20th Century Parte 2: The isms of the 20th Century

There have actually been many new music movements in the last half century of classical music. While technology has made many aspects of composition much, much easier (I don't have to sit by candlelight and transcribe fifty parts by hand for the next orchestra rehearsal) and has led to a lot of laziness (especially for those that are not well-trained), classical composers that have been formally trained and use the technology to better their music (and not just substitute for bad music) have forged new musical ideas.

Here are a few of the musical movements in the last half century:
• Minimalism (Kamien pg 486)
• Neo-Romanticism and Neo-Classicism
• Computer Music and Electroacoustic Music (pg 498 Kamien)
• Intermedia, Multimedia, Mixed Media
• Chance Music (Kamien pg 485)
What is exciting is that technology is constantly opening up new doors to sound and music. Everything has not been invented. There are new technologies, hybrid instruments, computer languages, world fusion forms, and contemporary jazz styles being incorporated into new music each day. It is almost impossible to keep up with!

Schoenberg's technique, albeit very unpleasing to listen to generally, gave birth to a compositional style that influenced all composers after him. His atonal theory is still studied today by composers. Even though strict serialism is not practiced very often any more (except in Japan and in some computer music), the techniques are used by almost all major composers in some way or another.

Atonality and Serialism

The atonal system was a large break from the traditions of before. Western music first began with simple intervals in the time of Pythagorus. His system marked intervals like a unison and an octave as the most tonal (and pleasing to the ear). In the middle ages, musicians used church modes (Gregorian Chant ex.: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MbDqc3x97k). In the Baroque Era, composers began to use what is now considered major and minor scales. True western harmony was born.

When Arnold Schoenberg experimented with atonality, he developed a complex musical (and mathematical) system. Essentially, a composer would arrange the twelve notes of a scale in a specific row, and then compose using those rows (in that order alone) to eliminate any sense of tonality. Eventually, composers began creating complex matrices to develop these rows. Schoenberg's works were revolutionary. However, while contemporary composers learn this style of composition, generally, most composers do not use strict atonal music theory in their works.

(For those musicians that want to try making a matrix, check out this site: http://www.dancavanagh.com/music/matrix.php)

Arnold Schoenberg



Alban Berg
An opera

William Grant Still

"A Black Pierrot" from Songs of Separation Art song


Aaron Complan

Charles Ives

Ives was quite an unusual composer. He knew his music was a bit whacked out, so he opted to hold down a day job while composing in his free time. Because he was so isolated from the music world, his style was most certainly different. He incorporates many quotes from famous and popular compositions. Some of his works require multiple conductors performing separate ensembles performing simultaneously! He was an absolute genius, even if his music was not understandable. He was eventually recognized for his work, but not till 1947 when he won a Pulitzer prize.


Many composers in the 20th century continued with the nationalism of the 19th century and also incorporated "folk" music into their compositions:

American Aaron Copland "HoeDown" (Yes, its the song from the Beef Commercial)

Charles Ive's "Putnam's Camp" (This piece is supposed to be the sound of several marching bands converging on the same spot as they played different popular patriotic sounds in the town square).

British Composer Benjamin Britten "Frank Bridge Variations"

Cuban Composer Tania Leon "Tumbao"

African-American Composer William Grant Still "Afro-American Symphony"

Each of these composers incorporated music from their homeland and culture into their compositions.


Composers like Terry Riley and Philip Glass borrowed musical ideas from the Far East. This gave birth to what is called minimalism in music. Minimalism involved taking small musical and rhythmic ideas and repeating them over and over again. There is less concern for harmony or even melody, and more concern regarding the rhythmic lines.

Terry Riley, "In C"

This work consists of twenty or so melodic figures written in the key of C. The performers chose which figures that they wanted to play and then repeated several times. As you can hear, its a bit repetitive.

Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi

Einstein on the Beach

Chance Music & Experimental Music

John Cage
Imaginary Landscape for 12 radios


Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman

Neo Classicism

Sonate pour harpe - Germaine Tailleferre

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