Some Current Trends in Contemporary Classical Music: An Improviser’s Guide

We’re thrilled to welcome back saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman for a special guest post detailing some of the recent contemporary classical music that’s influenced and inspired his work. It’s a sonic world that’s new to us and we hope you’ll be as intrigued by this selective overview as we are.

Most mentions of so-called contemporary classical music in the (jazz) blog-o-sphere tend to focus on people like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Milton Babbitt, and their work from the 1950s and 1960s. Sort of like using Dave Brubeck and Ornette Coleman as a yardstick to measure the current state of jazz. A lot of fascinating and provocative music has happened since then – much of it in recent decades.

It’s not easy to get information about this music and find your bearings outside of a quasi-institutional context, so we’re especially grateful to Steve for serving as such a trustworthy tour-guide. Many of these compositions can be hard to sink your teeth into, but the tracks he’s chosen are consistently accessible and engaging. Take it away, Steve…

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When Travail, Transformation & Flow, my most recent recording, was released in June 2009, I started to receive a pretty steady stream of inquiries about spectral music and my use of spectral harmony. And they came from all over: colleagues, mentors, critics, engaged listeners, and students, among others. I first came into contact with spectral music in 2001, while getting my M.A. in Music Composition at Wesleyan University. And a good deal of my engagement with the current landscape of contemporary Western art music, and its associated milieus, has been facilitated by major academic institutions like Wesleyan, Columbia University, and The Paris Conservatory (CNSM).

For that reason, I thought it might be nice to share a bit of information about some of the musical communities that I’ve been exposed to over the past 10 years. And in particular, to highlight those European composers, who emerged after 1970, whose work has helped me to think about both composition and improvisation in new ways.

Gerard Grisey
Les Espaces Acoustiques
Kairos : 2005

Tristan Murail
Gondwana; Desintegrations; Time and Again
Montaigne : 2004

Composers Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail are more or less universally viewed as the so-called “founding fathers” of spectral music. There are, of course, historical precedents for their music (Debussy, Scriabin, Varese, Messiaen, and Ligeti, among others) as well as parallel streams (The Romanian Spectral School), but the emergence of their work in the 1970s, and its subsequent evolution, seems to represent a real point of definition in the last 40 years of contemporary Western art music. When I first encountered Murail and Grisey’s music, I was blown away by the unique, otherworldly nature of their harmonic language, and immediately started looking for ways to integrate spectral harmony into my work as an improviser. Murail and Grisey have composed a lot of seminal works in the past 40 years, but Partiels (part of Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques cycle), in particular, provides a really clear and compelling example of the timbre/harmony hybrid that permeates spectral music.

Further Listening:
Les Espaces Acoustiques – Gerard Grisey
Vortex Temporum – Gerard Grisey
Gondwana – Tristan Murail
La Mandragore – Tristan Murail

–“Guide to the Basic Concepts and Techniques of Spectral Music” (Joshua Cody). In Contemporary Music Review Vol. 19, Part 2 (2000)
–“Tempus Ex Machina: A Composer’s Reflections on Musical Time” (Gerard Grisey). In Contemporary Music Review Vol. 2 (1987)
Compositeurs d’Aujourd’hui: Tristan Murail (Edited by Peter Szendy)
L’Harmattan Press (2002)

Michael Finnissy
Catana; String Trio; Contretanze
Etcetera : 1987

Not unlike Anthony Braxton, Michael Finnissy’s output is so vast, that it’s hard to know exactly how to begin talking about it. In addition to his work as a composer, Finnissy is a virtuoso pianist (he’s produced definitive recordings of his own piano music and music by his contemporaries as well), and for that reason, his music always seems to stay rooted in the physicality of live performance, no matter how complex it gets. And it does get complex! Finnissy’s name comes up a lot in discussions of the “New Complexity” movement (mostly for his use of unusual rhythmic ratios and tuplets), which includes other European composers like Brian Ferneyhough, Richard Barrett, and James Dillon, among others. Finnissy has also written relatively “simple” music and also dedicated pieces to master improvisers like Cecil Taylor. String Trio is one of my favorite Finnissy pieces and one that I find very accessible for a lot of different reasons: the use of quarter-tones to create a kind of imaginary folk music, the way that relatively simple playing techniques are used to create a one-of-a-kind sound world, and the fact that the form and structure of the piece work really well and keep the piece interesting from start to finish (the piece lasts 30 minutes).

Further Listening:
String Trio
Red Earth
English Country Tunes

Uncommon Ground: The Music of Michael Finnissy (Edited by Brougham, Fox & Pace) Ashgate Press (1997)

Helmut Lachenmann
Grido; Reigen Seliger Geister; Gran Torso
Kairos : 2008

Helmut Lachenmann coined the term “musique concrete instrumentale” to describe his music, and it gives a pretty good idea of the innovative sound world that he has developed over the past 40 years. Building on the work of Italian composers like Giancinto Scelsci and Luigi Nono (Lachenmann took formal lessons with Nono), Lachenmann makes extensive use of non-idiomatic instrumental playing techniques (often referred to as “extended techniques”), and has developed a highly influential compositional syntax around the resulting sounds. The string quartet, Gran Torso, gives a great example of Lachemann’s writing for strings, and shows how these “concrete” instrumental sounds can be orchestrated and arranged to create an all-encompassing musical universe. Not unlike the work of people like Mark Dresser and Evan Parker, Lachenmann’s music provides a kind of never-ending wealth of information about the transformation of new instrumental practices into new musical languages and new musical meanings.

Further Listening:
Gran Torso

–“Resistant Strains of Postmodernism: The Music of Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough” (Ross Feller) In Postmodern Music / Postmodern Thought (Edited by Lochhead & Auner) Routledge Press (2002)

Beat Furrer
Nuun; Presto Con Fuoco; Still; Poemas
Kairos : 2000

Beat Furrer is a composer that I got turned onto when I started the doctoral program in Composition at Columbia in 2006. And what impresses me most about his music is the way that he orchestrates traditional and non-traditional playing techniques to create really unusual and compelling sound worlds. The other thing that jumps out about Furrer’s work is his use of repetition and compositional loops. To a certain degree, this is inherited from American Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but that influence manifests itself in a pretty unique way in Furrer’s music. And Furrer is actually part of a loosely connected circle of influential German-speaking composers (Bernhard Lang, Peter Ablinger, Mathias Spahlinger, Beat Furrer) whose work deals with repetition and/or memory in some important way. Based on what I’ve heard, thus far, Furrer is the most gifted orchestrator of the group, and probably not by coincidence, the most widely known. Furrer also founded one of Europe’s preeminent New Music ensembles (Klangforum Wien) in 1985, and, as a result, has had the good fortune to receive remarkably polished and well-rehearsed performances of his very demanding music…and this recording of Still is no exception…!

Further Listening:

A short interview with Beat Furrer about his music.

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If you’re interested in hearing how Lehman synthesized all of this in an improv context, we’ve re-upped a track at our then-preview post for his album Travail, Transformation, and Flow.

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