Science illuminated by music

Let’s make it a musical Sunday morning for the godless! Tristero, occasional commenter here and regular writer at Hullabaloo, is actually a professional composer in real life, and he has been busy.

I had wanted to do a piece with a scientific subject for a very long time. Many years ago, someone in the New Yorker- very likely Richard Dawkins – noted that while religion had its masterpieces like Bach’s St Matthew Passion, science had no comparable works. That struck me as an amusing, and exciting, challenge. I knew I could never write anything remotely approaching the St. Matthew, but the notion of setting to music a classic scientific text really stuck in my mind. The question was: which one? Galileo’s Starry Messenger? Newton’s Principia (which I had already used in a dance piece)? Einstein’s first paper on relativity?

A few years later, I had a big argument with a close and very smart friend, who argued that “intelligent design” creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classes. I was so shocked that my friend had been bamboozled that it reawakened my interest in evolution and Darwin. I started to follow closely the social “controversy” – as you know, there is no controversy about the reality of evolution – and have posted many times about the issue.

So, he has written an opera-oratorio based on the life of Charles Darwin that will premier at SUNY Oswego for Darwin Day … and he’s made a few excerpts available right now! There are youtube clips from the introduction and a piece called “Annie’s Memorial”; the first one is illustrated with photographs of the Galápagos taken by my fellow traveler, Scott Hurst (I believe his photographs will also be shown in the performance).

It’s good stuff — you should also check out some of Tristero’s other music.


  1. SoMG says

    A great musical anthem to Reason and Science: DIE ZAUBERFLOTE by Schickenaeder and Mozart.

    Remember as you learn it: the Queen of the Night and her Three Ladies represent Catholicism.

  2. Richard Harris says

    I attended a performance of the St Matthew a few years ago, and despite not understanding the words, (perhaps all the better for it), I was intensely moved.

    It would be a very special composition that could match Bach’s most loved works, which makes me wonder, knowing that after his death he was forgotten, (until his music was revived by Mendelssohn), how much our appreciation is due to the inherent qualities of the music, & how much due to the composer’s reputation, or even current trends in fashion? Well, that question can’t really be answered, but maybe science will enable us to do so in the future.

  3. says

    Well… another semi-regular commenter here, and much more regular reader, and I am also a professional musician. I am, however, on the performing side, being a conductor. Funnily enough – I am currently sitting at my desk and studying for a performance I have next week with Holst’s “Planets”. While this seems like the perfect scientific subject, he approached it from an astrological point of view, unfortunately. I did, however, manage to turn around the text for the moderated “youth concert” with this programme to include recent pictures of the Rosetta Steins flyby as well as Phoenix missions, and to turn the talk to science instead of woo. While writing this, I realize it might fit for a comment on Phil Plait’s blog, too :) But if anyone has any scientifically inspired music they need a performer for – as long as it’s orchestral/operatic – please head over to my site and contact me about it. I’d love to hear from you and make other people hear from all of us!

  4. Richard Harris says

    I should’ve added, (as someone not usually keen on opera & choral works), I was quite impressed by what I heard of Tristero’ s oratorio. Congratulations are due to the composer & all involved.

  5. says

    Well, there’s already The Galaxy Song, by Eric Idle and John Du Prez. Sample lyric:

    So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
    How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
    And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
    ‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

    (The song does contain an inaccuracy about the universe expanding at the speed of light; but that’s kind of complicated so we’ll forgive them.)

  6. SoMG says

    My favorite choral work by Bach is the Christmas Oratorio. It has some of the best music but it’s much less pretentious than the masses and passions. Some of it is even funny. There’s a trio where the tenor and soprano sing long, difficult lines about “When oh when will the Savior come” and the mezzo keeps interrupting to say “Be quiet, he’s really already here.”

    Get the recording conducted by Richter with the great Fritz Wunderlich as the Evangelist.

