The Deadly Listening List

I finally put together a listening list for my 20th-century music survey course, and, in best masochistic blogging tradition, I provide it here – not in the least because I’m proud of it, but simply to add my two bits’ worth to the mountain of evidence that creating a decent listening list for a one-semester course covering an entire century is impossible. I guarantee, if you blogged your listening list for your course at your own college, and it matched mine piece for piece, I would turn away from it in scorn, just as you will here. I’m shocked at the names I omitted: Hindemith, Thomson, Maderna, Branca, J.L. Adams, Lauten. But in my (weak) defense, the course isn’t a straight survey, but is entitled Progress Versus Populism in 20th-Century Music. The focus (since I needed some focus just to winnow out a few pieces and movements) is the effect of politics on issues of elitism versus politically-motivated accessibility. Electronic music is poorly represented, since its politics are somewhat different than the public ones of concert performance. My aim is to address the issue of making compositional and stylistic choices in the age of commercial democracy, and thus I begin with World War I, when the aristocracies that supported Romanticism were wiped out. Politically-charged figures like Cardew and Eisler will loom large, even though no specific pieces of theirs are on the roster. And this is only a small sampling of the music I’ll actually play. I promise to cover a lot more bases, but the list is already inconvenient lengthy:

Charles Ives: Three Places in New England, 2nd movement

Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps

Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms

Arnold Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra

Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Darius Milhaud: La Creation du Monde

Anton Webern: Cantata No. 2

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3

Aaron Copland: Billy the Kid

George Antheil: Ballet mecanique

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

Harry Partch: Barstow

John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes, Sonatas I & II, Third Interlude

Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony, movements 1, 4, 6

Milton Babbitt: Philomel

Pierre Boulez: Pli selon pli, 2nd movement

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mantra

Luciano Berio: Sinfonia, movements 2 & 3

Pauline Oliveros: I of IV

Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Morton Feldman: Why Patterns?

Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives, “The Bar”

La Monte Young: The Well-Tuned Piano, disc 1

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, “Bed” and “Spaceship” Scenes

William Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and Experience, movements 3 to 8

Clarence Barlow: Variazioni e un piano meccanico

Claude Vivier: Lonely Child

Daniel Lentz: The Crack in the Bell

Laurie Anderson: O Superman

Mikel Rouse: Failing Kansas, movements 1, 2

Maria De Alvear: Sexo

I’m proud to have included Shostakovich and Vivier in there, which, for me, represent branching out. My post-1975 European music (counting the Canadian Vivier as European) does lean toward the accessible side, but that’s in keeping with the topic of the class. You can’t paint an oil painting of 20th-century music in four months, but if anyone can squint at this rough charcoal sketch and think it looks remotely the same shape as the era, I’ll be pleased enough. My textbooks are Paul Griffiths’ Modern Music and After and my own American Music in the Twentieth Century. I also include as required reading the following articles:

Milton Babbitt: “Who Cares If You Listen?”

Pierre Boulez: “Schoenberg is Dead”

John Cage: “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” “Lecture on Nothing,” and “Lecture on Something” from Silence      

Cornelius Cardew: “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism”

Kyle Gann: “Making Marx in the Music” –

Charles Ives: Essays Before a Sonata, Prologue and Epilogue

Pauline Oliveros: “The Contribution of Women Composers”

George Rochberg: “No Center” and “The Composer in Academia” from The Aesthetics of Survival

Arnold Schoenberg: “New Music, Outmoded Music, Style, and Idea”

Elmer Schönberger and Louis Andriessen: “1966-Requiem Canticles,” “No Copyright Problem Here,” “Ordeals of the Memory,” and “On Influence” from The Apollonian Clockwork

As for your comments, compliments will be ignored as insincere, complaints as redundant. Remarks are welcome.

[UPDATE in response to comments: As I should have made clearer, the pieces on the list are only a small fraction of the music I’ll be playing – they’re the pieces I’ll be sending the students to the library to listen to. I’m already afraid it’s more than they can handle. And since we have an excellent jazz program, and I’m only an amateur in jazz, I wouldn’t presume to teach it when there are top-notch experts down the hall: nor popular music, about which I know very little. I promised no one would be happy with the list, which reflects what some may consider my too-specialized body of knowledge.]


