Small ensemble "classical" music that's not what I'm used to.
August 1, 2012 10:59 PM   Subscribe

I want to find small ensemble "classical" music that I really like but don't know how to find or even really describe - "clean" and "structural"? Maybe it's "modern" but it's less abstract and more classical in scale and construction than the modern/experimental music I'm familiar with.

I grew up with orchestral classical music, and it's great, though I don't listen to a lot of it these days. However, I sometimes hear string quartet or duet music which I really love, and I don't know how to find it. When I listen to string quartets by many of the classical composers, it's not quite what I want - it sounds like the violin parts of symphonies stripped out. It sounds like it could have a harpsichord, even if it doesn't. It's baroque sounding.

I love harpsichord music and symphonies and plenty of baroque music, don't get me wrong. I'm just trying to describe what I want to find, and don't know how.

It has a simplicity of individual line and complexity of structure that I love. Rather than sounding like a soloist with accompaniment, it seems to be several intertwining lines, harmonizing and contrasting. It's a little slower and structural. It tends to be at least as driven by bass and cello as by violin. Please hope me, people who know more about music!
posted by freebird to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Early music played on (replicas of) period instruments may be what you're looking for. I like Jordi Savall's work; Frans Bruggen and Nikolaus Harnoncourt are also worth looking into.
posted by rjs at 11:17 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

really depends on how modern you're looking for. there's the shostakovich quartets. alois haba put out a lot of great microtonal string quartets. there's arvo part. do you have a sample piece in mind? it's a really broad question.
posted by facetious at 11:24 PM on August 1, 2012

there's bartok as well
posted by facetious at 11:29 PM on August 1, 2012

Sounds like you may be stuck in some early Baroque stuff. Let's try a few.

Possibly you're having English consort music in mind, which is polyphonic and most times does not include the harpsichord-continuo sound.
Method 1): Search on youtube for "viol consort" and pick out examples from "Byrd" (earlier style, 1540-1623), or "Purcell" (later...1659-95) (or Orlando Gibbons, or John Dowland, or John Blow, William Lawes, or other English composers of the period).
Method 2): Look at everything that one ensemble plays such as, for example, the Fretwork viol consort.

Then again, perhaps you remember Early Austrian Baroque, which was a hit for a while when Early music on period instruments took off for real in the '60s and '70s. Composer names worth researching here are Gerog Muffat (here my all-time favorite, his Ciacconne), Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Joseph Fux. Most of these, however, do have continuo harpsichord added.
posted by Namlit at 11:51 PM on August 1, 2012

Have you heard Xenakis's Chamber Music? Really, really gorgeous, and performed by the Arditti Quartet...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:08 AM on August 2, 2012

The Orb's Oxbow Lakes?
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:57 AM on August 2, 2012
might be worth looking at.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:00 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might like The Kronos Quartet. This is one of my favourite Kronos pieces.
posted by shelleycat at 1:16 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

As it happens, I'm also a big fan of classical music, and have been trying to expand my knowledge of chamber music in particular. If I'm understanding your criteria, you could try Dvořák's chamber music -- here are two for starters:
- String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major ("Slavonic"), Op. 51 [movements 1-4].
- String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 ("American") [here's the second movement].

Also, maybe Mozart's String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, KV. 465 ("Dissonance") [example of first movement].

Or Beethoven's late string quartets, such as his String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 [example of movements 1-3].
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 1:58 AM on August 2, 2012

I came here to agree with Namlit. Fretwork are great. I became completely obsessed with their album Birds on Fire last summer. It's a mix of modern and Tudor Jewish music. There's something just so pleasing about the album.
posted by jujulalia at 1:59 AM on August 2, 2012

Bartok's string quartets are pretty amazing.

But whatever you choose to listen to, focus on your listening. If thoughts like "Bah this just sounds like the orchestra is missing" come up you should reject them outright. Any well known classical composer was a total fucking genius, and you should assume that in a given piece every note that the composer wrote is necessary and that there are no notes or harmonies missing from their complete vision.

That doesn't mean you have to like it. But really, how you listen affects how you appreciate. It took me forever to enjoy death metal and jazz because I was listening for the wrong things.