  7. says

    I do hope it’s a comic opera. After all, the Captain of the Beagle was from all accounts a classic wackaloon. According to Bill Bryson’s A Short history of nearly everything Capt. FitzRoy showed up at the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate, walking around the hall beforehand holding up a bible shouting “The book! The book!” He had invited Darwin to accompany him on the Beagle mostly because Darwin had recently graduated from theology school so FitzRoy thought they would make great travel companions. Boy did they not.

    Come to think of it, wouldn’t the Huxley-Wilberforce debate fit as a nice climax to the opera? Think about the duet that would make.

  8. SoMG says

    Two other great musical science pieces:

    Flanders’ and Swann’s song about thermodynamics (“Heat won’t pass from a cooler to a hotter. You can try it if you like but you’d far better not-ah!”) and Tom Lehrer’s song The Elements:

    “There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
    And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,
    And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
    And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium,
    Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium,
    And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium,
    And gold and protactinium and indium and gallium, (gasp)
    And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.

    There’s yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium,
    And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium,
    And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium,
    And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium.

    There’s holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium,
    And phosphorus and francium and fluorine and terbium,
    And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium,
    Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium.
    And lead, praseodymium and platinum, plutonium,
    Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium,
    And tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium, (gasp)
    And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium.

    There’s sulfur, californium and fermium, berkelium,
    And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium,
    And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc and rhodium,
    And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin and sodium!

    These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvard,
    And there may be many others but they haven’t been discahvered.”

  9. Kenneth Camargo says

    Just for the historical record: there is an opera about the life of Oswaldo Cruz, a Brazilian scientist that was at the forefront of the birth of modern Brazilian Public Health, written by Silvio Barbato (music) and Bernardo Vilhena (lyrics), played for the first time in 2007. May not be widely known, but does exist…

  10. Canuck says

    I got scooped. I was just about to send a note to PZ about this post on Digby’s blog when I checked Pharyngula and discovered PZ beat me to it.

    If any of you want to get an idea of Tristero’s music that is already published, I recommend picking up the CD Voices of Light. Powerful stuff. I can’t wait to hear the Darwin work.

    Oh, and just for the record, I have to say that Tristero is one very class act. I had the good fortune to meet him several years back and we became friends. If you look up “integrity” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of him in the entry. They don’t make finer men.

  11. Epistaxis says

    A great musical anthem to Reason and Science: DIE ZAUBERFLOTE

    If by Reason and Science you mean Freemasonry. Mozart actually got in big trouble with his brothers for using masonic motifs so bluntly.

  12. JoJo says

    Both pieces were excellent. I preferred Representation of Chaos but that’s my taste. I’d like to hear more of this opera.

  13. Bren Finan says

    PZ, you say ‘real life composer’ as though we’re rare. There are probably more composers working now than at any other time in history.

    SoMG: The Queen of the Night and all her empty beauty represent Catholicism, yes, but you do realise that Sarastro and his chums stand for Freemasonry?

  14. Diego says

    I immediately thought of “The Planets”, but I had forgotten that it was from an astrological point of view. Darn, I guess it is hard to think of good sciencey classical music.

  15. says

    Well – a quick followup on the Planets – several composers have written additional material to be performed together with the original Holst movements. These include at least two “Pluto” versions (this was before 2006), as well as several Asteroids and Turnage wrote the “The Torino Scale”. At least some of these might be science inspired instead of astrology, but I am neither certain, nor have I found any conclusive information online about these.
    As for Mozart – like several people have stated here, while the Magic Flute is indeed anti-Catholic, it is not really pro-reason in the modern sense.

  16. says

    Well – a quick followup on the Planets – several composers have written additional material to be performed together with the original Holst movements. These include at least two “Pluto” versions (this was before 2006), as well as several Asteroids. Mark Anthony Turnage wrote a piece called “The Torino Scale”, too, as part of a 3-movement Asteroid suite. At least some of these pieces might be science inspired instead of astrology, but I am neither certain, nor have I found any conclusive information online about these.
    As for Mozart – like several people have stated here, while the Magic Flute is indeed anti-Catholic, it is not really pro-reason in the modern sense.

