I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to performances by the Scottish Ensemble (a string chamber group) several times a year, and their concerts often feature music by contemporary composers. Through them I have been introduced to music by Dobrinka Tabakova, Arvo Part, Sofia Gubaidulina and Wojciech Kilar. I also went to a concert given by a string quartet earlier this year which included music by Philip Glass and Steve Reich – notes on this experience can be found on my blog post: Minimal: American Classics. I really enjoy listening to live performances of contemporary music, although I think the pieces are chosen very carefully to appeal to their audience. Much of the repertoire I have heard in this context has been minimalist in nature, which I think works well in live performances as it can be very atmospheric.
The most recent concert I went to included a composition by Kilar, a Polish composer who wrote a lot of film music (he died in 2013).
Wojciech Kilar: Orawa
This piece starts with just the violins playing a repeated phrase based on the notes in an F# minor triad, and then shifts down a semitone to a similar phrase based on an F major triad. These two phrases form the basis for the whole piece, in minimalist style. The first time through the opening phrase is played nine times, but as the piece progresses the transitions between the two phrases happen more quickly. The rhythm takes you by surprise occasionally through the use of variable metre and starting the next phrase before you expect it. The piece contains lots of drama – sudden contrasts in dynamics, glissandos and sometimes a biting, scratchy effect from the strings as they are played close to the bridge. There is also a moment of calm in the second half of the piece, with quiet, very high sustained notes in the violin parts. Like a lot of minimalist music it is quite hypnotic to listen to.