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Variously described as “neo-classical”, “classical crossover”, “post-classical” and even oddly “non-classical”, the genre is an inter-zone where streams converge and diverge at different times.
These days, contemporary classical is associated with the music created from the 1970s onwards, although you can view it as part of a larger post-World War II shift to the values of order, clarity, economy and emotional restraint in response to the more florid tendencies of late Romanticism.
Steeped in technological advances (which also gave birth to electronic music), pivoted on digital effects, tape loops and other repetitive structures, it has become an attractive shorthand for any platform where the past and the present dialogue, and rigour and experimentation are unexpected bedfellows. It taps into the nerdy obsessiveness and discipline required in mastering both classical and modern forms, particularly the armouries of gadgetry, digital and physical.
Such fluid, endless intersections are also why the music has become so pervasive, enacted in the unlikeliest of places, such as a former military bunker or a dingy underground club, as well as the most prestigious artsy venues. Mixed media and performance art are occasionally part of the presentation, integral to the appreciation of a genre that draws on its multi-disciplinary roots.
On both sides of the Atlantic pond, there have been formative flirtations. Electronic artists drew inspiration from avant-garde composers such as Greek-French theorist-architect Iannis Xenakis and German icon Karlheinz Stockhausen as well as Krautrock bands such as Can and Kraftwerk. A landmark was achieved in the mid-1990s when pioneering English electronic dance wizard Aphex Twin reportedly asked American minimalist composer Philip Glass to collaborate on a version of the former’s track Icct Hedral. The result is an exciting hybrid revamp which showcases the best of electronic and classical forms, illumed by strings, brass and human voices.
Throughout their career since the 1970s, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet have also been effective bridgers between classical and pop fields, working with a motley crew of artists such as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, performance artist Laurie Anderson, jazz composer Pat Metheny and Brazilian electronic DJ Amon Tobin.
The phenomenon reached a watershed in the 2000s when the genre became legitimised through more formal avenues. Independent labels started to sprout, such as Erased Tapes in London in 2007; and New Amsterdam in New York City in 2008.
Most pundits, however, agree that FatCat, a label based in Brighton, England, deserves the accolades for laying the foundation back in 2001.
It launched a sub-label, 130701, on 13 Jul 2001 (hence its name), signing artists such as German-British composer Max Richter, Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson and American Dustin J. O’Halloran. In a 2015 interview, Dave Howell, who has run the label since Day One, pinpointed the release of Sings Reign Rebuilder, the debut album by a Canadian experimental band Set Fire To Flames (comprising members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor), for the birth of the label.
Revered German classical label Deutsche Grammophon got on the bandwagon with the launch of its ReComposed series in 2006, signing on artists like Finnish musician Jimi Tenor, British electronic musician Matthew Herbert and Max Richter (who jumped ship from 130701).
The last decade or so has seen a proliferation of media platforms and sold-out venues. A sign of the times? Rock and pop glitterati are increasingly toying with composition and presentation in order to break out of generic strictures. A fan of American minimalist composer Steve Reich, Icelandic star Bjork has worked with Herbert, Detroit-born avant-garde harpist Zeena Parkins and Baltimore experimental electronic duo Matmos.
Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is enjoying a parallel career as a film composer for his stellar work, incorporating classical, rock and avant jazz elements for Oscar-nominated soundtracks for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) as well as Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2018).
O’Halloran has also received plaudits as one-half of the ambient duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen who scored the British 2017 film God’s Own Country, as well as his work with Erased Tapes’ label-mate Hauschka for the 2016 Oscar-nominated Lion.
At home, an independent collective such as Kitchen.Label has also imbibed the spirit of the genre’s cross-pollination as well as its minimalist aesthetics. It has under its roster such artists as Japanese producer Haruka Nakamura, Greek composer Zinovia Arvanitidi and Singapore’s very own sonicbrat aka Darren Ng; Hanging Up The Moon, the ambient folk project of Concave Scream’s frontman Sean Lam; as well as Aspidistrafly, the ambient outing of Kitchen owner Ricks Ang and singer-songwriter April Lee.
Hails from: Hamburg, Germany, but now based in Berlin.
Known for: Being the “cult king of ambient piano”; the rock star of the neo-classical movement. He regularly sold out shows, including the four nights at London’s Barbican Centre in February, for which tickets were sold out even before a note of his seventh studio release, All Melody, was even heard.
