Beyond the world of classical music

Composers of contemporary music become publicly known usually thanks to soundtracks. Although the degree of their involvement differed, all composers became known in the world of film. Their popularity was also boosted by recommendations from jazz or pop musicians. And there were plenty of those.

From soundtracks and samples, through namechecking in the press, to official tributes – there are many ways in which the oeuvre of contemporary composers can reach the public at large. Such channels have generated publicity for the music of Andriessen, Boulez, Pärt and Serocki, although each of them functions in pop culture differently.

Outside opera houses and concert halls the works we can most often encounter are those of the Estonian master. It is enough to turn on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood or Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Pärt is also popular in ambient or post-rock circles. The Icelandic group Sigur Ros preceded some of its concerts with Für Alina ; Björk likes to talk about her fascination with the Estonian’s compositions and the American rapper Lupe Fiasco sampled De Profundis in one of his own pieces. Pärt is not unfamiliar to jazz lovers either – it could not be otherwise, given that his recordings are published by the famous ECM company.

It might seem that Pierre Boulez – a fierce critic of tradition and an uncompromising avant-gardist – is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Paradoxically, however, Boulez penetrated into pop culture as an embodiment of musical radicalism. And rightly so, although the avant-gardist did end up in Hollywood eventually. Yet not as a composer but as a conductor. Works by Berg, Mahler or Ligeti conducted by Boulez can be heard on the soundtracks of Natural Born Killers, Birdman and Heat. Boulez became famous among fans of rock music, when he began to collaborate with Frank Zappa. The collaboration led to an album, The Perfect Stranger, recorded at IRCAM and featuring pieces composed by Zappa and performed by Ensemble InterContemporain conducted by Boulez.

Louis Andriessen was introduced to film audiences by Peter Greenaway. The two artists worked together on M is for Man, Music, Mozart – an experimental film devoted to the Viennese classic. The Dutch composer met the British film-maker on two more occasions, working on the operas Rosa – A Horse Drama and Writing to Vermeer. See also this video interview where Greenaway and Andriessen discuss opera and film. In addition, Andriessen, a man consistently arguing against the elitism of contemporary music, liked to draw on jazz or rock, making arrangements of various pieces for electric guitar or bass guitar.

One of the organisers of the avant-garde festival Warsaw Autumn, Kazimierz Serocki was not afraid to go out with his works way beyond concert halls. During the Second World War he worked as a jazz pianist, did not shy away from writing popular songs and after 1945 became Poland’s leading composer of film music. Serocki’s soundtracks were heard in films by Aleksander Ford (The Teutonic Knights, Chopin’s Youth), Wanda Jakubowska (The End of Our World) or Jerzy Hoffman (The Deluge).           

Although each of the composers mentioned here would certainly prefer to be remembered because of his original techniques, complex formal pieces and ideas prompting musicologists to start heated debates, thanks to film and popular music their oeuvre can attract the attention of music lovers all over the world. We can only hope that, encouraged in this manner, they will not satisfy their curiosity too quickly.

Jan Błaszczak