  17. Richard Harris says

    Okay, it’s not science, but engineering is involved –

    Alexander Mossolov: The Iron Foundry – & it’s a bit of a romp, for classical music.

  18. Ubi Dubium says

    I had the opportunity to perform Voices of Light back in 2004. Tristero, you are an amazing composer! I am eagerly awaiting more of this piece, and I’m looking forward to what you’ll do next. If you are needing ideas, my I suggest Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” as worthy of a suitable musical setting. I can’t think of anybody better to do it.

  19. bernard quatermass says

    Just a side note: the Polish composer Henryk Górecki wrote a symphony dedicated to Copernicus. It’s his Symphony #2, subtitled “Copernican.”

    Classical fans know Górecki best from a popular recording of his Symphony #3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” with vocals by Dawn Upshaw.

    Oddly (?) enough, his compositions tend to have religious themes … but then, Copernicus was a Catholic cleric.

  20. Pyrrhonic says

    This will be a good year for SUNY Oswego–my alma mater. Barbara Forest will be doing the Steinkraus lecture there this year as well. I know the people involved, so this doesn’t surprise me at all, but still, religious conservativism is still an issue in the “city”–they have a catholic church that still does a pre-Vatican II mass–and on campus. Too bad I won’t be there for any of it.

  21. SoMG says

    To comment #18: Yes of course Sarastro et al represented Freemasons, but Freemasonry was the closest there was to a pro-science-and-math cult. Sarastro’s temples included the Temple of Reason and the Temple of Nature. It would not be at all unreasonable to stage it with the Sprecher (remember that baritone who convinces Tamino that Sarastro is a good guy in the beginning of the First Act Finale) as a chemistry professor.

  22. says

    Not as international due to having been written in Swedish, Povel Ramel’s and Beppe Wolgers’ 1965 revue “Ta av dej skorna” (Remove your shoes) contains quite a bit of evolution-related material, including a most excellent explanation of the ToE in the form of a calypso: “Digga Darwin!”.

  23. says

    Well, it’s not orchestral music, but a man named Henning Pauly (from a German group called Chain) wrote an entire album about Dawkins’ books on evolution called Unweaving the Rainbow. A wonderful album musically (if you like Progressive or Hard Rock) and uses themes from Dawkins all the way through and the fantastic vacalist James LaBrie from Dream Theater as well.

    Apparently his next album (third as Frameshift) is going to be called The God Delusion (with permission from Dawkins).

    Rush has done at least a couple of songs that are science-based as well. For example, “Natural Science” from Permanant Waves, “High Water” or Earthshine“. And, of course, a celebration of one of the greatest scientific achievements of our time, the first space shuttle launch, “Countdown“.

  24. says

    I’ve written several pieces of my own on scientific themes – mostly of the electronic variety though. However I do have one piece written for a string orchestra, called “Serenade for String Theory”, believe it or not. It’s in midi form but I’d love to hear it played by a proper orchestra, if that’s possible. The midi piece is at

    I’ve also written an orchestral symphony, but it doesn’t have any scientific connotations.

    Other “scientific” works of mine (all electronic): Andromeda Song, Pleiades, DNA, Fractal Passion, Nova, Planetary. I can’t resist the shameless plug here, but they’re all available for free download. I compose for the fun of it, not for money!

    As for Holst’s Planets suite – what does it matter if it was written with astrology in mind? None of that is obvious from the music. I listen to it with astronomy in mind, and it still works perfectly. Can’t say the same about the “Pluto” add-ones though. I haven’t heard one yet that reaches the quality of Holst’s work.

  25. Donovan says

    …”intelligent design” creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classes. I was so shocked that my friend had been bamboozled that it reawakened my interest in evolution and Darwin.

    Funny. It’s this same thing that has me seriously considering a complete and frightening change of major from Liberal Arts (Linguistic Structure) to Biology. I have the undergrad grades for it. I have all A’s in my maths and sciences, compared to my odd B’s in History and English. I love language, but I’ve developed a passion for biology and science in general since finding PZ Meyers, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet. The movie Expelled infuriated me.

