Post-classical, or neo-classical, is a relatively new genre of contemporary music that combines digital, ambient effects with atmospheric, often slow-moving music.
Mind you, defining ‘contemporary classical’ music is fraught with complications in itself: 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.
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 Halperin 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 Halperin. ‘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 catch-all 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 non-classical influence as there is classical. How 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’. Halperin, 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, Halperin, 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 post-classical 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 pianist-composer Volker Bertelmann – known to fans under the moniker Hauschka – with a collection of solo piano works in the pipeline. Hauschka 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 Halldór Eldjárn.
As well as Arnalds, Mercury KX has three further composer-pianists on its roster: Sebastian Plano, Luke Howard 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.
Words by Claire Jackson