The best way to say “hello” to modern classical music is to listen to it
January 28, 2020 2:27 PM   Subscribe

A companion piece from the Washington Post: The Top Women Composers in new music.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 3:01 PM on January 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

He's right, Harmonielehre is incredible - I'm surprised he didn't mention the Matrix score, which borrows from it liberally, and is in some ways sort of the Star Wars of modern classical.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 3:06 PM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've just started listening to this kind of music, and this is a great list. I'd add Dabrinka Tabakova, who is doing amazing things in the field of what I'll call screechy-droney music (Dawn is particularly good).

But if I was going to recommend just one modern classical performance, it would be this one of Arva Pärt's Fratres.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:09 PM on January 28, 2020 [9 favorites]

I hope Jazz Guy doesn't find out about this thread.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 4:00 PM on January 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

Not all of Stockhausen is as aggressively dissonant as "Gesang der Jünglinge." "Stimmung" is downright pleasant.
posted by invitapriore at 4:00 PM on January 28, 2020

As a more serious follow-up to my Jazz Guy joke posting, as a lifelong autodidact in both classical and jazz, one thing I have observed in the past several years is the increasing overlap between Classical and Jazz music. Coming first to mind would be Wadada Leo Smith, who is both today's living incarnation of Miles Davis on trumpet and a deeply serious composer of music that I can only consider Classical. Unless of course it is jazz. Or something else. Anyway, thanks for this post that I will likely share with my music-curious nieces and nephew (the last of which is definitely in the metal phase of his developing music appreciation).
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 4:11 PM on January 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

Context is helpful. I used to find Beethoven's late quartets unlistenable, then I listened to all of Haydn's quartets in chronological order (this was in old-timey days when I went to a University listening room. I guess I could stream stuff now no problem). After that, I not only loved Beethoven, but I could glide on into Bartok's quartets. And then I was ready for this stuff.
posted by acrasis at 4:25 PM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is a terrific essay and set of lists, and I agree about Harmonielehre*, which is one of the great symphonies of the entire 20th century, but one nit-pick: the author is too-liberal with style names--there's no such thing, really, as "holy minimalism" or "alt-classical," though if those labels help frame and distinguish the sounds for listeners, then that's helpful. (The distinction between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, however, is much more significant than indicated.)

But I love the examples and I love the enthusiasm, and I especially appreciate how the author places so much of this music next to other, "more listenable" music like film scores and avant-garde rock, because it really is all of a piece (like, really: I'm currently teaching the semester of music history that spans 1890-present, and it's amazing how interconnected it all is). And I'll happily add to his "attempts" list:

Attempt 5: Bad-ass American music from composers born after 1970:

Mason Bates, Mothership
Jennifer Higdon, Violin Concerto
Steven Bryant, Ecstatic Waters
Adam Schoenberg, American Symphony
Andrew Norman, Play
Jennifer Jolley, Lichtweg
Missy Mazzoli, Magic with Everyday Objects

*-if you love Harmonielehre but have never really dived in, there's a fascinating meta-context to that piece, which originates with its title: it's named after Arnold Schoenberg's seminal text (Harmonielehre = Theory of Harmony), which is still considered among the very best texts on tonal, developmental compositional practice ever written. Adams has said that his piece is kind of a thank-you-but-goodbye to what Schoenberg's atonal and serial compositional techniques--developed right as/after he finished his text, coincidentally--were catalyst for. Adams' piece is saying good-bye to, especially, total serialism and things like the New Complexity, in a very beautiful and compelling way.)
posted by LooseFilter at 4:34 PM on January 28, 2020 [16 favorites]

This gets easy if you are only considering classical music, as he is, written about 1970 on. There was a significant resurgence back to more accessible and more listenable music. I opened this article expecting yet another attempt to get people to listen to Stockhausen, or Messiaen, or John Cage when he's not writing gimmicks everyone likes to reference. There's lots of amazing and rewarding music in the 1900-1970 ouevre, too, but a lot of it seems harder to get at.

I also appreciate his emphasis on film score music; Hollywood is where all the 20th century classical composers went to actually make a living. Starting with Stravinsky, I think.
posted by Nelson at 4:53 PM on January 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

I also appreciate his emphasis on film score music; Hollywood is where all the 20th century classical composers went to actually make a living. Starting with Stravinsky, I think.

