What makes music contemporary?

Kseniya Anufriyeva

Curator of the project, a Candidate of Sciences in Art History

What music do you like? Jazz? Rock? Rap?

I’m a musicologist and love all diverse kinds of music. But it’s important for me to make concerts where you can hear pieces by contemporary composers, the same as it’s important for my colleagues to make exhibitions of contemporary artists. And in each concert I make a talk about the music which you’re going to hear in order to make it closer and more comprehensible for you visitors of the Arsenal.

This page of our site offers you a short and easy introduction to the world of contemporary music. It’s been made with the help by the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble MCME. We decided to offer our listeners three entrance points into the world of music of today. These three subsections are called Dialogue, Sound and Rules of the Game. Of course, this isn’t everything that makes the music of composers of our time contemporary. But I think these notions have enough capacity to explain really a lot about the music being written now.

For each of these subsections we made recordings of music pieces of different lengths and different levels of intricacy. It’s easier to start with the videos marked as “Brief and clear”, and then go over to the next complexity level “In detail”. But this labelling is of course a conventionality; a lover of modern art can’t be frightened with a performance! Read, watch, and listen — and hope to see you at our concerts!

It’s hard to find a place in the Arsenal where music did not sound: it was played in its concert hall, in exhibition halls, in its staircases, and even in the basement. In autumn 2020 when we were making this project with the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble MCME we even made a series of live streams on Instagram.

You can watch them now at the Arsenal IGTV, and I recommend watching them to anyone who loves the atmosphere of live performance (and the Instagram masks). I also make talks in those streams and ask the MCME soloists questions about the music they play. They give explanations, and show unusual performance techniques, and — well, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on.

You can also watch the recordings of the live streams of the project here.


Composers of today do not seek to throw music of the past off the steamboat of the modernity (to use the words of the Futurists of the early 20th century). They are interested in different musical styles and genres and musical cultures of the world. Modern authors are often in a conversation with them. And it is most exciting to watch this process: when music has no lyrics to it (as is often the case) how do we know what it is about? That’s what we’re going to find out.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to see first what the composer is in a conversation with. To do that we look for the recognizable hints in the music itself; those can be typical of different periods and styles melodic devices, chord sequences, rhythms, and performance techniques. And then we should listen attentively to how the composer modifies and introduces new meanings to them. When we see in what way the composer works with the elements of a style, it becomes clear what kind of conversation it is, what the composer’s attitude to these elements is. Is the composer trying to alienate themselves or to establish the contact? Are they being nostalgic about what’s lost forever or striving to give a new life to the material? Is it an object to reject or means to get inspired by?

Brief and clear

Oleg Tantsov. If by Michael Nyman transcribed for the string ensemble (1995)

Michael Nyman is famous for his soundtracks to the films by Peter Greenway, for example, The Draughtman’s Contract. If you saw that film, you know everything about Nyman’s love for the music of the English Baroque genius Henry Purcell. Nyman is also a musicologist, and made an in-depth study of the music of his colleague and predecessor. In his music to the anime film The Diary of Anne Frank by Akinori Nagaoka, Nyman is again conversing with Henry Purcell. He makes Purcell’s musical language sing the words almost copying the contents of John Lennon’s Imagine: “And if… you could just light a candle to change people’s feelings and hearts, I’d whisper love In every land to every child, woman and man”. The dialogue between Nyman, these two musicians and one little girl the MCME soloist Oleg Tantsov transcribes into the score for the string ensemble: the instruments sigh more or less like they did in the times of Purcell, and from time to time small notes of a toy metallophone light up above those sighs like lightning bugs.

In detail

Mauricio Kagel. Ludwig van (1970)

A jubilee is an excellent reason for beginning a conversation. We are now celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday, and 50 years ago on a similar occasion one of the avant-garde masters Mauricio Kagel created an opus to show what the music of the ‘Great deaf one’ has become like over these two centuries. Ludwig van isn’t only a musical composition, but also a surrealistic film with a jumble of strange personages and furniture wrapped up in sheet music. The score, of course, makes an abundant use of the Beethoven themes. In the performance prepared by MCME the musicians first follow the score and then try to play off the scraps and bits of the sheet music on the screen. The video artist Olga Borozdina and an MCME soloist Ivan Bushuyev added some shots of today’s life ot the original Kagel footage. The further, the stranger: Kagel invented the ‘theatre of instruments’ where the musicians will swap places, tear their sheet music and do a lot of other extraordinary things. The sublime music of Beethoven disappears without a trace as it sinks into the buffoonery of commonplace. The ‘theatre of instruments’ and electronic sounds in this composition is a good reason for you to recall it when you read the second and third subsections of our short guide: Sound and Rules of the Game.


