We interrupt this blog for some new classical music

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Reading Hypocrisy Illustrated’s post about Joshua Bell playing Bach in the DC metro made me think about the public’s knowledge of classical music. I think for most people, classical music sort of stops around 1900, to be replaced with jazz and blues. The rare exceptions are film scores and soundtrack music (John Williams, James Horner, etc.). If it isn’t one of the “hits” from the great composers, chances are, most people have never heard of it.

This is too bad, because there is a lot of very interesting new music out there. So I thought I’d find a some new classical music to share with you. My only criteria were that it had to be new music (not a new performance or performer, but a new composition) that was relatively short, that I liked, and that no one had ever heard before. Think of it as something akin to internet spelunking. After much searching, I managed to find “Harmonic Divertimento” by Sarah Dubois, a ten-minute string ensemble piece that has a whopping 17 views at the time of posting.


If you aren’t familiar with modern classical music, the music may at first strike you as jarring or even a little ominous. This dissonance is something of a hallmark of very late 20th century music, but this piece in particular keeps it within the traditional rhythmical structures and cadences that everyone is familiar with and that prevent it from having that unique avant garde sound of an orchestra falling down the stairs (i.e. Stockhausen).

So what did you think? What does it make you think, or feel? Does it remind you of anything? Call certain images to mind? Does it sound more “now” than the works of great composers?

If you like this, spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, Pony Express, etc. But also let me know in the comments and I’ll dig through my bookmarks and share more.

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27 Responses to We interrupt this blog for some new classical music

  1. somethingtohidebehind says:

    Yeah, some newer classical music would be welcome, if only to hear what’s going on more recently in that realm.

    The above piece sounds extremely…personal? It doesn’t seem to have the broad coherence of classical music I’m used to (a small list). Older stuff felt like weather. This reminds me of jazz in a way.

  2. Robert says:

    Oh, man, I absolutely love classical music. Some good places to start where people haven’t necessarily heard the stuff, or may have only heard it in passing, are: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis”, Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen.” By far, though, one of the best things to happen to music was Prokofiev.

  3. Hypocrisy Illustrated says:

    “that unique avant garde sound of an orchestra falling down the stairs.”

    I always loved silly cartoon slapstick. That sounds funnier than it probably actually sounds.

    Thanks for the tip. It’s always good to get recommendations. There is so much content out there now.

    I’m perpetually completely overwhelmed. There is only so much bandwidth to the brain…
    “only 17 views at the time of posting.” It’s really an exciing feeling to explore something off the beaten path. I’ve always been curious about new stuff. I think that’s one of the most important points Josh Bell and that stunt made. Just be curious and open to exposure. You might see (or hear) something you like. Sure the famous might indeed be great and be entitled to their reputation, but there might be something else not on the bandwagon that you enjoy just as well if not more.

    PastaBagel asks “So what did you think? What does it make you think, or feel? Does it remind you of anything? Call certain images to mind? Does it sound more “now” than the works of great composers?”

    Well being an unschooled layman, I’m not sure what I’m entitled to remark. I’ll do my best nonetheless.

    I found the the first movement simply too “nervous” for my state of mind. The last two seemed more patient and resonated more.

    In general I find that I have a hard time following orchestras. The sum of so many sounds from so many sources with so many different tones can overwhelm my little brain. Sometimes it works sometimes less so.

    A live performance feels more real, more organic, all that sweat and exertion from the performers brings you back to earth. Nevertheless I think I might have enjoyed it better if it were recorded in a studio. I really enjoy that clarity and the disembodied feeling of floating in the middle of the sound.

    Overall I don’t think I can say that Sarah Dubois moved me as PastaBagel implied could be possible “… awed into immobility … because it’s inherently beautiful and moving …” I’ve had this experience on some occasions before. Mostly in the context of those exposures I wouldn’t know enough about the performers or composers to explore further. However one time I heard a piece on the radio and was so moved that at 11 pm at night I ran out to the nearest late night culture dealer to buy the record.

    Maybe you find it kitschy or melodramatic, but at that moment in my life it resonated.

    So far nobody I’ve ever shared this with has enjoyed it. Whatever. It works for me.

    Maybe we’ll meet in the sense / trance where I am when I listen to it.

  4. Hypocrisy Illustrated says:

    Here’s the link. Sorry can’t edit don’t know my tags yet. But you know what to do.


