21st Century Music: A Listening Guide

Contemporary classical music is not getting enough love from performers or listeners. Many musicians and enthusiasts still tend to gravitate toward familiar twentieth century composers like Ravel or Prokofiev instead of exploring the outer reaches. So I’ve decided to make a list of my favorite pieces from the twenty-first century. That’s right. We’re only 16 years in, but some pretty great art has been created already. And as I turn 27, I realize that all I really want for my birthday is for more people to listen some of this incredible music and tell me what they think about it. It gets lonely, you know? So here it is, in no particular order, to keep it suspenseful.

Eric Wubbels – Viola Quartet (2007)

This is a viola showcase unlike any other. Wubbels examines nearly every conceivable string technique and the full range of the instrument, and it’s all at the service of a truly thrilling piece of chamber music. The opening two minutes are challenging to listen to, but the more times I listen I perceive an abstract sense of celebration or commencement, with lots of earthy open strings and double stops. This gives way to a section based on a sustained major third, which masterfully evolves into running thirty-second notes: just great hearty string action [3:50]. There’s a later quiet section based on just a single note that still manages to be compelling and wonderfully serene, and Wubbels’ re-examination of previous materials (the chaotic opening and the running-note ostinatos) creates an intellectually and aesthetically satisfying conclusion. By the end of these fifteen minutes, we’ve been on a journey. I’m looking forward to the days when an adventurous viola studio at a university decides to tackle this piece. If you like the piece more than you expected, definitely check out more from this guy. Everything I’ve heard from him is excellent, particularly This Is This Is This Is and the children of fire come looking for fire.


Alex Mincek – Pendulum VII (2011)

I first became familiar with Alex Mincek by playing his piece Poco a poco in the Ithaca College Contemporary Ensemble. His music is rhythmically idiosyncratic, full of color, and sometimes contains extremely gutsy compositional choices (like a marimba piece that is mostly played under the instrument). Pendulum VII begins with some funky false starts, but once it enters a groove, it flows in a delightful, wacky way. Gestures from different instruments seem to land on each beat, with the saxophone subverting the felt pulse with a weird undulating figure. At a certain point the groove subsides into a more sustained, melancholic mood; it feels like we’ve crossed a threshold or passed through a membrane.


Andrew Norman – The Companion Guide to Rome (2010)

Andrew Norman is doing really great things with orchestral music, and I was really tempted to instead include his piece Play on the list (still really worth checking out). Instead I’m featuring this string trio, which is a great set of miniatures inspired by historic churches in Rome. The first movement is a great encapsulation of Andrew Norman’s style: crazy exuberant gestures and abrupt shifts between meters and textures. It feels like a roller coaster. All of these sketches are compelling and often quite elegant. It’s fun to look at pictures of the different churches while listening to each one. The ten-minute final movement, Sabina, is just absolutely cathartic and disarmingly beautiful. The Companion Guide to Rome was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and I think it was largely because of this movement. The Sabina movement has been adapted for solo string instruments, but I like the full trio version the best. In this video, Sabina starts at 21:44. Be patient and let it build and wash over you.


Thomas Adès – Totentanz (2013)

This is quite an impressive piece of work: an honest-to-goodness long-form secular cantata with two soloists. The text comes from an inscription under a fifteenth-century German frieze that depicts the figure of Death dancing between humans in all classes of society, from the Pope to a baby, inviting them to join. A baritone soloist represents Death, while a mezzo-soprano has the overwhelming task of giving voice to every figure of society. The vocal lines are angular and expressive, while the orchestra interludes make masterful use of simple materials. There are two extreme high points in this piece: a moment where the entire orchestra plays a tortured motif in not-quite-unison for almost a full minute, reflecting the ultimately futile struggle of all humanity against death, and the finale where Death approaches the baby, in which the music lapses into an eerie evocation of Mahler. I hope this piece finds a permanent place in the repertoire. Any mezzo or baritone should be thrilled to take on these tour-de-force solo parts, and the orchestral writing is diverse and generous.


