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Classical music works of the 21st century (theguardian.com)
88 points by tintinnabula 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

What is their criteria for selection?

Are they working from the idea of a published piece of music that could be performed by any symphony, quartet, choral group, etc? Or is about what instruments it is for?

I'm just not clear on what their definition of "classical" music is.

Your confusion is completely right. The genre classical has an almost insanely wide meaning.

It originally only meant music from the Classical Period of 1720 to 1820, then Romantic music after that, and thus everything you describe above ought to be termed contemporary music (and is usually called something like that as a sub-genre).

There is a marketing explanation which is often the easiest definition to use, which is that labels have to box music into genres to sell and so they do, and get to decide if music should be pitched as classical.

Beyond using vaguely reminiscent ensembles, forms and orchestration then I guess the focus on the composer is probably the next main thing.

It is not a consistent definition though, where film composer John Williams gets called classical because of the aesthetic and influences and orchestration but then show music is not counted because for some reason its use of song forms and aesthetic is just not right, despite using mostly classical music orchestration...

Although there are classical pieces that are quite like show music. Like "The Trout" by Schubert (which comes under Programme Music which is also frowned upon as low tier by many music snobs).

So I can only really conclude that it's essentially the domain of marketers, critics and snobs to determine which artfully composed music deserves to be acknowledged as "classical" in the modern day and I think essentially the definition is "something that somebody collating new classical music for the Guardian / anyone bold enough to claim they define it thinks deserves the title".

Classical music is in the eye of the beholder.

>Your confusion is completely right. The genre classical has an almost insanely wide meaning.

To pundits, not to the common man, for which it means "mostly artsy stuff done with acoustic instruments by conservatory trained composers and performed and their like".

Heck, for the common man even the distinction "classical", "romantic" etc doesn't mean anything, Bach and Mahler is all classical, and even for my brother and their folks (classically trained professional orchestra musicians), the term "classical" is thrown around for all this repertoire.

It's just anything with "serious" trained composers, and (mostly) real instruments by conservatory players. Jazz and experimental works, like Xenakis or Stockhausen are excluded from called "classical" though, where e.g. a Phillip Glass piece would be included (but in that case, there's the "minimalist" branding which prevails).

In any, case since the article talks about modern works (21st century or so), it has probably this meaning:


Xenakis and Stockhausen definitely count as contemporary classical.

It's actually about lineage. Contemporary classical sells itself on the basis that there's a direct academic - sometimes historical - link to Beethoven, who was the prototypical Genius Composer.

Which is why you usually get all the stock tropes - concert halls, serious audiences in seats listening very intently, serious clothes for the players, a serious conductor at the front, clapping at the end only, definitely no cheering or dancing - that also apply to traditional classical music concerts.

It's also about intellectual content. Pop doesn't usually try to justify itself intellectually. Contemporary classical does nothing but. Which is why it's a long series of "isms" of various kinds, all making more or less convincing claims about their own immense cultural importance.

You don't get points for writing interesting music, you get points for creating a new "ism" - preferably an "important" one - and then writing music around it.

The committed audience is actually tiny - five figures globally, if that - so "important" is debatable.

Even so - the idea that contemporary classical is "important", with the implication that other music isn't, is probably the key to the genre.

Former classical music composer here. Your analysis is quite spot on. Some people in classical music scene even call it ”serious music”.

Yeah these labels are fascinating. I studied jazz at a conservatoire and also played in the "classical" Contemporary Music Ensemble which played a lot of this difficult to define art music.

And there was the amusing rift between popular, jazz and classical students in terms of what music was about and later working as a session player of sorts I used to laugh (internally) playing jazz sets with some function bands because they didn't play any "actual jazz" and didn't play it "properly" and yet nobody else would even notice.

It's fun to debate music and genre definition, genre lacking enough nuance to even work effectively for lots of music.

If I recall Soweto Kinch (UK rapper and sax player) had difficulties with record stores putting him in jazz, and ideally he'd wanted to be in urban sections also.

For musicians and composers I think genre definition is more of a necessary evil than something helpful.

There are other distinctions, though. For instance, classical music, aside from some forms of minimalism, is very definitely not about loops and layers. Classical music is more about long form narrative and has a lot more in common with long form fiction, with development, surprises, and entirely new contexts. The way a classical work is cohesive within itself is very different than how a pop song or jazz or electronica is.

Funny enough a lot of film scores and more recently TV and video game soundtracks also follow that formula with specific motifs for different characters with variations depending on the scene.

It's particularly noticable where you have a long running series that allow for the motifs to mature over time.

Amusingly, jazz people call it "legit" music.

I like how there are some standout musicians whose catalogs could put a serious litmus test to any definition of 'classical' that one might suggest. People like Bela Fleck and Chris Thile... Some of their music is definitely classical, and some definitely not, and some in huge grey areas that would defy definition regardless if whether the basis is on compositional style or instrumentation/orchestration.