    • Tiburon. says:

      Jesus. This is beautiful. Just laying back with my eyes closed and this playing gives my mind so many images… bees going about their business of pollination, hummingbirds sucking nectar out of flowers, waves of grass swaying in the wind, the whole miracle of creation. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Dingleberry Jones says:

    I’ve grown up with classical music, and I had studied it intensely for most of my life. …having said that, I’m not that old, and I don’t know that much, so my ideas are still just …my ideas. ;)

    I found this three-movement piece ….umm….definitely “classical”, and definitely “modern”. Did I *like* it? Well….no, not really. Although I appreciate the fact that classical music continued to develop as its own genre separate from jazz into the 20th century, I don’t *enjoy* 20th century classical music. So I guess it’s not really fair. As far as classical music goes, I really enjoy what was written between the late classical era (eg: Beethoven) until the post-romantic/impressionist era (Debussy), so I guess i’m right on that bandwagon with everyone else. I guess you could pretty much call that the pop-music of the time. ;) …mind you i can’t stand today’s pop music, but that’s a different topic all together. :)

    I really like Pastabagel’s questions: “So what did you think? What does it make you think, or feel? Does it remind you of anything? Call certain images to mind? Does it sound more “now” than the works of great composers?”

    What I thought: I think it’s not fair for me to judge because I already know this isn’t what I prefer — and although I am very open-minded to new classical music, my mind didn’t open to this piece in particular. I do think it was nicely written, with consideration to themes connecting and recurring in each movement. The rhythm was neat — the syncopation stretched *some* boundaries while still remaining “classical”. The harmonies were typical of 20th century harmonies — quite dissonant. Random question: Do you think it’s possible to have a modern (20th century) classical piece that does NOT sound jazzy and is still written in a major or a minor key? Songs written for the piano like “For Susana Kyle” — i forget by who….it’s in the piano RCM syllabus. It’s a grade 6 song. …and “Jane’s Song” — a grade 9 song in the royal conservatory syllabus make me think “yes” …but something about the later song makes me think of just cheesy elevator music that would/should be played by a saxophone, blaring through the speakers at a department store. More pop, less classical. So….I don’t have an answer for that question. :)

    What it makes me feel — it makes me feel tense. The second movement sounded more sorrowful and I’m not sure how to tie the three movements together in an emotional sense. Often, I like to come up with a story for a song…but I couldn’t think of anything here. Maybe I would need to listen to it a few more times to come up with any unifying ideas for a narrative for this song.

    What it reminds me of / What i see — I love imagining things when I listen to music. :) One way I know this definitely counts as “classical” in my head is the fact that I see *nature* (as opposed to flying in space, or dancing, or alternate dimensions to move through) when I think of this song. It’s usually classical music that I link to nature and this song definitely did it for me. Have you ever seen Fantasia (especially the first one)? Towards the end of the movie, they have a long (long long) song that is also quite modern. They paired it with the evolution of living organisms — from single-celled amoebas all the way to the prehistoric era. The song ended with the dinosaurs becoming extinct. It was fun, and watching it as a kid….it felt really powerful but also really long. :) This song reminds me of the same thing. I see things in nature but no rolling brooks or trees in the wind. It’s more like ….volcanoes, lightning, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.

    Does it sound more “now” than the works of great composers? …umm…..I don’t know. :) I suck at music history and my knowledge of the “Great Composers” is so limited to only the things that I like. Yes, it sounds more “now” than Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. But so what? Rachmaninoff sounds more “now” than Beethoven, Bach and Mozart too.

    Anyways, thanks for posting this. I never have much to say about anything but I really like talking about music — so much so that I registered just so that I could post something here. ;) Thanks!

    By the way, the song that Hypocrisy Illustrated is absolutely beautiful! The viola parts remind me of canoeing down a river and ….discovering or founding a new colony or something. :) Or…pioneer girls doing household chores, and braiding their hair, and then…..going into space to fight the aliens from Total Recall?!?!
    (I’m also pregnant so the hormones may be messing with my interpretation of music….but seriously! Do you see/hear it???)

  6. Dan Dravot says:

    That s0unded like a soundtrack for a short film:

    1. Stabby Stab Stab!
    2. OMFG What Have I Done?! Oh Crap, Oh Crap…
    3. Escape and Evasion

  7. Gaius says:

    I know that I’m not necessarily breaking new ground (since he is at least comparatively well known), but I suggest Philip Glass’s String Quartet #3. I was introduced to this quartet because it’s the basis of Glass’s soundtrack to the movie “Mishima: a life in four chapters.” Anyway, I find the way that the repetition, variation, and kind of perpetual motion work together to be really powerful.


