Neo-classical The Unexciting Mixture

Hauschka rehearsing with members of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
Hauschka rehearsing with members of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. | Photo (detail): © Ralf Dombrowski

Their names are Max Richter, Hauschka and Nils Frahm, and they are pioneers of a trend that blurs the old boundaries. For “neo-classical” has reached an audience that has little use for the concert tradition. And it is more and more asserting its artistic independence.

Munich, the end of April 2016: the party has been going on for a couple of hours in the club “Rote Sonne” (i.e. Red Sun) when an inconspicuous curly-headed figure mounts the stage. His kingdom on this evening is barely two square metres and installed at the edge of the dance floor. On a table are stacked a synthesizer, laptop and drum computer. Francesco Tristano positions himself. A few weeks earlier the Luxembourgian pianist had performed a concert with the Orchestre National de Lille. A programme containing music by Gershwin for a large concert hall. Now it is three in the morning and he is standing on stage in a club before a crowd of party people. Almost no one here knows that in professional circles and the press his music is discussed under the label of “neo-classical”.

New artists, new locations

Max Richter, Hauschka, Federico Albanese, Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds and Francesco Tristano. Those are the names in the so-called neo-classical scene: musicians and composers who are currently enjoying success by experimenting with a mixture of serious and light music, often on the piano and frequently with a considerable array of technology. Not all have an education in classical music. But all combine classical composition patterns with contemporary ways of thinking and means of production, and thereby place their fingers firmly on the pulse of the times. Through the streaming service Spotify, they reach several million listeners a month.

And they also fill classical concert halls with their fans. The appearance at the Berlin Philharmonic in March 2014 of Nils Frahm, who has made the city his home, was sold out in a few days. Also in 2014 the Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds received the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for his music for the British crime series Broadchurch. Together with Frahm he will appears in May at the Louvre in Paris. So, is neo-classical, in spite of or perhaps because if its name, actually a pop trend? Or even a label that guarantees good box office?

A middle style

It is striking, to begin with, who in recent years has been particularly engaged in the discussion about the term “neo-classical”: namely the relevant pop media. In 2005, for instance, the now defunct Berlin magazine De:Bug, the magazine “for life with electronic music”, already published a detailed “Neo-Classical Special Issue”. In its March/April issue of 2016, the pop culture magazine Spex presented a survey on the status quo of “neo-classical”.

The authors were agreed that the balancing act between the two music worlds, the overlapping of classical stylistic devices with the pop inventory, was not entirely new: for those contemporaries with receptive ears, Philip Glass was already composing catchy soundtracks in the late 1970s. As a pioneer of crossover, the British super-group Emerson Lake and Palmer recorded in 1971 the live album Pictures of an Exhibition, a direct reference to the eponymous composition by Modest Mussorgsky, upon which it is based. But the fusion of hip-hop and metal, jazz and funk, was later also called “crossover”. The term “neo-classical” therefore is now used for the combination of electronic and classical music. How does a typical neo-classical piece of music sound?

For example, Bruckner

Mäßig bewegt (i.e. At a Moderate Tempo) is the title of the piece with which the French composer François Larini, aka S/QU/NC/R, who lives in London, won first prize at the international competition Remix Contest “Romantic Revolution – bruckner unlimited”. The Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO) called upon remixers and re-arrangers to “give” the finale of Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, better known as the “Romantic”, “their own notes”. As working material, the DSO made available for download twenty component passages in individual voices from Bruckner’s composition.

The competition, which took place for the second time, is intended to foster the fusion of the genres of classical and electronic music. Larini impressed the jury with his very atmospheric mix, containing a lot of static and some crackling – that is, what is usually called “dirty noise” between the notes. His mix thus much resembles what Ólafur Arnalds does with the computer and Nils Frahm with the prepared piano.
Nils Frahm at the Montreux Jazz Festival 2015, source: Montreux Jazz Festival / Nils Frahm / Youtube

Liberation for the musicians too

This music sounds unexcited, even unproblematic. The pulse of neo-classical beats to melodiousness and catchiness, and this with a high proportion of bass, typical of the clubbing world. Why does this go down so well with the mainly young audience? Some critics explain the success of neo-classical as a kind of escape into such sound worlds. There’s enough stress out there, where the crises are clamouring. But perhaps the hand-played interpretations also answer to the increasing need for authenticity in times of digitalization.

And for the musicians themselves this broad acceptance also represents a reciprocal liberation. “It’s not so demanding of the listener”, says Francesco Tristano of his own composition A Soft Shell Groove, which along with works by Igor Stravinsky and Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov found their way onto one of his most recent CDs. And he doesn’t mean this in a derogatory sense. After all the fortissimi and crescendi, he says, this “just somehow comes as a relief”.

It also means that the artists and composers do not see themselves as promoters of an historical system that has a hard time with young listeners, little interested in traditional canons of aesthetic values. They use rather musical design strategies that are predominantly rooted in the European sound tradition and thereby ignore the avant-garde dogma that everything must be created from scratch. Classical forms for them belong to the inventory of a composer’s construction kit, which yields pleasantly challenging reinterpretations of the tried and true with the possibility of an opening in the direction of pop and world music inspirations.

It is a “relief” from the intellectual compulsion imposed by a constantly growing music history, chronologically building on itself in cumulative stages of development. The success of neo-classical with the public and the potential curiosity-effect in the direction of the classical music scene are difficult to quantify. One thing, however, is clear: neo-classical is a success. It attracts new, often younger listeners, for whom the concert-going habits of earlier generations have become unfamiliar. Perhaps it will induce someone who has found access through Nils Frahm, Max Richter or Hauschka eventually to end up with Pierre Boulez, Helmut Lachenmann or Jörg Widmann. This, however, is hardly a sure thing.