21st-century classical music  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

21st-century classical music is a diverse art form. Some elements of the previous century have been retained but there is a growing move towards post-modernism, polystylism and eclecticism, which seek to incorporate elements of all styles of music irrespective of whether these are "classical" or not—these efforts represent a slackening differentiation between the various musical genres. Pop, jazz, rock, and others are seen as styles to be used in any work, rather than as separate disciplines. The combination of classical music and multimedia is also a notable practice in the 21st century; the internet, alongside its related technology, are important resources in this respect. The number of important women composers has also increased significantly.


Music in the 21st century

For its October 2009 edition, the BBC Music Magazine asked 10 composers, mostly British, to discuss the latest trends in Western Classical music. The consensus was that no particular style is favoured and that individuality is to be encouraged. The magazine interviewed Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Nyman, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Henri Dutilleux, John Adams, James MacMillan, Jonathan Harvey, Julian Anderson, John Tavener, and Roxanna Panufnik. The works of each of these composers represent different aspects of the music of this century but these composers all came to the same basic conclusion: music is too diverse to categorise or limit. In his interview with the magazine, Dutilleux argued that "there is only good or bad music, whether serious or popular".

Anderson, a British composer, uses popular "house music" or "club music" as the basis for many of his compositions. Indeed works such as Khorovod (1994) seem to anticipate the modern trend. His music combines the music of traditional cultures from outside the Western concert tradition with elements of modernism, spectral music and electronic music. His large-scale Book of Hours for 20 players and live electronics was premiered in 2005.

Tavener, another British composer, draws his inspiration from eastern mysticism and the music of the Orthodox Church .

Nyman is an English Minimalist best known for his film score for The Piano. He often borrows from Baroque music and is an acclaimed composer of operas, including (in this century) Facing Goya and Sparkie. The latter work draws its inspiration from a talking budgie. His shorter works often written for his own Michael Nyman Band.

Often styled the "Father of New Complexity", English composer Brian Ferneyhough has recently started writing works which reference those of past composers. His Dum transisset are based on Elizabethan composer Christopher Tye's works for viol; the fourth string quartet references Schönberg. His opera, Shadowtime (libretto by Charles Bernstein), is based on the life of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. It was premiered in Munich on 25 May 2004.

Rautavaara is a Finnish composer writing in a variety of forms and styles. His opera Rasputin was premiered in 2003 and he has written a large—and rapidly growing—body of orchestral and chamber works.

Active since the mid-1940s, the French composer Dutilleux follows the Impressionist and Neoclassical tradition of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Albert Roussel. His latest works include Correspondances and Le Temps L'Horloge, both of which are song cycles.

Adams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer with strong roots in Minimalism. His best-known recent works include On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), a choral piece commemorating the victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003) and Doctor Atomic (2005), which covers Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb. In October 2008, Adams told BBC Radio 3 that he had been blacklisted by the U.S. Homeland Security department and immigration services.

MacMillan is a Scottish composer and conductor influenced by both traditional Scottish music and his own Roman Catholic faith. His most recent works include operas (The Sacrifice premiered in 2007) and a St John Passion (2008).

Harvey, a British composer, was Composer-in-Association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 2005-2008. His works this century include the large-scale cantata, Mothers shall not Cry (2000) written for the BBC Proms Millennium, and the orchestral works Body Mandala (2006) and Speakings (2008).

Polish composer Roxanna Panufnik is one of the growing number of important female composers working in the 21st-century and is the daughter of Sir Andrzej Panufnik. Her output includes operas, ballets, music theatre, choral works, chamber music, and music for film and television. Her most widely performed works include Westminster Mass, commissioned for Westminster Cathedral Choir on the occasion of Cardinal Hume's 75th birthday, The Music Programme, an opera for Polish National Opera's millennium season which received its UK premiere at the BOC Covent Garden Festival, and settings for solo voices and orchestra of Vikram Seth's Beastly Tales - the first of which was commissioned by the BBC for Patricia Rozario and City of London Sinfonia. The 2008/9 season has seen no less than 18 premieres of her works in nine different countries, performed by such diverse artists such as the Mobius Ensemble, Tasmin Little with the Orchestra of the Swan, The Sixteen, the Dante Quartet , the Choir of King's College Cambridge, and Valery Gergiev conducting the World Orchestra for Peace.

Female composers

Although there have been female composers in earlier centuries (Hildegard of Bingen, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Amy Beach are well known examples), the 21st century has seen an increase in their number and importance. Roxanna Panufnik in the afore-mentioned interview with the BBC, says:

"Attitudes towards women composers have changed during the past few decades. Even after women started getting careers, it took a while before they could find work as composers, but we got there in the end, thanks to role models such as Judith Weir, Nicola Lefanu [sic], and Thea Musgrave. Hip young things like Tansy Davies and Emily Hall will exert a great influence on the new music scene in the next ten years."

The trend started in the latter quarter of the 20th century when Musgrave was joined by such prominent composers as Weir, LeFanu, Sofia Gubaidulina, Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, Maryanne Amacher and Kaija Saariaho - many of whom are only now becoming recognised as important. The trend continues with such people as Panufnik, Davies, Hall, Jennifer Higdon, Alla Elana Cohen, Olga Neuwirth and many others joining the ranks in the present century.