1000% this--though more credit to Erich Korngold (does that score from 1942 sound like any blockbuster from 1977 you may know?), Max Steiner, Miklós Rósa, Bernard Hermann, and others (even, over in the USSR, Sergey Prokofiev). Stravinsky didn't write any actual film music that I'm aware of (though he did write for just about everything else, so I'm genuinely surprised he was never engaged for a film--he wrote a piece for the actual circus, for goodness' sake).
posted by LooseFilter at 5:21 PM on January 28, 2020

As luck would have it, I'm currently listening to Bernard Hermann's soundtrack for Vertigo on KMFA. Does that count?
posted by jim in austin at 5:27 PM on January 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

On December 7th, I was awakened from my sleep in the morning, unexpectedly, and posted about the experience to FB:

I was just awakened by a man out in the street in front of our house shouting.

“He flies who flies; this king flies away from you
Ye mortals, he is not of the earth, he is of the sky
He flaps his wings like a zeret bird
He goes to the sky, he goes to the sky
On the wind, on the wind”

I had a hard time knowing if I was dreaming, and turned to Viv, asking, “are you hearing this?”

She replied, “It’s the radio.”

(The spousally-correct answer, of course, would have been, “No, what are you talking about?”)

It was the closing performance of the Met, performing Glass’ Akhenaten!

What a great way to wake up! A man stands in the street shouting a funerary oration written for a heretic king’s father thousands of years ago along the banks of the Nile!

I literally could not pay attention to another thing that morning. Artists: heed my advice. Begin your performances within the dreams of your audience. I cannot even represent in words the power of the performance following that entrance.
posted by mwhybark at 6:05 PM on January 28, 2020 [14 favorites]

I can hardly wait to delve into these. I'm primarily fan of 19th century music, the bigger the orchestra the better, but this got me to thinking about the modern classical music I do like, which is scattered and mostly geared to individual pieces rather than composers.

In the early 70s my high school band teacher introduced me to Hovhaness and Janacek (specifically the Sinfonietta). I like Stravinksy in small doses and Prokofiev in larger servings. I love Korngold, being brought there first by his film music, then his post-war classical work. And thanks to the 2014 ad campaign from Apple I discovered Salonen's Violin Concerto, which I keep telling myself I shouldn't like but love anyway.

I'm looking forward to finding something new to love from a period of music I don't really know much about.
posted by lhauser at 7:36 PM on January 28, 2020

For me, the window into this was Kronos Quartet. I think it's interesting that the author illustrates the article with a photo of them at the top but doesn't mention them.

I guess technically my starting point was the very popular 1992 recording of Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, recorded by the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw as the soloist (Spotify). My enjoyment of that album led me to pick up Kronos Quartet's recording of Gorecki's String Quartets No 1 and 2 (Spotify). Those are similar to the Symfony in some ways formally (and in album art style - clever marketers!) but not in their musical vocabulary - they are dissonant and somewhat punishing in sections.

That led me down the Kronos rabbit hole, which exposed me about a bunch of new-to-me composers from all across the MCM spectrum, which branched out into all kinds of things. Kronos also taught me to be open to the really broad sound world of MCM the author describes. The same group performing George Crumb (Spotify) and Hamza el Din (Spotify) and Alfred Schnittke (Spotify) and Bob Ostertag (Spotify) was eye-opening.

I think there has always been some awareness cross-over. The same roommates that turned me on to The Orb and Future Sound of London also turned me on to Gavin Bryars, and they were definitely coming more from an electronic music world than MCM. "The Black Rider" by Tom Waits connected me to Robert Wilson which connected me to Philip Glass, though I was already aware of him some.

Really great read, thank you!
posted by Barking Frog at 7:49 PM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

one thing I have observed in the past several years is the increasing overlap between Classical and Jazz music

Pat Metheney's album The Way Up flirts with all manner of minimalism all across it, basically quoting Reich and Adams and Glass throughout the hour. It's a really fascinating blend of styles, and I recommend it to people often.

Laurie Anderson's album with Kronos Quartet Landfall occupies some interesting modern classical space. Anderson had never composed for string quartet before.

