In a recent article, I looked at the new Apple Music Classical app. Apple has taken an interesting step to develop an app designed for classical music, which only represents about 2-3% of the overall music market. This app is needed because of the metadata required to distinguish different recordings of classical music.
One of the features of this new app is a series of programs to help people “discover” classical music. I’m not sure how helpful this is; I have never felt that you need to be “educated” to like classical music, like in a music appreciation class in school. Classical music is enjoyable; all you need to do is find the music that you like.
In this article, I present 10 classical works for people who want to discover classical music that doesn’t sound like Mozart, Beethoven, or Mahler. This is a very subjective selection, heavily influenced by my personal experience with late 20th century minimalist music. But it is also an attempt to show a wide range of modern classical music without too much atonal music, which might turn people off. Many of these works are album-length, and some even longer. I include embedded players for Apple Music, so people who subscribe to the service can listen to the music from this page.
Don’t assume that you have to “understand” this music right away. Some of this music will speak to you instantly, and some of it will turn you off; that’s fine. Classical music covers an extremely wide variety of music, over a number of centuries.
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
This 1976 work is one of the foundational works of minimalism. Its driving beat, or pulse, as Reich calls it, makes it a toe-tapper. This recording, on the ECM label in 1978, is the first recording by Steve Reich and Musicians. There have been many recordings since then by Reich and by other ensembles.
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano
You can’t talk about 20th-century classical music without mentioning John Cage. His music, mostly created using chance operations, was revolutionary. The pieces on this recording were composed between 1946 and 1948, before Cage adopted his Yi Jing influenced compositional approach. The revolution here is the “prepared” piano, in which screws and bolts, pieces of plastic and rubber were wedged between the piano strings, turning into a percussion ensemble.
Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet
Morton Feldman was a close friend of John Cage, but his music was very different. Many of his pieces are long – this one lasts 79 minutes – and quite. His music has slow, soft, slowly morphing phrases, and you can get lost in his sound world.
Toru Takemitsu: From Me Flows What You Call Time
Strongly influenced by western classical music, notably Debussy, Toru Takemitsu created unique music that doesn’t fit easily in any boxes. This 1990 work is a concerto for five percussionists and orchestra, and lasts about 36 minutes.
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach
Philip Glass is one of the foundational composers of New York minimalism, and is well known for his operas and film scores. His first “opera,” Einstein on the Beach, lasts about five hours, and is a summation of his various composing styles in the 1970s. This recording is from the 1984 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which I attended, and which has left its mark on me. If you like this, you may want to see the opera staged, and this Blu-Ray of a 2014 production in Paris is excellent.
Olivier Messiaen: Catalogue d’Oiseaux
My only atonal selection is this group of works by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. He lived in the French Alps for many years, and in this series of piano pieces, Catalogue of birds, he presents his take on songs of the different birds heard around France. Much of Messiaen’s music is “difficult,” but if you take the time to get into this recording, you may find it enjoyable.
Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was “discovered” in the west in 1984 when ECM released this album. The title work, from 1977, is an example of music that deconstructs, and other works on the album are also fascinating.
Terry Riley: In C
One of the first true minimalist works, In C “consists of 53 short numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times at the discretion of each musician in the ensemble. Each musician thus has control over which phrase they play, and players are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase.” (Wikipedia) This is the first recording, from 1968, led by the composer, but it has been recorded many times since.
Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Divided
This work consists of 36 variations on a Chilean protest song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! which is both highly musical and extremely difficult to perform.
Timo Andres: Home Stretch
Timo Andres is a young composer living in New York City. This recording is probably the most classical sounding of my selection. At its center is a “reconstruction” of an incomplete Mozart piano concerto, which is “an almost entirely new-sounding piece, which I hope will be an antidote to the studied blandness of most existing completions.” This is bookended by Home Stretch, a piece “in three large sections which gradually accelerate: beginning in almost total stasis, working up to an off-kilter dance with stabbing accents, and ushering in a sturm-und-drang cadenza which riles itself up into a perpetual-motion race to the finish,” and Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno, where Andres orchestrates some of Brian Eno’s songs from Before and After Science and Another Green World. (Notes from Timo Andres’s website.)