How to Fall in Love with Modern Classical Music

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

- Author Donald Miller

Riding in the van's back seat on route to a sailing trip, I was head-banging so hard my headphones almost flew off. My friends watched with amusement. After a final crescendo they couldn't hear, I slumped back in my seat with my eyes closed and let out a post-orgasmic "God that's awesome."

"What the hell were you listening to, Luke? Metallica or something?"

"Nah, man. Harmonielehre. A symphony written in 1985 by John Adams. It's one of my favorite pieces of music ever."

Maybe that sounded snobbish, but I couldn't help it. When you love something you want to share it.

Trouble is, there hasn't been a good way for me to share my love for modern classical music with others. I could send them to the audio guide for Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, but its coverage of everything after 1960 is pretty limited, and it doesn't begin with the easier, more listenable selections. Bartok is Dead has a limited but well-organized collection of clips, but the site doesn't hold your hand throughout the journey. Anne Midgette's Contemporary classical: a primer is good but way too short. The Guardian's guide to contemporary classical music looks promising but is organized by composer, and starts with some "difficult" stuff by Elliot Carter and Pauline Oliveros. How to Listen to and Understand Great Music ends with Arnold Schönberg, who died in 1951.

So I guess I will have to write a beginner's guide to modern classical music.

Note: This guide links to lots of music on YouTube or Spotify: wherever the music was available. While reading, I recommend you Ctrl+click (Cmd+click on Mac) open those links in a new browser tab so you can hear the music play for a bit before reading further.



How I Fell in Love

This is my personal story of how I fell in love with modern classical music. Feel free to skip it.

As a Minnesotan pastor's kid I grew up listening to Contemporary Christian Music like The Newsboys ("God is Not a Secret") and Carman ("Satan, Bite the Dust"). The genre is rooted in Nashville-based pop music, so it's not exactly the most creative music in the world.

At age 14 I went to England on a missionary trip. One of our activities was to stand on the street with a microphone and ask people what was most important to them. We got answers like "God" and "my husband" and "my work." Some cool-looking high-school punks said "Birds," and we thought Birds? So weird! I guess they're bird-watchers or something. Huh. Later we learned they meant, you know, chicks.

My parents didn't like me listening to "secular music," but in England I was far beyond their reach. My friend Austin lent me his discman so I could listen to Metallica's "Orion," an 8-minute instrumental track crafted with all the care of a baroque fugue, a centerpiece of what many critics call the greatest metal album of all time. Suddenly I realized I was missing out on a lot of intelligent and emotionally powerful music.

Now I was hooked. Via Metallica I discovered Dream Theater, whose neoclassical prog-metal was even more sophisticated than Metallica's early albums. Via Dream Theater I discovered early prog-rock like King Crimson ("I Talk to the Wind") and Pink Floyd ("A Saucerful of Secrets"). And so on.

My tastes exploded in all directions. I found lists of "greatest albums" and listened to all the albums, from every genre. I browsed and listened to the editors' picks from every genre I could find, jumping from related artist to related artist. It was usually easy to get the music I wanted via Napster, Audiogalaxy, music streaming sites, eMusic, and private music communities. I also checked out 20 CDs at a time from my library, making full use of the fact that all Minnesota public libraries belonged to a free, state-wide interlibrary loan system. One year I was responsible for more than 80% of my local library's interlibrary loan requests.

The turning point, I suppose, was when I discovered Piero Scaruffi's website, which the New York Times later profiled in an article titled The Greatest Website of All Time.

Scaruffi may be one of the last persons deserving the title "Renaissance Man." He began his career working on the mathematics of General Relativity at the University of Turin. After that he headed up an artificial intelligence lab in California, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard and Stanford in cognitive science. He also worked as a software consultant, and pioneered several internet applications after moving to Silicon Valley. He wrote a 500-page tome on The Nature of Consciousness and also A Brief History of Knowledge. He reviews academic books on cognitive science and organizes a series of art/science events at Stanford. He has written about his travels to 100+ countries, is a California hiking guide, and writes regular political commentary. He has also written histories of literature and poetry, is an award-winning poet himself, and has written hundreds of pages on the history of cinema, along with ratings and reviews for dozens of movies each year.

