DVD | Film
Stage | Dance
Visual Arts
Best Of The Year
Books | Zines


Make A Donation

Free Downloads

Visit Us On Facebook

by Robert Reigle

Writing in the LA Weekly for January 8-14, 1999, Alan Rich presented a fascinating soundscape of twentieth-century written music. His article cited 100 pieces that for him "define where composers … have tried to take ttheir art" in the twentieth century. It spurred pleasant memories and a desire to encapsulate my own definition of the most important sounds created by composers in the "non-Eastern" tradition.

Our lists concurred on five pieces in the first quarter century (5, 7, 8, 21, 22), six from 1925-1949 (28, 34, 38, 40, 44, 45), three from 1950-1974 (51, 54, 59), but only one work (90, Ligeti's Piano Etudes) in these final years of the century. Rich seems more familiar with the earlier repertoire than I am, but less broad when it comes to more recent endeavors, while my own bias results from falling in love with post-World War II music and expanding backwards from there.

On the subject of biases, I should mention that my palette prefers pre-common-practice-period music to that written from 1600 to 1900 (with the mighty exceptions of Bach, Beethoven, and a few pieces by other composers), that my connection with jazz preceded my appreciation of non-Eastern music, and that masterpieces of music from New Guinea, as well as from many of the 205 countries I have recordings from, move me as much as do the pieces listed below.

Rather than choosing pieces that "define" the music of our century, I sought to identify those works that present or develop the ideas having the greatest meaning to this one listener. I found only 20 basic ideas, rather paltry compared to, say, the 29 "issues and concepts" Bruno Nettl discussed in his book covering a similar time span, The Study of Ethnomusicology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).

To my surprise, twelve of my ideas appeared during the first quarter of this century, another five came between 1925 and 1949, and the final three by 1974, leaving the last 25 years purely in the realm of development as opposed to discovery. Of course this only means that the new, more recent ideas simply remain hidden at this early stage in their existence. For the moment some may seem like mere development, while others may have not made it to the light of recording, or even of being performed yet (as happened in the past with works by Ives, Cowell, Scelsi, etc.), and others are right in front of my ears but I cannot hear them.

Before I get to the ideas, a few comments are in order. First, time boundaries are usually fuzzy, so the date a piece was completed may not be the date its idea was conceived. Likewise, many of these ideas were improvised first and composed later. For this list I limited myself to seven pieces by any given composer, but found that slightly impractical, so I reduced the number to six.

The first selection (composed in 1895) is cheating, but contradicting a pre-established guideline fits with the spirit of twentieth-century concepts of reality. I chose this as a cornerstone of minimalism. My apologies to those who feel that a different term should be used when discussing music outside the styles of Conrad/Young/Riley/Glass/Reich/Adams (perhaps we can refer to their styles as Minimalism), or that no connection can be made between reduction of parameters and the idea of minimalism. I do so because, like most of the new ideas presented here, I believe that the roots of minimalism might be traced back some time, and that those roots flowered not only with Minimalism, but with a new way of turning inward, towards the single tone and its constituent parts. Many cultures have songs intoned on a single pitch. Elliott Carter reminded us of Henry Purcell's 1680 Fantasia upon One Note. But Vexations (1) and Serenity (18) were part of the expanding zeitgeist that continued to develop by focussing on different elements to limit or repeat (27, 76, 82), culminating in a style that became the central focus of a number of composers (69).