    • Jerboa says:

      Thanks. I thought the only Philip Glass I liked was String Quartet Number Five, Part 4, and Runaway Horses. I’m surprised I missed this when I went through all of his stuff.

  8. Jerboa says:

    With the exception of a few pieces from the minimalists and romantics, everything after the baroque period is like sandpaper rubbing against my tympanic membrane. This shit was especially rough.

    • Hilomh says:

      I think we should carefully define “baroque” music. Bach is the most well-known Baroque composer, and his music is characterized by quick melodies and rhythmically similar counter-point harmony. Sometimes, there will be as much as four lines of music occurring, creating a very dense structure. Some people find it to be overwhelming at times. That’s especially true for the orchestra work. The piano (harpsichord) works are actually quite pleasant.

      After the baroque era we get the classical era, and that period is know for clear structures, and a simplification (or perhaps a streamlining) of melody and harmony. Mozart is probably the most famous composer in that style, and I think he is probably considered universally easy to listen to.

      So my question to you is, do you think that the music of Mozart’s era is rough? Naturally, everybody has their own taste, but I find it unusual for a person to find the music between the baroque and romantic eras to be difficult to listen to, since I’ve always understood that period to be the most placid of the 3 eras.

      What are your thoughts on this?

  9. BluegrassJack says:

    People in the 21st century seem to have too short an attention span to listen to anything for 9 minutes. In the classical era, it was uncool not to give the time.

    Dan has the best evaluation for the above music as three consecutive parts of a film soundtrack.

  10. Knowing absolutely nothing about music, I am in a position to observe that a lot of the “new” classical music has a consistent quality: cacophony. I don’t mean it sounds bad to me, I mean it does what (I feel like) a lot of abstract art does as well: deliberately “offend”/nudge the senses. Playing out of key, off tempo, etc.

    I assume this is in an attempt to provoke a response. But whatever the reason, it’s strange that art that tries to be different itself becomes a sort of genre. I think a person with no experience with music can tell the difference between something by Bach and something by Beethoven– i.e that they are different– but I wonder if two such modern classical composers could be distinguished? Again, I don’t know, this is just thinking aloud.

    • cat says:

      I found your and Dan’s responses interesting, because when I listened to this piece my first impression was the same – that it sounded like a film score, and my mind automatically tried to imagine the events in a movie that the music could fit.

      I did wonder whether this is because I’m used to hearing new music only in the context of movies, but maybe it’s because this piece really does sound like a film score.

      There is a parallel with painting; it’s easy to enjoy a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh for what they are, but if you want to enjoy a piece of modern art you need to know and appreciate a lot of (often pop) culture references, and references to other artists, etc. Otherwise the art just looks like a pile of garbage or a dead cow.

      Actually, what I find irritating about the marketing of classical music to mass audiences (at least in the UK – Classic FM and the like) are what are presumably attempts to make people feel more comfortable listening to what is usually dismissed as old or intellectual by packaging it as “the theme from the X movie” or “you’ll remember this as the original Old Spice advert”. Classic pieces are now associated with and indistinct from brands, or maybe the power of the brands is being used to make the music cool.

  11. fireandvice says:

    More music, please.

  12. Tiburon. says:

    I don’t really go for orchestral pieces. I’m a sucker for the choral, however.

    This, for example, is absolutely beautiful. Rachmaninov’s Ave Maria in Church Slavonic, “Bogoroditse Devo”:


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  14. enno says:

    I would also like to chime in and recommend both Phillip Glass and the amazing Arvo Pärt. http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=QtFPdBUl7XQ

  15. Pastabagel says:

    I think the reason everyone relates this piece to a film score is because the only place you could hear this kind of dissonance in music was in suspense and horror movies from the 50’s and 60’s. Consider the screeching string tone cluster that accompanies the stabbing in the shower scene of Psycho.

    But part of the experience is separating the music from any place where you may have heard it before, and allowing it to construct its own space in your mind.

  16. rapscallione says:

    Three minutes in and I’ve yet to hear more than 3 notes in a row that weren’t dissonant. Pastabagel is right in saying that the reason we’re associating this with film/horror scores is because that’s really the only place that this music is “acceptable.” It’s hard to listen to without a context, because it can just sound grating.

    It seems that with modern classical basically falling by the wayside, these composers are essentially writing for their very niche audience. Not trying to expand and find new ears for this music, but just have a circle-jerk for the classical community. Is what it is, but the only way that these composers ever come into more success is through the aforementioned film scoring.

  17. Tom says:

    Let me start by apologizing in advance, i know nothing of modern classical music. But I feel a lot of people are saying that modern classical music got relegated as a side-dish to a certain type of movie genre or artsy/retro-film-director-intention thing. Which is totally true.

