Classical Chat: Modernism's new worlds of sound

Sir Harrison Birtwistle
Sir Harrison Birtwistle
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Modern classical music (by which we mean most things written after 1945) has had a bad rap.

Difficult, dissonant and alienating are just some of the words often thrown around for the works of the post-war generations of composers.

Related: Variations are the spice of life

This is a bit harsh, actually.

Yes, it is true that musicians considering the rubble of World War Two wanted to make a clean break with the past and start again after the horrors of the Third Reich.

But this was also a process that had been going on for years. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, written in 1913, deployed a massive orchestra and violent rhythms to depict primitive tribal dances.

The idea of music which made all the notes of equal importance was also created in the very early 1900s.

So let’s not be put off by the unfamiliar sounds which enter our ears when listening to recent music.

Here’s a few places where we can begin to dive in.

Ligeti: Lontano. Ligeti wrote a series of ‘cloud’ pieces which are basically vast shimmering forms of ambient sound. Lontano is the most beautiful, the music creating an aura of vastness about it.

Messiaen: Turangalila-Symphonie. This is an enormous piece in every sense of the word (10 movements, 80 minutes) which contrasts huge outbursts of celebration with stunning love music.

Birtwistle: The Triumph of Time. This is a monumental orchestral procession depicting the eternal inevitability and inexorability of Death. Fragments of melody for soprano saxophone and cor anglais float from the thunder.

Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel. A slow-moving, meditative piece inspired by the canvases of an abstract painter, ending in a beautiful tune inspired by Jewish folk music.

Boulez: Sur Incises. Three pianos, three harps and three percussion sets produce a dazzling web of sound filled with a quite astounding energy and thrilling joy in creating music.