Special Series: What is Happening Now Part I – Background

It just so happens that every student I am working with this semester has asked me the exact same question – What is happening now in Classical music? I usually respond by giving a vague spiel about “looking for authenticity” or writing down a list of names for them to check out. But hey, maybe I can do better than that. Why not tackle the question systematically and blog my answer.

1945-1970: A Little Overview

First, you have to understand where we were at in the latter half of the 20th Century. After the Second World War the most prestigious composers were what I like to call High Modernists – people obsessed with creating unique and rigorous systems of composition. Music was thought of as a sort of science or technology, and pieces were a means of creating structure, or delivering information. The musical output of this period is undoubtedly the most dense and complex of any time.

Major High Modernists include Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Elliott Carter, and Milton Babbitt. (I know, one might think of Cage as antithetical to some of these others, but with him too the method was part of the message, and the results were usually complex.)

Now, I’m not necessarily trying to disparage this stuff. Complexity can be pleasant and exciting! Here’s a string quartet from Carter as an example.

(direct link)

The sounds in this piece are fine on a moment-to-moment basis, and it’s possible to really immerse yourself in this texture and have a vivid experience. What the music of this time tends to lack is a sense of large-scale orientation (where are we coming from, where are we going) and basic memorability. You have to work very hard just to feel that you can “follow” the piece.


Another trend from this period which will be important later is what I’ll simply call Noise. Part of Cage’s agenda was that nothing is noise, that any sound could be music. He’d protest my terminology. However, there is a particular strain of composers beginning as far back as Edgard Varèse who were interested in working with sounds that transcend the usual concept of “musical notes” – their work includes all sorts of glisses, clusters, percussive sounds and even what we would now call “samples” from the everyday world. They weren’t shy about embracing extreme stimuli that are particularly challenging to the senses, those that are loud, shrill, chaotic or violent.

The king of noise was undoubtedly Iannis Xenakis, who produced over 100 works which challenge our idea of what a musical sound can be. This one starts out fairly noisily:

(direct link)

The Minimal Revolution

The emergence of minimalism in the mid-60s represents the last real upheaval we’ve seen in classical music, when an idea emerged that really challenged the prevailing idea of what music should be. Instead of complexity, the minimalists (LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich) presented works with a radical, even challenging simplicity. I’ve already written about this in my last post, where I embedded two pieces by Reich. Here I’ll give Terry Riley’s groundbreaking In C (from 1964) some love:

(Direct Link)

There are lots of recordings of this piece, and they are all quite different (since the instrumentation and number of players is not fixed.) I would recommend this one by the Bang on a Can All-Stars:

Archivmusik eMusic Amazon MP3 Amazon CD Ariama iTunes


Pomo is a term that was kind of beaten to death in the 80s, and there are many arguments about when it first developed and what it means. I would say that musical Post-Modernism means a few things. First, it is a recognition that musical history does not need to be characterized by constant “progress”, that progress is just one narrative we like to impose on things. Minimalism in itself was post-modern in this way – it killed the idea that “more = better” by refusing to up the ante.

Post-modernism also involves a muddling of the idea of “high art” and “popular art.” Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the classic example, but, again, minimalism did this. It had more in common with the repetitive and propulsive texture of rock than the classical music that preceded it, and it used some rock and jazz techniques (electric keyboards, closely miked vocals, and so on). Glass even made some explicit tributes to popular music, such as in his “Heroes” and “Low” Symphonies which are based on David Bowie albums.

With Post Modernism there is a sense that the artist can stand outside of history and comment on it, creating a meta-work that lets us think about multiple points of view. This is one thing that minimalism didn’t really do, at first. Other composers, however, were playing with this idea, trying to refer back to other times and other works from a somewhat distanced perspective. Really, you could argue that Stravinsky’s entire neo-classical phase (from about 1918 to 1950) does this, as did Ives with his constant references to traditional American music.

Probably the most famous piece made out of other pieces is Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, completed in 1969, which smashes together dozens of disparate strands of music to create a new mind-bending narrative.

(Direct Link)

There was also a sense that Post Modernism was meant to be a critique of the very act of creativity and the idea of the classical “work.” Here the philosophical ideas of Foucault and Derrida were important — they argued that assumptions that are packed into everyday concepts had political consequences, and that in order to be free we needed to deconstruct them.

One composer who seemed intent on delivering a critique with each work is Helmut Lachenmann. His Pression for solo cello (1969-70) is a good example, presenting a cellist who, in a sense, refuses to play, presenting a series of unconventional gestures that create a barren but also beautiful soundworld of their own.

(Direct Link)

(I must admit that the sound of this youtube clip isn’t particularly beautiful at all, but I assure you it can be a good piece.)

It seems safe to say that by the mid-70s with the rise of minimalism and these new strains of self-consciousness in composing we exited the High Modern era and entered a Post-Modern one. Really, you couldn’t discuss art, film, literature, or music in the 80s or 90s without dealing with these ideas.

This entry was posted in Contemporary. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>