Books play a pivotal role in my life. That’s why this time, I decided to share the most important books about the contemporary music world and composition in the 20th and 21st century. The list cover a wide range of topics; from history of the past century to a thorough analysis of the contemporary composers’ role in society. Anyone interested in further educating themselves on music past and present should check out these books. I’ll talk about books on composers and their needs in a future article.
Contemporary Music World Book List (alphabetical order)
Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond – M. Nyman
Written by composer and music theorist Michael Nyman. The best book on experimental music. It covers experiments in music all the way up to the beginnings of minimalism.
A Memoir – Philip Glass
One of the most influential and performed composers of today in his own memoir book. Learn about his life and music in this book.
Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945 – P. Griffiths
Covers the main styles of music, such as Serialism, Aleatory, Modernism, Minimalism, and Postmodernism. An extensive, thorough and well written expose of new music history.
Orientations: Collected Writings – Pierre Boulez
A collection of Boulez’s writings over the years. As you might know, Boulez was not only one of the most renowned conductors and composers of the past century, but he was also among the most outspoken and uncompromising composers of their time (he passed away in 2016). Essential reading to get an overview of his person, music and the thoughts that shaped much of the post-war music world.
Philosophie der neuen Musik – T.W. Adorno
It’s simple: you can’t avoid this book if you want a better understanding of post-war music. It’s an essential read by one of the most influential music philosophers of the 20th century.
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century – Alex Ross
A broad overview of 20th-century music by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Widely considered the best book on the topic. Great read for anyone interested and willing to learn about music of the past century.
Silence: Lectures and Writings – John Cage
John Cage was one of the leading figures in the avant-garde, as well as one of the greatest thinkers on music in modern times. This is his first published work.
Style and Idea – A. Schoenberg
One of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Schoenberg also wrote impactful texts on music from his time. Additionally, he covered some of his predecessors.
Who Cares if You Listen? – Milton Babbitt
Babbitt was not only a composer, but an exquisite contemporary music theorist, too. In this book, he examines the social function and role of the contemporary music composer that the majority of the population has no connection with or reference to.
Writings About Music – S. Reich
Interviews and writings on Reich’s own music. The book also contains writings on other composers, such as Schoenberg and Cage.
All these books will give you a great overview of the past century and show you how contemporary music composers shaped the music life. But if you truly want to stay up-to-date with the latest stuff and the music composed over the past few years, you will have to rely on various websites, periodicals and magazines. And of course, you should attend many concerts. There is no better way.
I personally suggest you experience anything from experimental noise music in a bar, to the latest orchestral piece with your philharmonics. Ultimately, Spotify has become a really good source recently. Lots of great tracks from the contemporary music world to be found if you’re a couch potato. Like me!