A Guide to Contemporary Classical Music

Contemporary classical music refers to music within the Western art music tradition that was written close to the present day, at least relatively speaking. Whilst the term’s exact meaning is somewhat vague, it generally includes post-tonal music (meaning music that lies outside of the tonal system that was in place for the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods) that was composed after 1945. Whilst some composers continued in the tradition of modernism that had dominated much of the 20th Century until that point, others went in different directions, using electronic instruments and incorporating other technological developments, for example. Lines separating genres became blurred as composers took on various influences from outside of the classical music world.

Contemporary classical music (sometimes simply called contemporary music) ecompasses a broad range of sounds, compositional scenes and styles. This article will investigate some of these, including the worlds of serialism, minimalism, experimentalism, and spectral music. We’ll also recommend some pieces for you to listen to by some of the most important composers of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Serialism and the Continuation of Modernism

The modernist movement emerged in the 20th Century as a response to the epically grand music of the late Romantic period, as there was a feeling that almost everything that was possible had now been achieved within the structures and conventions of the Common Practice Era (which used a tonal system based on key centres and standard chord progressions, as well as structures like sonata form).

One of the most important strands of the modernist movement was serialism, which was pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s.

12-tone music, perhaps the most prominent form of serialism, takes a tone row made up of all 12 notes from the chromatic scale in a given order and then repeats and manipulates them in various structured ways.

Unlike in tonal music, all 12 notes are given more or less equal importance.

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, a number of composers continued expanding upon this approach.

However, rather than using fixed 12-tone rows, composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen applied the concepts of serialism – predetermined repeating patterns – to other elements of music like rhythm and dynamics.

This post-war strand of serialism is often associated with a movement in the arts around that time that is known as high modernism.

Often written with a highly methodical, almost mathematical approach, this tends to be rather dissonant and challenging music that continues to divide opinion.

Boulez’s piano piece Structures applies serialist concepts to various musical elements, including pitch and dynamics:

Pierre Boulez – ‘Structures I & II’

Experimental Music

In the mid-20th Century some composers began writing pieces that questioned the very definitions of music, art and composition.

One of the most famous examples of this is John Cage’s 4’33”, in which the performers do nothing except be present for four minutes and 33 seconds, meaning that the piece is actually composed of the sounds and atmosphere in the environment during that time.

Is this still music? If not, why not?

Cage also used indeterminacy in his music, meaning that some aspects of the piece are left open to chance or to the performer’s free choice.

The composer used the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text that uses chance to suggest answers to posed questions, as a decision making tool and compositional device.

He was the figurehead of a group known as the New York School, which also included the likes of Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, who also wrote aleatoric music (music of chance), as well as taking influence from surrealist and avant garde visual art:

‘Music of Changes’ by John Cage

Other composers experimented with non-standard notations, such as graphic scores, where the performer decides what to play based on a series of, say, lines, abstract images and geometric shapes, offering a huge amount of interpretative freedom.

Musique concrete, a style pioneered by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, utilised electronics to take recorded sounds – of instruments, the human voice or the natural environment, for example.

These raw materials would then be manipulated and turned into sort of musical collages.

Free improvisation is music that does not have rules or pre planned structure – often it uses no written material at all.

Whilst it may be connected to the worlds of free and avant garde jazz that developed in America in the 1960s, in its purest form ‘improv’ musicians generally try to actively avoid references to recognisable musical conventions or genres.

Computer Music and Spectralism

As music technology developed, composers began to use computers as part of their working process.

This might include having a computer algorithm generate an element of composition, use of synthesized sounds, or using a program to digitally manipulate acoustic sound waves.

Much of this work is based upon the relationship between music and mathematics.

Spectralism developed as an approach in France in the 1970s, in which the acoustic properties of sound – or sound spectra – were analysed digitally and then used as the basis for composition.

This means that the harmonic series and microtones are used extensively.

An example occurs in spectral pioneer Gérard Grisey’s Partiels, where the spectrum of overtones (the frequencies that make up the note’s sound) of a single low trombone note is subsequently arranged for the rest of the ensemble.

This school of thought can be seen as a fascinating meeting of music and physics:

Gérard Grisey – ‘Partiels

Minimalism

The minimalist movement emerged in the United States in the late 1950s.

Using minimal amounts of musical material, minimalist music takes repeating, interweaving fragments of melody to create hypnotic tapestries of sound, which tend to lack the peaks and troughs, the sense of tension and release, found in lots of other music.

Against the backdrop of dissonant, atonal modernism and serialism, Terry Riley’s In C, with its endless C major tonality, was quietly shocking.

It comprises 53 short musical phrases, which can be repeated an arbitrary number of times.

It is to be played by an indeterminate number of performers for an unspecified amount of time:

‘In C’ by Terry Riley

Often using electric instruments, reflecting technological advances of the day, and with a harmonic sound world that was generally consonant, composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich found huge commercial success:

Steve Reich – ‘Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards’

In the 1980s and ‘90s music sprang up that was known as post-minimalism.

This is no longer ‘pure’ minimalism, but shares many characteristics with the genre.

It often takes on the influence of other styles of music, including non-western music and popular styles.

Current Composers of Contemporary Classical Music

The 20th Century saw music become more divergent than previous eras, with a more divergent range of styles and sound worlds emerging than ever before.

This trend has continued and, in fact, there are more subgenres and scenes than it is possible to cover in this article.

But to give you a sense of the stylistic breadth of contemporary classical music that continues to be written, here is a small selection of composers who are active in the field today:

  • Arvo Part (b. 1935) – Estonian writer of religious-inspired ‘holy minimalism’, which is influenced by Gregorian chant. He is one of the most frequently-performed composers in the world.
  • Rhys Chatham (b. 1952) – like a number of contemporary classical composers, Chatham has blurred genre lines by taking on the influence of punk rock and noise rock.
  • Anna Meredith (b. 1978) – popular Scottish composer of electronic and acoustic works
  • Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) – associated with the Manchester School, along with Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, who both also studied at the Royal Northern College of Music. Some of his pieces were considered rather shocking when broadcast in the 1990s.
  • Steve Reich (b. 1936) – the minimalist pioneer remains incredibly popular. His work has been influenced by the Balinese gamelan tradition as well as by his Jewish heritage.

Summary

So, that concludes our guide to Contemporary Classical Music.

We’ve learned about an extremely varied selection of styles and scenes, from the uncompromising sounds of high modernism, to the quirky experimentalism of John Cage and his peers, the perhaps more approachable work of the minimalists, and the high-tech approach of spectralism.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed the journey, and that it might act as something of a springboard for you to find out about and listen to more weird and wonderful music from this period.

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.