I read this (admiring) description by Kyle Gann of a piece of contemporary music recently - a string quartet written in 1984 by Ben Johnston, which has never been played due to the almost insurmountable difficulties of performing it - here's a description of it:
If you know much about Ben's Third Quartet, you know it works its way measure by measure through a 53-note microtonal scale. The finale of the Seventh is built on a similar plan, but the structural tone row consists of 176 pitches - all different, 176 pitches within one octave, heard in the viola on each successive downbeat. Many other notes are heard in the other instruments whose harmonies link each note to the next, and Tim tells me that altogether there are more than 1200 discrete pitches in the movement - more than one per cent, five times as many as most people can perceive.
Mr. Gann goes on to describe how one Timothy Ernest Johnson of Roosevelt U. (the Tim referred to in the previous quote), had written his doctoral thesis on this quartet and delivered a paper on the subject to a Microtonal Conference. Here's a description of part of the paper:
Tim demonstrated how the players are supposed to proceed from the opening C to the subsequent D7bv-, a pitch ratio of 896/891. The violist is tasked to move upward from this C and come back down on a pitch 9.7 cents higher - just under one tenth of a half-step - than she started on. At the downbeat of the next measure, the violist lands on Dbb--, pitch ratio 2048/2025 - another ten cents higher. And so on for another 175 measures until the viola ends up traversing the octave and ends at C again. A good half of Tim's paper was spent talking us through the performance challenges of the first two measures.
So, a piece that can't be played, and even if it could be played most people couldn't perceive the pitches. Sounds like a great night out doesn't it? Yet despite the fact that it can't be played and most people can't hear it, guys do doctoral theses on it and deliver papers to others similarly interested. What is the point of this music? It certainly isn't written for the same reason most music is written - to be performed and listened to, by people who don't have a PhD..................
Contemporary composed music has long been accused of this kind of thing - composers writing music for each other and in order to fulfill some kind self-perpetuating composing/academic paper delivering world - for a long time. I'm very wary of this kind of accusation until I've heard the music, but in this case since it's not possible to hear the music I have to ask - WHY!? These guys really are writing for each other and nobody else