THE SUNDAY TIMES
The Big Story
Using classical music as a starting point, a new breed of composers brought up on pop and rock is carving out a fresh genre
Published: 23 January 2011
The internet, we’re constantly reminded, has changed the way people listen to music. Downloading makes it instantly accessible, allowing us to stockpile releases and explore further than previous generations could ever have afforded. The internet has also, we’re advised, changed the way people make music. It’s no longer necessary to be in the same studio, or even the same country, to collaborate on compositions. Less acknowledged, although equally important, is that the internet has changed the way we define music. With the growth of online sites catering to every niche interest, and the ability to blend and disperse new styles rapidly, musicians and labels are, for perhaps the first time, free to think beyond the constraints of genres, unrestricted by retail and the media’s need to tidily pigeonhole “product”.
Perhaps the most interesting result of this cross-pollination is the slow reclamation of classical music by a new generation of composers who have grown up with pop and rock. Classical music’s relationship with its popular counterpart has long been oppositional: when they have overlapped, it’s been for the sake of novelty — the disco-meets-classical medleys of Hooked On Classics, the Moog experimentation of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach — or to emphasise the earnest artistic endeavours of the music’s proponents, whether it be Yes’s symphonic prog-rock, Apocalyptica’s interpretations of Metallica or Sting’s po-faced lute revivalism. What’s happening now, however, would have been unthinkable to generations who grew up annoying their Mozart-loving parents by playing rock’n’roll loud. Rather than turning to the classics to embellish their work, contemporary composers such as Olafur Arnalds and Nico Muhly are employing its structures and instrumentation while refusing to confine themselves to its traditions. And they’re being marketed to people who may never have heard a Deutsche Grammophon recording in their life.
“The foundations of this old dividing line have already begun to crumble,” says Robert Raths, self-styled “initiator” of Erased Tapes Records, one of a number of independent labels trading in both indie and more classically structured and arranged music. His roster includes Arnalds’s mingling of orchestral and electronic, Nils Frahm’s solo piano improvisations and Peter Broderick, who also records for the über-hip Bella Union label. “When I first heard their music, I didn’t think of them as classical,” Raths says. “I thought of them as composers who speak the same language, using a different palette of instruments. Bear in mind that Olafur used to be the drummer in a hardcore band, Nils used to make mainly electronic music and Peter used to be a studio musician before they decided to explore more delicate musical arrangements.”
Dave Howell, who co-founded the 130701 imprint of Fat Cat Records (originally home to Sigur Ros), agrees that the borders are disappearing. Last year, the label released Max Richter’s Infra, a Royal Ballet commission that blurs the boundaries between chamber, ambient and electronic music. It is also home to Hauschka, whose treated piano solos are adorned with grand orchestral arrangements on his recent Foreign Landscapes album. “It didn’t seem that distant from a lot of the other music we were putting out,” Howell says, “We’ve always been excited to explore and release great-quality music, regardless of the genre. I don’t find that it’s a big distance from Sigur Ros to Max Richter.”
Whether these artists are practitioners of classical music is open to question.
Certainly, few of them embrace the tag. “Classical music is from a different time,” Hauschka suggests. “I would name it maybe contemporary music.” Nils Frahm, meanwhile, opts for “modern classical”.
“My music has roots in classical music, but also in all kinds of modern music, since I listened to all sorts of pop or electronic and club music all my life.” Arnalds chooses “post-classical” or “neoclassical”: “I don’t think it fits into the classical genre much, apart from me using classical instruments.”
Dustin O’Halloran, a member of Devics, who contributed to the score for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and who, with two albums of piano solos behind him, releases a new, fully orchestrated album in February, wonders if the term is even relevant any more. “What is ‘classical music’ now?” he asks. “Is it only music that is accepted by the classical community? The classical world doesn’t seem to take much notice of a lot of contemporary composers.”
Whatever it is, the decision to distance themselves from the classical world when searching for an audience is a shrewd one: according to the BPI, the form’s record sales declined by 17.6% in 2009. Younger fans no longer need to browse classical racks, as they can explore online instead. As Arnalds points out, “with the digital age… it’s much easier for us to reach the general public. Previously, music like mine could only be accessed through speciality music shops”. Admirers of Sigur Ros might be led to releases by their sometime string section, Amiina, while followers of Björk might stumble upon solo releases by her former collaborator Valgeir Sigurosson, who runs the Bedroom Community label, an outlet for artists such as Nico Muhly, currently working on an opera for ENO and arranger du jour for acts such as Grizzly Bear and Antony & the Johnsons. Together, they have cultivated their own scene: late last year, Frahm opened for Arnalds on a number of live dates, Bedroom Community’s roster performed under the umbrella The Whale Watching Tour and O’Halloran employed the Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson to produce his forthcoming album.
Whether they will find a significant audience remains to be seen. Howell agrees that such music is becoming increasingly popular while conceding: “I don’t think this will be limitless. This kind of music is more likely to be given a platform by cultural institutions such as the South Bank and the Barbican.” Ironically, many people gravitate to this music as a reaction to the mass commodification and homogenisation of pop. “Music has become so normalised into everything we do that many of the songs we consume on the radio, on our TV or computer screens, have somehow become sanitised,” Raths says. “You listen to them, perhaps even get them stuck in your head, but they lack visceral appeal and imagination. So I guess people have started searching for a quiet place that allows them to reflect and dream, something thought-provoking, rather than bombarding.”
It’s far from impossible, therefore, to imagine a world that has flipped on its axis, with kids infuriating their rock-loving parents by playing classical music. “The breaking of conventions might be less obvious than the breaking of windows and two-finger salutes,” Raths says, “but nevertheless I hear a subtle notion of change, which I sense is of this time.”
Hooked on neoclassics
Sigur Ros’s string section have two albums under their belt, Kurr and Puzzle, released last September.
Piano Solos Volumes 1 & 2 are available on Bella Union, and Lumiere, produced by Johann Johannsson, is due for release by 130701 on February 28.
His seventh album, Foreign Landscapes, was released by 130701 last October. A new one, Salon des Amateurs, is out in April, featuring the Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn and members of Calexico and Mum.
Viroulegu Forsetar (Touch, 2004) and IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (4AD, 2006) are arguably the highlights of his six albums to date.
A member of the Norwegian post-rock act Jaga Jazzist, Horntveth released his second album, Kaleidoscopic (Smalltown Supersound), in 2008.
A classically trained former member of Piano Circus, Richter released his fifth album, Infra (130701), in 2010.
Having worked with Björk, Philip Glass and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Muhly has released three solo albums, Speaks Volumes, Mothertongue and I Drink the Air Before Me, for Bedroom Community.
A collaborative album with the cellist Anne Müller, 7fingers, was released last year on Hush Records.
• Nils Frahm and Anne Muller’s album is out on Erased Tapes (Europe only) on March 14
…And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, his second album, was released last year by Erased Tapes. He plays the Tabernacle, W11, on February 7.
The programmer for Björk’s soundtrack to Lars Von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark released his second album, Draumalandio, on his own Bedroom Community label in 2010.
Nils Frahm - Said & Done
See the composer and pianist perform a song in an exclusive video from the Haldern Pop festival in Germany (log into The Sunday Times homepage to watch this video world premiere.)
Olafur Arnalds - Ljosid
See the video for a new track from the talented Icelandic producer and multi-instrumentalist, Olafur Arnalds (log into The Sunday Times homepage to watch this video.)