Approaching the contemporary: Western art music after 1980

  • Project Tutor: Dr Mark Hutchinson
  • Level: C/4 (1st-year students)

Aims and content

This project will provide an introduction to a number of central issues in the study of recent (mainly post-1980s) Western art music. We will be studying pieces about which there is little or no pre-existing academic literature; students will therefore be encouraged to create fresh interpretations, through a combination of thoughtful listening and an awareness of the broader streams of thought which inform this repertoire. We’ll use a number of case study pieces and composers as a lens to explore issues which recur frequently within this period – issues such as complexity and simplicity, the nature of sound, the status of the past, and the role of new music (and new art in general) within society.

The project will be taught through a combination of lectures, group discussions and practical exercises.  The emphasis throughout will be on active participation.  Students will have the opportunity to engage with analysis, issues of philosophy and aesthetics, composition and performance.


This project will be assessed by a combination of coursework, seminar presentation and essay.  The coursework will consist of three exercises undertaken during the project weeks.  Towards the end of the project, each student will present an assessed seminar of around 20 minutes based upon a specific piece of music agreed in tutorial.  This seminar will then be reworked into a 2,500-word essay in time for the final submission deadline.  The weighting is as follows:

  • Exercises: 10% each (total 30%)
  • Seminar presentation: 10%
  • Essay: 60%

Reading and listening

Pre-project listening:

We’ll cover a wide variety of pieces, and will listen to excerpts of many of these during project sessions.  The following are a good start for your own preparatory listening:

  • Hans Abrahamsen: Schnee
  • John Luther Adams: The Light that Fills the World
  • Thomas Adès: Arcadiana
  • Richard Ayres: 37b
  • Brian Ferneyhough: L’chute d’Icare
  • Graham Fitkin: Mesh
  • György Kurtág: ΣΤΗΛΗ (STELE)
  • György Ligeti: Études for piano, Violin Concerto
  • Tristan Murail: Treize couleurs du soleil couchant
  • Steve Reich: Different Trains
  • Kaija Saariaho: Lichtbogen
  • Howard Skempton: Lento

There is a bigger list, with links to Spotify and/or YouTube versions of recordings, at

Pre-project reading:

Dip into one or more of the following general introductions to contemporary music:

  • Griffiths, Paul. Modern Music and After, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010
  • Ross, Alex.  The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.  London: Harper Perennial, 2009.
  • Taruskin, Richard.  The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 5: The Late Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Whittall, Arnold.  Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Have a look too at some of the composer interviews in the following collections:

  • Beyer, Anders. The Voice of Music: Conversations with Composers of Our Time. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.
  • Ford, Andrew. Composer to Composer: Conversations about Contemporary Music.  London: Quartet, 1993.
  • Service, Tom. Thomas Adès: Full of Noises. Conversations with Tom Service.  London: Faber, 2012.

It’s also really worth having a look at the following blogs:

A fuller reading list will be given out during the project.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the taught part of this module, all students should:

  • have a good level of awareness of a variety of post-1980s repertoire
  • be familiar with a number of the core academic debates surrounding this music
  • be challenged to reflect more deeply on the role played by ‘new music’ within society
  • be able to engage critically and creatively with specific pieces from this period in group discussion and in their own work
  • have delivered a short seminar to a small group

On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-7 & A9.