A post-clas­si­cal world

Claire Jack­son ex­plores a hugely pop­u­lar genre that merges clas­si­cal and elec­tro-am­bi­ent mu­sic

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

D efin­ing ‘con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal’ mu­sic is fraught with com­pli­ca­tions: should we in­clude film mu­sic, for ex­am­ple, and what about mu­sic that uses am­pli­fi­ca­tion? From Adès to Zim­mer, the canon is thrillingly di­verse, and fea­tures var­i­ous nooks and cran­nies within which ex­cit­ing sounds emerge. It’s a sound­world that lis­ten­ers are just as likely to en­counter via cu­rated stream­ing plat­forms as in ma­jor venues, on the small and sil­ver screen, and in clubs as well as con­cert halls. And its mu­sic will be ex­plored in a sec­ond BBC Ra­dio 3 se­ries Un­clas­si­fied, pre­sented by El­iz­a­beth Alker (see p48), which will con­tinue to shine a light on a con­tem­po­rary genre that doesn’t fit neatly into pre-con­ceived boxes.

Re­com­posed by Max Richter: Vi­valdi – The

Four Sea­sons (2012) is a key ex­am­ple of this col­li­sion of clas­si­cal-elec­tro-am­bi­ent mu­sic, a strange jux­ta­po­si­tion of old and new, high ver­sus so-called ‘low’ art. It is akin to lis­ten­ing to a Cu­bist ver­sion of the Vi­valdi clas­sic, with frag­mented melodies that are looped and over­laid, shared be­tween lap­top and strings. Richter is one of a new school of com­posers who com­bine mul­ti­ple stylis­tic ideals.

Var­i­ous names have been given to this par­tic­u­lar branch of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic: al­ter­na­tive clas­si­cal, neo-clas­si­cal, post-clas­si­cal. In a dig­i­tal world, life be­comes eas­ier if we can de­fine a search­able genre. But when a style is in its in­fancy, this can be re­stric­tive. ‘Gen­er­ally I say that I write clas­si­cal mu­sic us­ing elec­tron­ics,’ says Poppy Ack­royd, a pi­anist-com­poser based in Brighton. ‘It usu­ally re­quires at least three sen­tences of ex­pla­na­tion.’ Ack­royd re­cently signed to One Lit­tle In­dian, a la­bel founded 30 years ago by mem­bers of an anar­chist punk band, and her cur­rent disc fea­tures vi­o­lin, pi­ano, flute, cello and clar­inets. ‘I would be prac­tis­ing Kurtág and then lis­ten­ing to Aphex Twin,’ re­calls Ack­royd of her mu­si­cal de­vel­op­ment. ‘I won­dered how th­ese things would sound if I ar­ranged them together.’

Other de­scrip­tions of the mu­sic in­clude ‘reimag­i­na­tions’ and ‘re­com­po­si­tions’. ‘I like the term “reimag­i­na­tions”,’ says Tomek Kol­czyn­ski, who looks after the elec­tronic el­e­ments within

cham­ber group bachspace, which in­cludes pi­anist Ta­mar ★alperin and vi­o­lin­ist Eti­enne Abe­lin, who is also a mem­ber of the renowned Lucerne Fes­ti­val Or­ches­tra. bachspace blends Baroque with elec­tron­ica. ‘I think of the elec­tronic parts of bachspace as con­tem­po­rary com­men­tary on Bach,’ ex­plains ★alperin. ‘All elec­tronic sounds on the al­bum are cre­ated from di­rect syn­the­sis of the acous­tic sounds of pi­ano and vi­o­lin. Ul­ti­mately, it’s a di­a­logue be­tween two dif­fer­ent cen­turies and cul­tures.’ Abe­lin sug­gests the la­bel: ‘trans­baroque’.

Of course, us­ing or­ches­tral in­stru­ments or a clas­si­cal mo­tif doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally make mu­sic clas­si­cal; how­ever, most post-clas­si­cal – a catchall term that will be used here­after – mu­sic is firmly rooted in the tra­di­tional clas­si­cal id­iom. ‘I’m clas­si­cally trained: I have a mas­ters in pi­ano per­for­mance,’ Ack­royd says, ‘but there’s as much


This is a sound­world that lis­ten­ers are as likely to en­counter via stream­ing plat­forms as i n

’ ’ ma­jor venues

non-clas­si­cal in­flu­ence as there is clas­si­cal. ★ow I make mu­sic – acous­tic sounds via elec­tronic means – isn’t typ­i­cally clas­si­cal. But ev­ery sound is cre­ated by in­stru­ments; noth­ing is ar­ti­fi­cial.’

The mem­bers of bachspace also com­bine a wealth of con­ser­va­toire ex­pe­ri­ence with an ‘in­ter­est in ur­ban sounds’. ★alperin, who wrote her Juil­liard dis­ser­ta­tion on Bach, out­lines her ‘un­fath­omable love’ for the mu­sic, along with a de­sire to share it not only with ‘clas­si­cal mu­sic con­nois­seurs, but re­ally every­where, with ev­ery­one’. Like Ack­royd, ★alperin, Abe­lin and Kol­czyn­ski seek con­nec­tions. ‘Since I don’t feel whole when life ex­pe­ri­ences are frag­mented, my mind in­tu­itively looks for ways to in­te­grate them,’ says Abe­lin.

‘So I feel most at home when my dif­fer­ent worlds col­lide in a mean­ing­ful way. Mean­ing for me has more to do with co­her­ent dra­maturgy and less with co­her­ence of a par­tic­u­lar mu­si­cal lan­guage.’