Do we have anything to go on in our listening to music and use as a guiding thread on our way through a composition? Very often this ‘measurement unit of the musical meaning’ is a fragment of an easy-to-remember melody, and distinctive chord pattern and rhythm (one can think of catchy advertising jingles easily becoming earworms).

Music of contemporary composers may quite often have nothing of the kind! Instead it has ‘sound events’: the composers are literally obsessed with the search for new sound. This is why listening to contemporary music is a real adventure in the sound world.

In this quest, composers may follow these three paths.

The first one is to synthesize sounds which never were (yes, this is what’s called electronic music).

The second way to look for new sounds is to use things of day-to-day life as sound-making devices. Here again is time to remember the beginning of the 20th century and the Futurists. It was they (like, for example, Luigi Russolo, the author of the 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises) who proclaimed, to quote Russolo’s words, that they found “far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral [symphonies by Beethoven].” With the advent of portable tape recorders, it became simplicity itself to record a sound of, say, a steam engine and then reproduce it in a concert hall: this was how musique concrète came to being. And even today composers offer musicians most extraordinary things for musical instruments.

And yes, there’s a third way, instrumental musique concrète. In a nutshell, it’s the use of traditional instruments and new playing techniques. For example, the pianist may be asked to play not only with the help of the keyboard, but also directly on the strings inside the body of the grand piano. It may sound too radical, but in fact performing techniques for the practice of any instrument did change and get perfected through time. We may recall, for instance, how at the beginning of the 19th century Paganini amazed his public with his new violin-playing feats.

Brief and clear

Helmut Lachenmann. Toccatina (1986)

Helmut Lachenmann was the originator of instrumental musique concrète. The concept is that for traditional instruments he invents such playing techniques which in themselves (in addition to the resulting sound) are a thing. The amazing result makes you wonder all the time while watching what the musician is doing: “Now, how could anyone possibly think of that?” Rustling and rattling sounds which eventually come out make one think of a soundtrack to a pretentious horror.

The Toccatina is in fact an etude like a mini-encyclopaedia of the Lachenmann playing techniques making use of the parts of the violin and the bow which have never been employed traditionally. Lachenmann’s musical revolution is rightly being referred to as a ‘step beyond the bridge’. The bridge is a part of a bowed instrument which supports the strings over the soundboard and divides them into two unequal parts. Normally it’s the longer part which is bowed upon, but Lachenmann suggests playing on the shorter part of the string, too. And then under the bridge, on the body, and everywhere.

Brief and clear

Dmitry Kurliandski. Bagatelle No. 2 (2016)

Bagatelle is the French for trifle. This is a traditional name for small instrumental pieces first used by composer Francois Couperin in the 18th century. All types of composers from Beethoven and Liszt to Bartok and Silvestrov composed their bagatelles. Dmitry Kurliandski, one of the most prolific and distinguished composers of today’s 40-year-old’s generation, follows this tradition. He made an open-ended cycle of bagatelles, and anyone can order a new piece of the cycle for themselves. To do this, they have to come up with their own object for the solo part: not a musical instrument, but indeed a day-to-day thing for one of the ensemble members to play music with. What other instruments play is more or less an accompaniment. In the first Bagatelles there were a ruler, some wrapping paper, a music box, and the like. Bagatelle No. 2 has the knitting needle doing the solo part by touching the rim of a metal bowl. The result is a somewhat contemplative sound, both transparent and well-contoured. You’ll hear it if you listen.

Anton Svetlichny. Half a Dog (2015)

Anton Svetlichny, a composer from Rostov, initially wrote music to the Surrealist classic An Andalusian Dog by Luis Buñuel. The music conveys even the most notorious moment of the film, the eye being cut through by a razor. But for the pieces to be accepted to the MCME Yong Composers’ Academy in Tchaikovsky Town where Anton wanted to send his composition to, the time length had some strict limitations, so he had to cut it. Half a Dog was all that was left of An Andalusian Dog. However, it didn’t cut its groove: listening to this piece makes you feel like dancing. But the main thing of the Svetlichny piece is the timbre: the variations of the sound of instruments thanks to unconventional techniques.

