’ve been beaten to the punch over these two composers as well. Have you heard the story about how Aaron Copland was asked to present a piece at the opening of the Lincoln Centre. Poor Jackie Kennedy expecting the tuneful quintessential American music that had made him famous was left speechless when Connotations was played! “Oh Mr Copland!”

    Oops, this has been far too long a post. But I can't help but add an Australian composer to the list, of which there are many I enjoy. Ross Edwards' 'Dawn Mantra'

    Hope you find something in there to enjoy.

    ---------- Post added at 11:58 AM ---------- Previous post was at 11:00 AM ----------

    Quote Originally Posted by babypete42 View Post
    Does that mean he has left the Simón Bolivar YO?! Seeing them play in the Proms a few years ago under him was incredible. Very inspiring. He had clearly done a lot of work with them, and it would be a great shame if he had left that post.
    One of my friends sang in the quartet for his Beethoven 9. She said it was one of the most amazing things she had ever done. All the kids in the choir and the orchestra giving 1000% for their conductor and all their parents in tears of pride.

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