I get turned on to specific pieces sometimes, too. Theofanidis' Rainbow Body [13m] is one which sparked me a few years ago. I like when I find a thing that is new that I like, like this.
posted by hippybear at 8:45 PM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: dissonant and somewhat punishing in sections.
posted by hippybear at 8:46 PM on January 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

Thank you, look forward to going through this!
posted by blue shadows at 10:42 PM on January 28, 2020

Here's a few that he didn't mention and which nobody else has mentioned above:

Rautavaara, "Cantus Arcticus" (1972) and Symphony No. 7, "Angel of Light" (1994) [Finnish composer in the Sibelian tradition]

Picker, "Old and Lost Rivers" (1986) [composed to commemorate the sesquicentenary of Texas]

McLaughlin, Concerto For Guitar & Orchestra, "The Mediterranean" (1986) [reminiscent of Rodrigo]

Kats-Chernin, Piano Concerto No. 2, "Ragtime" (2001) [Ukrainian-Australian composer]
posted by rory at 2:23 AM on January 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

But if I was going to recommend just one modern classical performance, it would be this one of Arva Pärt's Fratres.

What a stunning performance. Looks as if it's available on her 2018 album Mirror in Mirror - the dates and timings are right.
posted by rory at 2:38 AM on January 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed the article but then I already listen to some of this stuff, so for me it was preaching to the already-converted (though there's plenty of music mentioned I've yet to hear & am keen to try). I'd be interested to hear how those who are new to this music get along with the author's suggestions.

Some of the music that has most beguiled me recently has fallen between genres: there's the Tarkovsky Quartet who play classical-influenced, part-improvised, soundtrack-like music; and Northwest whose 'experimental pop' has contemporary classical flourishes.
posted by misteraitch at 4:23 AM on January 29, 2020

WQXR's NEW SOUNDS stream plays a lot of the artists mentioned within the discussion above, I highly recommend giving them a listen. It's my very favourite internet radio station which doesn't contain the word Sleepbot in it's title.
posted by Wrick at 4:34 AM on January 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's a great list - and many worthy jumping off points but when he moves away from classical music there's some interesting ideas. Burial as rock music? Really?

Also, where are all the Erased Tapes, Bedroom Community folk (Mulhy excepted). Or Rachel's. There seemed to be an acknowledgement that lots of music has ended up sounding like classical without mentioning some really big, obvious names.

No Peter Broderick? No Nils Frahm? No Penguin Cafe (or the orchestra)? Stars of the Lid? It's good but there's so much more here no being name checked.
posted by treblekicker at 5:13 AM on January 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

WQXR's NEW SOUNDS stream plays a lot of the artists mentioned within the discussion above, I highly recommend giving them a listen

New Music Box Counterstream Radio is also worth listening to or just reading for more music in this vein and lots of interesting articles around it.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:28 AM on January 29, 2020

This is great info! I've been listening to more classical since my local NPR station has become a nonstop barrage of impeachment coverage. There's a show that airs here on Friday nights called Extra Eclectic that I enjoy quite a bit and always makes me think I should look deeper into this genre.
posted by slogger at 6:06 AM on January 29, 2020

The composer of "Fratres" is Arvo Pärt. That piece is amazing.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:45 AM on January 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Apparently I put all of my energy into working out how to get the ä on my phone's pseudo-keyboard and had none left for the easy bit.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:05 AM on January 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is a wonderful article full of wonderful lists, and I almost skipped it because I thought "Oh, I already know I like some modern classical music," but I had completely forgotten about Piero Scaruffi's site (which I probably last visited a decade ago?), and I just love Luke's journey, and his narration of it.

Seconding LooseFilter above: I love the examples and I love the enthusiasm.

Thank you so much for posting this, the man of twists and turns - I'll be coming back to this again and again for quite some time. I am grateful.
posted by kristi at 7:36 AM on January 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed this and am enjoying the comments. Lots of composers I've never heard about!

His analysis of why mcm isn't popular is way off though, I think. It's much simpler: popular music is about sex, coolness and image. And even more importantly they're about youth culture. Everything else is secondary. Even more obscure bands like Sonic Youth are more about a trend in youth culture than the music.