  1. David Cavlovic says

    Here’s my weak attempt at compliments/complaints then:
    I felt sort of warm and fuzzy that you consider us Canuks as European. Merci!
    Your list of tunes is bang-on, especially the Stockhausen and the Lentz( oh! And Laurie Anderson too!).
    no Henze? or Zappa.
    How sad.
    KG replies: Well, I wouldn’t consider Canuks European in general, but Vivier did much of his work in Utrecht, Cologne, and Paris, n’est-ce pas?

  2. says

    That’s a great list, Kyle. Vivier may turn out to have been a pivotal case in end-of-century Euromodern music — he taught the virtue of chilling out. I must say, I do not feel strongly the absence of Henze. I do regret the omission of Sibelius, who has turned out to be a massively influential figure.
    KG replies: I said no compliments! Actually, Sibelius and even Rachmaninoff (for whom I have a higher regard than most composers seem to) do play a large role in the kinds of musical politics I plan to discuss. I’ll figure out a way to slip the Sibelius Fourth or Seventh in there. I hated not including Hindemith – he was such a huge name in my youth, and seems so inconsequential these days.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    Oui, c’est vrai. Vivier was essentially a Canadian expat in Europe (as was Pierre Mercure). But I have to disagree with Alex Ross (which pains me, because i find his writings incredible–oy, the compliments!): Henze is very important to the politcal musical goings-on. And The Wreck of the Frigate Medusa deserves dissemination as much as possible.
    As for Rachmaninov : the Symphonic Dances RULE! More modern than people give it credit.

  4. says

    It’s great yre. turning the kids on to Cardew’s Stockhausen essay. One of the vitrilic classics.

    But…no Ligeti? Surely a composer who wrote Bartokian works in his youth after escaping the Fascists and then turned to increasingly innovative forms and rhythms fits in perfectly with a Progress vs. Populism course.

  5. says

    glad to see charles ives so well represented. he was a real hum-dinger.
    “My God! What has sound got to do with music?”
    dude, i would TOTALLY take you class.

  6. says

    Commentaries on Sibelius over the years are a great lesson in how politics dictates aesthetics. One decade you have people like Virgil Thomson and René Leibowitz and Adorno sneering that he is the “worst composer in the world” (and fascist to boot), several decades later you have everyone from Ferneyhough to Rihm to Murail to Feldman to Adams singing his praises. Meanwhile, the music has stayed the same.

  7. says

    All your arguments are sound, but given your theme I just can’t see how one of Copland’s “American” pieces couldn’t help but be primary evidence. The Harris can’t really stand in for that in the same way.

    Doing Ashley’s “The Bar” is great! I just hope you’ve got a copy made from the original vinyl version, to me waaay more colorful and successful than the version in the complete “Perfect Lives”.
    KG replies: I’ve already relented and added in Billy the Kid. But there’s lots of stuff I’ll play in class too, these are just what I want them to go to the library and get familiar with.

  8. says

    No Britten? I’ve always thought he was a great example of how to make a career out of being a “nationalistic” composer when the era for that seemed to be long past. (And, especially early on, I think it did significantly influence his stylistic choices.)

    I love that you’re making them read Andriessen’s Stravinsky book. (It might be the first time I’ve ever been as enthusiastic about something as you are….)

  9. Daniel says

    No Luigi Russolo and the Futurists (or is that not considered music yet)?
    And I think it would be excellent to end with “Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the end of the Twentieth Century.”
    Learning takes so much time…. If only you made an online version of your class for those of us not fortunate enough to live on the East Coast.

  10. says

    Since you have the Milhaud (which I love), it seems a shame not to have some music made by jazz-identified musicians. The Art Ensemble of Chicago comes to mind as a composer’s collective whose mission and work parallel your course’s objective, albeit from a different perspective and tradition. Their “People in Sorrow” is monumental and tres moderne.
    Love the Laurie Anderson too, BUT, I wonder about her text-centeredness; how does her music sound to people who have no English? (Probably not relevant to your class, and not sure how important the question is in general, but it IS interesting.) Another avant-classical “pop” composer who might fit would be Jon Hassell, whose C.V. echoes that of Riley & L. Young, but whose work, as I look for it in the stores, gets filed as “rock” or “new age” (!!) or “jazz” as often as it does “experimental/new/classical-and-post” music.
    You probably won’t have time, but the Copland ties in nicely with “social realism” in painting and even poetry of the time (the great Kenneth Fearing).

