Henryk Gorecki might be a gentle place to start with some "classical" music. He's a Polish fellow, born in 1933, whose early compositions mirrored many of the trends in 20th Century Art music: he incorporated serialism in his Epitafium (1958), sound-mass in his Symphony No. 1 (1959), and extended performance techniques in Scontri (1960). His mature style began to develop in the 60s, though. Registers and tessatura narrowed in his Choros and Refren; themes and timbres were kept to a minimum in 1969's Old Polish Music. Through the 70s and 80s, he composed mostly for the voice on religious texts.
Gorecki gets a little love from the NPR crowd, as his Symphony No. 3 gets the occasional spin. But I really like these first string quartets best of all. His mature works introduce a concept that I plan to revisit with a few more albums, which I like to call the "low and slow" approach. Simply stated, "low and slow" has to do with tempo (kept fairly slow), note durations (kept fairly long), and melodic ranges (kept fairly low).
The "low and slow" approach applies to most of these string quartets, too. Let's look at the 2nd string quartet more closely, "Quasi una Fantasia": even the somewhat aggro second movement is on the slow side--the score asks for something around 108bpm. And pitch ranges stay low--the violins, for instance, stay well below the top of their range throughout. I think the appeal of this approach is that it evokes the human voice. In other words, ultra fast guitar solos and super high sounds from violins and piccolos are hard for people to relate to emotionally, because they're sounds that we can't reproduce with our own bodies. There's something familiar or comforting in music that speaks a language closer to that of our own bodies.
I decided to get a little technical in describing some of the musical stuff going on here, so no need to read the rest of this post if you're not into that sort of thing...just enjoy the music!
Let's look a little closer at my favorite section of this disc, the second (Deciso) movement of the second string quartet. That's track 3, if you happened upon the CD. This section is somewhat harsh, but it really grabs me. Like much of Gorecki's music, the architecture of this movement relies on the juxtaposition of a handful of sections that create motion and development through contrasts: tonality versus bitonality or metrical movement, sharp versus lyrical articulations, homophony and hererophony, tempo juxtaposition, etc.
This movement begins violently. The soft drone on E used by the cello for most of the first movement becomes a brash E-G doublestop in violin II, viola, and cello. Violin I plays a stabbing line against this, mostly in whole tones, which each phrase ending on C#. At measure 45, Gorecki introduces a very lyrical melody in the violins, tonicized in E aeolian against the continued E-G diad in the viola and cello. Commingling the lyrical motif and the pointillist jabs of the introduction in measures 64-78, the basic melody is restated one last time. Up to this point, the music has been very loud, very fast, and heterophonic. At the apex of dynamic and tessature of the melody in measure 82, Gorecki suddenly pulls the plug (exuviation, as Slonimsky would say), reverting to two measures of quiet, slow, homophonic music in chorale style, tonicizing a V6-I in Eb major. As if using this moment to catch a breath, we brutally return to what amounts to a development of the introductory theme. Viola and cello continue their e-minor diad, violin I runs through variations on the first theme, predominantly using the same six whole tone scale notes, and violin II further blurs tonality by interjecting doublestops on D-E and D-Eb. It is worthy of note that this is the only section of the entire piece in which the groupings of instruments are not completely binding, as violin II functions harmonically more as a dissonance to the accompaniment and rhythmically as part of the melody.
After a rallatando on two measures of rest (127 and 128), the movement ends in the homophonic chorale style, slow and quiet. Interestingly, this material is culled from the end of the first movement (measures 53-83). This section is in a triple feel where the rest of the movement has a duple feel. Dissonant and droning, the movement "resolves" on an A7 in second inversion. A wicked ride, somehow both minimalist and romantic in style.