Where to begin with contemporary classical music

BY Rosie Pentreath

23rd Oct 2017 Music

Where to begin with contemporary classical music

Adding contemporary music to your classical listening library can be a daunting prospect but we'd like to dispel these fears by showing you that contemporary works can actually be a rewarding addition to your playlist. Here's an introduction to some of our favourite living and recently living composers

Thomas Adès (b. 1971)



The New York Times recently described British composer Thomas Adès as “one of the most accomplished and complete musicians of his generation”. Adès studied composition under Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway at the University of Cambridge and has composed over 50 works, including the early orchestral work Asyla (1997) for which he won Grawemeyer Award, and the opera, Powder Her Face (1995), which has been described by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross as a “rare modern opera that has you walking out with melodies on your lips”. Adès was the first music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and was Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival between 1999 and 2008.

Where to begin: Polaris “Voyage for Orchestra” for beautiful, unravelling textures that reach a startling intensity.



John Adams (b. 1947)


John Adams’s works are among the most performed in contemporary music. Orchestral works such as A Short Ride In A Fast Machine (1986) and Harmonielehre (1985) find themselves oft on concert programmes around the world, while his operas Nixon In China (1987) and Doctor Atomic (2005) have become seminal works in the genre.

A descendant of American minimalism, he isn’t afraid to score tonal music in major keys, whilst the operas often take on controversial or political topics.

Where to begin: A Short Ride In A Fast Machine for a sheer celebration of tonal harmony through glittering minimalist textures.


Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)


Conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein wrote music for the concert hall, opera house, Broadway and film, making him one of the most diverse figures in contemporary music. His score for West Side Story has endured as one of the most acclaimed and popular in the genre and his large-scale works like his three symphonies and 1971 Mass dedicated to John F Kennedy, described as “a musical about a mass” at the 2012 Proms, are widely performed.

As a conductor, Bernstein has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras and made over 500 recordings. He was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 until 1969 and he worked regularly with the Israel and Vienna Philharmonics. His celebrated work in television earned him no less than 11 Emmy Awards.

Where to begin: West Side Story for well-known songs and a thrilling, all-American orchestral score.


Pierre Boulez (1927-2016)


Pierre Boulez is a towering figure of 21st-century music. Both a ground-breaking composer and a conductor devoted to championing new works, Boulez changed the face of modern music when he composed the avant-garde Le Marteau Sans Maître (1954), which sets René Char’s surrealist poetry in a powerful vocal work for contralto and ensemble.

Among his other seminal works are 12 Notations (1945) for piano, which he composed around the time that he studied composition under Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz at the Paris Conservatoire, and surrealist song cycle Pli Selon Pli (1962).

In pieces like Répons (1984) and Dérive 2 (1988/2002/2006), Boulez continued to innovate, in the former combining electronic and acoustic sounds in an ethereal score. As a conductor, Boulez is responsible for premiering the works of leading composers of the likes of Anton Webern, George Benjamin and Elliott Carter.

Where to begin: Dérive 2 for contemporary chamber music at its most refined.


John Cage (1912-1992)


John Cage is arguably most famous for composing 4’33’’ (1952), a work that recently made it into our pick of the most controversial pieces of music ever written. A conceptual work in “three movements” that requires the performer of any instrument to sit in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds, it’s the pinnacle of Cage’s exploration of the very essence of music—an exploration he continued in his graphic scores (i.e., musical scores “composed” with shapes and lines rather than notes on a traditional stave) and works like Living Room Music (1940) and Suite For Toy Piano (1948), which attempt to incorporate everyday items into art music.

Where to begin: Living Room Music for a sense of Cage’s exploration of what can constitute “real” music.


Unsuk Chin (b. 1961)


South Korean composer Unsuk Chin won the 2004 Grawemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto (2001) and has scooped up a number of impressive accolades since. Among her best-known works are Acrostic-Wordplay (1993) for soprano and piano, and Alice in Wonderland (2007) an opera in eight scenes.

"My music is a reflection of my dreams,” says Chin. “I try to render into music the visions of immense light and of an incredible magnificence of colours that I see in all my dreams, a play of light and colours floating through the room and at the same time forming a fluid sound sculpture.”

Where to begin: it makes sense to start with the award-winning Violin Concerto when exploring Chin’s music.


Philip Glass (b. 1937)


Philip Glass’s distinctive style has spanned multiple genres, including orchestral music, instrumental works, operas and film scores, earning him the rare status in contemporary music of household name. Works like Koyaanisqatsi (1982), music that accompanied a film that charts how the human race has grown apart from nature, and Glassworks (1982) helped cement his place in popular culture, whilst scores for The Hours (2002) and Notes On A Scandal (2006) made him an in-demand film composer, and his symphonies, string quartets and concertos kept his music in the concert halls.