But he is best known for his writings on music. Scaruffi grew up listening to classical music, not pop and rock music. He describes himself as a cultural historian, not a "fan." Thus, his album ratings and musical histories focus on music that made unique contributions to the history of (musical) ideas, and show almost no correlation with sales or popularity. His list of best rock albums names The Doors and Astral Weeks but also Trout Mask Replica, Faust and Twin Infinitives. His list of best jazz albums names Black Saint and Sinner Lady and Kind of Blue but also Atlantis, Descent into the Maelstrom and Escalator Over the Hill. His list of classical masterpieces names works by Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky, but also many by Zorn, Galas, Takemitsu, Balakauskas, and Borboudakis.

Thus his page on The Beatles reads:

The fact that so many books still name the Beatles "the greatest or most significant or most influential" rock band ever only tells you how far rock music still is from becoming a serious art. Jazz critics have long recognized that the greatest jazz musicians of all times are Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, who were not the most famous or richest or best sellers of their times, let alone of all times. Classical critics rank the highly controversial Beethoven over classical musicians who were highly popular in courts around Europe. Rock critics are still blinded by commercial success...

The Beatles sold a lot of records not because they were the greatest musicians but simply because their music was easy to sell to the masses: it had no difficult content, it had no technical innovations, it had no creative depth. They wrote a bunch of catchy 3-minute ditties and they were photogenic...

While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avant garde music, thus elevating rock music to art, the Beatles continued to yield three minute songs built around a chorus. Beatlemania and its myth notwithstanding, Beatles fans went crazy for twenty seconds of trumpet, while the Velvet Underground were composing suites of chaos twenty minutes long. Actually, between noise and a trumpet, between twenty seconds and twenty minutes, there was an artistic difference of several degrees of magnitude...

The Beatles are justly judged for the beautiful melodies they have written. But those melodies were "beautiful" only when compared to the melodies of those who were not trying to write melodies; in other words to the musicians who were trying to rewrite the concept of popular music by implementing suites, jams and noise. Many contemporaries of Beethoven wrote better minuets than Beethoven ever wrote, but only because Beethoven was writing something else. In fact, he was trying to write music that went beyond the banality of minuets.

I decided to read through Scaruffi's comprehensive history of rock music and listen to every album I could find. Then I did the same with his history of pop music, his history of jazz music, and his chronological list of classical masterpieces.

Doing this, I could hear the musical tree growing upward and outward as each branch split off from its parent branch. When I listened to all these styles and albums in the chronological order, I could hear the story of modern music. I could hear the way country and blues merged into boogie, and how boogie started rocking harder until it was called rock 'n roll. I could hear how rock music exploded in a thousand different directions in the 1960s. I could hear how the electronic experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Subotnick inspired Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, who in turn inspired both abstract noise makers and dance pop.

And from then on, whenever I heard a new album, I could hear where it fit in the story of music. I could tell what its influences were, and whether it invented a whole new kind of music. Knowing the story of music (rather than the story of the music industry and its musicians) made lots of popular artists sound trivial, but it also made lots of other artists sound much more exciting.

These musical connections reminded me of the historical connections examined in the BBC series Connections, hosted by science historian James Burke. In that series, Burke showed how different people in different places solving different problems made different innovations that all came together to give us the technology we use every day. For example, the loom produced linen which made paper so cheap it spurred the development of printing of books that gave information to those interested in automated organs whose pegged cylinders gave French silk weavers the opportunity to run their looms with perforated cards that Herman Hollerith used to count people for a census more quickly than before, which inspired the design of the earliest computers.