    PZ, if you catch this post, as a Biology professor, any advice for a complete stranger of unknown abilities? Carl Sagan is my idea of a worthy prophet, if that helps.

  26. herr doktor bimler says

    I reckon Michael Nyman counts, with “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” AND “Facing Goya”.

  27. says

    While it is great to see composers working “for science” to give us an artistic representation, the one problem is that the works of classical music regarded as the hallmarks of what “religion” has produced are 17th-18th century’s music, which is far more accessible to a general public than nowaday’s contemporary classical music, which is harder to “understand” without a certain background education in music. So we’ll be lost on this point for another 100 years, when today’s contemporary classical music will be “old” and easy to listen to…

  28. says

    Tristero, that’s really nice work. I especially love the harmonies at the beginning of the memorial song. Really fresh and surprising changes (good singing too!). I can’t wait to hear the orchestra prelude with live players, as I’m sure you can’t either.

    It’s so nice to see there are several composers on here! I’m one as well, and I’ve also been occasionally inspired, at least abstractly, by scientific ideas. There’s a piece on my site called “[Ar]4s^1 18p^1” (yes I know how ridiculous that title is) which sort of abstractly tries to deal with the idea of atoms in a Rydberg state–hovering somewhere in between quantum and classical mechanics. Give it a listen if you like, it’s on the Media page. Like most composers I’m horribly conceited and want to have as many people hear my stuff, like it or not.

  29. says

    I would also nominate Strauss’s Zarathustra as a first-rate secular work. Again though, being purely orchestral it can’t really have a claim to be “scientific” as such, any more than Beethoven’s 9th symphony which is another stunning secular work. I suppose that unless you have choirs singing the praises of the likes of Darwin or Newton, you can’t really call any piece of music strictly “scientific”. And if you did have such a thing, would it not sound just a little pretentious and ultimately unconvincing? Music inspired by science is all well and good, but music praising science seems to me a bit “preachy” and over the top. Who needs it?

  30. says


    I know what you mean dvizard, contemporary “classical” music has a bit of a PR problem. I don’t think it requires any more training to understand than 17th-18th century music, but I agree that it’s easier to *like* the older stuff without deep understanding–presumably as a result of its cultural saturation. Most of us are “trained” our entire lives to appreciate Baroque, Classical and Romantic music on at least a surface level just by its omnipresence. (Of course we also tend to be “trained” to be bored by it).

    Some early 20th-cent composers put off potential fans with attitude problems, which didn’t help either. Anti-rock sentiments were another nail in the coffin. These days, however, there are plenty of composers writing exciting, perhaps even accessible, music. They just can’t break through the cultural apathy.

  31. says

    p4limpsest – I’ll give your music a listen if you do the same for me! Sounds like we’re on the same wavelength. My motto is “Composition based on Clarke’s 2nd law” – which should explain everything you need to know about my style.

  32. says

    I’m sorry to be posting too much, but I’m just really excited about this topic. I’ll shut up for a bit after this.


    I’m not entirely convinced about adding Zarathurstra to the list Herring et al. The tone poem is basically just trying to represent the ideas of the Nieztsche book, and the chapter on science, if I remember correctly, is more about the horrors of science than anything else.

    There’s a long tradition of program music inspired by various topics without lyrics to underline them, and I think it makes sense to take that at face value. There’s no reason that tones poems about Rydberg albums, bacteriophage life cycles and transfinite numbers can’t be written (ideas that I’ve tried to do, perhaps unsuccessfully). Obviously, no listener would pick up on it without a title and, probably, some pretty serious program notes.

    Of course the debate about the virtues of absolute music vs. program music is a very old one, and there are many arguments against the latter. I just happen to like it a lot.