1. SATIE: Vexations (1895, but not performed until the 1950's, I believe)
2. IVES: Let There Be Light! (1901)
3. RAVEL: Jeux d'eau (1901)
4. MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 (1905)
5. DEBUSSY: La Mer (1905)
6. SCOTT: Lotusland (1905)
7. IVES: Central Park in the Dark (1907)
8. MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 (1909)
9. MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (1909)
10. SCHOENBERG: Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909)
11. SCHOENBERG: Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11 (1909)
12. SCHOENBERG: Herzegewaechse (1911)
13. BARTOK: Allegro Barbro (1911)
14. IVES: Orchestral Set No. 2 (1912)
15. IVES: In Re Con Moto Et Al (1913)
16. SCRIABIN: Prefatory Action of Mysterium (1915)
17. HOLST: The Planets (1916)
18. IVES: Serenity (1919)
19. MILHAUD: Les Choephores (1919)
20. RUDHYAR: Tetragrams (1920-1927)
21. BERG: Wozzeck (1921)
22. VARESE: Ameriques (1921)
23. VILLA-LOBOS: Rudepoema (1921-1926)
24. SCHOENBERG: Die Jakobsleiter (1922)
25. COWELL: The Banshee (1923)

26. IVES: Sunrise (1926)
27. RAVEL: Bolero (1927)
28. BARTOK: Quartet No. 4 (1928)
29. VILLA-LOBOS: 12 Etudes for Guitar (1928)
30. WEBERN: Symphony (1928)
31. CRAWFORD SEEGER: Three Chants (1930)
32. FOULDS: Three Mantras (1930)
33. ORFF: Veni Creator Spiritus (1930)
34. CRAWFORD SEEGER: String Quartet (1931)
35. VARESE: Ionisation (1931)
36. SCHOENBERG: Moses und Aron (1932)
37. BLOCH: Sacred Service (1934)
38. WEBERN: Concerto, Opus 24 (1934)
39. BERG: Lulu (1935)
40. SCHOENBERG: Quartet No. 4 (1936)
41. WEBERN: Variations for Piano (1936)
42. BARTOK: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937)
43. ANONYMOUS (McPHEE): Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos (1938)
44. CAGE: Second Construction (1940)
45. MESSIAEN: Quartet for the End of Time (1940)
46. BARBER: Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (1947)
47. LIGETI: Due Capricci (1947)
48. CAGE: Dream (1948)
49. MESSIAEN: Canteyodjaya (1948)
50. SCELSI: La Naissance du Verbe (1948)

51. NANCARROW: Studies for Player Piano (1948-1988)
52. CARTER: Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1950)
53. CAGE: String Quartet in Four Parts (1950)
54. CAGE: 4'33" (1952)
55. VARESE: Deserts (1954)
56. XENAKIS: Metastasis (1954)
57. NONO: Il Canto Sospeso (1956)
58. SCELSI: Quattro Pezzi per Orchestra (Ciascuno su una nota sola) (1959)
59. PENDERECKI: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)
60. XENAKIS: Orient-Occident (1960)
61. CERHA: Spiegel (1961)
62. LIGETI: Atmospheres (1961)
63. TENNEY: Dialogue (1963)
64. SCELSI: Quartet No. 4 (1964)
65. LIGETI: Nouvelles Aventures (1965)
66. PUIG: Stigmates (1965?)
67. NONO: a floresta e jovem e cheja de vida (1966)
68. XENAKIS: Oresteia (1966)
69. REICH: Piano Phase (1967)
70. CHRISTOU: Epicycle 2 (1969)
71. ZIMMERMANN: Die Befristeten (The Numbered) (1969?)
72. SCHNEBEL: Atemzuege (1971)
73. NONO: Como una ola de fuerza y luz (1972)
74. SCELSI: Pfhat (1974)
75. TAYLOR: Silent Tongues (1974)

76. GABER: The Winds Rise in the North (1975)
77. GRISEY: Partiels (1975)
78. XENAKIS: N'Shima (1975)
79. SCELSI: Maknongan (1976)
80. CHOWNING: Stria (1977)
81. XENAKIS: La Legende d'Eer (1978)
82. FELDMAN: Coptic Light (1979?)
83. NONO: Fragmente - stille, an diotima (1980)
84. NOERGAARD: Symphony No. 4 (1981)
85. XENAKIS: Tetras (1983)
86. MALEC: Ottava bassa (1984)
87. NONO: Prometeo: Tragedia dell'ascolto (1985)
88. SCELSI: Quartet No. 5 (1985)
89. UITTI: 2 Bows (1985-1994)
90. LIGETI: Etudes, Books 1 & 2 (1985-1998)
91. KAGEL: Quartet No. 3 (1987)
92. RADULESCU: Byzantine Prayer (1988)
93. YUASA: Terms of Temporal Detailing (1989)
94. ESTRADA: ishini'ioni (1990)
95. LIGETI: Violin Concerto (1992)
96. HOSOKAWA: Vertical Time Studies I-III (1992-1994)
97. BARRETT: Negatives (1993)
98. NIBLOCK: Early Winter (1993)
99. AVRAM: Axe 1 & 2 (1998)
100. DUMITRESCU: Meteors & Pulsars (1998)

