Portraits of Contemporary Composers: Playlist

Contemporary classical music is a jarring, melody-less assemblage of noise—at least, that’s what we’re often quick to judge it as. But this is music is very much at the heart of our modern world. And so with this playlist we wanted to celebrate some of the composers who invite us to hear today’s often chaotic world with “new happy ears”. Their music might at times be risible, but it also represents a startlingly vulnerable exploration of what it is to be human.

But WOW that’s all got very deep very quickly. Let’s claw our way back to something more manageable. How about a singing cactus?


John Cage

Let’s begin our soul-searching with John Cage. He may have talked in riddles, but Cage’s contributions to 20th and 21st century music are plain as they are prodigious. Cage believed that music was anything involving the production of sound. Cage advocates the elimination of any distinction between organized and ambient sound. With his prepared piano pieces, he variously DIY-s the instrument and in doing so gains access to an entirely new sound-world. His unflinching experimentation with technology stemmed from his belief that technology is merely:

“an extension of what we are”

It might have an enviable claim to its own dedicated wikipedia page, but the “amplified cactus” is, lamentably, a medium rarely written for. No wonder — few musicians possess Cage’s eccentricity, nor his determination to exhaustively harness his environment. We would never have associated the cactus with music, but it is quite endearing.


Karlheinz Stockhausen

From serialism to electronic music, from his musical Mantra to his hallucinogenic Cosmic Pulses, from works for acapella “choir” to helicopters, Stockhausen’s plethoric ideas were perhaps even more divisive than Cage’s. But like Cage, he too used musical exploration and experimentation to heighten his experience of life, considering it “spiritual food.”

Here we see music reach new heights — quite literally. Stockhausen paved the way in pushing our definition of composition, and of sound itself, to the absolute limit. Music should never stop innovating. Perhaps by even calling it music, we are doing a disservice to its transformative potential.

And in 1971, Stockhausen called us out on it:

“You are always referring to my music. What does it mean, my music? It’s just something that has come into my mind and I am working all the time and that’s it … It has a name in order to identify it. That’s all.”

Stockhausen tinkering with a sound machine, 1994
Stockhausen, 1994.

Steve Reich

Reich’s music has a complexity all of its own: he discovered tape-based looping and phasing techniques and — much like in the pioneering early ’50s sound collages of Pierre Schaffer and Pierre Henry — his compositions seamlessly incorporate recorded fragments of spoken word and street sounds. His African-drumming-inspired Clapping Music foregrounds rhythm which, in much experimental music, has receded to the background. Taking a completely different tone in his Different Trains, composition turns philosophical where Reich foregrounds the voices of Holocaust survivors.

In this visceral work, we can begin to identify some key Reich techniques. Listen for example to how he repeats the spoken exclamation “the war is over” followed by a brief instrumental motif that mimics the cadence of speech. Similarly, his string quartet inhabits the rhythms of transit and creates a sense of urgency out of monotony. By using minimal materials and observing the interlocking rhythmic patterns between language and ambient sound, Reich creates rich compositional tapestries. Different Trains won a Grammy in 1989 for Best Contemporary Composition, and deservedly.      


Philip Glass

Philip Glass, 2008.
Philip Glass, 2008.

Philip Glass is another important contemporary composer whose music variously induces delight and bewilderment. Much like Stockhausen and Reich, Glass capitalizes on technological innovation. In the excerpt below, from Notes, we can easily discern his characteristic serial structures, his integration of the synthesized human voice, and his omnipresent electric ground-bass throb — musical features that recur in his symphonies as in his film scores alike.

Glass’s style is almost instantly recognizable. His use of repetition creates a sort of semantic satiation where the musical phrases slip out of meaning. The vamping effect is, however, not only typical of Glass’s avant-garde musical language. Repetition is fundamental in most mainstream music from pop to metal. Indeed, pioneering ‘70s and ‘80s bands such as The Beatles owe a debt to the minimalist electric dreams of the likes of Stockhausen, Glass, and Reich.


Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt is the most spiritual in our contemporary Pantheon of composers. His music is deeply religious, and a far cry from the jarring atonality of, for example, Stockhausen or Boulez. Pärt largely discards modernist tropes in favour of creating his own musical language: tintinnabuli. Fusing elements of early polyphony with Gregorian chant, Pärt’s tintinnabuli unites two monodic lines — melody and triad — into one, painfully exposed ensemble. In its own way, this raw atmosphere of noiselessness sometimes makes for hard listening.

This excerpt features Pärt at his most evocative. Listening is a sensory, even cathartic experience. Pärt’s solace in silence is infinitely clear, as is the inestimable power of the choir. The chiming of “little bells,” the tintinnabuli from where his musical language takes its name, summons up monasteries of old. The tintinnabuli is not just a style, but an ideology. The resulting music is both static and dynamic, both world-weary and indefatigable.

Pärt’s is a quest for truth, beauty and purity, as ancient as it is modern. Intense stuff.


As our soul-searching comes to an end, it’s clear that there’s a lot more to contemporary music than meets the eye ear. Pierre Boulez, a notoriously outspoken proponent of avant-garde music, declared in 1991:

“Anyone who has not felt … the necessity of the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is OF NO USE. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”

Maybe Boulez was being a bit dramatic, but it certainly took courage and inspiration for these composers to plunge into the unknown and shatter the unbreakable rules of Western “music.” Contemporary composition can be brutally technological, cosmically philosophical, and ravishingly febrile, but rarely all at once. Their music may be fractured, but it is invariably honest. It bypasses the world of convention and intellect to go straight to your core. Contemporary music is speaking to us now: all you need is an open mind and listening ears.

And what did the formidable Arnold Schoenberg have to say on the matter of contemporary composition? …

So what are you waiting for?! Get stuck into our composer playlist and discover if there’s a (12-tone) method to their madness!


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