Classical music

As a student of composition, I am often asked, “what type of music do you write?” Typically I just say, “concert music,” meaning that I’m not a singer-songwriter and don’t write music for movies and video games. This usually leaves people perplexed, though. The music they’re accustomed to hearing in a concert hall is by figures such as Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bach, Tchaikovsky, etc. The newest thing that most people think of as classical music might be Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin or dissonant, post-war expressionism by Schoenberg (which, I might add, is beautiful, if not necessarily pretty). That there is new “classical music” being written today that is not (what most would call) “esoteric modern art” is known to very few people. Part of the reason is that new composers are simply no longer writing for the traditional orchestral and chamber ensembles only, and their music does not show up on the main stream commercialized classical music feeds (i.e. classical music radio stations, classical music pandora, a symphony hall, a jingle-playing Hallmark card). A large reason for this is that “classical music” has come to mean a very specific canon of musical literature written by the types of composers listed above, into which canon and style most new composers just don’t fit.

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the readers of this blog to some examples of contemporary (post 2000) “classical music” in the hopes that they might find something they like and start searching for great art beyond what pandora and the local radio station has to offer.

Bone Chapel (from O Death)
by Oscar Bettison
Written by my current teacher, this is a suite written around the spiritual, O Death (remember O Brother Where Art Thou?)

L’Abbe Agathon
by Arvo Part
Also listen to his Stabat Mater, Fratres, Beatitudes…and just everything.

Laterna Magica
by Kaija Saariaho
One of my all around favorite composers today. Get to know her music!

Cruel Sister
by Julia Wolfe
An instrumental telling of the ballade Cruel Sister

Symphony #1
by Paul Richards
A lesser known composer, but some beautiful music.

It pains me to stop here, as I feel this hardly touches the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it sparks some interest.
Until next time,
John

3 comments

  1. This is an amazing post! Thanks very much for sharing this! I was especially moved by Arvo Pärt’s L’Abbé Agathon which is absolutely heavenly! A contemporary classical music should be the compulsory subject in schools as this opens up our appreciation of the arts in today’s world. Amazing! Thanks for this!

  2. Doesn’t music written for films qualify as “concert music”?

    That is a good, distinguishing term.

    1. It’s good you bring that up. Film music could certainly be played in a concert setting, as has happened to many scores for ballets (Rite of Spring, Prelude to the Afternoon of the Swan, Sleeping beauty, etc). On it’s own, however, music accompanying films generally follows a different developmental trajectory than concert music.
      With film music, the composer is primarily trying to create an imitation of a certain genre or sound. For example, Alex North had written a score to 2001 a Space Odyssey that, in sections, sounded very similar to Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, at the request of the director. Eventually, the director abandoned North’s score in favor of Strauss. You know that music playing when stuff is getting blown up and and the hero is running from a sea of flames in slow motion? It’s all imitation of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. Music from 1940s and 50s movies? Gustav Mahler.
      So, while movie music is often of the same quality as concert music, it usually is not leading the charge in artistic innovation.

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