9 Gateway Pieces to Contemporary Music for Pop Lovers

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In classical music, we’re regularly discussing how to attract new audiences, particularly from the huge number of adventurous pop music fans who are willing to try something different. Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, in his recent article for the Guardian, talks about offering audiences genuinely unique experiences: create engaging work and present it engagingly and people will engage.

Not only that, but these experiences will hopefully act as a kind of gateway to contemporary music. But for an outsider, it’s difficult to know how to get started. As an pop music listener wanting something new, how does one discover contemporary music? Online, and perhaps in most cases, by accident.

This was the case for my other half, pop music writer Sam Walton (Loud and Quiet regular and more recently blogger of “Twenty Years Ago Today”, about significant pop music from 1997), who began his journey into new music after reading an interview with Radiohead 20 years ago in which they signposted their fans towards Steve Reich.

He’s helped me to create a list of nine comparisons between contemporary classical music and pop, intended for curious pop music listeners, in which each counterpart piece has some artistic commonality with the other. While this blog normally hosts entries intended for the initiated contemporary classical music listener (and, for the most part, the composer), this post has the adventurous pop music listener in mind, the suggestions aiming to be portals to previously unencountered music.

I’ve tried to pick a mix of work: young people who are active and changing the new music landscape, an older generation at the height of their power, two who would be with us working still had they not died tragically young, and plenty of brilliant women. And I also provided a “What’s next” for each suggestion: I’m mostly freestyling here in my associations, but I hope they’re of interest. There are a lot of different avenues that contemporary classical music has gone down, so if one sub-genre doesn’t appeal to you, all is not lost. You might notice a lack of minimalist composers here: minimalism (Reich, Glass, Nyman, etc.) is fairly omnipresent these days; I wanted to expose some of the other sub-genres available to curious listeners.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the music you hear here, I recommend a few things:

1. If you love Godspeed you! Black Emperor, you might love Claude Vivier’s Zipangu.

I love Vivier’s music. I love his strange musical voice, so unlike anyone working at the time in his native Canada, or indeed the rest of the world. His Zipangu, for string orchestra, has a lot of the big unisons and dynamic contrast that will appeal to Godspeed fans, as will his drones and underlying distortion (listening to the work, it’s somehow easy to forget that it’s just strings we’re listening to, such is their power).



What’s next if you like this? Try Olga Neuwirth’s Clinamen/Nodus

2. If you love Flying Lotus then you might love Beat Furrer’s Spur

Furrer’s got such a great sense of bouncing movement and pulse here, a pulse that divides and shifts ever so slightly, making it a great companion for Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma. I love the way the light texture allows so much space to enjoy the feeling of being thrust into the future: just hold on to the piano part for dear life, and enjoy the ride — and by ride, I mean the subtle way in which the roles of the other instruments shift playfully.

Flying Lotus:


What’s next if you like this? Try Patricia Alessandrini’s menus morceaux par un autre moi réunis

3. If you love Joanna Newsom you might love Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you

Abrahamsen’s writing is spacious and beautiful, his melodies soar and the orchestration is lush and unusual. Nothing suits his compositional voice better than the soprano Barbara Hannigan – the purity, flexibility and emotion she is capable of gives weight to the music and the text, which comes from Paul Griffiths’ let me tell you, in which Ophelia tells the story of Hamlet from her perspective.



What’s next if you like this? Try Thierry Tidrow’s Die alten, bösen lieder

4. If you love Autechre you might love Elena Rykova’s 101% Mind Uploading

Here we have a unique way of “operating” on a piano combined with Rykova’s quirky sense of theatre: three percussionists dressed in hospital scrubs set up around a concert grand piano with its lid removed. But this isn’t prepared piano like John Cage imagined it. The piano is prepared, yes: but the percussionists also use their hands and various objects (mallets, e-bows, metal rods, etc.) to strike, pluck and strum the strings of the piano. Other percussion is also used, playing into the resonant of the instrument, to great effect. For Autechre fans, the comparison is perhaps an obvious one given the use of prepared piano, but I also like the quasi-theatrical tendencies of both, with Autechre always insisting on performing in the dark.



What’s next if you like this? Try Evan Johnson’s Positioning in Radiography

5. If you love Nirvana you might love Cassandra Miller’s for mira

This is an obvious choice in many ways, as Miller takes the material for her piece from a performance by Kurt Cobain of “where did you sleep last night” – itself a cover of Depression-era blues musician Lead Belly.

What I love about Miller’s’ writing here is the dramatic way she repeats, manipulates and plays with the material. It might take a couple of listens, but I find the swooping glissandi and irregular cadences infectious, I often get this piece stuck in my head.



What’s next if you like this? Try Simon Steen-Andersen’s Study for String Instrument

6. If you love Asa-Chang & Junray you might love Peter Ablinger’s Speaking Piano

Here, Ablinger uses a spectral analysis and a computer controlled piano to recreate the sound of the speaking voice (in this case, an angry letter from the grandaddy of 12-tone composition, Schönberg). It wasn’t his only experiment in combining the human voice and piano, he also did a series of “accompaniments” of famous voices, which you can hear here. These are far less gimmicky and more musically interesting, not to mention historically so: he uses recordings of speakers such as Bertold Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Mao Zedong, Pier Passolini, etc.

Asa-Chang and Junray:


What’s next if you like this? Try Martin Iddon’s ampelos

7. If you love Underworld’s REZ then you might love Gerard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum

The opening movement of Vortex is all energy and forward propelled movement. Combined with Grisey’s so-called spectral approach to composition (his compositional building blocks are the harmonics resulting from a given fundamental, see here for a more detailed explanation), these aspects make it a great pairing with Underworld’s use of arpeggio, drive and spectral-like harmonies.



What’s next if you like this? Try Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 2

8. If you love Deafheaven, you might might love Simon Loeffler’s b

The new music track here is — perhaps unusually — the more rhythmic of the two, but they both go heavy on the distortion. Loeffler’s work uses a looped feed of guitar effect pedals (two for each performer) and light switches (four for the group) to modify the patterns of distorted sounds. This is complemented by the rhythmic tap-dancing of the players feet on the pedals. The piece is very virtuosic and I find it very exciting (especially live).

The piece stays in the same sound world (necessitated by a setup that has a fixed — if not surprisingly large — number of sound possibilities) in a way that Deafheaven do not (there’s a beautiful contrast between screaming distortion and an almost lullaby-like quality later on the track of theirs shared here), but I love the contrast between the virtuoso foot pedalling at the beginning and the mournful falling glissandi that appear around minute 3.



What’s next if you like this? Try Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf

9. If you love Busta Rhymes then you might love Timothy McCormack’s Apparatus

In case it isn’t glaringly obvious, I’m comparing these two artists for their approaches to virtuosity. McCormack’s music is complex but I find it incredibly playful and when performing it, relish the challenge of being able to execute the actions his notation requires while still maintaining a kind of lightness and an easy approach to the interaction between players. His Apparatus is particularly playful for it’s brevity: at only 30 seconds long it’s a great way to surprise an audience. Listen to it a couple of times to get into McCormack’s soundworld.

Busta Rhymes:


What’s next if you like this? Try Enno Poppe’s Trauben

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3 Responses to 9 Gateway Pieces to Contemporary Music for Pop Lovers

  1. ian.mikyska says:

    Thanks for the great article. Here are a few corrections I noticed:

    “As an pop music listener”
    “see here for a more detailed explanation” — there’s no link!

  2. Pingback: Index / TOC (scroll down for recent blogposts) | heather roche

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