Crit­ics of this sound­world claim that many of the pieces are unimag­i­na­tive pas­tiche. Writ­ing in The Wire, Philip Clark asked ‘how you would feel if vis­it­ing Tate Mod­ern you found the Rothkos, Matisses and Pi­cas­sos had been re­placed by Athena poster art’, in the con­text of Deutsche Gram­mophon’s de­ci­sion to in­clude the likes of Richter, Karl Jenk­ins and Lu­dovico Ein­audi along­side its starry back cat­a­logue of 20th-cen­tury com­posers. Per­haps it’s more that the gallery has added ad­di­tional wings – the dis­cern­ing visi­tor can pick and choose from es­tab­lished ex­hibits and the new col­lec­tions. DG con­tin­ues its com­mit­ment to this mu­sic with the re­cent re-re­lease of Richter’s 2004 The Blue Note­books, with words adapted from Kafka’s Blue Oc­tavo Note­books, and the up­com­ing re­lease of Re­com­posed by Peter Greg­son: Bach – The Cello Suites, which fol­lows in Richter’s foot­steps.

Post-clas­si­cal mu­sic at­tracts a broad au­di­ence, in part be­cause the mu­sic is be­com­ing so

widely ac­ces­si­ble. Com­posers such as Óla­fur Ar­nalds, whose at­mo­spheric solo al­bums sit along­side his screen writ­ing (such as the sound­track to TV se­ries Broad­church) are at­tract­ing an in­creas­ing lis­ten­er­ship. The late Jóhann Jóhanns­son found pop­u­lar­ity with his sound­track to The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing and his disc Or­phée (DG, 2016), as well as gain­ing fans for his more ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic, in­clud­ing a suite for string or­ches­tra and a retro IBM com­puter. An­other ex­am­ple is Dustin O’hal­lo­ran, who scored Ama­zon show Trans­par­ent, for which he won an Emmy Award. O’hal­lo­ran is also one half of duo A Winged Vic­tory for the Sullen who per­formed at a BBC Prom co-cu­rated with BBC Ra­dio 6 Mu­sic in 2015 – an­other in­di­ca­tion that bound­aries are shift­ing.

There are cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­tween post­clas­si­cal and clas­si­cal worlds, too. Strad­dling dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries means that post-clas­si­cal artists have to be ver­sa­tile. They also have to adapt to the dif­fer­ing lan­guage of var­i­ous sec­tors: when Ack­royd is asked to rec­om­mend an en­try-point for new­com­ers to her work, con­fu­sion en­sues: ‘Do you mean which al­bum?’ Mu­sic is re­ferred to in tracks, not move­ments; per­for­mances are gigs, not recitals. (In­ci­den­tally, Ack­royd sug­gests her pi­ano col­lec­tion Sketches.)

While his­tor­i­cally post-clas­si­cal mu­sic was the pre­serve of smaller, in­de­pen­dent la­bels – such as Fat­cat and Erased Tapes – the last few years has seen greater in­ter­est from larger-scale or­gan­i­sa­tions. In the spring, Sony Clas­si­cal an­nounced that it had signed Ger­man pi­anist­com­poser Volker Bertel­mann – known to fans un­der the moniker ★auschka – with a col­lec­tion of solo pi­ano works in the pipe­line. ★auschka is part of a group of per­form­ers who are re-en­er­gis­ing in­ter­est in pre­pared pi­ano, adding mod­ern-day ex­tras – ping-pong balls and pegs – to change tim­bres and bring­ing new­com­ers to the world of John Cage.

In 2017, Decca Records launched Mer­cury KX, an im­print for post-clas­si­cal mu­sic. ‘I felt that a new la­bel, with no spe­cific ties to any one genre, was the best way to achieve the best pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­ment for th­ese artists to thrive and to speak to their spe­cific au­di­ence,’ says Alex Buhr, Mer­cury KX founder. The free­dom en­cour­ages ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with tech­nol­ogy in ways that artists may not have been able to with more tra­di­tional routes. Mer­cury KX artist Ar­nalds has just started work­ing with his Stra­tus Pi­anos: two self-play­ing, semi-gen­er­a­tive player pi­anos that are trig­gered by a cen­tral pi­ano played by Ar­nalds him­self, us­ing cus­tom-built soft­ware cre­ated by the com­poser and au­dio de­vel­oper ★alldór Eld­járn.

As well as Ar­nalds, Mer­cury KX has three fur­ther com­poser-pi­anists on its ros­ter: Se­bas­tian Plano, Luke ★oward and Ger­man artist Lam­bert. The va­ri­ety of ap­proaches at­tracts a di­verse au­di­ence. ‘You have clas­si­cal mu­sic fans that ap­proach this mu­sic as an ex­ten­sion of the clas­si­cal mu­sic space,’ says Buhr. ‘But equally you have fans of other gen­res who come at this from a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. I think it will keep grow­ing and I think we will see ever more di­verse kinds of artists and mu­sic thriv­ing in it.’

Like any mu­si­cal move­ment – par­tic­u­larly one so new – there is huge vari­a­tion in styles and struc­ture. And no one is more re­spect­ful of their mu­si­cal fore­moth­ers than the mu­si­cians them­selves. ‘We do not pre­tend to be a “new Bach” of any sort,’ says Abe­lin firmly. ‘Bach him­self has done some­thing sim­i­lar with mu­sic by Vi­valdi, for ex­am­ple. So we’re just be­ing faith­ful to Bach’s own free spirit.’ This is the lynch­pin of post-clas­si­cal mu­sic: re­spect­ing the past while cre­at­ing works for the fu­ture.

A good eight hours: the night-long Sleep by Max Richter (inset) is per­formed in Austin, Texas

Tak­ing a fresh look: post-clas­si­cal artist Poppy Ack­royd

Ex­tra depth: Hauschka plays pre­pared pi­ano; bachspace amps up Bach (right)

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