What Are Those Crazy Sounds In The New Classical Music? And How Does One Write Them Down?

by Nick Danforth

My friend Christopher Trapani is a composer of classical music. Apparently he is quite a good one, having won the Julius F. Ježek and Gaudeamus Prizes, among others. Also, one of his pieces was performed at Carnegie Hall, which I’ve heard of.

Before I met Chris I assumed that new classical music mostly involved people trying to find new discordant ways to extract terrible sounds from instruments that were designed to produce pleasant ones. It turns out that’s exactly what it is, but with program notes like this: “Florence in 1899, or the unexplored ends of the earth. An exotic wash of sonorities, mystical metallic shades — almglocken, steel drum, harp multiphonics — spinning kaleidoscopic patterns, all formless texture and insinuation.”

The last time I went to one of Chris’s concerts there was someone flossing the wiry guts of a piano with a piece of string. At the end of the night Chris was mad that I had fallen asleep and my girlfriend was jealous that I’d been able to fall asleep. To be fair, I can’t even appreciate classic classical music, and Chris’s patient efforts to explain it are largely wasted on me. He uses the word “surprise” to refer to the violinist doing something unexpected, whereas I expect a guy to walk out playing the cymbals in a bear suit.

Sitting around the other day while Chris was busy perfecting a sound on his computer, I started flipping through the score to his newest piece. It’s called “Convergence Lines: For Ten Players and Live Electronics.” It’s premiering at the Ultraschall Festival in Berlin on January 23rd, and it celebrates the 50th anniversary of Thomas Pynchon’s V. For my part, I was excited to discover that when a composer wants a clarinetist to slap a clarinet with their tongue, this is how that instruction is conveyed:

And when the composer wants the percussionist to drop a washer on their crotales…


Other highlights from the score abound. Chris thought it was important to mention “the 90 percent of the score where the performers play ‘normally’ is exactly what does NOT require any verbal explanation, but rather the arcane skill of reading music.” Perhaps, though among other instructions is one reminding the pianist to start playing on the keys again. Let’s listen!

Please meet the “tongue ram” and the “tongue slap.”

Here’s some not terribly crazy brass tricks.

buzz wow

The harp player needs some advanced warning at the beginning of the piece to be able to make sounds like this.

Here’s what a “prepared piano” sounds like, and some ways to notate.

Here’s a piece from last year that uses a number of unconventionally notated techniques.

Oh but there’s so much more. Here’s some notation highlights from “Convergence Lines: For Ten Players and Live Electronics.” You’ll just have to imagine what they sound like — or make your way to Berlin.

Violin Prep
Sandpaper Blocks
Paper Clip
Knitting Needles
Hit Crossbeam
Blu Tac
sudden fuzz
reversed sticks
plastic card
Clarinet Tongue Slap

Nick Danforth usually writes about Turkish history. But he and Chris also have a nonsense tee-shirt blog.