Contemporary classical music

Contemporary classical music
Periods of Western art music
Medieval   (500–1400)
Renaissance (1400–1600)
Baroque (1600–1760)
Common practice
Baroque (1600–1760)
Classical (1750–1830)
Romantic (1815–1910)
Modern and contemporary
20th century (1900–2000)
Contemporary (1975–present)
21st century (2000–present)

Contemporary classical music can be understood as belonging to the period that started in the mid-1970s with the retreat of modernism.[1] However, the term may also be employed in a broader sense to refer to all post-1945 modern musical forms.[2]



Generally "contemporary classical music" amounts to:



At the beginning of the 20th century, composers of classical music were experimenting with an increasingly dissonant pitch language, which sometimes yielded atonal pieces. Following World War I, as a backlash against what they saw as the increasingly exaggerated gestures and formlessness of late Romanticism, certain composers adopted a neoclassic style, which sought to recapture the balanced forms and clearly perceptible thematic processes of earlier styles;[5] see also New Objectivity and Social Realism). After World War II, modernist composers sought to achieve greater levels of control in their composition process (e.g., through the use of the twelve tone technique and later total serialism). At the same time, conversely, composers also experimented with means of abdicating control, exploring indeterminacy or aleatoric processes in smaller or larger degrees.[6] Technological advances led to the birth of electronic music.[7] Experimentation with tape loops and repetitive textures contributed to the advent of minimalism.[8] Still other composers started exploring the theatrical potential of the musical performance (performance art, mixed media, fluxus).[9]


To some extent, European and the US traditions diverged after World War II. Among the most influential composers in Europe were Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The first and last were both pupils of Olivier Messiaen. The dominant aesthetic at this time was integral or 'total' serialism, which took the ideas of Anton Webern as a model and became increasingly focussed on complexity.[citation needed]

In America, composers like Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, George Rochberg, and Roger Sessions, formed their own ideas. Many of these composers represented a new methodology of experimental music, which began to question fundamental notions of music such as notation, performance, duration, and repetition, while others fashioned their own extensions of the twelve-tone serialism of Schoenberg.

Developments since the 1970s

Since the 1970s there has been increasing stylistic variety, with far too many schools to count, name or label. However, in general, there are two broad trends.[citation needed]

  • The first is the continuation of modern avant-garde musical traditions and experimental music.
  • The second are schools that seek to revitalize tonal style found in traditional western music.



Many of the key figures of the high modern movement are alive, or only recently deceased, and there is also still an extremely active core of composers (e.g., Elliott Carter), performers, and listeners who continue to advance the ideas and forms of Modernism.[10]

Serialism is one of the most important post-war movements among the high modernist schools. Serialism, more specifically named "integral" or "compound" serialism, was led by composers such as Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe, and by Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino, and Charles Wuorinen in the United States. Some of their compositions use an ordered set or several such sets, which may be the basis for the whole composition, while others use "unordered" sets for the same purpose. The term is also often used for dodecaphony, or twelve-tone technique, which is alternatively regarded as the model for integral serialism.

Active modernist composers include Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Thomas Adès, Magnus Lindberg and Gunther Schuller.

Electronic music

Computer music

Between 1975 and 1990, a shift in the paradigm of computer technology had taken place, making electronic music systems affordable and widely accessible. The personal computer had become an essential component of the electronic musician’s equipment, entirely superseding analog synthesizers and fulfilling the traditional functions of the computer in music for composition and scoring, synthesis and sound processing, control over external synthesizers and other performance equipment, and the sampling of audio input.[11]

Spectral music

Epitomized by the works of such composers as Hugues Dufourt, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, and Horaţiu Rădulescu, "spectral music" implies the use of the spectrum of a sound as a basis of composition.

A number of spectral composers are from Romania; these include Iancu Dumitrescu, Octav Nemescu, Ana-Maria Avram, Costin, Calin Ioachimescu, and Corneliu Cezar. Other spectral composers include Philippe Hurel, Michael Levinas, and Phillippe Leroux, Joshua Fineberg, and Julian Anderson.


The influence of postmodernism in music is vast,[citation needed] but the definition of what constitutes "postmodern music" is open to interpretation.

Musicians often associated with the term include: Scottish composer James MacMillan (who draws on sources as diverse as plainchant, South American 'liberation theology', Scottish folksongs, and Polish avant-garde techniques of the 1960s),[12] the American Michael Torke (drawing on European music of the early 19th century, minimalism, jazz, and popular music),[13] and Mark-Anthony Turnage from the UK (drawing from jazz, rock, Stravinsky, and Berg).[14]

Polystylism (eclecticism)

Some authors equate polystylism with eclecticism, while others make a sharp distinction.[15] Polystylism is the use of multiple styles or techniques of music, sometimes within the same composition, and is seen as a postmodern characteristic. Polystylist composers include Luciano Berio, William Bolcom, Peter Maxwell Davies, Sofia Gubaidulina, Hans Werner Henze, George Rochberg, Frederic Rzewski, Alfred Schnittke, Frank Zappa and John Zorn.


