I enjoy, and have no problems with:

Jan Swafford, M.M.A. D.M.A. (Yale). Slate article, 2011 July 11:

Aesthetic brutalism actually has a long ancestry. One precedent is Iannis Xenakis, the leading Greek avant-gardist of the 1950s through the '70s. Here's Xenakis' solo percussion piece Psappha, which features earsplitting explosions on a bass drum. In this piece the composer does not aspire to move you; he wants to hurt you.

I'm unlearned in architecture, but some Brutalist buildings can appear pleasant. So what exactly is brutalism in music?

Christopher Fox, PhD in Composition. The Guardian article dated 2011 Nov. 17:

Over the next few years Xenakis slowly implemented Messiaen's advice. The main Corbusier project on his desk was the Couvent de la Tourette that demanded a complex spatial geometry of intersecting planes and curves. Xenakis realised that his structural calculations could apply to sounds, too. A rising plane could be a sliding string tone, its physical mass translated into the number of violins sliding together. Tones could intersect, curve away from one another: brutalist architecture becoming brutalist music. When the first of these pieces, Metastaseis, was premiered at the 1955 Donaueschingen festival it caused a scandal; most European modern music in the 1950s was obsessed with the organisation of individual points or groups of sounds. The kinetic force of Metastaseis must have seemed like an alien invasion.

Redditor dmival :

The recommendations so far are all strong. Tetras and Tetora are some of the greatest string quartets since Bartók (Ergma, his fourth quartet, is really good too, but like most of his late works its fairly calm and meditative, reducing his signature primal brutality for a more somber and introspective experience). For a similar work, I'd recommend his string trio Ikhoor. Jonchaies is a cross between modal folksong ("tonality? In my Xenakis?") and primeval chaos, similar to Keqrops and extremely vivid. There's a strong Rite of Spring/Mandarin feeling that betrays Xenakis's influences (as an aside, Xenakis is like Bartók in that his style was unique among his contemporaries, and his particular sort of "atonality" is fundamentally different from Webern/Boulez. His music is incredibly complex in structure but entirely visceral as a sonic experience, so keep this in mind as you listen to him). I really like Shaar, a very colorful work for string ensemble that highlights his love for dense multiphony and glissando. You should also listen to Xas, for saxophone quartet (an underrated genre in its own right).


I would argue that your three quotes are actually giving three subtly incompatible portraits of musical brutalism. Of the three, the one that strikes me as most legitimate is the second, by Fox. It draws direct connections between the standard use of "brutalism" -- which denotes a style of architecture marked chiefly by its exploration of the aesthetic possibilities of concrete --and musical techniques said to mirror the forms created by architectural brutalism.

The first, by Swafford, appears, in my view, to make the common, but etymologically incorrect mistake of confusing "brutalism" with brutality. The third does not mention brutalism by name at all. Instead, it describes Xenakis' music as possessing "primal brutality," which matches Swafford's definition, but not Fox's.

It's worth noting, however, that "brutalism" is not a term particularly widely or commonly applied to music, so it might conversely be argued that a) it has no set meaning b) that Swafford's definition might well be taken as definitive or c) that the common understanding of brutalism as the architecture of "brutality" is the true root of the musical version of the word.

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  • Agree. This entire line of criticism is based on a false cognate. "Brutalism" in architecture comes from the French term "concrete brut," where brut means "raw," i.e., concrete walls left uncovered, to the point where sometimes you can see the marks of the wooden forms used to contain it after it's poured. It did not imply that the resulting architecture was "brutal" in the sense of physically intimidating or violent. – Robert Fink Aug 1 '18 at 22:02

I have been attempting to build a body of brutalist work on the piano. While there is some crossover between "brutality" and "brutalism," my work is consciously informed by the architectural genre of brutalism. Further, my attempts came from hearing architecural brutalism rise up out of the piano playing and then following it. I was not attempting to play "brutalist" but when I heard it, I consciously tried to develop it.

Brutalism in art has this blockiness to it, rectangles layered on top of each other. In architecture, it is flat planes stacked against each other, sharp angles, crisp shadows. There is a bluntness to it that perhaps is the source of the name.

On the piano, I use my forearms, clenched fists and the palms of my hands to get note clusters that feel like blunt sheets of sound stacked up on each other. These are not used just to be "wild" or "brutal." They are used with finesse, softly often, to get difficult sounds that perhaps communicate struggle better than conventional chords. Some of these techniques are difficult to play softly, so some of the music is punishing, but I think there is much more to it than "brutality."

I'm inspired in brutalism by the music of Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor, in particular, but I think you can find it in a lot of the British avant-garde scene around Derek Bailey and Incus Records. I welcome your thoughts.

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