In the last of a four-part series, Peter Reynolds looks at different strands in contemporary music with a focus on composers in the immediate here and now. This week he looks at five composers whose approach to music is utterly individual.

Composers who share a common aesthetic stance frequently form themselves into groups, but there are always individuals who stand apart. Figures from the past include Varèse, Scelsi, Nancarrow, Xenakis, Ives or Skalkottas: all composers who forged unique personal voices. In their lifetimes, access to other music, particularly contemporary music, was limited to live performance, occasional broadcasts and isolated gramophone recordings. Now everything is available at the click of a mouse and composers can access the latest musical developments and canons of western and world music through to countless alternative trends. Never has it been more difficult to stand out as an individual. And yet there are those that somehow do it.

They don’t come much more individual than Danish-born Per Nørgård. But even now he’s in his early 80s, the establishment feel uneasy about him. By any standards he’s one of the towering figures of the last 50 years, yet Alex Ross, Paul Griffiths and Richard Taruskin, in their studies of contemporary music, pass over him. Nørgård is fascinated by sounds that are always present, but which our ears filter out. In South India, listening to the surf from the gigantic waves, he asked: does the sea have a fundamental? The result can be heard in works such as Voyage into the Golden Screen: music that is iridescent and doesn’t move purposefully forward – it just is. He’s written: “I stand with one foot in western rationalism and one in eastern mysticism, but even so I am a stranger to both. I am, so to speak, on some kind of third point.”


Watch an interview with Per Nørgård


When Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic for saxophone and orchestra was performed at the last night of the 1995 Proms, the tabloids had a field day; middle England recoiled from a monster of dissonant depravity who had sullied the flag-waving certainties of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory. One of the most individual voices of his generation, Birtwistle belonged to the “Manchester School” in the 1950s, along with Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, who challenged the status quo of the period. Primordial, earthy, violent but with moments of great lyrical beauty, he’s at his most characteristic in the orchestral Earth Dances (1986). Birtwistle’s also made his mark in the opera house. Benjamin Britten commissioned his first opera, the raw Punch and Judy, and allegedly walked out of its first performance. His most recent opera, The Minotaur, was seen at the Royal Opera in 2008 and again in 2012.

Watch an interview with Harrison Birtwistle

Watch an interview with Harrison Birtwistle concerning a pebble


In the 1980s, two extraordinary composers emerged from Finland, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. Initially it was Lindberg’s tough raw dynamism that impressed, but with the passing of time it has been the sensual luminosity of Saariaho that has burnt itself into the imagination. Frowned upon as a student at the Sibelius Academy in the 70s (“You’re a pretty girl, what are you doing here?”), Saariaho headed for where the action really was: Paris, the home of the newly opened IRCAM and a burgeoning school of spectralist composers such as Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey. Taking her cue from them, she’s created a world in which intuition and traditional instruments seamlessly merge with electronics: the result is other worldly, rarefied and ethereal. In recent years she has moved a long way from the raw exhilarating drama of the string quartet Nymphéa (1987) to her two operas: the seductive L’Amour de loin and Adriana Mater which explore the big themes of war, love and existence. But the journey is far from over yet and Saariaho is one of today’s key names to watch.

Read our Composers Project interview with Kaija Saariaho


György Kurtág can create a whole universe with just a handful of notes. A contemporary of his fellow Hungarian György Ligeti, Kurtág waited until 32 before coming up with his first piece – a string quartet (1959) – and has since produced an output of small, exquisitely crafted miniatures, often static and timeless. Even his larger works, such as the expressionistic Messages of the Late Miss R V Troussova or the ever-expanding collection of piano pieces Jatekok, are built from, or are collections of, many smaller pieces. Famously self-critical, Kurtág is no less critical of performers and is well known as an intensely demanding coach, of both his own work and the classical canon.

Watch a video of Kurtág in rehearsal

Watch Kurtág and his wife Márta in recital


The lightness, refinement and poetry of Salvatore Sciarrino have marked him out as one of Europe's leading composers and the most important figure to emerge from Italy since Luciano Berio. Sciarrino is vastly prolific, though his operas in particular have received much critical attention. Fragile, fleeting, and often on the edge of inaudibility, his scores push instruments to their limits and his writing for the voice is equally challenging, often pitched somewhere between song and whispered speech. It might seem a long jump from Verdi and Puccini, but Sciarrino’s unique voice is much admired and, in 2012, at 65, he was honoured with the BBVA Foundation prize for contemporary music in Madrid, worth 400,000 euros. 

Watch an interview with Salvatore Sciarrino

For more information, check out Tom Service’s Guide to Contemporary Classical Music for the Guardian, or visit the Sound and Music website.

This article was amended on 05/01/2017