In Bartok's string quartets, for instance, having a proper idea of the goal of the piece makes all the difference. Bartok didn't write a bunch of alien (to most of us) harmonies just to mess with our heads. The dissonant harmonies are variations, largely speaking, on a normal theme. Just taken to the nth genius level.

In some of the movements of his quartets there are only fleeting moments of recognizable conventional harmony (major, minor, altered up to lets say 13th's with flatted/sharped tones, built around a recognizable tonal center), but those fleeting moments are really the crux of the piece. Hearing some harmony you recognize is ho-hum. Hearing some you recognize surrounded by a sea of tension-building not-cadentially satisfying or seemingly violent, unwell, or uneasy harmony can be powerful.
posted by TheRedArmy at 2:53 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding/Nthing Fretwork and Jordi Savall.
posted by immlass at 6:41 AM on August 2, 2012

Have a look at Karl Jenkins, especially the Diamond Music album (the whole album, not just "Palladio").
posted by TinWhistle at 6:49 AM on August 2, 2012

posted by milk white peacock at 7:13 AM on August 2, 2012

I wonder if you might find some things you like by looking through the web pages for the public radio program St Paul Sunday. They feature a lot of modern chamber music that isn't abstract or atonal. (I used to listen to it regularly but I don't get up early enough on Sundays any more.) Also, maybe WNYC's New Sounds? It might be worth listening to a few podcasts of each show and see if anything appeals to you. (Music podcast are pretty much how I find new music.)
posted by aught at 8:17 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Tosca Tango Orchestra. A string quartet (quintet?), piano, and at times accordion. Nuevo tango with a classical feel.

Their album La Furia del Tango is on Grooveshark.

The quartet also plays together separately as the Tosca String Quartet.

If you enjoy their music, watch the movie Waking Life; they perform the score.
posted by stungeye at 9:49 AM on August 2, 2012

Response by poster: I went to my math advisor in Grad School once and said I wanted to focus on Nonlinear Mathematics. He said that was great! And that it was like a biologist saying they wanted to focus on "non-elephant biology". I realize this is even worse, since i've not even defined the negative well.

Nonetheless, I'm getting a lot out of this - thanks everyone! I'm trying to listen to what people are suggesting and see if I can refine the search a bit from that.

I really like the Dvorak, he's a favorite - but it's more "classical" than this particular itch is scratched by. Similarly - really interested in Xenakis! But he's more "modern" or "experimental". Yes, I know these are terrible labels - if I wasn't ignorant I likely wouldn't need to ask this question...some OOB recommendations have led me to some nice Shostakovich, which is getting closer.

A lot of the Fretwork stuff is close, especially the 16th century - and I love that I get some of what I thought sounded more "modern" by going back from the Baroque instead of forward! Love it, thank you.

Rachel's is great, and has led to some other stuff I like - "Portland Cello Project" had some good stuff too. Maybe I want cello duets and ensemble pieces? Do those exist?

Here is a (Facebook, crowd-noisy) video I took at BART the other morning which reminded me of this search. It's not exactly what I'm talking about either, but I quite enjoyed it and it's close - if anyone can identify the piece over the yells of "non-fat latte" and "double espresso!", I'll be much obliged, and it may help target this wild vaguely defined search as well:
posted by freebird at 1:39 PM on August 2, 2012

It sounds sort of like you like East Coast/New York "indie-classical" (though be warned, a lot of people hate that label), which overlaps a bit with minimalism and post-minimalism as well. I would maybe check out the stuff on New Amsterdam Records and Bang on a Can. Kyle Gann calls this kind of thing totalism, though this term hasn't really caught on.

Does any of this stuff hit the right buttons?

John Adams - Road Movies
David Lang - Cheating, Lying, Stealing
Steve Reich - Double Sextet
Steven Stucky - LA Piano Quintet
Missy Mazzoli - Death Valley Junction
posted by speicus at 1:53 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Btw., if you're now going forward instead of backward, the Debussy and Ravel string quartets might please you.
posted by Namlit at 1:59 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Shostakovich string quartets.

posted by spbmp at 2:40 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

if Rachel's is on the right track, then along the lines of indie-classical (postclassical, neoclassical, etc.) and Bang on a Can, maybe try Clogs (also), Victoire (a project of the above-mentioned Missy Mazzoli), or Zoe Keating.
posted by nevers at 5:48 PM on August 2, 2012

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