KRONOS QUARTET / Photo: Jay Blakesberg / Courtesy of the artist

12 Compositions to Introduce You to Classical Music Post-1950

Classical and compositional music have continued to thrive in the 20th and 21st centuries, reaching new heights of dissonance and beauty.

7. Justinian Tamusuza – “Ekitundu Ekisooka” (1988)

Straightforward and lyrical, this work was brought to the attention of the wider world when it was featured on Pieces of Africa, a collection of compositions from African composers (Tamusuza is Ugandan) performed by the Kronos Quartet. After training in Baganda, Tamusuza studied under Kevin Volans, whose “White Man Sleeps” is included on Pieces, among others, and the diversity of influence proves vital to his music. It grabs you from the start, never truly relenting.

8. Serena Tideman – “Parallel Universe No. 3” (2011)

A work for solo cello, “Parallel Universe No. 3” is a showcase for the potential of Serena Tideman’s native instrument as a solo performer. Her bowing is at times vigorous and others languid, often in the space of just a few bars. Most importantly, she generates gut emotions like awe, excitement, anger, and anticipation easily. Perhaps it is because Tideman composes for an instrument she plays, but her command of just what the instrument is capable of is astounding, virtuosic but always in service of the piece.

9. William Basinski – “dlp 1.1” (2001)

Possibly the piece that deviates most from the norm, Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops” are almost as famous for their story as for the actual sound of the thing. The composer attempted to transfer a number of old tape loops to a digital format, but as the tapes ran through the digitizer, pieces of magnetic material began to fleck off, the pieces dissolving the further on they went. In practice, this left jagged holes carved out of the hazy sounds, sometimes appearing gradually, sometimes brutally as a lot of material falls off at once. The final loops were completed on 11 September 2001, and Basinski and his friends sat on the roof of his apartment in Brooklyn, watching the smoke billow from Ground Zero as the pieces played. In some sense, this threatens to overshadow the work itself, which is staggering even outside of the allegory it now represents. “dlp 1.1” is possibly the greatest of them all, devastating in its accidental replication of the violence of all things.

10. Ingram Marshall – “Fog Tropes” (1981)

American composer Marshall’s work forms a bridge between ambient, electronic, and classical music, a trait on display here. Composed for “brass sextet and tape”, the piece is stridently amelodic, filtering through many permutations of the same mood. He rejects both serialism and holy minimalism for something more like the sound of a broken ham radio.

11. Krzysztof Penderecki – “St. Luke Passion” (1965)

Possibly the foremost master of dissonance and the true avant-garde voice post-1950, Penderecki’s range was phenomenal, composing for quartets, orchestras, choruses, and everything in between. “St. Luke Passion” is my pick for its vicious atonality, powerful emphasis on serialism, and its brief bursts of melodic, major voices that feel like the light of God shining down on the suffering Christ of the Passion. In fact, rarely in classical music has such tremendous violence been conveyed so directly. If nothing else, this makes Penderecki a master.

12. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (1964)

Now, I know what you’re thinking here, but hear me out. This four-part composition may contain elements of improvisation, of free jazz, but in what sense is it any more different from “Miserere” than “Fog Tropes” or “dlp 1.1”? If this list has shown anything, it is that compositional music post-1950 is full of abrupt left turns, of aiming directly for the ditch and coming back out stronger. I would argue that Coltrane’s piece is the most accomplished, most affecting, and best American composition in the period considered, hands-down.

Its four-part structure works to its benefit as a whole, differentiating between each section in Coltrane’s life-long striving for spiritual release through music, building tension and release not just in each movement but through all 30 minutes of the thing. Bandleader and virtuosic musician he may have been, the man was a composer, and the marks of his pen, and indeed his scalpel, are all over A Love Supreme. It is judicious where necessary, opulent in other moments, never anything less than the mind of a genius.

Many composers pre-1950, Stravinsky among them, borrowed liberally from ragtime and jazz, subsuming them within a mantle of “sophistication” and “complexity” it was implied never existed in the source material. Post-1950, it’s time to acknowledge those progenitors as something other than materials to be cherry-picked; they were high art in their own right, and never more so than on A Love Supreme.

Classical and compositional music have thrived in the 20th and 21st centuries, reaching new heights of both dissonance and beauty. The pieces below cover a wide range, from Penderecki’s serialism to Caroline Shaw’s vocal techniques drawn from the traditional folk singing of Inuit women. They don’t stick purely to the avant-garde, and they most certainly are not in a singular style. While many people think of classical music, pre- or post-1950, as somewhat monolithic, even dipping your toe in reveals a staggering, frightening array of styles that share nothing beyond a basic origin in composition.

Many of the most important composers of the period (John Cage, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, etc) have been left off the list, both because I didn’t want to get too weighted with minimalism, and because I wanted to provide a sketch of just how broad the genre can now be considered. There is no geographic center, no high style, and the academy, where much of this originates, is not as stocked with old white men as it once was. Classical music can interpolate itself into electronics, tape loops, throat singing, and “world music”, and remain distinctive. There are undoubtedly some composers you think should have been mentioned, or some you think don”t belong. Take what you have, and what I have, and keep going from there. The only way we can get that TA to shut up is if we know more than him, after all.

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This article originally published on 23 October 2013.



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