Composers come out of high falutin stodgy and conservative institutions with high barriers to entry. Even if the music is often very similar, it's entirely a problem of social circles. Pitchfork giving The Desert Music a 9/10 isn't going to change that, nor are guides.
posted by dis_integration at 7:57 AM on January 29, 2020

This looks fantastic. My brain is very small, I need things to be accessible. Not too many ideas, please. Well, more ideas than minimalism. One more idea than minimalism.

I think it's funny as hell that Orion is the song that launched the author's boat. Yeah I remember being surprised to hear that on that album.


I love Fratres but there's this part where the violin comes back in with fast bowing (at ~3:43 in that video) that has always felt awkward, like a missed gear to me. One of the reasons I like Pärt is there is discernible structure and build up of tension in some of his stuff. A few of the links I'm following from this post seem pretty meandering hm.
posted by fleacircus at 10:31 AM on January 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

One of the reasons I like Pärt is there is discernible structure and build up of tension

I think this is, cultural issues aside, the primary reason that developmental, concert music struggles to find a larger audience: our culture is musically saturated with variations of strophic forms—e.g., songs. Songs (in all variants, and hymns and marches and similar) have formal structures that are easily discernible and thus easy to follow in time: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc. There’s only room for a few distinct musical ideas in a short, compact structure like that, and those forms are used for popular music(s) because they’re very easy to discern: the first thing you recognize when you hear a new song is not that it’s a new song, but that it’s a song—the brain will recognize the organization or form before it’s able to determine new/old or familiar/unfamiliar.

Music is a temporal phenomenon, so there is no object there that a listener can just look at for a while and make sense of, thus a clear formal structure is a huge chunk of what makes any given music sensible. It took me a while to really understand, but one of my most influential teachers always and repeatedly emphasized that “perception of form is key to a meaningful musical experience,” and I think that developmental music is so unfamiliar to our culture at this point, that we’ve collectively lost the skill of knowing how to perceive other, non-strophic, larger kinds of structure in musical works, and that’s a skill that used to be much more common. (We’ve lost way more listening skill than that as a culture, but that’s tangential to this.)

In many different contexts, I’ve been able to help students, audience members, even professional colleagues learn to “hear” music that is initially weird or foreign or boring or meandering or alienating to them in a very different way, by drawing their attention to the formal structure and developmental processes particular to a given piece—it doesn’t always mean that everyone ends up loving a particular piece of music once they understand it better, but it does significantly change the listening experience when the music you’re listening to just makes clear sense, conceptually. (A mundane personal example: long ago, I thought that Brahms’ music was boring and meandering, but I didn’t know how to perceive developing variation, and now that I can follow his ideas and how they develop in his music, I can’t believe I ever thought that one second of any of his (e.g.) symphonies was boring...they’re riveting.)

So, yeah, I agree: perception of form is key to a meaningful musical experience.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:04 AM on January 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

HUGE topic, welcome guide for new explorers!

Some major names I didn't spot on either this page or the guide - just for starters! - Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Zoltan Kodaly, Edgar Varese, Alan Hovhaness.

More experimental (and all instrument-builders): Harry Partch, Conlin Nancarrow, Henry Cowell.

This could go on ... and on ... 20th-century alone (Wikipedia)
posted by Twang at 12:56 PM on January 29, 2020

My introduction to modern classical came via the soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos - Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Vangelis.. Then came Koyanisqaatsi and the Philip Glass soundtrack. A few years later there were two label sampler CDs (remember those?) from Elektra/Nonesuch, which had, yes, Arvo Pärt (Fratres, performed by Kronos Quartet) and John Adams (The Chairman Dances, still my favorite) and Steve Reich. And thence to Hovhaness, Bitches Brew, 2001 soundtrack, those Bulgarian shepherdesses, Tuvan throat singers, Riders in the Sky’s cowboy yodeling...uh, in conclusion music is good.
posted by Guy Smiley at 5:08 PM on January 29, 2020

A friend of my Dad's wrote From Metal to Mozart, which I found to be a good gateway to Classical appreciation if not taken too seriously.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:34 PM on January 29, 2020

As an aging punk rocker, all I want to listen to these days is minimalist classical music. Arvo Part, Dustin O'Halloran, Dirk Maassen, Caroline Shaw, Gunnarsson, Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Frederico Albanese, Goldmund. My most played song on Spotify last year was Arvo Part's Te Deum. Love this post! Thank you!
posted by anoirmarie at 8:08 PM on January 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I can't say I listen to a ton of modern composition, but it's one of those genres that I'm attracted to at very specific times. This site has been in my bookmarks for a few years now, and I go back to it when the mood strikes to find something new. I also really like A Closer Listen for finding more recent releases/reviews.