David Lang – The Little Match Girl Passion (2007)

In his program notes for this piece, David Lang talks about how he loves Bach but feels slightly alienated by the Passions because as an atheist he can’t fully engage with the religious content. This piece is his attempt to write a secular “passion” that shares some common themes with the Easter story. The story of the Little Match Girl seems to fit. The music is spare, intimate, and stark: just a vocal quartet and some auxiliary percussion played by the singers. This is chilly, depressing music, but it has a unique beauty that keeps bringing me back. My favorite movements are the outer ones: the opening “come, daughter” that immediately draws you in when all four voices have entered, and the closing “we sit and cry,” which conjures a bleak winter landscape with the simplest of means. Unfortunately there isn’t really a good full performance of the original quartet version on YouTube, but here’s a version with full choir, as it is often performed today. Shoutout to Tabitha Burchett from Wheaton who’s in the choir!


Martin Bresnick – My Twentieth Century (2002)

I’ve always been fascinated with pieces that combine spoken text with music (Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis may be the ultimate example of this) and this piece is also notable for instrumentation that’s close to a Pierrot Ensemble, which is starting to become a reliable new instrumentation to meet twenty-first century demands. What I like about this piece is the pairing of simple but effective materials, well-judged changes of color, and a text that becomes more meaningful through repetition. Every line of the poem places a memory in the grander context of human history, including the recurring line “My brother died in the twentieth century.”

Wolfgang Rihm – Jagden und Formen (1995-2001)

It’s a lot to ask to expect someone to listen to a 51-minute piece in high-minded, modernist style, but this is just really impressive stuff. Anyone who has tried composing realizes quickly that it’s really hard to write large amounts of non-repeating fast music that sustains interest. Surprise: almost the entire duration of Jagden und Formen is made up of fast, relentless music. Rihm is an interesting figure because he seems like one of the last major composers pursuing rigorous, studied art that has a clear line all the way back to Beethoven. Somehow he makes this torrent of complicated music seem effortless. It’s a delight just to behold the profuseness of his invention. One of the many wonders of this piece is an English horn solo that’s probably the longest and most expressive I’ve ever heard. Check it out, double reed players! [starts at about 7:37]


Esa-Pekka Salonen – Insomnia (2002)

Some of you may know Esa-Pekka Salonen as a conductor, but he is also quite a skilled orchestral composer. Insomnia is a cinematic, exciting ride with some breathtaking moments. I analyzed the formal design and harmony of this piece in grad school, and I guess it’s a testament to the solidity of the piece that I never got tired of it even while taking it apart. Some of the harmony here is reminiscent of French impressionists, but the driving percussion and lively sequences bring us into the present.


Kate Soper – Voices from the Killing Jar (2010-12)

The Wet Ink Ensemble is probably the greatest collective of stratospherically talented composer-performers in the world right now. Case in point: I’m featuring pieces by three members (the others being Eric Wubbels and Alex Mincek). Kate Soper is an avant-garde vocalist who explores some techniques that many other singers would find unapproachable or even unacceptable (like repeated vocal fry or quarter tones). Voices from the Killing Jar is her magnum opus, a chamber song cycle that picks texts from mentally tortured female protagonists including Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary) and Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby). If you want to get a sense of this piece at its most mind-bogglingly wild, set the playhead to 25:20.


John Adams – Absolute Jest (2012)

This isn’t John Adams’ best piece. It’s not even my favorite Adams piece. But I’m putting it here because the concert in which I heard it was one of the best musical moments of my life. It was spring semester of senior year at Wheaton, and I was in Chicago hearing the San Francisco Symphony play an all-American program that consisted of Henry Cowell’s Synchrony, Absolute Jest on its world premiere run, and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata. For anyone who knows me, you can understand that this was a big deal. And after hearing this energetic, witty, mad-genius concerto for string quartet and orchestra that quotes from the Beethoven string quartets, I was on such a musical high. I felt a conviction that pursuing composition was going to be a fun road in the years to come. Anyway, the piece is just pure fun. If you love Beethoven, you’ll love how Adams reshapes the material into a new, kaleidoscopic entity. If you love Adams, you’ll enjoy how he fits Beethoven into his post-minimalist aesthetic. I dare you to get through the seventh (final) movement without smiling and bobbing your head to those infectious rhythms.


One thought on “21st Century Music: A Listening Guide”

  1. Great Blog! I only have listened to up to the David Lang so far. Great stuff. The viola Quartet was very striking, using 4 of the same voice seemed to create a sense of more voices, or less at times coming in and out of the same or repeated motives.
    The Mincek is fun. Like the visceral quality and the explosive articulations and the mix of textures in the disjointed and heightened rhythm.
    The Norman was beautiful. great listen. The Last movement is great! I also dug the walking away and the return.
    The Adès was cool, I will admit I avoid listening to him but I need to just dive in. It’s great story telling.


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