Don't discount the acousmatic and electroacoustic traditions that also lead from western classical forms. A good, wide exposure to the international contemporary classical music scene might be the Gaudeamus festival held each year in the Netherlands.


The same is true of most genres of music that were really popular during a specific time period. Punk rock arguably was constrained to the late 70s, but you can still find artists who are arguably punk rock.

Genres are a fuzzy classification and time periods are not really the best way to nail down a genre. I guess it sort of works to identify the start of a genre (if you ignore a couple of outliers like Gesualdo who was doing Chromaticism waaaay back in the Renaissance period) since artists copy each other (and copy general trends), and technology / theory can also be a component.

I guess you can tentatively identify a beginning of an artistic movement. But an artistic movement only really dies when no-one cares about it, at which point no-one really cares when it finished.

Personally I listen to the likes of Hans Zimmer, Jesper Kyd, Garath Coker, Ramin Djawadi, Michael Giacchino, etc when I'm looking for orchestral/symphonic instrumental music.

I don't think you could call them studio musicians - which was how John Williams started out (working for Mancini) but I can't imagine them fitting what is considered "classical" at the Guardian.

With those composers, I think it depends on if you are listening to music that is intended to stand alone, or if it was originally intended to support a film work. Even there the line can get a little blurry. There is music by John Williams that is definitely on the classical concert circuit, like the Emperor Theme, but even then the form is different than what you hear in the film. I believe Zimmer has some music lifted out that stands alone. But even then, music still might only make it to Pops concerts rather than the standard repertoire. Another example, I used to listen to Elfman's original Batman soundtrack a lot - but you can tell it's much more wandering and moody than standard classical music.

But just because a piece of music is programmatic doesn't mean it's not classical. Beethoven's 6th symphony is a great example.

If you go back and watch Disney's original Fantasia, that's a good example of the difference between music that supports film, versus music that stands alone - in Fantasia's case, the film was structured to support the music.

There's definitely good classical music out there that has a pleasing "sweep" to it like film music. Maybe sometime get out the headphones, sit back, and listen to the first movement of Sibelius' 5th symphony. I like the Bernstein version most.

I think were Prokofiev, Dvorak, Wagner, etc around thee days they would probably be writing film soundtracks.

I find William's The Asteroid Field to be the pinnacle of musical storytelling. It hooks into the action (tight and fast through the chase scenes and then soars with the escape) but is also interleaved with each character's motif. The soundtrack version stands alone very well.

On the video game side: Garath Coker's Ori and the Blind Forest is quite cohesive and listenable without knowing anything about the game.

Spotify can take you down some interesting rabbit holes of discovery.

You are right, but you're nit-picking a bit, I think, given the widespread popular usage of the term as a descriptor for orchestral and chamber musics.

When I was at music school we called it Western Art Music, which I think is a more appropriate term.

Classical music as a genre is quite hard to define. Especially if you try to find some clear boundaries of where classical ends and jazz begins. That is the case for basically every genre.

Personally I would try to approach it like this: If it needs the particular band/artist to play it live, it's not classical, if it can be played by anyone with the notes and still be considered the same as hearing the original, it's classical.

I think the free dictionary puts it well:

> In technical musical usage this means music composed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, characterized by the development of the sonata by such composers as Mozart. In popular use, however, the term is used to mean any serious art music as distinct from jazz, pop, or folk.

Looking at the article, I think their definition is based on the instruments used and the form of the piece (there's a whole lot of operas there).

I think this raises a good point about separating the composer and performer. It's almost like a symbiosis. If you're a composer, and you want there to be any chance of someone performing your work in a live setting, then you have to stay within certain parameters. If you're a musician, you're looking for interesting material that you can play on your instrument without getting killed.

There are other practical concerns such as being able to hire from a pool of musicians who can all do similar work. So it leads to a large repertoire that is hard to define in a formal sense, but develops similarities out of practical necessity.

There are other examples as well. The string quartet and the "big band" of jazz, where a particular instrumentation and performance setting guarantees a limitless supply of repertoire for the musicians, and a hope of getting performed for the composer or arranger. I play in a "big band."

>I'm just not clear on what their definition of "classical" music is.

It's the casual definition of classical music. Music played by musicians trained in classical repertoire, with mostly conventional instruments (violins, cellos, pianos), choruses, etc.

The criteria is that they suggest some pieces (there are no objective criteria, like "it has to be German" or "it has to have the viola"), and that they're modern works.

The established term for the kind of music they include (for works from early-mid 20th century and upwards) is usually "contemporary classical music".


No jazz, pop, electronica, funk, swing, salsa, afrobeat, hop jop, and so on.

Good question - I doubt there is a complete formal definition of what 'classical' music is. I remember an analogous explanation of the "institutional" theory of art - as being whatever someone of the artworld offers for consideration as art[1]. Same for the subject of (generally regarded) aficionados of the modern "classical music"-world I would guess; or indeed, any genre.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_art

i once listened to a talk where the speaker argued that classical music per se does not exist.

and i believe he is right. what we think of as classical music is very much defined by how it is played. the choice of instruments etc. many film scores sound like classical music, but they surely aren't. heck even heavy metal sounds like classic if played by a string quartet. and i bet you wouldn't immideately recognize a classical piece if played by a rock band.