    But it could be a lot worse.

    I wonder if classical music a hundred years from now will be what we now hear as pop, or if will be some “the real” classical music we dont hear now because we’re way too busy listening to what we consider pop music right now. Or maybe it’s time classical music died. Evolution. It served it’s purpose, it’s influence is everywhere. Why does it have to continue? Seriously, why? Because it’s complicated?

    Maybe film scores is just a natural proggression for “classical” music; the only way out of a dead-end fated genre. You’d be an idiot to call it a lesser genre just for going (optionally) hand-in-hand with film. I’ve heard a ton of beautiful film scores without seeing the movie it was made for. It’s beautiful music as-is.

    I mean, what are going music conservatory students going to study more profoundly in 50 years time? Pink Floyd or Ennio Morricone? What will show them the ropes of creating music and the potential of what music can be better? I realize and agree that studying both might be best, but admit that one or the other is going to weigh more. Whats going to be considered classical? Them who define a generation or them who wrote “”””classical”””” music, fuck-it-that-not-a-lot-of-people-listen-to-it? I realize that neither could get to the levels of artistry they achieved if they worried that much about will-and-how will people remember us; but seriously, whatdya think?

  18. Kayode says:

    As a music major, I just spent the last academic year in a sorta Intro to Composition course that was basically composed (none) of listening to modern classical music and discussing it. (I wondered why I paid serious tuition to do something like this, but that’s another discussion entirely). Prior to that I had an active dislike of modern classical music. Like TLP above, I used to think that there’s no way these guys aren’t just trying to get a reaction. i.e. Really jarring music that turns away the majority and plays to a minority that like it because it allows them to belong to some elite club.

    What seems to happen is that after you listen to this music regularly your ear somehow becomes accustomed to the dissonances and you gain some kind of of appreciation for the style, but I often wonder… seriously what’s wrong with good old tonal chord progressions with pretty melodies. My teacher often said that music needs to reflect all emotions and our modern life is filled with confusion, fear, anxiety so modern classical music should also reflect that. That makes sense that music today would be out of touch if it sounded all meadows and butterflies a la mozart but I think there is still a space for tonality and music that’s ‘pleasing to the ears’ (as subjective as that may sound). However I do like guys like steve reich, arvo part, etc…

    Anyways, modern or old, classical music as an industry is dying . Modern music is too nichy to attract huge audiences and mainstream classical’s paying clients aren’t getting any younger. The genre’s problems might have little to do with the actual music itself but the way it views itself and its fans vs. the outside world blaring pop radio, etc.

    • Res_Ipsa_Loquitur says:

      It almost seems like the sound of modern classical composers matters less then the mission or meaning of the piece…I agree with Kayode: what’s wrong with the old I-IV-V7-I progression? It seems like the modern classical scene is strife with more sensationalism then talent. But then again, as a passionate Wagnerian, I am biased.
      But then again, why did Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, or many of the great masters write? Surely they loved music and were gifted at both writing it and performing it, but much like today they were driven by money. All of them had patrons at some point, and one cannot ignore the effect this had on the themes and sounds of their music.But the patrons and composers alike are hardwired to “like” certain sounds.
      There is something about classic chordal progressions that make them stick in a person’s head, something about the quality, sound, and tone of a note or notes that makes them popular and almost soothing to us . Example: Most children’s nursery rhymes are sung using a “falling minor third” progression (think ring around the rosie), many car horns and door bells are pitched in E-flat, and almost every human being can recognize Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or the opening chords to his Fifth Symphony.
      What does this say about our brains exactly? Why do we prefer triads to cacophony?

  19. Hilomh says:

    One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate about this and TLP’s blog is how naturally insightful the audiences are. Although several people here made the claim that they were not educated in the field of music, the feedback everybody has given has been thoughtful and clever. So what I have to say is just my own 2 cents worth. I play jazz piano for a living, so I think I have a reasonably good ear for harmony and structure.

    There’s a couple topics that have been brought up here: film scores, dissonance (consonance), popular music, jazz, old classical music, and emotion. Let us begin.

    I love film scores. However, film scores is a big topic, and it covers a broad range of styles. When I think film score, my first reaction is to conger up Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Jurassic Park…that sorta thing. Most people would probably recognize that 3 of those titles belong to John Williams. That seems reasonable, considering that Williams is Hollywood’s preeminent composer, and his work has defined the genre for the past 40 years.

    We have some consensus about the form of this piece. This sums it up.

