Contemporary classical music

In the broadest sense, contemporary music is any music being written in the present day. In the context of classical music the term has been applied to music written in the last quarter century or so, particularly works post-1975. There is debate over whether the term should be used to apply to music in any style, or only to composers writing avant-garde music, or only to "modernist" music. There is some use of "Contemporary" as a synonym for "Modern", particularly in academic settings. A more restrictive use applies the term only to living composers and their works (perhaps only their recent works). Since "contemporary" is a word that describes a time frame, rather thana style or a unifying idea, there are no universally agreed criteria for making these distinctions.


In the early part of the 20th century contemporary music included modernism, the twelve tone technique, atonality, futurism, primitivism, constructivism, New Objectivity, unresolved and greater amounts of dissonance, rhythmic complexity, nationalism, social and socialist realism, and neoclassicism. In the fifties, contemporary music generally meant serialism, in the sixties serialism, post-serialism, indeterminacy, electronic music including computer music, mixed media, performance art, and fluxus, and since then minimal music, post-minimalism, New Simplicity, New Complexity, and all of the above.

Since the 1970s there has been increasing stylistic variety, with far too many schools to name or label. However, in general, there are three broad trends. The first is the continuation of modern avant-garde traditions, including musical experimentalism. The second are schools which sought to revitalize a tonal style based on previous common practice. The third focuses on non-functional triadic harmony, exemplified by composers working in the minimalist and related traditions.

Contemporary music composition has been altered with growing force by computers in composition, which allow for composers to listen to renderings of their scores before performance, compose by layering performed parts over each other and to disseminate scores over the internet. It is far too soon to tell what the final result of this wave of computerization will have as an effect on music.

All history is provisional, and contemporary history even more so, because of the well known problems of dissemination and social power. Who is "in" and who is "out" is often more important to who is known than the music itself. In an era with perhaps as many as 40,000 composers of concert music in the United States alone, first performances are difficult, and second performances even more so. The lesson of obscure composers in the past becoming important later applies doubly so to contemporary music, where it is likely that there are "firsts" before the officially listed first, and works which will be later admired as exemplars of style, which are as yet, unheralded in their own time.

Movements in contemporary music


Many of the key figures of the high modern movement are alive, or only recently deceased and there is also still an extremely active core of composers, performers and listeners who continue to advance the ideas and forms of Modernism. Elliott Carter is still active, for example, as is Lukas Foss. While high modernist schools of composing, such as serialism are no longer as rhetorically central, the contemporary period is beginning the process of sorting through the modern corpus, looking for works which will have repertory value.

Modernism is also present as surface or trope in works of a large range of composers, as atonality has lost much of its ability to terrorize listeners, and even film scores use sections of music clearly rooted in modernist musical language. Active modernist composers include Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Judith Weir, Thomas Adès, Magnus Lindberg and Gunther Schuller.


More specifically named "integral" or "compound" serialism, one of the most important post-war movements, led by composers such as Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe, and by Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino, and Charles Wuorinen in America.

Compositions use an ordered set or several such sets, which may be the basis for the whole composition. The term is also often used for dodecaphony, or twelve-tone technique, which is alternatively regarded as the model for integral serialism.


Post-modernism is held to by many critics to be a strong influence in contemporary classical music. While explanations of what post-modernism is, and why it is influential vary widely, and responses to whether post-modernism is "good" for music, or even a good in and of itself - there is a wide agreement that instrumental concert music, and "art music" has absorbed ideas and influences from the wider culture, and that the results of these influences, for better and for worse, can be detected in musical results. Examples include polystylism, bricolage and collage, pop music references, the use of fragments, found sounds and incorporated voices, the shift from increasingly chromatic surfaces to more triadic ones, juxtaposition of genres, the use of new instrumental combinations which take instruments from several different cultures, and the combining of composition with video and other media images. Key composers include the Scottish composer, James MacMillan (who draws on sources as diverse as plainchant, South American Liberation Theology and Polish avant-garde techniques of the 1960s), the American Michael Torke (drawing on classical tradition, minimalism and popular music) and Mark-Anthony Turnage from the UK (drawing from jazz, English pastoralism and the avant-garde).


Polystylism is the use of multiple styles or techniques of music, and is seen as a postmodern characteristic. Polystylist composers include William Bolcom, Sofia Gubaidulina, George Rochberg, Frederic Rzewski, Alfred Schnittke, Ezequiel Viñao and John Zorn.


When Duchamp displayed a urinal in an art museum, he struck the most visible blow for artistic conceptualism. Music conceptualism found a champion in John Cage and, a bit later, in the composers associated with the Fluxus movement. A conceptualist work is an act whose musical importance draws from the frame, rather than the content of the work. An example would be Alvin Singleton's 56 Blows, a work that has the distinction of being mentioned in debate on the floor of the Senate.

Minimalism and post-minimalism

The minimalist generation still has a prominent role in new composition. Philip Glass has been expanding his symphony cycle, while John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, a choral work commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks won a Pulitzer Prize. Steve Reich has explored electronic opera (most notably in Three Tales) and Terry Riley has been active in composing instrumental music and music theatre. But beyond the minimalists themselves, the tropes of non-functional triadic harmony are now commonplace, even among composers who are not regarded as minimalists per se.