This is a great list! For anyone who's interested in a few more recommendations:

* For my money, John Adams's best composition this century is El Niño (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2IUdBLVkOQ), though Doctor Atomic is also amazing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlUHKHLk_VU). The former is a nativity oratorio and the latter is an opera about Oppenheimer and the Manhatten Project. On the Transmigration of Souls (a 9/11 memorial piece) is also especially moving. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwoasXzLdVY)

* Revelation, by Michael Harrison. This piece uses just intonation rather than the more common equal temperament. In just intonation, the notes are tuned so that the fifth is "pure" --- i.e., the frequencies are in an exact 2:1 ratio. This causes the other intervals to sound slightly out of tune and gives the music a really otherworldly feel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4oKzSRs3sA (Michael Harrison, incidentally was a student of La Monte Young who revived just intonation and composed a 5-hour piano piece called The Well Tuned Piano. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfWV4rNB6KE)

* Sleep, by Eric Whitacre. Now a classic choral composition. (Cloudburst is also great, but was composed in 1995 at the age of 21!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yw5gupbe9E0

* Orient & Occident by Arvo Pärt. Pärt has a lot of great works like Für Alina (which marked his departure from serialism), but most of them were composed in the 20th century, although he's still active! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGMaIfNdqH8

* "...similarities between diverse things", by Joby Talbot (2002). For piano trio and vibraphone. The title comes from a mathematician friend of Talbot's who died at the age of 20 and used that phrase to describe why he found mathematics beautiful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tawlg0RN4I

* The Veil of the Temple, by John Taverner. A magisterial work lasting 7 hours. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62pRsgwSYjs&list=PLga2eRXhIy...

* Chanson Eloignee, by Morten Lauridsen. A lot of Lauridsen's more famous works were composed in the late 20th century, but he is still active. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ajmn9m-C9Y

And there's a lot more that I'm missing. A couple of other favorites of mine that missed the 21st century by a few years:

* Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings by Michael Nyman (1994) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Svf9yuouXww

* Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Marquez (1994). This piece is great fun and helped to bring Gustav Dudamel to fame after he conducted it with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra on their world tour in 2007. (Dudamel is now the conductor of the LA Philharmonic.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXeWiixwEz4

* 24 Preludes for Piano by Lera Auerbach https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9u5wc2CkL8

Lots of great music out there!

I'm enjoying Michael Harrison's Revelation very much so far; thanks for the tip-off. By the way, the fifths in just intonation are a 3:2 ratio, not 2:1.

Oh shoot, good catch! Yeah, 2:1 is just an octave, of course.

It wasn't Für Alina that marked Arvo Pärt's departure from serialism but rather the Symphony No. 3.

I've wanted more music like Lowell Liebermann's piano compositions ever since I discovered them. Somehow extremely melodic and natural, while harboring the most absurdly strange harmonies.

Ben Johnston's compositions scratch my microtonal itch

+1. Also Wendy Carlos made at least two wonderful microtonal albums -- Beauty in the Beast and Tales from Heaven and Hell.

Very surprised not to see Nico Muhly on this list. There are many of his short pieces on youtube. I highly recommend "It Goes Without Saying", "Motion" and "Drones In Large Cycles".

Another interesting musician is the Ukranian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. The live video of him in Hamburg is wonderfully shot.

Also from near Hamburg (now Berlin) is pianist/organist Nils Frahm, who featured in Hamburg several times, and also at the proms.

Without having read the article, as so often is the custom in comment sections, I am UNABLE to prevent myself from recommending the series of documentaries "Leaving home". Specially the first one. They're all on youtube.

"Home" here stands for the familiarity of classical/romantic music ("19th century" but including post-1900 stuff like Rachmaninoff and so on) but also more literally the tonic root of the harmonic system. Episode 1 is very closely about the road to serialism throughout Wagner, Debussy, etc. up until Schönberg's pre-serial and serial works. Then there are episodes about rhythm and folk influences and so on that widen the scope from just serialism.

If you have a piano or keyboard at home I also recommend trying some of these tone rows, verifying when they're "true" tone rows, etc. I sometimes try to improvise with common chord progressions with my left hand and tone rows that start (or end) related to the tonal progression to feel how they forcefully disconnect from attempts to think tonally.

Of course serialism isn't the definition of modern art music, but it's a mind expander.

I'm pleased to see Heiner Goebbels listed, I know him from his excellent collaboration with Alfred Harth on Frankfurt-Peking (1984), which is a jazzy sound collage album. I didn't know he also made classical music.

seems like noise to me. How can it be classical if it's not even pleasing to ears?

I thought it was pretty but gratuitously sad. Got fed up and didn't finish the list.

Artists and philosophers both, I think, sometimes mistake sadness for import.

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