A beginner’s guide to modern classical music

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

Riding in the van’s back seat on route to a sailing trip, I was head-banging so hard my headphones almost flew off. My friends watched with amusement. After a final crescendo they couldn’t hear, I slumped back in my seat with my eyes closed and let out a post-orgasmic “God that’s awesome.”

“What the hell were you listening to, Luke? Metallica or something?”

“Nah, man. Harmonielehre. A symphony written in 1985 by John Adams. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music ever.”

Maybe that sounded snobbish, but I couldn’t help it. When you love something you want to share it.

Trouble is, there hasn’t been a good way for me to share my love for modern classical music with others. I could send them to the audio guide for Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, but its coverage of everything after 1960 is pretty limited, and it doesn’t begin with the easier, more listenable selections. Bartok is Dead has a limited but well-organized collection of clips, but the site doesn’t hold your hand throughout the journey. Anne Midgette’s Contemporary classical: a primer is good but way too short. The Guardian’s guide to contemporary classical music is nice, but it’s organized by composer, and doesn’t guide you toward the more accessible stuff. How to Listen to and Understand Great Music ends with Arnold Schönberg, who died in 1951.

So I guess I will have to write a beginner’s guide to modern classical music.

Note: This guide links to lots of music on YouTube or Spotify: wherever the music is available. While reading, I recommend you Ctrl+click (Cmd+click on Mac) open those links in a new browser tab so you can hear the music play for a bit before reading further.


How I fell in love

This is my personal story of how I fell in love with modern classical music. Feel free to skip it.

As a Minnesotan pastor’s kid I grew up listening to Contemporary Christian Music like The Newsboys (“God is Not a Secret”) and Carman (“Satan, Bite the Dust”). The genre is rooted in Nashville-based pop music, so it’s not exactly the most creative music in the world.

At age 14 I went to England on a missionary trip. My parents didn’t like me listening to “secular music,” but in England I was far beyond their reach. My friend Austin lent me his discman so I could listen to Metallica’s “Orion,” an 8-minute instrumental track crafted with all the care of a Bach fugue, a centerpiece of what many critics call the greatest metal album of all time. Suddenly I realized I was missing out on a lot of intelligent and emotionally powerful music.

Now I was hooked. Via Metallica I discovered Dream Theater, whose neoclassical prog-metal was even more sophisticated than Metallica’s early albums. Via Dream Theater I discovered early prog-rock like King Crimson (“I Talk to the Wind”) and Pink Floyd (“A Saucerful of Secrets”).

My tastes exploded in all directions. I found lists of “greatest albums” and listened to all the albums, from every genre. I browsed AllMusic.com and listened to the editors’ picks from every genre I could find, jumping from related artist to related artist. Much of it could be found online. I checked out 20 CDs at a time from my library, making full use of the fact that all Minnesota public libraries belonged to a free, state-wide interlibrary loan system. One year I was responsible for more than 80% of my local library’s interlibrary loan requests.

The turning point, I suppose, was when I discovered Piero Scaruffi’s website, which the New York Times later profiled in an article titled The Greatest Website of All Time.

Scaruffi does many things, but he is best known for his writings on music. Scaruffi grew up listening to classical music, not pop and rock music. He describes himself as an intellectual historian, not a “fan.” Thus, his album ratings and musical histories focus on music that made unique contributions to the history of (musical) ideas, and show almost no correlation with sales or popularity. His list of best rock albums names The Doors and Astral Weeks but also Trout Mask Replica, Faust and Twin Infinitives. His list of best jazz albums names Black Saint and Sinner Lady and Kind of Blue but also Atlantis, Descent into the Maelstrom and Escalator Over the Hill. His list of classical masterpieces names works by Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky, but also many by Zorn, Galas, Takemitsu, Balakauskas, and Borboudakis.

I decided to read through Scaruffi’s comprehensive history of rock music and listen to every album I could find. Then I did the same with his history of pop music, his history of jazz music, and his chronological list of classical masterpieces.