Musical historicism—the use of historical materials, structures, styles, techniques, media, conceptual content, etc., whether by a single composer or those associated with a particular school, movement, or period—is evident to varying degrees in minimalism, post-minimalism, world-music, and other genres in which tonal traditions have been sustained or have undergone a significant revival in recent decades.[16] Some post-minimalist works employ medieval and other genres associated with early music, such as the "Oi me lasso" and other laude of Gavin Bryars. Other composers have assimilated elements of medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, or romantic styles in varying degrees, including Benjamin Bagby, Thomas Binkley, Easley Blackwood, René Clemencic, Joseph Dillon Ford, Vladimir Godar, Ladislav Kupkovič, Winfried Michel, George Rochberg, Christopher Rouse and Jordi Savall.[citation needed]

Peter Schickele wrote works that parody many different styles of classical music and often draws upon specific works for its inspiration. They were mostly published as albums under the name of P. D. Q. Bach, a composer he invented and then pretended to have discovered among the children of J.S. Bach. Some of these works are published under his own name, however, such as Eine Kleine Nichtmusik a work which layers quotes from other classical music and many folk melodies over the top of a complete performance of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

The historicist movement is closely related to the emergence of musicology and the Early Music Revival. A number of historicist composers have been influenced by their intimate familiarity with the instrumental practices of earlier periods (Hendrik Bouman, Grant Colburn, Michael Talbot, Alexandre Danilevsky, Paulo Galvão, Roman Turovsky-Savchuk). The musical historicism movement has also been stimulated by the formation of such international organizations as the Delian Society and Vox Saeculorum.[17]


The vocabulary of extended tonality, which flourished in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries, continues to be used throughout the contemporary period. It never has been considered shocking or controversial in the larger musical world—as has been demonstrated statistically for the United States, at least (Straus 1999, 322–29, et passim). Composers who have worked in the neoromantic vein after 1975 include John Williams, John Corigliano, George Rochberg (in some of his works), David Del Tredici, Ladislav Kupkovič, Gian Carlo Menotti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Isang Yun, Christopher Rouse, Lorenzo Ferrero, and Ennio Morricone

Art rock influence

Similarly, many composers have emerged since the 1980s who are heavily influenced by art rock. Many, such as Scott Johnson, Steven Mackey, and Tim Hodgkinson, started out as rock musicians and only later moved into the realm of scored music. Other notable composers who draw on rock include Christopher Rouse, Marc Mellits, Evan Ziporyn, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Elliott Sharp, John Zorn, Steve Martland, Anne LeBaron, Paul Dresher, Kitty Brazelton, Rhys Chatham,[18] Glenn Branca, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Robert Paterson, Annie Gosfield, Randall Woolf and Nick Didkovsky. Many of these composers (Gordon, Lang, Mellits, Dresher, Wolfe, Ziporyn, Martland, Branca) are post-minimalist in orientation, but some (Didkovsky, Brazelton and Rouse) are very much not.

"World music" influence

Some composers mix western and non-western instruments, including gamelan from Indonesia, Chinese traditional instruments, ragas from Indian Classical music. There is also an exploration of eastern-European and non-Western tonalities, even in relatively traditionally structured works. This trend was present already in the 1920s and 1930s, for example in the music of Béla Bartók, Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, Alan Hovhaness, and Lou Harrison, and slightly later in the work of Olivier Messiaen, Chou Wen-chung, Halim El-Dabh, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks. The trend can be found also in the context of post-minimalist works, such as Janice Giteck's and Evan Ziporyn's Balinese-influenced works. Some composers have used traditional instruments from their own cultures, such as Tōru Takemitsu, Minoru Miki, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, or Julian Kytasty. World music influence may also be found in the context of post-classic tonality, such as in the music of Bright Sheng, or in the context of thoroughly modernist works by composers such as Claude Vivier.

New Simplicity

A movement in Denmark (Den Nye Enkelhed) in the late nineteen-sixties and another in Germany in the late seventies and early eighties, the former attempting to create more objective, impersonal music, and the latter reacting with a variety of strategies to restore the subjective to composing, both sought to create music using simple textures. The German New Simplicity's best-known composer is Wolfgang Rihm, who strives for the emotional volatility of late 19th-century Romanticism and early 20th-century Expressionism. Called Die neue Einfachheit in German, it has also been termed "New Romanticism", "New Subjectivity", "New Inwardness", "New Sensuality", "New Expressivity", and "New Tonality".

Styles found in other countries sometimes associated with the German New Simplicity movement include the so-called "Holy Minimalism" of the Pole Henryk Górecki and the Estonian Arvo Pärt (in their works after 1970), as well as Englishman John Tavener, who unlike the New Simplicity composers have turned back to Medieval and Renaissance models, however, rather than to 19th-century romanticism for inspiration. Important representative works include Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (1976) by Górecki, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977) by Pärt, and The Veil of the Temple (2002) by Tavener, "Silent Songs" (1977) by Valentin Silvestrov.