  11. says

    I keep trying with Henze. I do love the ending of the Fourth Symphony.
    KG adds his 2 cents: I’ve been dipping into Henze now and then for over 30 years, and even attended a Henze retrospective in London a few years ago. I’ve never found a piece that made me want to hear it again, and a lot of it has seemed really clichéd and unattractive. I’m in no position to claim he doesn’t have a good piece out there, but it’s like a needle in a haystack.

  12. David Carter says

    regarding your search for a memorable Henze Piece can I suggest his only work for Brass Band “Ragtimes and Habaneras” it is just the best piece for brass ever and so much fun. I have it on a Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band LP along with Birtwistles “Grimethorpe Aria” and Takemitsus “Garden Rain”. This LP is the landmark Brass Band LP conducted by Elgar Howarth. I couldn’t find it on the net but it’s worth searching for.

  13. says

    It’s really nice to see Claude Vivier included on any listening list. In my opinion, Vivier is truly criminally under-represented in the U.S. in recordings, performances, and general knowledge. For example, I had never heard about Vivier or heard any of his music until I moved to Montréal two years ago.
    I really have to disagree with David Cavlovic who says “…Vivier was essentially a Canadian expat in Europe.” Although France eagerly wants to claim Claude Vivier as their own, he is essentially a Montréal and Québec composer.
    Vivier only visited in Europe on two occasions. His first trip was to study Sonology and, later, with Stockhausen. The second trip to Paris was in 1981, two years before he was murdered. Furthermore both of these trips were sponsored by the Canadian government and a large majority of his commissions inbetween and during these periods were from Canadian and, more specifically, Montréal ensembles and orchestras.
    The European and Asian traits in Vivier’s music largely reflect the Eastern-looking mindset found that is common in Montréal and Québec. This is something that appears to be strongly misunderstood in Europe, who much rather claim his associations and advances to tradition as their own. The documentary included with DVD “Reves d’un Marco Polo” strongly represents this narrow viewpoint. For example, this documentary doesn’t mention any of many Vivier’s close personal composer friends or their similar views, styles, and musical approaches; instead for a musical perspective it solely concentrates on the conductor for the ASKO/Schoenberg ensembles and one composer who studied with Stockhausen at the same time as Vivier.
    Now, I will not contend Claude Vivier’s music may have had and continues to have left a strong impression on European music; however, I think it’s very important when mentioning this not to lose sight of how Vivier also strongly represents and continues to influence a Canadian and particularly Montréal and Québecois approach to composition.

  14. says

    Alex writes: I keep trying with Henze.

    But the whole point here is significance, outside the simple “good piece, I like”. Much as I personally enjoy some Henze, there isn’t really a work of his that I think can stake that kind of claim.

  15. Richard says

    I hope you’ll deal with “free” market fundamentalism and its’ affect on new music. You might want have on the playlist one of those wretched “eager to please” works that get trotted out at orchestra concerts.

  16. says

    Kyle, I’ve heard your Bud Powell homage, and I believe it belies your claim of being only an amateur in jazz.
    I’m happy with your list, but any list raises spectres of other lists, that’s all. Your class sounds fantastic.

  17. jmac says

    good on shostakovich.
    the russian progress/populism axis is distorted and rather inverted with respect to the western idea. gubaidulina would be an excellent choice as well.

  18. says

    Excellent list, two shocking (oh my!) omissions….Penderecki and Crumb. Might I suggest, for Penderecki, either Kosmogonia, Fluorescences, or the Quartetto per Archi No.1. For Crumb, Music for a Summer Evening. The latter would, in fact, mesh nicely with the Cage, since it shows other ways to expand a piano. Of course, his other two piano volumes, Macrocosmos I and II have those great looking scores to wow the class with..