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Modern-classical according to The Arts Desk

Posted 8 Apr 2010 by The Arts Desk

This month our friends at The Arts Desk have delved deep in the post-classical movement. As Owen Pallett has beautifully demonstrated in his latest Domino release "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" (featured in this month's HNE Podcast) there is a beautiful and captivating selection of hybrid classical & electronic music at the moment. Here are some insights into the many experimental artists that are successfully blurring the boundaries of "high" and "low" culture and sidestepping this distinction completely.

It used to be that when the world of orchestral music came into contact with pop culture, this would only produce painfully self-conscious fusions. One might snigger at prog rockers getting airs and graces as they showed off their virtuosity with classical themes, or at orchestras trying to act cool by recording "classic rock" albums. Of course there were exceptions - the soundtrack maestros like Ennio Moricone and Bernard Hermann or the haunting harmonics of Nick Drake or- but these were always well outside the world of the concert hall.

In particular the world of electronica has created its own ruleset: the complex harmonics of 1990s techno and electronic, in many cases closer to the modern classical world than they are to rock and pop. This has allowed, for example, legendary producer Jeff Mills to confound his reputation as atonal and pummelling by recording versions of his classic tracks live with the Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra, and Uwe Schmidt aka Atom™ to explore the history of the Viennese waltz on his stunning 'Liedgut' album. His fellow Detroit techno originator Carl Craig, together with Berlin's Moritz Von Oswald was able to remix classical recordings for the respected Deutsche Gramophon label - a project which had its live debut in London earlier this year - without it seeming incongruous. Meanwhile the London Sinfonietta and 20-piece New York ensemble Alarm Will Sound have both easily incorporated orchestral transcriptions of Aphex Twin tracks into their repertoire alongside pieces by the likes of Ligeti, Cage and Steve Reich.

Post-rock has provided an entirely different arena for musicians to escape the strictures of the guitar/drum format and expand into "post-classical" arrangements. Owen Pallett, formerly known as Final Fantasy but now recording solo under his own name, is renowned for his live show in which he electronically builds up rich layers of his own string playing to back his quirky songs - but he is just as comfortable arranging and playing for The Arcade Fire, Mika, Dirty Projectors and The Last Shadow Puppets. Likewise the playful chamber ensemble Clogs are just as able to form part of US mega-indie band The National or to record their own intimate and characterful albums, the latest of which includes choral and folk vocals along with their subtle orchestration. In the UK, Mark Beazley (formerly of Rothko), The North Sea Radio Orchestra and Message To Bears are just a few of the acts blending alternative rock, classical instrumentation, folk and more.

Then there are artists who don't even fit these definitions. Sister act CocoRosie, shortly to release their fourth album, blend ricketty beatboxes, toy instruments and psychedelic atmosphere and play the kooky, jazzy vocals of Bianca Casady against the rarified operatic tones and elegant harp playing of her sister Sierra, who was schooled in the Conservertoire De Paris. Swedish boy-girl duo The Knife, best known for their chilly and edgy electro-pop, have just baffled and delighted fans by releasing a double album of electronic opera based on the theories of Charles Darwin. Mancunian duo Demdike Stare are increasingly making waves with their sampling of avant-classical, obscure soundtracks, global and vintage psychedelic music into spooky dreamscapes. And the Type label is increasingly becoming a haven for one-off outsider composers - Jóhann Jóhannsson, Peter Broderick, Richard Skelton, Sylvain Chauveau and label boss John Xela - each with their own unique take on orchestral music with hints of ambient, drone, soundtracks and even doom metal!

But perhaps the poster boy for this kind of genre freedom is Nico Muhly. The 29-year-old New York-based composer played a show at the Roundhouse in London in January and, clad in glitter makeup and outré outfits, was greeted like a rockstar by the young and diverse audience. He is as at home working for the minimalist composer Philip Glass as he is with Björk, as au fait with 15th century religious music as he is with 21st century electronica. As part of the Iceland-based Bedroom Community collective along with Australian noise musician Ben Frost, Vermont folk singer Sam Amidon and Icelandic ambient producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, Muhly is able to skip fluently between styles and genres as easily as he can shift musical keys, without needing the permission or approval of any establishment, rock or classical. Which is exactly as it should be, right?


  1. Carl Craig & Moritz Von Oswald - Villalobos - Uli, mein ponyhof rmx
  2. Jeff Mills & The Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra - Imagine
  3. Carl Craig & Moritz Von Oswald - Movement 1
  4. Owen Pallett - Lewis Takes Off His Shirt
  5. Clogs - The Owl Of Love
  6. Mark Beazley - Three Twenty Five
  7. Message To Bears - Running Through Woodland
  8. Clogs - Cocodrillo
  9. Coco Rosie - Hopscotch
  10. The Knife in collaboration with M. Sims and Planningtorock
  11. Johann Johannsson - Theme
  12. Richard Skelton - Threads Across The River
  13. Sylvain Chauveau - Complexity of the Simple
  14. Nico Muhly - Mothertongue 1. Archive
  15. Mountain - Add Infinity
  16. Valgeir Sigurðsson - Grýlukvæði
  17. Atom™ - Mittlere Composition No. II

Til next month

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