New Complexity

New Complexity is a current within today's European contemporary avant-garde music scene, named in reaction to the New Simplicity. Amongst the candidates suggested for having coined the term are the composer Nigel Osborne, the Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich, and the British/Australian musicologist Richard Toop, who gave currency to the concept of a movement with his article "Four Facets of the New Complexity".[19]

Though often atonal, highly abstract, and dissonant in sound, the "New Complexity" is most readily characterized by the use of techniques which require complex musical notation. This includes extended techniques, microtonality, odd tunings, highly disjunct melodic contour, innovative timbres, complex polyrhythms, unconventional instrumentations, abrupt changes in loudness and intensity, and so on. The diverse group of composers writing in this style includes Richard Barrett, Brian Ferneyhough, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, James Dillon, Michael Finnissy, James Erber, and Roger Redgate.

Though not a New Complexity composer himself, the Progressivist (or Neological) composer Neil March studied with Roger Redgate and his concept of "Polyfluidity" owes much to the influence of New Complexity.[citation needed]

Minimalism and post-minimalism

The minimalist generation still has a prominent role in new composition. Philip Glass has been expanding his symphony cycle, while John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, a choral work commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, won a Pulitzer Prize. Steve Reich has explored electronic opera (most notably in Three Tales) and Terry Riley has been active in composing instrumental music and music theatre.

Many composers are expanding the resources of minimalist music to include rock and world instrumentation and rhythms, serialism, and many other techniques. Another notable characteristic is storytelling and emotional expression taking precedence over technique. Post-minimalism is also a movement in painting and sculpture that began in the late 1960s.[20] (See lumpers/splitters)

Extended techniques

Composers often obtain unusual sounds or instrumental timbres through the use of non-traditional (or unconventional) instrumental techniques. Examples of extended techniques include bowing under the bridge of a string instrument or with two different bows, using key clicks on a wind instrument, blowing and overblowing into a wind instrument without a mouthpiece, or inserting object on top of the strings of a piano. Composers’ use of extended techniques is not specific to contemporary music (for instance, Berlioz’s use of col legno in his Symphonie Fantastique is an extended technique) and it transcends compositional schools and styles.

Exponents of extended techniques in the 20th century include Henry Cowell (use of fists and arms on the keyboard, playing inside the piano), John Cage (prepared piano), and George Crumb. The Kronos Quartet, which has been among the most active ensembles in promoting contemporary American works for string quartet, takes delight in music which stretches the manner in which sound can be drawn out of instruments.

European composers who make heavy use of extended techniques include Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, Heinz Holliger, Carlo Forlivesi and Georgia Spiropoulos.

Developments by medium


  • Inclusion of new instruments (amplified instruments, rock/jazz instruments, synthesizers, computer, non-western instruments, pre-recorded parts, experimental custom-made instruments)
  • Concertos for non-western instruments (Nancy Van de Vate)[citation needed]
  • Inclusion of visuals


Notable composers of operas since 1975 include:



Notable choral composers include Karl Jenkins, Morten Lauridsen, Nico Muhly, Arvo Pärt, John Rutter, Veljo Tormis, Gabriel Jackson, Paul Mealor and Eric Whitacre.

Concert band

Composers such as Mark Camphouse, Michael Colgrass, Michael Daugherty, David Del Tredici, Karel Husa, David Maslanka, Olivier Messiaen, Alfred Reed, Joseph Schwantner, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frank Ticheli, and Eric Whitacre have composed notable works for concert band in recent years.


Contemporary classical music can be heard in film scores such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), both of which used concert music by György Ligeti, and also in Kubrick's The Shining (1980) which used music by both Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki. Jean-Luc Godard, in La Chinoise (1967), Nicolas Roeg in Walkabout (1971), and the Brothers Quay in In Absentia (2000) used music by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Contemporary music festivals


  1. ^ Botstein "Modernism" §9: The Late 20th Century (subscription access).
  2. ^ "Contemporary" in Du Noyer 2003, 272.
  3. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (ed.) (2003), "Contemporary" in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music. Flame Tree. p 272. ISBN 1-904041-70-1
  4. ^ Leon Botstein: "Modernism" ¶9 Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 April 2007), <>
  5. ^ Whittall "Neo-Classicism" (subscription access).
  6. ^ Schwartz and Godfrey 1993, chapter 7: "Order and Chaos", pp. 78ff.
  7. ^ Manning 2004, 19ff.
  8. ^ Schwartz and Godfrey 1993, 325.
  9. ^ Schwartz and Godfrey 1993, 289ff.
  10. ^ Botstein 2001, §8.
  11. ^ Holmes 2008, 272.
  12. ^ Johnson 2001.
  13. ^ Chute 2001.
  14. ^ Cross 2001.
  15. ^ OED, entry "Polystylistic", quoting Christian & Cornwall's Guide to Russian Literature (1998): "Zhdanov is eclectic; he mixes high poetic, archaic, scientific and everyday realities without imposing any hierarchy. His manner may be called ‘polystylistic’", and entry "Polystylist", quoting Musical America, November 1983: "An eclectic only passively collects material from different sources, but a polystylist puts together what he collects, consciously, in a new way."
  16. ^ Watkins, 440-42, 446-48.
  17. ^ Colburn 36-45, 54-55.
  18. ^ Chatham 1994.
  19. ^ Toop 1988.
  20. ^


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