The sound of classical music has perhaps never been as diverse as it is now, whether we look at contemporary opera and vocal music, music for small and chamber ensembles or indeed within the context of the contemporary symphony orchestra. Composers now find at their disposal the sounds of many genres and periods, whether popular, esoteric or strangely traditional. But how did get here? This list sets out – non-exhaustively, and with plenty of omissions – ten of the most influential pieces of the 20th century, whose sounds ring out clearly in today’s contemporary music.

© George Grantham Bain Collection/Fred Palumbo/Dutch National Archives
© George Grantham Bain Collection/Fred Palumbo/Dutch National Archives

1 Igor Stravinsky, Le Sacre du printemps, 1913

Where to start? Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet marshalled a fearsome arsenal of compositional techniques that shaped the music of the next hundred years. His piling up of dissonances and orchestral textures one on top of the other, along with his complex polyrhythms, distorted by addition and subtraction, created an enormous, roiling musical surface that works through juxtaposition and extremes of contrast. The tectonic strata of Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances would’ve been unimaginable without Le Sacre, and we might hear a cousin of Stravinsky’s sinuous, mineral murk in the guts of Chaya Czernowin’s Ayre.

2 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, 1925

Contemporary music on stage would be unimaginable without the sound-world of Alban Berg’s 1925 opera, based on the play by Georg Büchner about the soldier whose world is annihilated. Berg’s opera sears with its high-wire lyricism, and its explosive climaxes leave one gasping for breath. It’s the kind of continual tightening of the dramatic screw that we might hear in George Benjamin’s 2013 opera Written on Skin; Berg’s idiosyncratic orchestral meshes are to be found in Charlotte Bray’s 2012 At the Speed of Stillness or H.K. Gruber’s expressionist Hidden Agenda (2006).

3 Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie, 1949

The noisy, twittering exoticism of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie is in some respects totally singular and unrepeatable, an eighty-minute monster that bathes audiences in sickly sexiness. (Rightly so, his former student Pierre Boulez thought). Tristan und Isolde meets the blinding light of Scriabin meets Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Harrison Birtwistle has cited its influence, although his sound-world has quite different colours; but Messiaen’s masterpiece showed how traditional harmonic structures can be used really quite strangely, and in conjunction with compositional techniques associated with the avant-garde. The ecstatic dancing and screaming of James Macmillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel is just one instance of this piece’s extraordinary reach.

4 Pierre Boulez, Le Marteau sans maître, 1955

Intuitive, glittering, alchemical: Pierre Boulez’s settings of the poetry of René Char for viola, voice, guitar, alto flute, vibraphone and xylorimba is one of the high points of the postwar avant-garde. There is no denying the difficulty of Boulez’s music – no straightforward sense of melody or harmony, no explicit tone-painting in his setting of Char’s surrealist texts – but the modulating web of sounds, which play on sonic and timbral connections between individual members of the instrumental ensemble, is utterly spellbinding. Boulez’s music seems weightless and spontaneous, the work of a magician, and is remarkable for its blending of avant-garde compositional technique with sounds of the Balinese gamelan.

More than anything Le Marteau showed that the language of serialism was capable of producing, not “beauty” exactly, but something entrancing, estranging and unquestionably moving. “He was simply a poet”, wrote the composer George Benjamin. We can hear Boulez’s extraordinary approach to texture and line in George Benjamin’s Three Inventions, and the mysterious blending of musical traditions and sound-worlds that Le Marteau attempts in the music of Toru Takemitsu.

5 Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gesang der Jünglinge, 1956

Stockhausen’s musique concrète tried to wipe away the musical past, banishing a European classical music tradition corrupted and debased by Nazism and the barbarism of the 20th century, venturing into the pristine experimental space of the recording studio and sound laboratory. Gesang der Jünglinge channels this desire for musical purity – see the voices of children of the title – but also the inescapable, skin-crawling horror of the circumstances from which Stockhausen’s music is trying to escape: the impossibility of being innocent again. But this visionary music opens a strange new world where these defamiliarised sounds might open up our consciousness to something beyond convention.