Doing this, I could hear the musical tree growing upward and outward as each branch split off from its parent branch. When I listened to all these styles and albums in the chronological order, I could hear the story of modern music. I could hear the way country and blues merged into boogie, and how boogie started rocking harder until it was called rock ‘n roll. I could hear how rock music exploded in a thousand different directions in the 1960s. I could hear how the electronic experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Subotnick inspired Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, who in turn inspired both abstract noise makers and dance pop.

And from then on, whenever I heard a new album, I could hear where it fit in the story of music. I could tell what its influences were, and whether it invented a whole new kind of music. Knowing the story of music (rather than the story of the music industry and its musicians) made lots of popular artists sound trivial, but it also made lots of other artists sound much more exciting.

These musical connections reminded me of the historical connections examined in the BBC series Connections, hosted by science historian James Burke. In that series, Burke showed how different people in different places solving different problems made different innovations that all came together to give us the technology we use every day. For example, the loom produced linen which made paper so cheap it spurred the development of printing of books that gave information to those interested in automated organs whose pegged cylinders gave French silk weavers the opportunity to run their looms with perforated cards that Herman Hollerith used to count people for a census more quickly than before, which inspired the design of the earliest computers.

I think the same kind of thing happens in music. For example, the barbershop harmonies invented by early pop stars The Mills Brothers (“Goodbye Blues”) were inherited (along with many other things) by The Bee Gees, whose disco music and soaring falsetto singing (“Stayin’ Alive”) inspired the vocals for Supertramp’s brainy pop music (“The Logical Song”), which was mutated toward a kind of electro-bossanova by Deerhoof (“Desaparecere”).

What does all this have to do with how I fell in love with modern classical music? Unlike Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, Scaruffi’s music website didn’t stop with rock music, but covered jazz and classical as well. Thus, I discovered a treasure trove of modern classical music that was (in many cases) both more accessible and more exciting than, say, popular avantgarde rock artists like Burial (“U Hurt Me”) or Earth (“Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine”). And the more I discovered, the more I listened, and the more I fell in love.

So what is modern classical music?

There’s a lot of exciting [modern] classical music out there. The problem is that it’s not reaching its potential audience.

– Composer Gabriel Prokofiev

Words are limited. The best way to say “hello” to modern classical music is to listen to it. Note that you are weird if you like all the pieces below. My goal isn’t to help my readers enjoy all genres of modern classical music. My hope is that my readers discover some types of modern classical they enjoy.

I’ll start with a broad overview of modern classical music (MCM):

Modern classical music is music which traces its primary lineage to 20th century classical composers (e.g. Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Shostakovich, Cage, and Bartók) rather than to the musicians of pop, rock, jazz, or folk music.

So why is MCM so unpopular?

One common hypothesis is that modern classical music is unpopular because it is often atonal, noisy, abstract, and experimental (e.g. Stockhausen, “Cosmic Pulses”).

But hold on, now. Lots of people listen to rock music that is far more “difficult” and avantgarde than, say, modern classical composer Philip Glass (“Metamorphosis 3”): consider Burial (“U Hurt Me”), The Boredoms (“Circle”), Boris (“Naki Kyoku”), Sigur Rós (“Svefn g Englar”), Acid Mothers Temple (“Blue Velvet Blue”), and Fiery Furnaces (“Blueberry Boat”).

Besides, many variants of rock and modern classical are stylistically indistinguishable. Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game. Just by listening, try to guess which of the tracks below is labeled a variant of “rock” music, and which of these is labeled a variant of “modern classical” music. Write down your answers so you can check them later.

