20th century composers: making the connections

This week we published a new connections tool on OpenLearn that looks at some of the most prominent 20th century classical and avant-garde composers and the connections that exist between them.

The work was commissioned as part of a wider partnership with the BBC and London’s Southbank Centre. Next Tuesday sees the start of a three-part BBC Four documentary series, The Sound and the Fury, that looks at 20th century composers and the broader cultural impact of their work. The Southbank Centre is part-way through The Rest Is Noise, a year-long festival of weekend events, with concerts, films, interviews and talks by prominent critics, commentators and academics.

The common thread that binds all these projects together is Alex Ross’s 2007 book, also called The Rest Is Noise.

Research and writing for the connection tool was done by the OU’s Ben Winters, with support from colleagues Jonathan Rees and Naomi Barker.

The technical work and illustrations were handled by the excellent Stardotstar, who previously built some other connection tools for OpenLearn.

This was a really nice project to work on. It’s a subject I have an interest in, but not a great understanding of, so I spent the duration of the project reading about the composers and listening to their music. It was fascinating (but not a total surprise) to find out that some of this music comes from maths: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis have used the Fibonacci series to structure pitches and rhythm, for example, while George Benjamin and Kaija Saariaho have undertaken mathematical analysis of sound spectra as the basis for their compositional decisions.

It’s also interesting to see the way someone like Hans Werner Henze is linked through a real spider’s web of connections to so many of the other composers through his background, styles, techniques and personal relationships. Whereas names that are more famous to me, like Leoš Janáček, have less in common with the other composers that are profiled.

Of course, this is just one lens through which to view these composers. Their work is so broad and varied that it’s difficult to summarise—there’s so much still to explore. Still, I think this is a great way to introduce yourself to a type of music that is generally considered to be quite aloof and difficult, and to find points where you can jump off and do more of your own digging around.

Author: Matthew Culnane

Sometime social and UX person working in education. Interested in food, books, music, others. Working out how it all works.