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Notes from the Underground - Radical Music of the 20th Century

A new box set rounds up 4 CDs worth of works which shaped the musical and cultural landscape.

Various artists

Notes from the Underground - Radical Music of the 20th Century

(Él/Cherry Red - 4 CDs)

Trying to make sense of the manifold directions in which “classical music” moved during the 20th century is always going to be a subjective trial, and not only because there were so many of them. Especially as there was no firm agreement on what “classical music” actually was any longer.

It was, after all, a very retrospective tag - Beethoven never once woke up and thought “I think I’ll write some classical music today,” and neither did anybody else who the “file under” label makers decree should be so treated. So already, we’re looking at a field that yawned from the vastest symphony to the most minimalist piano; and it was just going to grow even more confounding.

Notes from the Underground is smart; the “C” word is not mentioned once, and that despite the presence of Debusy, Stravinsky, Mahler, Walton, Satie and Schoenberg across the four discs. Because they tell only a part of the story. Rather, the focus, as the liners put it, is on “works which shaped the musical and cultural landscape;” which brought their creators “into conflict with the musical conventions of their time”; which “created scandals that polarised audiences and sparked furious debate.”

And which thus allow the compilers to throw everything at the wall and - astonishingly - make it all stick.

The expected enfant terribles are here - “The Rite of Spring,” Stockhausen and Cage, Varése. We dip into the jazz world with once- (and maybe still-) startling works from Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman; electronics from Daphne Oram; TV and movie soundtracks from Un Chien Andalou to The Prisoner; the first stirrings of what would (equally unfortunately) soon be labelled “world music” in the form of Ravi Shankar, wowing Los Angeles six years before a Beatle ever heard of him; and Les Troubadours du Rou Badouin.

And we admire, too, the refusal to simply go for “the famous bits” - the Missa Luba, for example, is best remembered for the 96 seconds that ran through Lindsay Anderson’s movie If… but here we get the full Congolese mass, in its original 1958 form.

The compilers have drifted, too, towards some excellent recordings. Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is the 1961 London Symphony Orchestra take; “The Rite of Spring” is Pierre Monteaux’s seldom-matched 1951 recording with the Boston Symphony. Close to thirty minutes of Varése’s “Déserts for Wind, Percussion and Electronic Tape” hail from the piece’s 1954 world premiere; Edith Sitwell and William Walton’s Façade dates from the Museum of Modern Art in 1948.

No short cuts, no pandering, and if it remains distinctly uneasy listening in places, then all the better. Of course, those of us who do enjoy categorizing our collections via genre are going to have the devil’s own job figuring out where to put this, but that only adds to the fun. Because four crammed discs and a well-researched booklet not only live up to the box set’s subtitle, they also allow you to relive the initial shock of hearing all that is spread out within.