The National's Bryce Dessner: "My Favorite Contemporary Classical Works"


He seems to prefer the more repetitive types of contemporary"classical" music. No Scelsi, Stockhausen, Ligeti, or Xenakis? Zorn is definitely one of the most dedicated musicians alive, today. I feel like I see very little coverage of truly challenging music on BB. There are more musical worlds out there than you can imagine.

Someone else likes different music than I do. Film at 11.


Ligeti had his repetitive side:

The bulk of this article covers living composers, so, well, whatever.

Stockhausen rocks!
Well, not exactly, but you know what I mean.

Is there a good online forum for discussing 20th century classical/orchestral music? I’ve got a 12-second clip of music I’ve never been able to identify, made more difficult that it was taped off a late-night college radio program that had people reading random snippets of text on top of it. ( )

Yeah, mainly, but Musique funèbre is from 1958 (and Lutosławski died almost 20 years ago), so it’s debatable whether you can call it contemporary. Not complaining, mind you - good music is good regardless of how long it’s been kicking around - but if Dessner likes that example of (fairly free) dodecaphony, he might enjoy Luigi Dallapiccola. Dallapiccola’s music is… lucid is maybe the best word.

gnp, have you tried shazam?

Actually, Britten’s Peter Grimes wins the “oldest contemporary” award – it was written in 1944. Just three of the pieces on this list are from the 21st century, and the average year of composition for all twelve is 1980. Imagine if somebody put together a list of their favorite contemporary pop music, and it featured The Police and Michael Jackson?

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Yeah, true. I had overlooked the Britten piece (and, of course, he too died quite a while ago). The rest are, however, still with us, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the composition dates. It doesn’t bother me much whether it’s contemporary or not, though: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

A friend tried running it through Shazam for me; it couldn’t identify it.

Well, that’s probably a more realistic attitude. As long as we’re stuck using the term “classical” to refer to anything from Aheym to madrigals, I guess I should find a way to live with people calling John Cage “contemporary.” Still, weren’t you a little disappointed? I was. When I saw the headline I thought, “Cool, I’m going to learn about some new music.” Instead I’m listening to “Music for Eighteen Musicians” again. Which is not the worst of fates, as you point out.

Shoot, I missed the Cage as well, and he died quite a while ago. (I want what I must have been smoking…)

I was mildly disappointed, yeah. I would have liked to have heard something a bit more off the beaten path. The pieces I found most interesting, the Zorn and the Muhly, seem in some ways to look back to the first half of the 20th century: Kol Nidre wouldn’t have been out of place as early 20th century Trauermusik, and Skip Town seems to pick up where Sérénade en la left off. I can’t say that bothers me - a great deal of what truly worked (audibly worked) in the early 20th century has never been fully assimilated, I think.

Thanks for posting Bryce. I was involved in the 1980’s creating and organizing the Maine Composers Festival in Augusta Maine for 7 seasons. In 1989 I went out to the Telluride Composer to Composer festival to videotape the event . I rode on horseback alongside Conlon Nancarrow, Morton Subotnick, John Cage , Trimpin and a honor roll A list of other International composers and performers in the mountains outside of Telluride. In 1966 I worked at the shop of Bill Dowd the Harpsichord Builder alongside Don Angle in Cambridge Mass. Don is also the premiere Jazz Harpsichordist in the world who recently passed away. You can hear him on youtube
I share your love of some of your listed composers. I am actually using John Adams’ Shaker Loops for a documentary I have been shooting for the last 6 years of a Maine artist named Robert Shetterly who has painted over 180 portraits in a series called Americans Who Tell the Truth. Each portrait has a quotation inscribed on the canvas from the person that is painted . You can view the portraits at
I am also using the music from blues artist Watermelon Slim from his UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL CD He recently won Best Blues artist of the year at the W C Handy awards.
I love the music from the Peter Grimes Suite and would have to rank Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings as performed by Dennis Brain and Peter Pears on my top ten list.
A friend of mine Professor Mike Richards teaching at UMB in Baltimore has done some
exciting New Musik and has forged a new path with his exploration of extended technique for clarinet. I would have to add Gil Evans and his INTO THE HOT - OUT OF THE COOL albums to my contemporary list. As a former bass player with the CSM Band in Maine (Chicken Shit Methane) I share your joy of playing out. A couple of years ago I put together
my favorite list and called it THE REST IS SILENCE you can hear it here

Best wishes and good luck Joseph Baltar

Interesting connections—those will keep me busy for a while. Thanks!

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