I think the same kind of thing happens in music. For example, the barbershop harmonies invented by early pop stars The Mills Brothers ("Goodbye Blues") were inherited (along with many other things) by The Bee Gees, whose disco music and soaring falsetto singing ("Stayin' Alive") inspired the vocals for Supertramp's brainy pop music ("The Logical Song"), which that was iterated toward a kind of electro-bossanova by Deerhoof ("Desaparecere").

What does all this have to do with how I fell in love with modern classical music? Unlike Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, Scaruffi's music website didn't stop with rock music, but covered jazz and classical as well. Thus, I discovered a treasure trove of modern classical music that was (in many cases) both more accessible and more exciting than, say, popular avantgarde rock artists like Burial ("U Hurt Me") or Earth ("Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine"). And the more I discovered, the more I listened, and the more I fell in love.

So What Is Modern Classical Music?

There’s a lot of exciting [modern] classical music out there. The problem is that it’s not reaching its potential audience.

- Composer Gabriel Prokofiev

Words are limited. The best way to say "hello" to modern classical music is to listen to it. Note that you are weird if you like all the pieces below. My goal isn't to help my readers enjoy all genres of modern classical music. My hope is that my readers discover some genres of modern classical they enjoy:

This is a sampling of "modern classical music." The name is an oxymoron, but whatever.

Ready for a definition? Here you go: modern classical music is music which traces its primary lineage to 20th century classical composers (e.g. Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Shostakovich, Cage, and Bartók) rather than to the musicians of pop, rock, jazz, or folk music.

So why is modern classical music so unpopular?

One common hypothesis is that modern classical music is unpopular because it is often atonal, noisy, abstract, and experimental (e.g. Stockhausen, "Cosmic Pulses").

But hold on, now. Lots of people listen to rock music that is far more "difficult" and avantgarde than, say, modern classical composer Philip Glass ("Metamorphosis 3"): consider Burial ("U Hurt Me"), The Boredoms ("Circle"), Boris ("Naki Kyoku"), Sigur Rós ("Svefn g Englar"), Acid Mothers Temple ("Blue Velvet Blue"), and Fiery Furnaces ("Blueberry Boat").

Besides, many variants of rock and modern classical are stylistically indistinguishable. Don't believe me? Let's play a game. Just by listening, try to guess which of the tracks below is labeled a variant of "rock" music, and which of these is labeled a variant of "modern classical" music. Write down your answers so you can check them later.

  1. Todd Reynolds, "Killer"
  2. Efterklang, "Hands Playing Butterfly"
  3. John Zorn, "The Sicilian Clan"
  4. Vibracathedral Orchestra, "Magnetic Burn"
  5. Max Richter, "Shadow Journal"
  6. Popol Vuh, "Kyrie"
  7. Glenn Branca, "The Spectacular Commodity"
  8. Elegi, "Skrugard
  9. Corey Dargel, "On This Date Every Year"
  10. Klaus Schulze, "Satz: Ebene"

Did you listen to at least 30 seconds of each of them, and write down whether you thought they were classified as "modern classical" or "rock"? If so, highlight the following text to see the answers: The odd numbered tracks are usually labeled "modern classical," while the even numbered tracks are usually labeled "rock."

I bet you didn't do much better than chance, unless you already knew some of the artists, or some words on the YouTube pages tipped you off.

So if it's not the case that modern classical is more difficult or "weird" than many popular variants of rock music, then why is modern classical music so unpopular? I suspect there are many factors at play:

If I'm right, and these are the reasons that people listen to Earth and Burial but not Pärt, then the problem that modern classical music doesn't have much of an audience can be fixed, largely by publishing helpful guides to the music. Like this one. (I won't say much about the problem of rare, expensive performances: that one seems harder to fix.)

You've Heard It at the Movies

If you've heard no other modern classical music, you've at least heard it in film scores:


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Sweet, sweet minimalism

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For the daring

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© 2011-2014 Luke Muehlhauser