A contemporary music canon post 1980

Love it or hate it - most general music histories are centered on canonic works. As a music history teacher I need these canonic works for my survey courses. Of course I know that this imaginary museum of example works has made lots of damage on the musical repertoire. It has reduced history of music to a string of master works, overshadowing the complexities and wealth of music history. But we still need canons. They provide a common ground. They make it possible to discuss culture and provide the starting point for making comprehensive reflections on the past

For my music students at NTNU I want to discuss how we can construct a canon for the post 1980 era. Most general histories of music end their storytelling some 50, 70 or even 100 years ago. This year sees the centenary of Stravinskij's Rite of Spring, one of the last works to get into the permanent collection of the musical museum. But what about our recent past? What to include? What to exemplify? What has happened in music the last 33 years? 


First we need to put up some criteria.  When discussing canonization, I think (and I know I might be wrong) we have to consider the following: 

  1. The work has to be a part of the art music sphere - loosely encompassing labels like "contemporary" "experimental" or "avant-garde"
  2. The work has to be ground breaking in some sense (whatever that means)
  3. The work needs to have had a certain amount of cultural presence; been played a lot, sold a lot of records or have made some other kind of cultural impact
  4. The work must illustrate something larger than itself. It needs to fulfill a role as example of something
  5. It needs to bee good. There is no point in having a canonic work if it's not worth listening to
That's the five main criteria. In addition: 

  • it shouldn't be jazz
  • it shouldn't be heavy metal 
  • it shouldn't be rock or pop music (no Radiohead, sorry)
  • but certain forms of crossover is ok
In a series of blog posts following this one, I will in ho particular order present the following
  • Meredith Monk or Laurie Anderson, as examples of crossover artists, and composer-performers 
  • Louis Andriessen's M is for Man, Music & Mozart as example of 1990s postmodern irony, eclecticism and new simplicity
  • Michael Newman's The Sacrifice as example of 1990s kitsch, new age and minimalism 
  • Biosphere's Substrata as example of ambient  
  • Kim Hiortøy's Hei as example of 1990s naivism
  • Lasse Marhaug or Merzbow as example of noise 
  • Maja Ratkje's Voice as example of electronic improvisation
  • Natasha Barret, Dennis Smalley or Trevor Wishart as examples of acousmatic music
  • John Adam's Nixon in China as example of 1980s opera and "new spectacle" big productions
  • Hildegard Westerkampf as example of soundscape
  • Arne Nordheim's Dråpen as example of sound installations and sound art

The list is by no means comprehensive. The Norwegian focus is of course prominent. And more importantly - it is heavily biased by my personal taste. That's how it is, and it will be my starting point for discussing canonization. I'd be very happy if you disagree. I'd also be very happy for suggestions, corrections, additions or general comments. I'll be watching the following hashtag on Twitter: #post1980canon 


  1. I would add

    John Corigliano's 1st Symphony: large cultural presence and can tie into music and political statements

    I'd use Smalley for acousmatic: Pentes is what comes to mind, but it's pre-1970s. Wind Chimes would be a bit more recent.

    Another acousmatic possibly would be Jonty Harrison. Unsound Objects is popular, or Aria

    No jazz, but maybe something in the middle? I think of Fred Ho. Maybe not look at any of his Green Monster Big Band Charts, but you could look at his Martial Arts/Manga Operas. http://www.bigredmediainc.com/brmflash/

    Check out Voice of the Dragon (1, 2,and 3), Night Vision, and Warrior Sisters. There are recordings available of some of the stuff. I know Warrior Sisters and Sweet Science Suite. Another one that's highly political

    I like Westerkamp for soundscapes. I play a few of hers usually...Beneath The Forest Floor is great.

    And I think you need a mixed or interactive piece on there. With the condition of being "well-known" I'm drawing a blank. Normally I'd say Jason Bolte, either Scrap Metal or With My Eyes Wide Shut. http://j.web.umkc.edu/jlbtfc/compositions.html

    They're both mainly just playback and instrument, but it's good to hear it. He has won all sorts of awards (Bourges, that sorta thing) and has tons of performances, but he's young.

    Another great one for that would be Per Bloland. I like "Of Dust and Sand" as an example because it uses his electromagnetic piano setup, and FeXIV (Iron 14) is a really nice interactive work.

    Tristan Murail--eh, just pick something and talk about spectralism. heh

    The only modern Norwegian composer I know well is Lasse Thoreson...and not sure what to suggest. Sorry for my ignorance (I've got a listening list a mile long trying, with tons of Norwegians, Fins, Swedes, and Danes!)

    Oh, one more that could be fun, opera + interactive electronics + telematics + live improvisation: Matthew Burtner's Auksalaq http://matthewburtner.com/auksalaq/

    You should definitely chat about that one. Political, ecoacoustics, all the tech. And you can write Matthew and see if he'll skype in. He loves to do that stuff. Just drop my name, we're buds. Heh. And he had a large write-up in National Geographic about that opera, so, I think that fulfills the renown bit.

    And, ya know, just play "Street Cleaning" by me, because you can, and it'd be cool. LOL

    I could go all night, but, ya know...

    OH, one more opera, just because. The First Emperor by Tan Dun. Multiculturalism. There ya go


  2. Haha. Thanks John. I guess I have a lot of listening to do now :) And please go on!


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