Harmonic intervals smaller than thirds never died out in many traditions around the world, but were largely absent during the European common-practice period. They were brilliantly re-introduced in our century by, among others, Charles Ives (2). A sophisticated language developed, with the piano launching the eye of the hurricane (11, 13, 20, 23, 49, 59, 92). This expansion of the range of what our ears can unravel within a sound conglomerate occurred in jazz as well. Thus, I break my own rule a second time by including one jazz composer, Cecil Taylor (75), whose breakthrough use of clusters starting in December 1955 still escapes notice.

Another continuing tradition is that of expanding the sound palette. Composers in our century continued to develop new and wonderful sounds and playing techniques (4, 25, 67, 73, 89, 93). Two of these, electronic music (55, 60, 80, 81) and "noise" (35) have developed into their own genres. Noise elements (sounds that do not have a standard overtone series) constitute an important part of some African musics. Mahler's use of the rute, a bundle of ratan used to play the bass drum, continued the development of noise in non-Eastern music as early as his Symphony No. 2 from 1894, but its basis lies in programmatic folk-roots (homemade brooms).

Later, composers such as Luigi and Antonio Russolo wrote music for intonarumori noise machines, including the former's Veglio di una Citta from 1913 (hear the wonderful CD Futurism & Dada Reviewed, Sub Rosa SUBCD-012-19). Today, noise is gaining new importance, especially through crossovers between the burgeoning and open-minded noise-rock scene and the increasingly fused free-jazz/avant-classical world, as in the work of composer, saxophone screamer, and computer terrorist Dror Feiler.

Developing the secret number games and cryptic codes used by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Guillaume Dufay (circa 1400-1474), Jacob Obrecht (ca. 1451-1505), and others, composers in our century had access to a far greater range of mathematical inquiry on which to base their work. Debussy's La Mer (5) illustrates the Golden Mean through the Fibonacci numbers, as did Hildegard and many Renaissance composers. More recently, we have applications of Brownian motion by Xenakis in Mikka, complex time relationships in Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano (51), and explorations of chaos theory by hundreds of composers, both classical and jazz.

A number of Japanese composers, some trained in science or mathematics, have applied higher mathematics to composition, including Akira Tamba (Complexe Simple), Yori-Aki Matsudaira (Allotropy for Pianist), Shigeaki Saegusa (Baire's Theorem), and a composer who studied with Xenakis, Yuji Takahashi (Six Stoicheia). But Xenakis is the one who has achieved the greatest success in commanding higher mathematics and applying it musically (56, 81, 85). Barlow, Celona, Korde, Mazzola, and many others have done fine work in this area, but remain virtually unknown.

Twelve-tone music, stochastic music, and chaos theory all use or imply varying degrees of mathematical randomness. John Cage's use of chance came from a more intuitive stance rather than mathematical rigor, and for me takes second place to his conceptual work in the areas of timbre (44), calmness (48, 53), and expanding one's definition of music itself (54). Ideas of how to widen one's view of music are sometimes easy to grasp intellectually, but it often takes some catalyst or popularizer to internalize them. In addition to Cage, the work of Jani Christou (70) and Toshio Hosokawa (96) have done this for me.