  1. Todd Reynolds, “Killer” (2011)
  2. Efterklang, “Hands Playing Butterfly” (2007)
  3. John Zorn, “The Sicilian Clan” (1990)
  4. Vibracathedral Orchestra, “Magnetic Burn
  5. Max Richter, “Shadow Journal” (2004)
  6. Popol Vuh, “Kyrie” (1972)
  7. Glenn Branca, “The Spectacular Commodity” (1981)
  8. Elegi, “Skrugard” (2009)
  9. Corey Dargel, “On This Date Every Year” (2015)
  10. Klaus Schulze, “Ebene” (1972)

Did you listen to at least 30 seconds of each of them, and write down whether you thought they were classified as “modern classical” or “rock”? If so, then here are the answers in rot13: Gur bqq ahzorerq genpxf ner hfhnyyl ynoryrq “zbqrea pynffvpny,” juvyr gur rira ahzorerq genpxf ner hfhnyyl ynoryrq “ebpx.”

I bet you didn’t do much better than chance, unless you already knew some of the artists, or some words on the YouTube pages tipped you off.

So if it’s not the case that modern classical is more difficult or “weird” than many popular variants of rock music, then why is modern classical music so unpopular? I suspect there are many factors at play:

  • Music review magazines like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and others regularly cover the work of rock artists like Burial and Sigur Rós, but not modern classical composers, not even the most popular ones like Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass.
  • It’s expensive and difficult to attend live performances of modern classical music. Most orchestras and chamber ensembles play endless repetitions of Mozart and Beethoven, not modern classical music.
  • If you want to explore modern classical music, there aren’t many good guides. Without a good guide for a jungle with so much “difficult” music in it, you’ll mostly end up listening to stuff you hate, and give up quickly.

If I’m right, and these are the reasons that people listen to Earth and Burial but not Pärt, then the problem that modern classical music doesn’t have much of an audience can be fixed, largely by publishing helpful guides to the music. Like this one. (I won’t say much about the problem of rare, expensive performances: that one seems harder to fix.)

Film scores

I’ll start with a recommended playlist of modern classical music (MCM) in film scores. Even if you’ve heard very little MCM, you’ve at least heard it in lots of film scores, and that sonic familiarity should make film scores more accessible to you than most other kinds of MCM. Of course, “film score” isn’t a genre of composition, it’s a format. But because film scores are usually composed with broad accessibility in mind, they tend to stick to the styles of MCM that are most accessible to the populace at large.

Blurred lines

Many classical composers borrowed extensively from other musical traditions, including folk, pop, and (later) jazz and rock. But in the 2nd half of the 20th century, many composers blurred the lines between these musical worlds so thoroughly that it was impossible to tell whether a particular composition should be classified as MCM or jazz or rock. Throwing up their hands, music magazines and columns often classified such works not based on the content of the music, but based on which label released them or what kinds of venue they were performed in.

Consider, for example, the King Kong suite from Frank Zappa’s album Uncle Meat. Is it jazz? Is it MCM? It’s definitely not rock in style, but it appears on an experimental rock album, so it’s usually considered to belong to the rock music world. Or consider Zappa’s “Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra.” It’s probably best described as a rock- and jazz-influenced MCM composition, but it gets labeled jazz because it was first released on an album of Zappa pieces performed by jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. When Zappa revised the piece and recorded it himself as “Revised Music for Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra,” it was classified as rock because it was released on a “rock” album.

What about Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider? In style, it’s clearly an art-rock album, and yet it’s typically classified under “classical,” because it was released by a classical label, written by a composer trained at the Yale School of Music, and performed with an orchestra.

Below is a sampling of compositions I think are probably best classified as MCM compositions, but which blur the lines with rock and/or jazz pretty thoroughly, and thus might be more broadly accessible than most MCM pieces.

Minimalism and postminimalism

Another strategy for classically-trained composers seeking a wide audience is to compose pieces that contain a minimum of musical ideas, and therefore rely heavily on the repetition of only a few musical phrases, just like most forms of pop and rock music. This “minimalist” style was later embellished with influences from other relatively accessible styles, such as romanticism. Embellished minimalism is called “postminimalism,” though sometimes the term minimalism is used for both genres.

Here’s a sampling, this time presented in chronological order:

If you like minimalist and postminimalist pieces, they’re relatively easy to find: just try some other pieces and albums by the composers above.

