Exploring the avant-garde

Have you ever wondered where the screeching violin sounds in Psycho come from?

Who would have ever thought, Yeah, just hack the hell out of it, that’ll sound really good?

Contemp Music Manuscript
[Vltbn]^4: A Beautiful Score in non-traditional notation by Northwestern composer, Joan Arnau-Pāmies
That would be the film composer, Bernard Herrmann. With his classical background and experience conducting the CBS Radio Orchestra, Herrmann would have heard such harsh string sounds in the music of classical composers living at that time. Today, these noises are considered some of the earliest innovations of “contemporary classical music,” the result of a gradual aesthetic divergence from the more familiar and far more celebrated Beethoven-esque “classical” music.

After the start of this divergence at the onset of the 20th century, contemporary classical musicians who advocated these new techniques tried to carve out a place for their music in the mainstream classical world. Especially innovative was the avant-garde, the radical and at times anti-establishment wing of the contemporary classical universe. Musicians hoped that innovations such as scratch tones, new instruments, microtones, atonality, graphical scores, randomness, and electronic sounds would bring color to orchestra programs everywhere.

But this did not happen. To make a long story short, traditional classical audiences loathed the music, finding it ugly and confusing. Even after tireless advocacy by influential musicians like Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, this common attitude showed little signs of changing.
Consequently, contemporary classical musicians were forced to create their own spaces where their music could be studied, celebrated and heard. An alternative classical music culture developed, and indeed continues to develop, now far removed from traditional classical historically, culturally, and aesthetically.

Luckily for us, Chicago (and Northwestern) are among the best places to experience this musical style firsthand! Today, the city hosts approximately 25 contemporary music ensembles. This includes an orchestra, chamber ensembles, choirs and even groups that meld music with theater. The best part of all this is the diversity on display: each group has a unique artistic angle, as well as a particular aesthetic orientation towards the various sub-genres of contemporary classical music, which include modernism, neo-romanticism, spectralism and minimalism.

If you go to any of these concerts, you will find a warm, tight-knit community of people united by their dedication to a particular musical niche. Compared with the Chicago Symphony, contemporary classical ensembles provide a cheaper, more informal experience. They are often hosted in smaller venues that give each show a distinct character and personality. You can rub elbows with the composers and performers on the program, something unthinkable in the traditional classical world.
A list of recommended contemporary classical music concerts is:

What: Pieces by Thomalla and Furrer

When: February 28th , 2pm

Who: Spektral Quartet

Where: Art Institute of Chicago


What: Pieces by Ingebritsen,Cheung,Zwilich, and Boulez

When: March 5th, 8 pm

Who: Chicago Composers Orchestra

Where: Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University


What: Music for flutes, clarinets, and electronics

When: March 6th, 8:30 pm

Who: Dal Niente

Where: Constellation


What: In Vain by Georg Friedrich Haas and Chain 1 by Lutoslawski

When: March 10th, 7:30 pm

Who: Northwestern Contemporary Music Ensemble ft. Dal Niente

Where: Ryan Opera Theater, New Music Building


What:  Choral works by David Lang

When: April 17th, 4 pm

Who: Bienen Contemporary/Early Ensemble and Contemporary Music Ensemble

Where: Galvin Recital Hall, New Music Building


What: Music of Pärt, Bartok, and Mendelssohn

When: Friday, May 13th , 7:30 pm

Who: Spektral Quartet

Where: Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston


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