Where to begin: Glassworks or Music In 12 Parts will give you insight into Glass’s instantly recognisable brand of minimalism.


Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b. 1980)


Cheryl Frances-Hoad is one of the UK’s leading contemporary composers, having risen to prominence after winning the BBC Young Composer of the Year award in 2015 for her Concertino for Cello, Piano, Percussion and Orchestra.

Works such as From the Beginning of the World (2015), which was played at the BBC Proms in 2015, and Pay Close Attention (2009), a homage to the band The Prodigy, have cemented her reputation as an innovative and relevant composer.

Where to begin: From the Beginning of the World for interesting vocal harmonies.


Oliver Knussen (b. 1952)


Oliver Knussen is a big name in both composing and conducting, having written music since the age of 15; conducted London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta; and headed up posts at Tanglewood Music Center, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Aldeburgh Festival

Knussen’s music has a reputation for being concise, complicated and richly scored, with works like Flourish With Fireworks (1996), Horn Concerto (1994) and a double bill of children’s operas with Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are (1983) and Higgelty Pigglety Pop! (1985), earning him a firm place among today’s most successful living composers.

Where to begin: Flourish with Fireworks for an explosive introduction to Knussen’s music.


Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959)


When interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs recently, James MacMillan was described as having said that he believes “music is the most spiritual of the arts [which] forges this connection with the hidden crevices between the relationship of the Divine and the human”.

Indeed, if any contemporary composer’s music can be said to do this, it’s his. Sacred works like the Stabat Mater (2016) and Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) embrace the ancient as readily as the modern in profoundly beautiful instrumental and vocal settings, and his Oboe Concerto (2010) takes the instrument to its very limits in terms of both emotional range (the second movement is achingly sad) and technical demands.

Where to begin: James Macmillan’s popular percussion concerto, Veni Veni Emmanuel, which has over 600 performances.


Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)


Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s haunting music has proliferated film scores and concert programs for years. His idiosyncratic style incorporates a unique minimalist style invented by Pärt called tintinnabuli, which translates roughly as “bell-like”.

He introduced the style in Für Alina (1976) and Spiegel im spiegel (1978), both of which were used in Tom Tykwer’s 2002 film Heaven. He developed the style in what have become some of his most popular works, including Fratres (1977), Tabula Rasa (1977), Summa (1992), and the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977).

Where to begin: Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten for heart-rending moments born of simplicity.


Steve Reich (b. 1936)


Like John Cage, Reich has always pushed the notion of what constitutes as music, composing minimalist works such as Clapping Music (1989), Electric Counterpoint (1989) and Different Trains (1989) which incorporate unconventional sounds (clapping, electric guitars and the taped sounds of trains, respectively) into the scores.

Whilst these three works were composed with conventional scores, Reich’s earlier Pendulum Music (1968) abandons musical notation altogether and is performed from a “score” for “microphones, amplifiers, speakers and performers” that simply describes what the performers must in sentences.

Where to begin: Electric Counterpoint for hypnotising minimalism on instruments not usually found in the concert hall.


John Tavener (1944-2013)


You can’t explore contemporary choral music without coming across the enduringly popular work of John Tavener (not to be confused with John Taverner, the English renaissance composer with an extra "r" to his surname).

Tavener is responsible for the well-known unaccompanied choral work, The Lamb (1982), dramatic sacred works such as God Is With Us (1987) and The Protecting Veil (1988), and the moving Song for Athene (1993).

Where to begin: The Lamb, one of Tavener’s best-known and best-loved choral works.


Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960)

If you want a composer known for pushing moral boundaries and challenging the classical music establishment, look no further than Mark-Anthony Turnage. An opera charting the glamorous, debauched and ultimately tragic life of Playboy model-turned-actress Anna Nicole Smith? Tick. An orchestral work that directly quotes Beyoncé’s 2008 hit Single Ladies almost to a tee? Tick. A piece based on three of artists Francis Bacon’s surrealist pieces? Tick.

Where to begin: Hammered Out, for Turnage’s tribute to Beyoncé (and all those single ladies out there…).


Judith Weir (b. 1954)


Judith Weir made history when she was appointed the first-ever female Master of the Queens Music in 2014, succeeding Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in a post she still holds today. Weir is well-known for writing opera, with A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987), Blond Eckbert (1993) and The Vanishing Bridegroom (1990) among her acclaimed works.

She has also contributed notably to the orchestral, vocal and chamber canons, her orchestral work Stars, Night, Music and Light receiving its world premiere at the BBC Proms in 2011 under Jiří Bělohlávek.

Where to begin: Stars, Night, Music and Light, for Weir’s luminous writing for orchestra and chorus.

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