A playlist for Modernist Music Skeptics

And a short rant about modernism and elitism

Feb 17 2023

This semester I’m teaching my course on 20th century Western music, which I title “Musical Modernisms and Postmodernisms.” It’s one of my favorite courses to teach and I have a wonderful group of students. Right now we’re in the thick of our unit on the Second Viennese School, with Elisabeth Lutyens and Ruth Crawford Seeger on deck for next week. So I have modernism on the brain.

Then this week two things happened in short succession:
  1. On Twitter someone asked for suggestions for music to win over people who might be skeptical of modernist music
  2. On the BBC a young composer was giving an interview in which they first advanced and then opposed a caricature that I really hate: that in elite circles, atonal music is for “the clever people” while only rubes like tonal music

Atonal music is not for clever people. For one thing, what’s clever about dithering about the Nazis? Gate-keeping, and the suggestion that something is “for us and not for you,” exists in every musical space that I know. It is not a value that inheres in music per se, to whatever extent it even makes sense to think of music as a bounded object. It is a value that inheres in people, and in the physical, social, and discursive spaces we construct. Music is merely a thing that happens in those spaces.

Music can’t talk down to you. It’s okay to rock out to Elliott Carter, just as it’s ok to use Normani to contemplate the universe. (Not an arbitrary example; this is how I engage with both of those artists.) You aren’t a rube, no one is pulling a fast one on you, this work is made in good faith and is here for you to engage with however you like. Find whatever path through it you see fit.

From about the age of seven, I listened primarily to avant-garde jazz and modernist classical music. This was via my dad’s adventurous CD collection. He isn’t a trained musician; he didn’t didactically ask me to sing along to the fugue subject of Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste. We just drove around on frigid Maine winter nights, listening to Boulez or mid-70s Miles Davis or spare and spartan lesser-known ECM releases. If this anecdote resonates with you, I recommend Arved Ashby’s edited collection “The Pleasure of Modernist Music”, which tackles a lot of these issues with more sustained focus.

I find the ongoing debate about modernist elitism deeply tedious. I think it’s important as a historical matter, but I think it has only passing relevance in an age when the internet provides us with musical abundance—at the cost of the total devaluation of all forms of musical labor. The thread that today connects the road-weary troubadour delivering “three chords and the truth” and the contemporary composer poring over tone row matrices is that both are poor.

So, having said my piece, here are some compositions that I like to use to persuade those who harbor some skepticism of non-tonal music. This is certainly not a comprehensive list; these are just pieces I tend to reach for when someone is struggling to get into 20th century modernist music. The criteria for inclusion are somewhat arbitrary, but in general I tried to pick composers who you’d be likely to find in a music history textbook, and tried to pick pieces that avoid conventional acoustic consonances like octaves and fifths or which avoid harmonic movement governed by some kind of pitch centricity.

I’d be curious to hear what you’d include.


György Ligeti - Désordre (Études for piano)

Bela Bartok - Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste, first movement

Kaija Saariaho - sept papillons for solo cello

William Grant Still - Three Visions

Luigi Dallapiccola - Quaderno musicale di Annalibera

Luciano Berio - viola sequenza

Cecil Taylor - For Olim

Evan Parker - Monoceros

Muhal Richard Abrams - Levels and degrees of light

Ligeti - Lux aeterna

Alexander Scriabin - 5 preludes op 74

Gérard Grisey - Partiels

Ruth Crawford Seeger - string quartet 3rd mvmt

Morton Feldman - Rothko chapel

Messiaen - quartet for the end of time

Takemitsu- November steps

Éliane Radigue - Trilogie De La Mort

György Kurtág - Officium breve, in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky

Anthony Braxton - For Alto

John Cage - Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

Sofia Gubaidulina - String Quartet no. 2

Ivan Wyschnegradsky - 24 Quarter-Tone Preludes for two pianos