In a recent article, I wrote about why I feel that a lot of contemporary classical music is boring. A few comments and emails made me think that, to counter that article, I should present some modern classical music that’s not boring.
I admit that I’m not that familiar with enough contemporary music – by living composers – to be able to make a long list, but I thought I would toss out a few works by composers of the 20th century that classical music afficionados should discover.
One of the problems for me, of 20th century music, is that much of it is dismal and anxious. From twelve-tone music to even more stressful works, such as the symphonies of Alan Petterson, dissonance ruled most of the century. I’m not a fan of dissonance as a rule, though I can put up with it in certain works (such as Ives’ Concord Sonata, or Ruggles’ Sun-Treader, which I mention below).
Here’s a list of works by composers who wrote in the 20th century. Some of them are still alive, and still composing. All of these works are interesting, some more than others, but they are all of a style that is clearly not that of the 19th century. This is a very personal list; I only include those composers whose works I enjoy, and who I feel are truly modern, that look to the future. This ignores such modern composers as Mahler, Sibelius, Britten, Copland, and dozens of others. I don’t mean this to be exhaustive, but simply a list of the great works of the past century that I return to over and over.
Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 2 for Piano, or Concord Sonata, is perhaps the most powerful piano work of the past century. In four parts, named for residents of Concord, Massachusetts in the first half of the 19th century – Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau – this sonata is sui generis. Two interesting recordings are those by Jeremy Denk (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Marc-André Hamelin (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).
Carl Ruggles only wrote about two hours of music, but in that small amount of sound, he created a style that is powerful and evocative. Highly dissonant – but not in a formulaic manner, as with the serialists – his 16-minute Sun Treader is a dense orchestral work that has all the power of an hour-long symphony. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
John Cage wrote aleatory music; music based on change. As such, his music is hit or miss. Nevertheless, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) remain one of the important works of the postwar period. His later Music for Changes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) was the first work to use his random compositional technique, which he would use for all of his future works.
Philip Glass’s 1976 Einstein on the Beach was an “opera” created with the director Robert Wilson. It’s an opera about nothing, with no real plot, but the music, mid-70s minimalism, is powerful and memorable. There was a revival last year, and it was recorded and filmed, so we should see a release of both discs and videos of the work. But the best approach is the 1984 version, which I was fortunate to see, available only by download from the iTunes Store.
Steve Reich wrote minimalist music that is different from that of Philip Glass. Reich was more interested in rhythm, and his 1976 work Music for 18 Musicians (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the quintessential work of minimalist music. And it’s got great melodies, and foot-tapping rhythms. His Drumming (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a vast piece built around simple rhythms which become complex and vary through phasing effects.
Olivier Messiaen wrote some very complex music, much of it based on the songs of birds he heard in the French Alps, where he lived. (Very close to where I lived for a dozen years.) While I find much of his music to be uninteresting, his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II, is an essential classic of the 20th century. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Morton Feldman was another unique composer of the late 20th century. His works, ranging from keyboard works to orchestral pieces, are slow and meditative, and often transcended time. His later works could be an hour or two, or even six hours long. One of the best ways to discover Feldman’s soundscapes is through his Piano and String Quartet (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a 1985 work that runs about 80-90 minutes, or his two-hour Triadic Memories for piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).
Einojuhani Rautavaara is a Finnish composer who, like Takemitsu, created unique soundscapes, but who owes more to western musical traditions. Nevertheless, he wrote a concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Cantus Arcticus. The best way to discover his works is in a four-disc set of his concertos. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Dennis Johnson’s little-known November (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a 1959 work for piano that runs nearly five hours. Similar in style to Morton Feldman’s music, this astounding work was recorded for the first time only recently. (An earlier recording was never released.) Johnson might have been influential had his work become known, and had he continued writing music (he stopped a few years after he wrote November), but this testament to him is a wonderful example of a certain kind of minimalism.
Toru Takemitsu was a Japanese composer strongly influenced by Debussy and John Cage, but whose work – especially from the 1970s on – developed soundscapes that combined Japanese music and Western music. His longest work, From me flows what you call Time, is a 30+ minute work for percussion – his longest work – and it’s available on an album with his seminal 1957 Requiem for String Orchestra, and Twill by Twilight, a work dedicated to Morton Feldman. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Arvo Pärt, from Estonia, writes music that is minimalist and tonally melodic. Partly based on Greorian chant, and partly based on standard western forms, Pärt’s music has, for me, become predictable, but his 1977 Tabula Rasa, for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano, is a powerful work which deserves attention. I recall hearing it performed live in the late 1980s in Paris, in the presence of the composer, by Gidon Kramer and musicians who recorded it for ECM. It was a memorable concert. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Brian Eno is not considered to be a classical composer, but contemporary classical music blurs the lines between different genres. His 1978 Music for Airports is the seminal work of ambient music, a genre that he essentially created. Based on phasing and tape loops, Music for Airports is a powerful work with piano, voices and other instruments. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
If you’re curious, but not willing to spend a lot, you’ll find that some of the above recordings are available fairly cheaply by download from Amazon or the iTunes Store. Check them out if you’re interested in 20th century classical music, but, remember, this list leaves out much more than it includes, because of my personal tastes.