7 Experimental Adventures in Classical Music

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy / ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Some composers play it safe and write music that makes easy listening. Others like testing the limits. Here are some unique experiments in classical music.

1. Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the most controversial composers of the 20th century. Sometimes, he’d write pieces that required three orchestras. Other times, he’d write for helicopters.

Written in the early 1990s, Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet is considered one of the toughest pieces to pull off. It requires a string quartet, four helicopters, and a team of sound designers and engineers. Each member of the quartet occupies one helicopter, playing eerie tremolos that blend with the sound of the spinning rotors.

2. Conlon Nancarrow’s Piano Pieces

It’s impossible for a human to play most of Conon Nancarrow’s piano pieces. So he wrote them for player piano instead. He’d mash together melodies, mix time signatures, and play chords that even a four-handed Horowitz couldn’t touch. As NPR puts it, his music sounds like a “turn of the century roadhouse gone berserk.”

3. Frank Zappa Plays the Bicycle

Before leading the Mothers of Invention to fame, Frank Zappa was writing orchestral scores for low-budget films. In 1963, a 23-year-old Zappa was invited onto The Steve Allen Show to showcase his talents. His instrument of choice? The bicycle. As Zappa said, “I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”

4. Anything by Harry Partch

Look at a piano, and you’ll see that 12 keys make up one octave. American composer Harry Partch wasn’t satisfied with that—he wanted notes between those notes. So instead of settling at 12, Partch divided an octave into 43 pitches. Since no instruments existed that could play that, Partch made some. Using some fine math, he concocted fanciful instruments like the “Quadrangularis Reversum” and the “Chromelodeon.”

5. Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture, featuring Vacuums and Guns

Malcolm Arnold was a relatively conservative composer who rarely delved into the weird. He wrote the film score for Bridge Over the River Kwai and 1969’s David Copperfield. But in 1959, he took the plunge and wrote A Grand, Grand Overture, featuring solos by three vacuum cleaners, one floor polisher, and four rifles.

6. Anything by John Cage

John Cage was part inventor, part composer, and part philosopher. He was deeply interested in sound—especially sounds that conventional instruments couldn’t make. Some of his coolest pieces are for prepared piano (where he’d place nails, coins, and other objects onto piano strings). One time, he experimented playing an amplified cactus with a feather and even wrote a tune for 12 radios. In 1960, as a guest on the show I’ve Got a Secret, Cage played a tune with a mechanical fish, a vase of roses, a bathtub, and a bottle of wine.

7. Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 2, Featuring Rubber Duckies

Most of Arvo Pärt’s music is accessible—meditative, minimal, and bell-like. The Estonian composer’s Symphony No. 2 is a shade darker, though, using children’s toys as background noise. The first movement begins with the nightmarish squeaking of a sea of rubber duckies.