Popularization and accessibility, despite their negative commercial aspects, remain some of the benefits of the New Age movement. For example, when I searched everywhere for the UNESCO recording of Japanese Buddhist chant, the only store in New York that carried it was one of the New Age bookstores. Philosophies and religions have become more widely available this century than at any other time in history, and composers have participated in this expansion. We have works with clear references to particular spiritual traditions (1, 2, 31, 32, 33, 43, 49, 81, 82, 94) as well as "secular-sacred" works that either mix several viewpoints or concern a general type of spirituality (6, 16, 24, 36, 37, 50, 74, 92). Twentieth-century music could be seen as a return to the primacy of the spirit, after its secondary status during the common-practice period.

A number of important twentieth-century ideas are interrelated. Thus, the sustained sounds in Ives' Central Park in the Dark (7; "silent darkness"--Ives), The Unanswered Question ("The Silences of the Druids"), and the slow movement of his fourth symphony, relate to timbre developments (10, 80, 94), layering (14, 51), calmness (34, 48, 53, 83, 87), spirituality, new ideas about silence and what constitutes music (54), focus on a single parameter, and eventually pieces based on a single note (58, 77, 79, 88, 98).

Thoughts about what constitutes a note relate to new ideas about existence that flourished in philosophy as non-Easterners internalized Eastern tenets that had for the first time been translated into European languages during the nineteenth century. Scelsi, for example, studied the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner as well as that of Eastern religions. Scelsi has been able to illuminate the inner life of the single note, thus clarifying and expanding our definition of it (58, 74, 79, 88). Moving in the opposite, outer direction, a living note's vibrato expands to become a glissando.

While Xenakis is usually credited as the king of the glissando, Ives (15) and Luigi Russolo, unbeknownst to each other, were the first to write music incorporating several glissandi moving at different speeds, in 1913. Where is the note? It cannot be found at any slice of it along its route because its fundamental character is movement (see Analysis of Going and Coming … a commentary on Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way, Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1976). Scelsi's and Xenakis' "note" were now conceived of as a moving entity, something with life.

Composers responded to broader access to spiritual and scientific philosophies through their compositions. Hindemith wrote an opera Die Harmonie der Welt, based on Kepler, but Holst's The Planets (17) earned the greatest fame. Ives and Scriabin worked on pieces whose grand scope was revisited decades later in works by Young, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Radulescu, and Braxton. The music and sketches left by Ives and Scriabin were realized by Austin and Nemtin (16), respectively. Recently, Aram Gulezyan produced a recording that deciphers fifth-century Coptic notation, a musical symbol of Ptolemy's cosmology (; because we don't know what music sounded like at that time, should that recording be considered twentieth-century music?

Holst portrayed the spirituality of Neptune through a wordless chorus. Other composers (31, 65, 72, 78) also explored the timbral aspects of vowel sounds, a major component of religious chant throughout the world (see Joscelyn Godwin's book The Mystery of the Seven Vowels, and Istvan Anhalt's Alternative Voices). On the other hand, the range of instrumental timbre has expanded greatly due to the use of electricity (55, 60, 63, 73, 80, 81, 87, 98, 100); extended techniques (25, 89, 94, 99); and the exploration of percussion instruments (19, 35, 44).

Ralph Shapey once located Beethoven's greatness in his ability to identify melodic archetypes. In this century, the archetypes seem to be timbres rather than melodies. Composers who have found melodic archetypes are Heinz Holliger, Heitor Villa-Lobos (29), and Cecil Taylor (75).

Related to the expanded definition of the note is the use of quarter tones and other intervals smaller than the half-steps one finds on the piano. Among the early pioneers in this field were John Foulds and Julian Carillo, who in 1896, again unbeknownst to each other, wrote the first quarter-tone pieces. I list a later piece by Foulds (32), as most of his early music was destroyed. There is now an organization devoted to this kind of music, here in America.

Definitions of music are now broader than they were a century ago, largely because of the production of sound recordings. The vague impressions of Balinese music by Debussy were followed by the "literal" transcriptions of Colin McPhee (43), and finally by a number of gamelan orchestras around the world, in turn allowing some cross-fertilization between Balinese and non-Eastern composers.