Polystylism (or musical eclecticism) is a growing trend in the 21st century. It combines elements of diverse musical genres and compositional techniques into a unified and coherent body of works. Composers will not necessarily employ their entire canon of style and technique in one single work, but rather the composers' body of works as a whole will reveal many different and diverse "styles". While anticipated by earlier trends that incorporated elements of folk music or Jazz into classical works, Polystylism started in the latter part of 20th century, but as more and more styles are embraced in the new century, the movement is becoming more important and diverse. Composers have often started their musical career in one discipline and have later migrated to, or embraced, other disciplines while retaining important elements from the old one. It should be noted here that a composer now labelled "Classical" may have started out in another discipline. Karl Jenkins, for example, started out as a Jazz musician, then moved to writing for TV advertisements, and is now becoming established as a major composer of large-scale choral works. His works The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, Requiem and Stabat Mater are well-known and incoropate elements of the various styles he used in the past. Paul McCartney has made a similar move from Pop music: he started his main career as a member of The Beatles and has recently composed Standing Stone and Ecce Cor Meum. A specific label for John Zorn's music is difficult to choose: he started out as a performance artist and moved through various genres including Jazz, Hardcore punk, film music, and Classical, and often embraces Jewish musical styles. All of these diverse styles appear in his works.

Julian Anderson combines elements from many different musical genres and practices in his works. Elements of modernism, spectral music and electronic music are combined with elements of the folk music of Eastern Europe and the resulting works are often influenced by the modality of Indian ragas.

Tansy Davies writes music that fuses elements of Pop music and Classical music. Prince and Iannis Xenakis are both major influences.

Multimedia and music

The work In Seven Days (2008), by Thomas Adès, was composed for a piano, an orchestra, and six video screens. The video segments were created by Tal Rosner, Adès's civil partner.

Judith Weir's opera Armida was premiered on television, rather than on stage. Channel 4 commissioned the work in 2005. The libretto, also written by Weir, updates Torquato Tasso's 1581 epic poem, setting it in a modern Middle-East conflict which alludes to but never specifically mentions the Iraq War. Weir's opera calls for props that could not be used practically in an opera house, such as a helicopter.

In 2008, Tan Dun was commissioned by Google to compose Internet Symphony No. 1 - "Eroica" to be performed collaboratively by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. This work used the internet to recruit orchestra members and the final result was compiled "into a mashup video which was premiered worldwide [on YouTube]"

Film scores and TV theme music

Howard Shore and Patrick Doyle have written important film scores in the 21st century. Shore wrote the music for the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Doyle wrote the music for Bridget Jones's Diary and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Tan Dun has written acclaimed operas, but is best known in the West for his film scores (e.g., Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). John Williams has also continued to write important film scores in this century. Aside from the new music for the Star Wars series, they include the scores for the Harry Potter film series and Munich.

Howard Goodall is best known for his theme music for popular TV series. He is Classic FM’s Composer-in-Residence for 2009 and was named Composer of the Year at the Classical BRIT Awards in 2009. He has also written choral works. Karl Jenkins started out as a Jazz musician and later composed for television advertisements, most notably for De Beers diamond merchants. The music was included as the title track of the album Diamond Music. He has since written several important works for chorus and orchestra, including The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.

Listening to music in the 21st Century

Classic FM, which launched 8 years prior to the beginning of the 21st century, has continued to grow in popularity in the UK. It is one of an increasing number of radio stations (for example Classic FM in the Netherlands) that usually limit themselves to popular classics, and normally exclude works that may be highly acclaimed by music critics but are not popular with the general public.

The internet has also increased the availability of classical music in the present century. Not only are there sites that allow listeners to tune into radio stations or sample composers' works, there are many sites that allow their members to download music onto their computer or onto other devices, such as MP3 players.

Technology in music production

With the growing popularity of the home computer and the vast improvements in music production applications during the 21st century, home-based composers and performers are no longer limited to the facilities of designated recording studios. Though the technology was available in the 1990s, computer hard disk capacities were limited to few Gigabytes and both computer and disk drive access times were also restrictive. With capacities in the region of several Terabytes and access times far quicker for modern top-end computers (and with computers, generally, becoming cheaper), home users can now quickly and easily sample, record, and produce their own music using their own home recording studios, and promote it via the internet. Though the technology is usually restricted to the pop music industry, modern classical composers are starting to become aware of the advantages of this technology, at least in so far as it helps them to hear, in some sense, the sounds they are notating.

There are numerous types of application involved in music production. While many will allow the user to play musical notation back via MIDI (through either external electronic instruments or internal "virtual instruments"), some of them are dedicated solely to notation, others are dedicated solely to live performance, yet others are dedicated solely to the production (i.e. recording) process itself, while a few present all these capabilities in one package. Many of these applications have capabilities to store live sound in WAV or MP3 format (which do not involve notation at all) and often have functions which can tranform the sound (changing the pitch, stretching the sound, merging sounds together, adding effects, and so on). Of course, there are widely used applications which are dedicated solely to recording sound in WAV, MP3, and other formats and some have these tranforming functions.

See also

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