  33. says

    There is to my mind a distinction: pieces of music may have science-related texts and titles, but have been created using compositional tools developed by the Christian high-art culture of Western Europe. Lehrer’s “Elements” is a “light” example of this approach; a “heavy” example might take the structural forms of a Bach piece and add a text extolling Newton or Galileo. The telos of such a piece is still essentially a Christian one; many Bach scholars are fond of pointing out how he used Christian ritual structures as templates for compositions. I cannot now remember who it was that pointed out that the protracted, thundering V-I cadences that hammer shut hundreds of mediocre 18th century orchestral pieces could only have come from a culture which adhered to the notion of the biblical apocalypse (following the final crash, those members of the orchestra who’ve been saved will live forever at the right hand of the Conductor, I suppose).

    Contrariwise, a piece of music may have been composed using structural tools which are derived from one form or another of a scientific discipline. Xenakis is an example:

    Xenakis pioneered electronic and computer music, and used stochastic mathematical techniques in his compositions, including probability. He explored the use of the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases in Pithoprakta, aleatory distribution of points on a plane in Diamorphoses, minimal constraints in Achorripsis, Gaussian distribution in ST/10 and Atrèes, Markov chains in Analogiques, game theory (in Duel and Stratégie), group theory (Nomos Alpha), and Boolean algebra (in Herma and Eonta), and Brownian motion (in N’Shima). In keeping with his use of probabilistic theories, many of Xenakis’s pieces are, in his own words, “a form of composition which is not the object in itself, but an idea in itself, that is to say, the beginnings of a family of compositions.”

    Which is more “religious” or “scientific” – a piece composed using musical tools derived from European church practice which has a secular or science-oriented text, or a piece with a “religious” text which was composed using probability theory, fractal structures, or analogical relations to crystalline structures?

    Mind you, that’s one of those questions that doesn’t yield useful answers, but does yield useful discussions.

    Love your blog, PZ.

  34. says

    The same composer of the amazing “Voices of Light”? Well, I can’t say I was too impressed by the links, but the credibility earned from “Voices of Light” has me very excited for this project. In a cool coincidence, I was also inspired by Dawkins’ words to write something of an atheist anthem; perhaps this will inspire me to put together a more complete composition and get it online.

    In the mean time, if anyone would like to offer opinions on some of my music, please check out my youtube page or portfolio page.

  35. says

    Aargh – Xenakis! I can’t stand his stuff. Him and Stockhausen are as far as I’m concerned the two biggest posturing frauds in all of music. (Sorry – WERE.)

    “Gaussian distribution, Markov chains and Boolean algebra” etc. are all just smoke screen bluster disguising what is, in effect, long-winded godawful noise. Heck, my stuff is way better than theirs – and I don’t take myself anywhere near as seriously as those pompous nitwits did. Anyone who can sit though a Xenakis or Stockhausen concert and actually say they enjoyed it is either deaf or self-delusional, or lying. I know, I’ve tried. Yes, it may well be constructed using “aleatory distribution of points on a plane” or whatever, but let’s be honest, does that make for good music? Does it bollocks.

    Just had to get that out of my system. Every time I see or hear the name Xenakis I see red.

    Oh – and Glenn Branca is another one. Headache-inducing waffle, all of it.

  36. says


    I am not advocating specifically for Xenakis’ music, but I do give him the benefit of the doubt. That is to say, I assume he wanted it to sound that way, and then I listen and ask what he was trying to do. Personally, I don’t listen to his music, though I do enjoy Cage and some Stockhausen very occasionally. My own recreational/professional listening tends to be Hindustani classical music, which is about as far from Xenakis as you can get.

    But the real point, which is raised tangentially by your response to what you call “headache-inducing waffle,” is whether music that’s based on structural concepts that aren’t centuries old will ever be appealing to most listeners. I doubt it, really I do. But I continue to be fascinated by people’s attempts, some of which are marvelously beautiful and exciting (I’ve been a Harry Partch fan since age 15, and actually built a version of one of his instruments in order to tune his 43-tone scale as a college project).

    I like Ives’ quote: “People too often confuse beauty in music with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.”