Many composers are expanding the resources of minimalist music to include rock and world instrumentation and rhythms, serialism, and many other techniques. Kyle Gann considers William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes as the first "post-minimalism" piece, and labels John Adams as a "post-minimalist" composer, rather than as a minimalist. Gann defines "post-minimalism" as the search for greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity by composers such as Mikel Rouse and Glenn Branca. Another notable characteristic is storytelling and emotional expression taking precedence over technique. Post-minimalism is also [1] a movement in painting and sculpture which began in the late 1960s. (See lumpers/splitters)

Other composers sometimes referred to as "post-minimalist" include Erkki-Sven Tüür, Peteris Vasks, Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars, Lepo Sumera, Valentin Silvestrov, Veljo Tormis, Ingram Marshall, Kevin Volans, Daniel Lentz, Louis Andriessen, Frederic Rzewski, and many composers associated with the Bang on a Can collective.

Post-classic tonality

Other aspects of post-modernity can be seen in a "post-classic" tonality that has advocates such as Michael Daugherty, Elena Kats-Chernin and Tan Dun.

"World music" influence

An increasing number of composers mix western and non-western instruments, including gamelan from Indonesia, Chinese traditional instruments, ragas from Indian Classical music. There is also an exploration of eastern-European and non-Western tonalities, even in relatively traditionally structured works. This can be in the context of post-minimalist works, such as Janice Giteck's and Evan Ziporyn's Balinese-influenced works, bandura works by Julian Kytasty, or in the context of post-classic tonality, such as in the music of Bright Sheng, or in the context of thoroughly modernist styled works.

Rock influence

Similarly, many composers have emerged since the 1980s who are heavily influenced by rock. Many, such as Scott Johnson and Steven Mackey started out as rock musicians and only later moved into the realm of scored music. Other notable composers who draw on rock include Annie Gosfield, Evan Ziporyn, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, David Lang, John Zorn, Steve Martland, Ben Johnston, Anne LeBaron, Kitty Brazelton, Glenn Branca, and Nick Didkovsky. Many of these composers (Gordon, Lang, Wolfe, Ziporyn, Martland, Branca) are post-minimalist in orientation, but some (Didkovsky, Brazelton) are very much not.


There are composers that have adopted historicist approach to composition, employing a variety of styles of previous eras. Some composers had occasional forays into this approach previously (Alfred Schnittke), while others embraced it to varying degrees of exclusion of other styles.

Some post-minimalist works, such as Gavin Bryars' "Oi me lasso" cycle employ medievalism. Other composers embrace renaissance, baroque and classical styles with varying degrees of purism (Fritz Kreisler, Robert Casadesus, Jordi Savall, Rene Clemencic, Thomas Binkley, Benjamin Bagby, Joseph Dillon Ford, Ladislav Kupkovič, Winfried Michel, the several composers of the Delian Society, and the Vox Saeculorum group). This movement is related to Early Music Revival and a number of historicist composers are influenced by their intimate familiarity with the instrumental practice of earlier eras (Alexandre Danilevsky, Paulo Galvão, Roman Turovsky-Savchuk).

Historicism may also be combined with minimalism, post-minimalism, and world-music.


One important movement in contemporary music involves expanding the range of gestures available to instrumentalists, for example the work of George Crumb. The Kronos Quartet has been among the most active ensembles in promoting contemporary American works for string quartet, and they take delight in music which stretches the manner in which sound can be drawn out of instruments.

European composers who make heavy use of extended techniques include Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino and Heinz Holliger.

Electronic music

Electronics are now part of mainstream music creation. Performances of regular works often use midi synthesizers to back or replace regular musicians. Looping, sampling, and (rarely) drum machines may also be used. However the older idea of electronic music (musique concrète, electroacoustics...) - as a search for pure sound and an interaction with the hardware itself - continues to find a place in composition, from commercially successful pieces to works targeted at very narrow audiences. See, for example, the work of Michel Chion.


The resurgence of the vocabulary of extended tonality which flourished in the first years of the 20th century continues in the contemporary period, though it is no longer considered shocking or controversial as such. Composers working in the neoromantic vein include John Corigliano, George Rochberg (in some of his works after 1971), David Del Tredici and Krzysztof Penderecki (after about 1975).

New Simplicity

A movement in Germany in the late seventies and early eighties, reacting with a variety of strategies to restore the subjective to composing. New Simplicity's best-known composer is Wolfgang Rihm, who strives for the emotional volatility of late 19th-century Romanticism and early 20th-century Expressionism. Called Die neue Einfachheit in German, it has also been termed "New Romanticism," "New Subjectivity," "New Inwardness," "New Sensuality," "New Expressivity," and "New Tonality."

Styles found in other countries sometimes associated with the German New Simplicity movement include the so-called "Holy Minimalism" of the Pole Henryk Górecki and the Estonian Arvo Pärt (in their works after 1970), as well as Englishman John Tavener, who unlike the New Simplicity composers have turned back to Medieval and Renaissance models, however, rather than to 19th-century romanticism for inspiration. Important representative works include Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (1976) by Górecki, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977) by Pärt, and The Veil of the Temple (2002) by Tavener.

New Complexity

"New Complexity" is a current within today's European contemporary avant-garde music scene, named in reaction to the New Simplicity. Among this diverse group are Richard Barrett, Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon and Michael Finnissy.

Spectral Music

Epitomized by the works of Hugues Dufourt, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, and Horatiu Radulescu. Much of Kaija Saariaho's and the last few pieces of Claude Vivier's music are influenced by the spectralists.

Contemporary choral music

At the turn of the century, Eric Whitacre has achieved considerable attention by combining tonal music with tone clusters and similar experimental techniques. Although it is too soon to discern trends in the 21st century, the spirit of more practical music which dominated the last decades of the 20th century seems to be continuing via the works of Karl Jenkins, John Rutter, Kentaro Sato and Morten Lauridsen amongst others.
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