I listen to a lot of pretty obscure music. Some of it sticks, and I continue listening to it for years. Most of it doesn't, either because I failed to understand the music or because it wasn't worth extensive study. I've lost count of the number of times that I've read in CD liner notes about the terrible, hideous and unaccountable neglect of some little-known American symphonist - only to find that the music inside amounts to imitation Stravinsky, well-crafted but lacking any distinctive personality of its own. I had a similar experience recently upon listening to Myaskovsky's Sixth Symphony; the music was impeccably written - probably better than much Shostakovich, truth be told - but there were no surprises in terms of style; it was written in a mid-century Russian idiom familiar from works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich or Khachaturian. Myaskovsky, in other words, is not essential to our picture of Soviet music; he speaks a language that we can hear elsewhere. (This is an unfortunate historical irony - Myaskovsky is older than any of those three composers, and so it seem likely that they stole from him rather than vice versa - but their works happen to have been the ones that entered the international repertoire.)
Sometimes, though, you run into a composer who speaks a different language entirely, and you're bowled over. This evening I listened to a very different Sixth Symphony, this time by Swedish composer Allan Pettersson (1911-1980). The symphony lasts a full hour, and is cast in a single movement with an unchanging time signature and only minor tempo fluctuations - which sounds like the most boring thing in the entire world, except that I only know this from looking at the score. Pettersson's rhythmic language is incredibly subtle; a basic 2/2 time signature can breed all sorts of overlapping patterns in different meters, and I soon discovered that the music made a better impression if I stopped trying to count.
Pettersson's music is not easy to grasp, and is certainly not background music. The idiom is basically tonal, deeply rooted in counterpoint, but is at times highly dissonant, and has an white-hot intensity that makes listening to the music emotionally draining. Pettersson layers ostinato on ostinato, gradually accumulating power until finally, just when the tension is about to become unbearable, the clouds clear away to reveal a totally new landscape. The slow ending of the symphony presents us with a gorgeous, long-breathed melody which slowly moves upward through the cellos, violas and violins, until the music fades away.
I've never heard anything quite like this in orchestral music, and I can only admire Pettersson's ability to so expertly build and dispel tension over such long time spans. It's too early to say whether I'll remain a Pettersson enthusiast forever, but I'm intrigued and look forward to continued explorations of this repertoire.