Stockhausen’s reprocessing of voices and electronic experiments – his Kontakte springs to mind too – have generally not been taken up with contemporary classical composers, who have in the main remained enchanted with traditional forces and forms, or returned to lusher and more Romantic sonorities (though one exception might be purveyor of “musique concrète instrumentale” Helmut Lachenmann). His influence was clear on Krautrock acts like Can and Neu! – Can bass player Holger Czukay studied with Stockhausen – but is felt more remotely and strangely across contemporary rock and pop and electronic music, with Aphex Twin, Björk, and Radiohead channeling his music, a music striving to get beyond music itself.

6 Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, 1957

Leonard Bernstein’s collaboration with Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins brought together, in exemplary Wagnerian fashion, distinct creative disciplines and capitalised on their potential – especially when it hit the silver screen in radiant Technicolor. But it also brought Bernstein’s fiendish musical intelligence to bear on a score that put myriad popular styles, sounds and traditions through the orchestration of Stravinsky, the lush expressionism of the late Romantic composers like Strauss and the film music of Erich Korngold. Bernstein created a musical bricolage that is familiar and strange at the same time, reimagining genres and styles through parody and collage, as in the jazz fugue of “Cool”. We can hear its swagger and sprezzatura in the prickly sexiness of Thomas Ades’ Powder Her Face, which perfectly manifests Bernstein’s easygoing seriousness.  

7 György Ligeti, Atmosphères, 1961

György Ligeti’s 1961 masterpiece for orchestra upends our sense of musical space and time, with its uneasy weightlessness, dense clusters of microtones – the intervals between individual notes – and ebbing textures. Turning the logic of musical argument and forward propulsion on its head by insisting on near-absolute harmonic stillness and suspension, Ligeti makes music about density and weight rather than subject and countersubject, exposition and development. In this and his famous Lux Aeterna he invented a compositional language for a whole genre of film music, but you hear more direct influences in a piece like IMA (2001) by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös.

8 John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, 1965

Coltrane’s album changed jazz, and it changed contemporary classical music too. Mystical, messianic and intensely virtuosic, Coltrane spins out astounding melodic variations over adventurous and unconventional modal harmonies, in hymn-like and frantic exaltation. Coltrane helped to smear jazz onto the colour palette of contemporary music. We hear Coltrane’s sound calling in Harrison Birtwistle’s piece Panic for virtuoso saxophonist John Harle, but it is perhaps Mark-Anthony Turnage who has most explicitly channeled his influence, in his Blood on the Floor for jazz quartet and large ensemble.

9 Luciano Berio, Sinfonia, 1968

The symphony has always occupied a complicated place when imagining tradition and rupture in the history of classical music: sometimes representing nonconformity and radicalism, blasting open musical and orchestral convention; on the other, representative of continuity, the past masters, the institutions of the concert hall, conductor and orchestra. Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia is a titanic and strange work that tries to think through the debts owed by composers to the past and the place it might have in the music of the future. The third movement involves the orchestra playing large chunks of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 2, with amplified voices reading out passages of Samuel Beckett over the top, as well as other quotations from works by Debussy, Beethoven and Berg.

Berio’s deconstruction of musical history and form certainly set the stage for contemporary composers – like Peter Maxwell Davies, Elliott Carter (Symphonia) or Sofia Gubaidulina – who have reprocessed the “symphony” in their own ways.

10 Steve Reich, Drumming, 1971

Steve Reich’s massive ensemble piece for percussion – which includes voices and flute – can run to nearly 80 minutes, and its enormous phased structures, where rhythmic and melodic patterns concurrently slow down or speed up against each other, makes for a mesmerising experience, where intense surface activity runs alongside tectonic structural shifts that you can feel in your bones. Reich’s piece was inspired by a trip to Ghana and particularly the musical traditions of the Anlo Ewe people, and it brought the dense polyrhythms of that music into the vocabulary of American classical and popular music.

Reich’s phasing and massive, slowly-unfurling structures are highly idiosyncratic, but his music of small, cumulative gestures, has been felt widely – Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo suggests that Reich taught him to play the guitar like a percussion instrument. But we can also here Reich’s musical language in the layered textures of German composer Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann, or Nico Muhly’s more traditional compositions for orchestra like 2012’s Gait.