  37. Torpedo Vindicator Palin, AKA themadlolscientist, FCD says

    #24 Ubi Dubium sez:

    I had the opportunity to perform Voices of Light back in 2004.

    awwwwwwwwwwwwww maaaaaaaaaaaaaaan u iz jus killded me ded ded DED wif teh jelus!

  38. says


    Ussually it is dificult to asociate the “cerebral “image of science with a music that managed to have an profound emotional impact.

    Somehow most of the music asociated with science are experimental music, full of disonaces, and playfull music aka the LHC rap, or the cernettes. And also music for teaching

    So this powerfull music has a deep impact on me. I hardly cna wait to hear it in full

  39. Rowen says

    Most of the “classical” composers that we adore and get thrown in our faces wrote their music because someone commissioned them. Same thing with many of the painters and sculptors. Mr. Angelo didn’t just wake up one day and decide that it’d be super fun to pain upside down for 3 years (no, that’s what modern day grad students in the arts decide to do). Of course, this was at a time when the Church had a lot of power, not a whole lot of integrity, lots of money to burn and the masses to show off for. Different story today. So, of course, “science” isn’t really going to be commissioning operas and symphonies based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Equation or germ theory. Big deal. Science is more concerned with things like developing better anti-biotics and alternate energy and so on.

    The world of the arts is very different from what it used to be. Big deal. When was the last time your pastor wrote a symphony? (whiny Jesus songs with uninspired lyrics and a Star-Search keychange don’t count) Painted a fresco that fused mythology and politics, and was ahead of it’s time? Designed a building that was actually aesthetically pleasing and challenging (the current insistence on Bapti-domes and Six Flags over Jesus centers don’t count either)? Assisted in developing cures for diseases? . . . Anything besides taking some money to central American where you passed out bibles to people who could really use some bread and vaccines? . . . anything? Bueller?

    I thought not.

  40. says

    @ Rowen:

    True, most of the music we enjoyed, ussully has been pay for someone, but that is not alwasy the case…

    Father Vivaldi (AKA the red priest) came to my mind… when he sometimes interrupted the mass (to the anoying of the autorities) because he need to write a musical passage…

    But i think your point is that music can have a lot of power, so it has been an important part of religion.

    But the main diference is that today there are much more artistic independece. Composer can chose the theme they want, but still for most of them, science is so “abstract” taht they can not find inspiration on it.

    And that is sad. I hope this will not be always the case.

  41. says

    Yes, Harry Partch was an excellent example of a composer attempting to be original, and getting it right. Partch’s music can never be mistaken for anyone else’s, and in today’s anything-goes world that’s quite a feat. Anyone who invents and makes his own instruments in order to play music written using his own musical scales, and makes it all sound so wonderfully original deserves nothing but praise in my book. He’s the total opposite end of the scale from some modern “composers” I could mention. Some of them make me think I could produce a more interesting noise simply by falling downstairs.

    It’s true that it can be practically impossible to apply any kind of scientific concept to music and do it in such a way as to produce something pleasant to the ear, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. I’ve just been listening to a rock song by Tool that uses the Fibonacci sequence as a basis for the meter of the song – and it works! (It’s on the Lateralus album in case you want to hear it.) OK, it’s not the Sistine Chapel, but they applied a mathematical rule to music and created something original and inspiring in its own way.

    In my opinion a great deal of modern composers get so obsessed with the technicalities they completely forget their audience. What’s the point of writing music based on some high-minded mathematical concept if the end result is a over-complex cacophonic catastrophe? The rot set in with Schoenberg and his 12-tone system that he said “will last for 1000 years”. Trust a German to think that up. By all means try to be different, but not so different that your audience can’t follow you. Music should be fun, not formulas!

  42. Nix says

    Also, of course, the reason why a lot of famous older classical works *are* famous isn’t because we’ve been trained to listen to them inasmuch as it is a selection effect: we don’t encounter the crappy older classical stuff because, well, it didn’t stand the test of time. In many cases with older works it failed so comprehensively that it no longer exists and all we have is the name, if that.

