Unabashedly emotional or catchy avant-garde music

Holden wrote me a fictional conversation to illustrate his experience of trying to find music that is (1) complex, (2) structurally interesting, and yet (3) listenable / emotional / catchy (at least in some parts):

Holden: I’m bored by pop music. Got anything interesting?

Person: Here, try this 7-second riff played repeatedly for 26 minutes.

Holden: Umm … but what about … something a little more varied?

Person: Check out 38 minutes of somebody screaming incoherently while 5 incompatible instruments play random notes and a monotone voice recites surreal poetry.

Holden: But like … uh … more listenable maybe?

Person: I thought you didn’t want pop bullshit. Well, here’s something middlebrow: a guy playing 3 chords on a guitar who sounds kind of sarcastic.

Holden’s three criteria describe a great deal of my favorite music, much of which is scattered throughout my guides to modern classical music and modern art jazz. So if those criteria sound good to you, too, then I’ve listed below a few musical passages you might like.

Osvaldo Golijov, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, I. Agitato, 4:53-7:45

A string quartet + clarinet piece with a distinctly Jewish sound which, in this passage, sounds to me like a scene of building tension and frantic activity until all falls away (6:23) and the clarinet screams prayers of desperation to God (6:59).

Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill, Hotel Overture, 6:26-10:30

A circus-music refrain ambles along until things slow down (7:40) and a sax begins to solo (7:45) over repeating fatalistic-sounding chords in a way that, like the clarinet in the passage above, sounds to me like a cry of desperation, one with a cracking voice (e.g. at 8:03 & 8:09), and, at times, non-tonal gargled screaming (8:32), finally fading back into earlier themes from the overture (9:45).

Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa, Ludus, 4:10-9:52

Violins swirl around chords that seem to endlessly descend until a period of relative quiet (4:50) accented by bells. The earlier pattern returns (5:26), eventually picking up pace (5:44), until a momentary return to the calm of the bells (6:14). Then another return to the swirling violins (6:55), which again pick up their pace but this time with a thundering crash (7:15) that foreshadows the destruction that lies ahead. The violins ascend to a peak (7:55), and then quiver as they fall — farther and farther — until booming chords (8:44) announce the final desperate race (8:49) to the shattering end (9:36). If this doesn’t move you, you might be dead.

Sergey Kuryokhin, The Sparrow Oratorium, Summer, 0:55-4:36

Squeaky strings wander aimlessly until the piece suddenly jumps into a rollicking riff (1:11) that will be repeated throughout the piece. Variations on this riff continue as a high-gain guitar plays a free jazz solo. The solo ends (2:30), the noise builds, and then suddenly transitions (2:46) to a silly refrain of “zee zee zee zee…” and other vocalizations and then (3:17) a female pop singer with a soaring chorus that bleeds into (4:05) a variation on the original riff with sparse instrumentation which then launches into a louder, fuller-sounding version of the riff (4:20). (To me, this track is more catchy than emotional.)

John Adams, Harmonielehre, 1st movement, 12:19-16:18

Melancholy strings descend, but there is tension in the mood, announced by an ominous trill (12:45), and then another (12:51). But then, the mood lifts with piano and woodwinds (13:03) repeating an optimistic chord. The music accelerates, and takes another tonal shift toward a tense alert (13:22). Booming brass and drums enter (13:41) as things continue to accelerate, and the drums and brass strike again (14:29) and drag the whole piece down with them, in pitch and pace. The strings and horns struggle to rise again until the horns soar free (15:11) . The instruments rise and accelerate again until they break through to the upper atmosphere (15:32). Then they pull back, as if they see something up ahead, and… BOOM (16:04) there are the thundering E minor chords the opened the piece, here again to close the movement.

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