    1. Stabby Stab Stab!
    2. OMFG What Have I Done?! Oh Crap, Oh Crap…
    3. Escape and Evasion

    I think it’s reasonable to point out that this format used in film scores has existed long before film scores. A 3 movement classical piece of music traditionally follows this format, and it is often referred to as “Sonata form,” (or a modified sonata, since it only has 3 instead of 4 movements). George Lucas, who in my opinion both revolutionized and destroyed film, was actually lucid when he described a 3-act play: introduction, tension, resolution. I can’t tell you the world’s history of this form, but I’m pretty sure it has existed for pretty much forever. It’s a natural progression, and you might even say it’s the key to western art. As Pastabagel very correctly pointed out, this piece has the same “feel” and structure as an older piece, even though the harmony is modern. In my opinion, that’s essential. People love form and structure. If those things are in place, then you can fill the rest in with just about anything, and it will be accepted. Why do you think Kid Rock exists? Everything he does, IMO, is terrible, but his tunes, like everybody else’s, “feel” like rock & roll tunes. Drunk people can dance to them, and karaoke singers can pretend to sing them. They are familiar; standard.

    Film scores follow this same logic. Most films are, in many ways, exactly the same. You have your plot, rising action, climax, resolution…standard stuff. No matter how bad the movie might be (Avatar, Star Wars Episode II, Cat Woman), they all FEEL like movies. And since film scores follow the film, they will take on this same quality. Film scores are familiar, often catchy, and safe. They are easy to enjoy, and they hit us in all the right spots.

    Although I don’t know if film scores are really classical music (perhaps someday), I do know that the big orchestral scores were designed specifically to sound like classical music. John Williams has a couple techniques that he uses all the time: 19th century Romanticism, atonality, and 20th century jazz harmony. Those techniques give us everything our ears expect. 19th century Romanticism represents, I think, the sum of the classical music up until around 1900. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Rachmaninoff…Each composer takes from his predecessor and advances the art. And although Bach and Wagner sound completely different, in many ways they are the same, and that familiarity makes it easy for the audience to accept and remember. Jazz music is similar as well – jazz harmony comes from Tin Pan Alley and early 20th century musicals. Tin Pan Alley harmony comes from classical music and opera – it’s just more “vulgar.” Because Williams is a jazz pianist, I think it’s a hobby of his to squeeze jazz in wherever he can. Because jazz harmony is derivative, it’s easy to hide inside of the “classical” score.

    Atonality is something of a new bag. In the past, harmony was a process. The concept that harmony increases in tension until finally releasing into consonance is fundamental. Maybe it’s a sex thing, but I dunno – that’s a question for TLP. Atonality lacks a tonal center, and the classical method of resolving chords is absent. John Williams loves to use atonal music, but he hides it carefully. Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy fell into the pit of snakes? Atonal music. Atonal music is extremely tense, and it offers up dissonance with no resolution in sight. It’s a perfect marriage of music to film, since, to me, being in a pit of snakes would be a tense situation. However, because we like happy endings, we eventually return to our tonal structure which allows the tension to finally resolve into consonance.

    When I listen to the piece posted in this blog, I do hear “dissonance,” but I don’t hear any atonality. Although the progressions have a modal quality at times, there is a sense of progression and resolution. There are many familiar chord types as well – augmented, diminished, and even major and minor. I think somebody made the comment that as time progresses, audiences can accept greater and greater amounts of dissonance. I think this is absolutely true. In a tonal structure, there’s basically no limit to the amount of dissonance one can generate provided that it resolves. Wagner really explored this idea. In the the opera “Tristan and Isolde,” he manages to delay the resolution to the tonic for about 4 hours. Although his harmony was not particularly dissonant, the lack of any immediate resolution can be a bit unsettling, and the final resolution is a big sigh of relief. This piece contains many of those same qualities.

    I’m forced to disagree, however, with the horror movie/Psycho comparison, although I feel we’re on the right track. If you watch the shower scene on from Psycho on Youtube, you’ll notice that the music leading up to the the stabbing is highly tonal, and sounds like “classical music,” (actually, I think it sounds like something from Tin Pan Alley, but for our purposes, its basically the same). Then the music stops, and its just silence. Soon we get the stabbing itself, and the famous “REE REE REE REE” motif. That section is atonal. It is pure dissonance without any resolution. And then silence again…

    The distinction is subtle, but I do not think that the piece in this blog follows that format. Even though it is dissonant in most places, at no point is it ever atonal. Perhaps that’s nitpicking, but isn’t nitpicking why we’re here?

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