    Of course there’s *some* training in there: Indian music sounds quite different, for instance. But some things *are* universals. Everyone likes *some* sort of theme or melody or rhythm: people generally listen to discordant stuff only insofar as it’s reflecting on something that’s not discordant, for instance.

    An awful lot of modern composers seem to have forgotten that the primary job of music is to sound nice to audiences. _The Rite of Spring_ is shocking, but it doesn’t sound *unpleasant*, even on first listening: there are definite themes and harmonies in there.

    (I pity the Gould Trio, for instance: truly excellent players of enormous talent who commissioned something to celebrate their tenth anniversary and got back this appalling amusical collection of disconnected notes which they seem to feel honour-bound to play as often as possible, perhaps because it was their commission and so on. I don’t know how the poor sods can stand it. I know I was wishing for earplugs until they got to the end of it and moved to something actually musical. But maybe I don’t have the training to grasp it or something. I’m afraid nobody else in the audience did either.)

  43. says

    An awful lot of modern composers seem to have forgotten that the primary job of music is to sound nice to audiences

    I agree, to some extent. Sounding “nice” is all very well, but that too palls after a while. A balance has to be found. Personally I like a challenge, but if the challenge is too great (or if utter rubbish is presented as “challenging”) then the composer will lose the audience. Stravinsky went out on a limb, providing a real challenge with the Rite, but ultimately was proved correct. It has passed the test of time, and was accepted quite quickly as a matter of fact. The reason being, as you correctly point out, it isn’t rubbish. I take issue with composers who try and pull a fast one over audiences keen to be challenged (such as myself). Nowadays it seems not enough critics are prepared to stand up and point out crap when they hear it, and many modern composers are wise to this. They have realised they can churn out utter garbage safe in the knowledge that it will not be criticised. But will it pass the test of time? Absolutely not. Thousands of scores are written every day, and all but the tiniest fraction are played once (if at all), then forgotten. But too many frauds are making money and reputations on the back of it, and it annoys me no end. I don’t think there’s been a single orchestral work written in the last 30 years that will still be remembered in 100. But still they continue to assault audiences with their pretentious cacophany who are scared stiff to shout “Rubbish!” because they don’t want to appear uncool. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes with music, isn’t it?

    Apologies for the rant but music is my life, and I feel just as strongly about this issue as I do about creationism and rampant religious idiocy. Well, maybe not quite as much, but it still gets my goat.

  44. says

    I really have to strongly disagree here. I love the music of Xenakis and Schoenberg (by the way, I’ve never heard this quote about 1000 years). To suggest that everyone writing music that you don’t like, or even a large number of people don’t like, are just full of it isn’t fair. These composers believed in what they were doing, and it does speak to at least a few people. I only rarely dabble in serial or stochastic techniques myself–I prefer more rock-influenced ideas–but the soundworlds they create are fascinating and varied.

  45. says

    p4limpsest – I’m not saying that every composer I personally don’t like is “full of it”, but that there are certainly a great deal of frauds out there, just as there are in the the world of art. There must be. Not every work is a masterpiece, or even barely competent.

    In the past there were never a shortage of critics brave enough to stand up and denounce bad music, where are they now? Granted, they were not always right, but they are a necessary balancing mechanism that seems to have disappeared in modern times to be replaced by obsequiousness and sycophancy, and that gets right up my nose. I’ve listened to hours and hours of modern “classics” at the Proms for example, and after each “first performance” (and bound to be the last too), the presenters will fawn over the composer and his “great insight” and “intelligent scoring” about what sounded exactly the same as the last hunk of noise, and bound for the same fate.

    You say you like Xanakis. Fine, it’s only music after all, and if you like it who am I to take it from you? But my opinion counts just as much as yours does, and I say he was a fraud, at least some of the time. He might well have written some good works; I haven’t heard everything he wrote, but what I have heard (a great deal) turned me off him altogether. Same with Schoenberg (I love his early tonal works, and even some of his atonal experiments). But he got too full of himself, and ruined his reputation by trying to create a “new form of music”. Kudos to him for trying, but he went too far. Over-analysing and over-engineering something that was perfectly alright to begin with (hence my “typical German” taunt!)