The music: The 35-year-old is feted for his delicately unconventional approach towards music-making, often rewiring the piano, and connecting it to assorted instrumentation. For Felt, his 2011 album on Erased Tapes, he attached felt to the hammers of his piano (so that he can play it at night) and recorded the sound with the microphones deep within the piano. Each of the nine pieces for Screws (2012) was played with nine fingers because there were screws in his broken thumb. All Melody was recorded in a 1950s East German broadcast centre with the sounds channelled through a reverb chamber.
Check out: His stunning 2013 live album, Spaces, brandishes recordings titled Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone; and For – Peter – Toilet Brushes – More, which features, yes, an innovative use of toilet brushes.
Hails from: Mosfellsbær, Iceland.
Known for: His frequent collaborations with Nils Frahm, and being the cousin of Ólöf Arnalds, the pop-folk singer-songwriter. A prominent musician in his own right, the 31-year-old mixes strings and piano with loops and beats that hail from the dance and pop fields. A one-time drummer of a hardcore/metal band, he is also one-half of an experimental dance outfit called Kiasmos, together with Janus Rasmussen from the Faroe Islands; and once toured with Sigur Ros. He has also composed soundtracks for TV and film such as the TV series Broadchurch (2015).
The music: As a neo-classical composer, he makes thoughtful music which invokes clichéd but still bewitching landscapes of his country. His 2010 album, …And They Have Escaped The Weight of Darkness, might have been inspired by the film Werckmeister Harmonies by Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, but its default mode is glacial minimalism, occasionally erupting in rock flourish towards the end.
Check out: For Now I Am Winter, his 2013 album, swirls with plangent melodies which caresses and tinkles. Augmented by American composer Nico Muhly’s discreet orchestrations and the pristine purring of fellow Icelander Arnór Dan, this takes the more ambient end of neo-classicism alongside American Peter Broderick.
Hails from: Turin, Piedmont, Italy.
Known for: Being the most streamed classical artist in the world, with more followers on Spotify than Mozart and Beethoven. The New York Times calls him “a classical artist for the YouTube age”, while The Guardian crowns him as a classical superstar who looks like “a more stylish Larry David” (the creator of such iconic TV comedies as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm). His eclectic fans include the likes of Ricky Gervais, Iggy Pop, Nicki Minaj and Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang.
The music: At 62, he is the avuncular rebuke to the snooty, elitist establishment, saying he doesn’t “crave the acceptance in the classical world”. His style is soft, soothing and meditative, yet appealing to a youthful demographic. His open-ness explains his populist approach. His first solo piano album, Le Onde (1996), was based on the novel The Waves by Virginia Woolf, while his 2009 album, Nightbook, was inspired by the Whitetree Project, a trio Einaudi formed with To Rococo Rot, a German electronic band. His music is often used in films and television, such as the 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here, and the British film and TV series This Is England (2006).
Check out: The YouTube clip for Elegy for the Arctic, which was filmed by Greenpeace as he played the piano on a floating platform beside glaciers collapsing into the Arctic Ocean. It has been watched a staggering 7.4 million times so far.
Hailed from: Reykjavik, Iceland
Known for: Being regarded as “an introverted genius” by director Garth Davis, whose latest film Mary Magdalene was soundtracked by Jóhannsson. Before he died suddenly in Berlin aged 48 in February 2018, the Icelander had amassed an impressive portfolio composing music for dance, theatre, television and films, including award-winning/nominated scores for Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016), as well as James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything (2014).
The music: Jóhannsson has built a reputation for his tactile quality, which creeps into your mind like ghostly visitations. For the suspenseful Sicario, he recruited a 65-piece orchestra to create barely contained intensity, and for his last solo album Orphee (2016), he shades the chiaroscuro of emotions with an agile use of piano, drone, strings and choral accompaniment.
Check out: His unsettlingly precise soundtrack for Arrival, which communicates the subterranean terror of a civilisation which cannot comprehend the presence of an alien race—with just a single piano note motif, or a swell of inexplicable whirrs.
Vinyl albums by Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds are available at The Analog Vault at the Esplanade Mall
Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer, editor and arts curator. He has been working in the media industry for more than two decades, including as entertainment editor and music reviewer, in various newspapers such as Life, The Straits Times, 8 Days and My Paper. An editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, he served as Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival from 2015 to 2018, and helped launch the nationwide music platform, Hear65, when he was working at the National Arts Council.
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Beloved by millions, Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi makes his long-awaited return to Esplanade after his sold-out Singapore debut in 2020.