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By Ralph van Raat

Usually, when thinking of contemporary classical music, one thinks of the rather abstract and cerebral music of the decade right after the Second World War. Some of this so-called serial music in my opinion is very exciting, sometimes purely beautiful, and sometimes incomprehensible. However, one cannot deny that, for the listener, there seem very few similarities or references to any other kind of music, making it hard to appreciate modern music without some thorough study.

In a revolt against the lyricism and romanticism of pre-war classical music, young composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen broke with any audible sense of pulse, harmony and melody. In their opinion, writing poetic music after the horrors of two World Wars would not be reflecting society and the state-of-affairs, and besides, a radically new language  provided composers with a tool to start with a clean slate, without references to the past. As a performer, learning such works is challenging and exciting. It requires a great deal of both physical practise and mental study to come to grips with the often complex rhythms, and to find a way of phrasing (making musical sentences of) the notes to a more or less logical musical discourse. Besides that, executing all the different and often extremely opposing dynamics per note, which usually are an exceptionally important element of the structure of especially a so-called serial (“mathematical”) composition, requires a great control of touch. The downside of playing this music is that other important playing techniques such as traditional legato-playing, where one ties the notes smoothly together, and “fingery” passagework, are less at the forefront, or not at all.
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