    A lot of composers start well, write some great things, then once they’re on the gravy train their talent turns to mush. Maybe I only heard the mush (referring to Xenakis again). But it was enough for me to form my impression of him as a pretentious posturer.

    (Incidentally, if you listen to some of my music you might get the impression that I am everything I despise in other composers, which would make me a hypocrite of the highest order. The difference is that I don’t take myself too seriously. Experimentaion is fine, even necessary, but that doesn’t make every experiment a masterpiece!)

  46. Nix says

    I don’t think there’s been a single orchestral work written in the last 30 years that will still be remembered in 100.

    I think that’s going too far. Some truly excellent orchestral work has been written in the last thirty years that will definitely be remembered: the works of Reich, for example. (Some of his early ouevre is too unconventional to be considered music at all, but anyone who doesn’t consider _The Desert Music_ to be musical has no ear for music at all, IMHO. I’m not sure if you can call it conventionally orchestral, though, as it uses more instruments than a classical orchestra… but they’re all conventional instruments, unlike those of his works scored for repeating tape loops and things like that!)

    Even some *film scores* could be considered good classical pieces (if short ones).

    Most music, classical or not, has always been crap. As I said above, the only reason we consider older classical music to be so much better than the modern stuff is selection bias (appropriate for this blog!)

    (In the non-classical sphere, one reason why the Beatles are still so renowned is that they turned out a lot of excellent stuff, a lot of so-so stuff, and really not very much crap stuff at all. That’s rare. Most artists turn out more crap or simply unmemorable stuff than anything else they do.)

  47. Enneract says

    For science set to music – I have always thought that there is no better a lyrical interpretation of the scientitifc mindset as the last verse of Tool’s Lateralus.

    With my feet upon the ground,
    I lose myself between the sounds
    And open wide, to suck it in
    I feel it move across my skin.

    I’m reaching out, and reaching for
    the random or, whatever will bewilder me,
    whatever will bewilder me

    And following our will and wind,
    We may just go where no one’s been,
    We’ll ride the spiral to the end,
    And may just go where no one’s been.

    Spiral Out
    Keep Going

  48. says


    Of course there’s *some* training in there: Indian music sounds quite different, for instance. But some things *are* universals. Everyone likes *some* sort of theme or melody or rhythm: people generally listen to discordant stuff only insofar as it’s reflecting on something that’s not discordant, for instance.

    Don’t generalize from a Western European perspective. I have heard recordings of tribal music from the Amazon in which many different songs were sung simultaneously; no shared key centers or pulse structures, different melodic shapes and different texts. But the collective sound is essential to the way the musicians imagine themselves in their society. Concepts of dissonance/consonance have no relevance in this context, nor should they.

  49. says

    Nix – okay, maybe a bit too far, but I think my point still stands. Yes, some of Reich’s work is rather good (Different Trains gets my thumbs up), but there’s really very little contemporary music that really gets my pulse racing. Even Stravinsky seemed to lose his impetus after Rite of Spring. He shot his bolt quite early IMHO, then spent far too much time dabbling in “neo-classicism”.

    I recently spent a whole week sitting through as much as I could of Stockhausen’s Licht, all the time resisting the urge to get up and replace it with a decent Pink Floyd album! Did he really spend all those years writing that colossal pile of piffle? And why? “Ein… Schwei… Drei… Fear… Funf…”. Wow, what great lyrics.

    Maybe I’m getting too old and cynical, but I’ve listened to more music than most composers ever heard in their own lifetimes. And after consuming and digesting everything musical that I could get my hands on, I’ve made up my mind about what I like and I certainly know what I don’t like!

  50. Al says

    The LHC, the Hubble, Quantum mechanics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, The Origin of Species, I could go on all day with this, but the point is all of these are the equivalent of Bach’s St Matthew Passion or Handel’s Messiah. They are just a few of Science’s more brilliant pieces.
    Science isn’t music, it’s Science.