Classical Chat: Weird and wacky pieces

The Helicopter String Quartet. Photo by Jerome Kohl
The Helicopter String Quartet. Photo by Jerome Kohl
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Classical may have a reputation for being somewhat straight-laced, but some composers have no problem heading off into the truly weird and wonderful.

Experimentation has always been at the heart of the music but it is fair to say that some have taken this to extremes, letting their imaginations run riot.

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Honourable mentions for Erik Satie’s piece Vexations, which asks the performer to play a theme 840 times, Ligeti’s Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes and John Cage’s writing for rainsticks and the notorious work 4’33’’ which is completely silent.

However, when it comes to the truly off-the-wall these pieces are hard to beat:

Stockhausen – Helicopter String Quartet. Part of a seven-opera cycle called Light, this movement takes music into the skies with each of the four musicians playing their part airborne inside their own helicopter. Yes, truly.

George Crumb – Vox Balaenae. Three performers wearing masks, preferably under blue light, play electronic flute, cello and amplified piano in a piece inspired by whale song.

La Monte Young – Piano Piece for David Tudor #1. The US cult musician’s Composition 1960 series requests performers to do all sorts of unusual things but this one takes the biscuit: the instructions say hay and water are to be brought on stage for the piano to eat and drink. The instrument can either be fed or can be left to get on with its meal by itself.

Jan Sandström – Motorbike Odyssey. A trombone concerto like no other, the soloist has to imitate the sound of the vehicle of the title. At the premiere a motorbike was actually rolled onto stage, with the performer wearing full leathers riding it.

Malcolm Arnold – A Grand, Grand Overture. A witty parody of a 19th century concert opener featuring parts for rifles, vacuum cleaners and an electric floor polisher.