Rules of the Game

Normally, what a composer writes down as sheet music is the recording of what they want the musicians sound like. History of musical notation is a most amazing story. But the intended purpose of the sheet music was always to convey the composer’s conception in the most precise way. In the 20th century, however, the tape recorders offered an absolutely new opportunity to record music. Whether a hundred or less percent due to this, but it was then when something strange started to happen to sheet music. Composers began making ‘graphic scores’ where instead of notes one could have drawings of almost anything! Musicians followed the suit by the manner of playing. Improvisation almost forgotten since the Bach times by almost everyone except perhaps jazz performers became a standard even in classical music. It was reborn under a new name of aleatoric music (from the Latin alea meaning dice as a symbol of game of chance). For a contemporary composer a score is often not so much a record of desirable result as an instruction for the performer, or even a set of rules for the game. Musicians are more like actors and each new composition is a new game of sports. This is why a new rendition of the same piece might sound no more similar to the previous one than a football match or a game of chess look like another match or game. There’s nothing left for us listeners to do but watch the action of an exciting game, try to guess what the rules are, and possibly participate. And become a fan, of course!

Brief and clear

Yannis Kiriakides. Karaoke Etudes, part 1 (2011)

A Greek Cypriot living in the Netherlands, Kiriakides isn’t just a composer, but a multimedia artist. This is why he transfers sheet music from paper onto the screen and animates it. His game therefore is ‘karaoke for those who can read sheet music’: the musicians need not sing, but play (each with their own instrument) what is requested by the composer to be played off the screen. And this be his favourite popular songs: in the first part of the cycle it’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye which was a hit in 1968. Mixed with the notes there are some words on the screen, but what’s most important is the thrill with which the musicians are trying to play on time all the notes that unexpectedly flicker and fade on the screen, and what jazzy solos come out as a result. And certainly, this composition is an excellent example of the Dialogue (see above in the first section of this easy guide of ours). In this particular case it’s a dialogue between Kiriakides and the musicians with the chief treasure of this song, its opening riff, which is immune against aging or any kind of danger.

In detail

Arman Gushhan. In Crosslights (2014–2020)

In Crosslights is a new version of the piece written for the MCME project Music for Reading and was called Read Not Only. However, the DNA of this composition is the same; it’s the echo of John Cage’s Music of Changes (1951), and altogether the figure of this American composer will emerge each time you start thinking about the meaning of contemporary music. It’s especially true when you speak about inventing new rules of the game of music. Once Cage received for a gift a book with the famous Chinese divination text I Ching which became an ideal instrument for the chance-controlled composing of music: he would ask the book a question regarding different elements of a music piece and used the answers for the composition. In Gushhan’s piece it’s not the composers but the listeners who ask questions, and the music (through the I Ching divination) gives answers corresponding to the resulting hexagram (a combination of heads and tails in a series of a coin tossing). It turns out that chance, performance, and interactive are really ancient, and yet in spite of the fact are subtle and mysteriously-sounding notions.

Elena Rykova. The Mirror of Galadriel (2012)

Elena Rykova won the Kandinsky Award for this piece, and this wasn’t chance. Elena herself says that this composition is a “musical performance crossing the border into the territory of visual art”. The Elven Lady’s mirror that “shows many things” is portrayed by a table-tennis net. There’s also a camera which translates the movements of the performers as if they were reflected in the water in Galadriel’s magical silver basin. The performer musicians are copying one another in accordance with literally the rules of the game which are the score of the piece. Elena Rykova suggests we should contemplate “the mutual understanding with no words involved, possibility that you see in the other only you own reflection, wish to influence what’s going on, moment changing the course of the game, and life going beyond the boundaries of its own rules”, all that accompanied by the rattling of pine cones and scratching of fingers against the ping-pong table.

Recordings of the streams of this Project on INSTAGRAM

Dialogue, part 1 and 2

Sound, part 1 and 2

Rules of the Game, part 1 and 2

Photos of the Project