Accessible modernism

Other composers have sought accessibility through several different approaches. One approach is to embrace much of the tonality and simplicity of minimalism, but use more movement and development, and less repetition:

Another approach is to stick to, very roughly speaking, neoclassical or neoromantic styles:

A third approach is to use modernist ideas but still keep things relatively tonal, and keep the development of musical ideas relatively straightforward:

Not-so-accessible modernism and the avantgarde

To some degree, most of the pieces in the sections above are actually “fringe” music in MCM. The most direct descendents of the giants of the first half of the 20th century (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Cage, etc.) are composers like Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and their music is not accessible at all to most listeners. Burkholder et al.’s History of Western Music, 9th edition (pp. 938-939) explains the situation:

The demands on performers by composers like Berio and Carter [and] Babbitt, Stockhausen, and Boulez, were matched by their demands on listeners. Each piece was difficult to understand in its own right, using a novel musical language even more distant from the staples of the concert repertoire than earlier modernist music had been. Compounding listeners’ difficulties was that each composer and often each piece used a unique approach, so that even after getting to know one such work, encountering the next one could be like starting from scratch.

Sounds fun, right?

To get a sense of what this stuff sounds like, listen to Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), widely regarded as among the most important pieces of MCM.

At this point you might be wondering what the hell is this garbage and how could anyone listen to it?!

But it’s also important to remember that maybe non-composers shouldn’t be able to appreciate such music, just like non-mathematicians can’t appreciate the Langlands program. Here is Babbitt writing in 1958:

Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields…

I’m not an expert in music theory. I’m just a fan who likes listening to music. So it doesn’t bother me that I don’t understand most of what’s going on in Gesang der Jünglinge. Nor does it bother me that I don’t enjoy listening to it.

Frankly, I’m not going to spend the time to become an expert in music theory, and (probably) neither are you. So, how can the layperson find pieces she likes from the not-so-accessible portions of the MCM canon, and is it worth the effort?

I leave it to you to decide whether it’s worth the effort. But I will at least try to reduce the effort required, by providing playlists for some types of modernist and avant-garde music that you might enjoy.

My strategy below is to make some guesses about modern music that non-experts are somewhat likely to enjoy (perhaps after a few listens), without those pieces “resorting to” any of the strategies already given above: thorough tonalism, minimalism, neoclassicalism, neoromanticism, heavily blurred genre lines, etc.

Attempt 1: Quasi-ambient music

Many readers will have heard and enjoyed ambient music before, either on film scores on ambient albums descended from the rock tradition, e.g. Brian Eno. If so, you may also enjoy some sorta-almost ambient (but not particularly minimalist) music from MCM composers:

Attempt 2: Drum solos

Many readers will have enjoyed extended drum solos from the rock music canon or live performances, and some MCM percussion-focused compositions may sound sufficiently like drum solos to be palatable. Here are some examples (that aren’t also e.g. minimalist):

Attempt 3: Relatively emotional serialism

Much of the MCM that normal people hate is composed using a method called serialism, possibly the dominant “genre” of 20th century classical music. If you’ve ever heard a piece of music and thought “It sounds like the composer is just trying to cram every single different note / rhythm / dynamic / timbre they can into the same piece,” well then you’re sort of right! As one famous serialist, Milton Babbitt, once put it, “I want a piece of music to be literally as much as possible.” It’s an attitude which produces pieces like Composition for Four Instruments (1948). Or The Bowl and the Laser Bat (2013).

So, while I don’t think serialism provides a good search heuristic for people seeking relatively accessible MCM, I also think that it would be weird for me to write a guide to MCM that didn’t contain a list of serial pieces. Given that I must provide such a list, I’ll try to point you to a few of the relatively emotional/accessible serialist pieces:

Attempt 4: Novelties

There are also some MCM pieces you might enjoy due to a particular gimmick or novelty. The one I’m remembering at the moment is:

  • Gabriel Kahane, Craigslistlieder (2006) — short art songs with lyrics taken verbatim from real, funny Craigslist posts.