He mentions Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks in the minimalism and post-minimalism section. Incidentally, NPR Music released a Max Richter Tiny Desk Concert [YouTube] today which includes a couple pieces from that album. Highly recommended.
posted by noneuclidean at 8:15 PM on January 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

As an aging punk rocker, all I want to listen to these days is minimalist classical music.

Makes total sense to me: John Cale, before meeting Lou Reed and forming the Velvet Underground, was in the U.S. to collaborate with LaMonte Young (earliest innovator of American minimalism). So punk’s origins are in common with minimalism, quite literally.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:43 PM on January 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

OMG, I just remembered Gabriel Kahane! He's been doing an interesting blend of classical and modern popular music for a while. Or maybe better to say modern popular culture. His Craigslistlieder are a lot of fun. And his album The Ambassador treads an interesting ground, with Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.) (an astounding live performance) being a bit of a breakthrough piece. He's doing really interesting stuff trying to pull classical and popular together. Fitting, given who his father is.
posted by hippybear at 10:07 PM on January 29, 2020

I'm not sure if it qualifies as modern classical — it's classified as jazz but sounds like chamber music to me — but I really love Melos from Vassilis Tasabropoulos, Anja Lechner and U.T. Gandhi.

Unfortunately they've made the versions on YouTube premium only, which seems like an excellent way to make sure no one hears your niche record. There are some previews on allmusic.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:10 AM on January 30, 2020

Their prior effort was Chants Hymns and Dances.

Here's Melos and Chants... on Spotify.

For more minimalist compositions, I've followed Bosques de mi Mente for years.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:17 AM on January 30, 2020

I love Fratres but there's this part where the violin comes back in with fast bowing (at ~3:43 in that video) that has always felt awkward, like a missed gear to me.

I love that bit! The sudden burst of madness after a couple of minutes of gentle melody... it sets the scene for the next break out into frenzy, at about 5:42, before the winding-down of the end of the piece.

From the youtube comments:
3:55 In a fit of Passion a strand of her bow breaks
4:21 She casts it aside
7:50 to the end - Time Slows down and an Angel comes to pick up the pieces of my heart.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:02 AM on January 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

(I think it's not as bad in the performance linked above, where the violin is raw and alone. In the version I first heard a bunch, where my dislike of this one tiny part formed, it's a bit different, and it's even a bit silly sounding to me: here's some sudden fiddlin'!)
posted by fleacircus at 8:26 AM on January 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

That last song from Max Richter's Tiny Desk concert...whoa. I can't stop listening.
posted by anoirmarie at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2020

I also love and recommend John Luther Adams' "Become Ocean". I was lucky enough to hear it performed live a few years ago and it's a stunning piece with new details to be found on every listen.

Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel" is another great and contemplative piece (which was also featured in last night's The Good Place finale).

> Gabriel Kahane...Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)

I was introduced to Gabriel Kahane through a question on AskMe and love The Ambassador in general, but that Apartment Session performance takes Empire Liquor Mart to a whole new level.
posted by noneuclidean at 4:10 PM on January 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

I also love and recommend John Luther Adams' "Become Ocean"

I have the CD (and the 5.1 DVD) for the companion piece Become Desert sitting here unopened. Maybe I'll dig into that this weekend.
posted by hippybear at 5:20 PM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

The "Triple Quartet Duet" from Steve Reich's Different Trains leaves me almost at a loss for words.
posted by blue shadows at 10:59 AM on February 1, 2020

Maybe I'll dig into that this weekend.

Dooooooo iiiiitt!! (It’s really good.)
posted by LooseFilter at 3:56 PM on February 1, 2020

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