Achieving the non-Eastern interpretation of Eastern serenity, composers finally started specifying the amount of vibrato performers should use, rather than leaving it up to the fashion of the day. Scelsi specified non-vibrato in his first quartet, from 1944 (movement 4, measures 109-26). But it was Cage who really brought the idea to the forefront by writing a whole, 22-minute work whose non-vibrato was central to the main idea of the piece (53).

Cage's most famous composition, 4'33" (54), also had precedents. However, the long pauses in Beethoven serve to focus attention on the sounds before and after them, while the five-second pause Mahler called for after the first movement of his Symphony No. 2, clears the air after the long and heavy task of listening to the first movement. Cage's piece, on the other hand, brings home a new definition of music, sound, and silence. It led to similar explorations by Kagel, Young (releasing a butterfly), Schnebel (Nostalgie for conductor only), Ligeti (Trois Bagatelles), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.


Although I traced the seeds of many twentieth-century compositional ideas to earlier music, they remained underground, often for centuries. Those seeds blossomed into truly new ideas. The music of our own time can, to quote Luigi Nono and Massimo Cacciari describing Russian poet Velemir Chlebnikov, sharpen the "capacity to see things, everything, as unprecedented." (Notes to Luigi Nono, Quando Stanno Morendo, Diario Polacco 2, Dischi Ricordi CRMCD-1003).

I hope that thinking about roots and hearing simultaneous uniqueness and relationship does not kill the sense of wonder, but instead invigorates it. Indeed, twentieth-century concepts of interrelatedness, holography, and chaos have reached unimagined depths, enriching the work of composers such as David Dunn and Julio Estrada; providing a meeting ground for music, religion, and science; and raising discussions of music universals to new levels.

The exploration of archetypes, "silence," and the single note are certainly three of the most salient ideas in twentieth-century music. However, the pieces I chose are not those that have received the most notoriety, or influenced the greatest number of composers and listeners. Rather, among twentieth-century musics, these works strike the deepest chord with the emotions, intellect, and spirit, of just one particular explorer. I hope the list will enable readers to discover some unfamiliar music that speaks to them.

In his article, Alan Rich further narrowed down his list, selecting ten indispensable works and citing specific recordings of them. Likewise, I will conclude with the ten recordings of works from the list that, for me, most profoundly and joyously summarize twentieth-century written music.


1. HOLST: The Planets. Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics). (17)

2. IVES: Songs, Volumes 1 & 2. Roberta Alexander, soprano; Tan Crone, piano (Etcetera). (18)

3. CRAWFORD-SEEGER: Portrait. James Wood conducting the New London Chamber Choir; and the Schoenberg Ensemble (Deutsche Grammophon). (31, 34)

4. LUTOSLAWSKI, PENDERECKI, CAGE, MAYUZUMI: String Quartets. La Salle Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon). (53)

5. LIGETI, NONO, BOULEZ, RIHM: Wien Modern. Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon). (62)

6. TAYLOR: Silent Tongues. Cecil Taylor, piano (Freedom). (75)

7. XENAKIS: Musique de chambre 1955-1990. Arditti String Quartet (Disques Montaigne). (85)

8. NONO: Prometeo: Tragedia dell'ascolto. Ingo Metzmacher conducting Ensemble Modern (EMI Classics). (87)

9. SCELSI: Les cinq Quatuors a Cordes, Trio a Cordes, Khoom. Arditti Quartet; Michiko Hirayama, soprano; Maurizio Ben Omar, percussion (Salabert Actuels). (64, 88)

10. DUMITRESCU, AVRAM: Meteors & Pulsars, Profondis, Origo; Chaosmos, Axe [1]. Studio Hyperion, Hyperion Symphony Orchestra; Andrei Kivu, cello; Thierry Miroglio, percussion (Edition Modern). (99, 100)


(c)2008 - 2016 All contents copyrighted by All contributors maintain individual copyrights for their works.