MRD's Qualified and Verbose Top 13 Pieces List
My pick of the 13 plus pieces I've most enjoyed listening to repeatedly, with verbose annotations
Enjoy the typos, I know my proofreader will!


13. Gavin Bryars ... The Wreck of the Titanic. This piece will vary based on performace; I refer here to the recording available on the Point Music label. The work is a concept piece, the concept being "what would it sound like if the band on the Titanic continued to play as the ship sank to the bottom?"; this recording, done (I believe) in a water tank, captures this, featuring a string group repeatedly playing the last song reportedly played by the Titanic's band as the ship sunk, each repitition more distorted by the action of the water. Words do no justice to the experience. Oddly, aside form this recording of this piece, I admire but and rather cool towards Bryar's works.

12. John Cage ... Sonatas and Interludes. I can't do a list without mentioning Cage. These works, for a piano with various objects inserted between the instrument's strings, create an amazing percussive sound world. Mentions to Cage's various Imaginary Landscapes for percussion ensemble, One for piano, and 101 for orchestra.

11. Philip Glass ... Einstein on the Beach. An opera without out of control lunatics. This is my favourite piece of the American Minimalist movement ... the simplicity and logic of the music seem to me to reflect Einstein's "God does not play dice with the universe" mantra, while the odd choice of thematically unrelated texts seems to invoke the strange and not-quite-sensical world of quantum physics that Einstein opened up. Mentions to Steve Reich's Drumming.

10. Gustav Mahler ... "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n" from Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). I figured I should put at least one song in here, so here comes Mahler again. Deeply felt, yet quite simple. So good, I had to turn it off when I heard it on the radio on the weekend. I needed to function for the rest of the day. As a runner up for this spot, Mahler's Das Lied von Der Erde.

9. Richard Wagner ... Prelude and Grail Music from Parsifal. I'll eschew the perenial "everyone's favourite" Good Friday Music from Parsifal, as I feel it pales beofre the amazing, slow moving a noble prelude and the timeless, Old-Testament solemn-grim music accompanying Parsifal's entry in to the Grail Knight's Hall (to translate in paraphrase, a wise old knight said to Parsifal "Here time and space are the same" just before this music started ... this is how it sounds although the mere words do no justice to the experience). Mentions to the final scene of Gotterdamerung, the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, and the Prelude and Venusburgmusic from Tannhauser to round out Wagner choices.

8. Richard Strauss ... Salome. I'm no big fan of opera, but some of them are done right. A single act, about an hour and a half, and this self described "1st class second rate composer" creates a portrait of awakening and uncontrolled sexuality, religiousity, weakness and vengeance. Runner up here is Strauss's Elektra, which features a truly lunatic cast. Out of control idiots are at the heart of any opera. As a further runner up, but for different reasons, my second-listed Strauss work is Metamorphosen for Strings.

7. Thomas Tallis ... Spem in Alium. For 40 voice choir, with voices spread thorughout the hall. Surround sound existed long ago, and in this case creates a massive edifice that seems to suspend time. Honorable mentions for similar works go to Somei Satoh's Mantra (heard in the film Baraka) and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Stimmung.

6. Mahammad Musavi and Mohammad Karimi: ... Dastgah e Nava. In this performance of part of the classical Persian radif, ney player Musavi and vocalist Karimi bring out the mystical depths of an old and deeply religious musical heritage.

5. Guillame de Machaut ... Messe de Notre Dame. Medievel people do the Old Testament the best.

4. Anton Bruckner ... Symphony 9. Bruckner's last symphony, uncompleted. Death prevented the symphony from getting a fourth movement (although there have been attempts at creating one from Bruckner's notes), but it really doesn't need it. Slow moving, spacious, majestic, this is the pinaacle of Bruckner's symphonic work. Honorable mentions to the 8th symphony (particularly the 4th movement), and the slow movement of the 7th, among the other great symphonies, as well as the motet Ecce sacerdos.

3. Ralph Vaughan Williams (theme by Thomas Tallis) ... Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Vaughan Williams is an exellent composer, but pairing himself with the gorgeous Third Mode Melody by Thomas Tallis resulted in an absolutely transcendant piece. For film watchers, you heard part of this in "Master and Commander"; I thought it was unfair of them to use this (it's an emotional sucker punch).

2. Xenakis ... Bohor; a fine electroacoustic piece, using samples of jewellery being rattled around. It's like being inside of a giant bell, and should be heard cranked up pretty high. Mention to Xenakis orchestral work Nomos Gamma. Xenakis also stands in for the great body of avant-garde music from the 20th and 21st centruy that didn't make the list.

1. Gustav Mahler ... Symphony 6. I'm a huge Mahler fan. This symphony gets pride of place in this list as it is the most tightly controlled of all Mahler's symphonies to my mind. Dispite the taught control of the material, the work is unbelievably moving. Most outstanding is the effect of the start of the slow movement ; the stark contrast between the rest of the work (overall, dark (grim, anguished or angry), in A minor) and the slow movement's mood and key (overall, positve and numinous, in E flat Major ... which is keywise about as far from A minor as it gets). Honorable mention to Mahler's Symphony 9, and Deryck Cooke's completion of the posthumous Mahler Symphony 10.

Really, in ways the list should be longer ... but ... some of the things I rate highly (ie; the theorectical system of Indian Music, the structure and sound of Balinese or Javanese Gamelan music) aren't pieces and I can come up with no good representative work, and I've already cheated putting 13 together above, so apologies to Shostakovich, Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, John Coltrane, R. Murray Shafer, and Nyman, among others, who got no mention.

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