In the Spotlight: Post-Classical

Classical music is hard. There’s no way around it. The path towards becoming a competent, let alone masterful classical musician is arduous—filled with hours of repeating arpeggios, working out fingerings, playing long tones, and holed up in a practice room and questioning one’s lot in life. Many musicians begin their careers this way and end up discovering that these rigid, demanding parametres don’t quite fit with their creative process (author of this article included). What’s left is a musician full of training and hopefully some remnants of inspiration with nowhere to go. Without sticking to your daily regimen of those arpeggios, classical performance becomes a very daunting beast. The same can be said for the composition side of things. If your particular tastes as a composer don’t quite fall in line with dense textures and mathematical themes, you can quickly become a pariah in the eyes of the classical establishment. What to do then?

The answer for many in this position has been a genre shift to a style with the immediacy of expression found in popular music coupled with the leftover techniques acquired from a rigorous classical training. The results are diverse and almost entirely satisfying. Some musicians retain many aesthetics from the classical world and create styles unique to themselves, while others apply their skills to already established genres. The most notable examples of this would arguably be Burt Bacharach and Quincy Jones, two of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century. Bacharach studied with a who’s who of 20th Century composers and teachers, including Darius Milhaud, one of the first composers to mix popular and classical styles, Bohuslav  Martinů, Henry Cowell, and Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger is widely considered the most influential composition teacher of the past 100 years and taught the likes of Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla, Elliott Carter, and Aaron Copland. Quincy Jones also spent time studying with Boulanger along with the French master, Olivier Messiaen.

Milhaud. Scaramouche – Martha Argerich & Evgeny Kissin

More recently, some new composers have been making some exciting music that could still arguably fit in the mold of being “classical” in one way or another yet integrates aesthetics and ideas from more diverse genres. Some forms of minimalism can fit this mold, Philip Glass being the prime example, but this has been evolving to become something different. A personal favourite would have to be Max Richter, a British film composer who also creates and releases his own albums. Like the previous examples, Richter has an impressive pedigree, most notably studying with the avant-garde composers Luciano Berio in Italy. Since then though, his music has evolved into something very accessible yet still rooted in strong structures. Take, for example, the song “On the Nature of Daylight,” from Richter’s album The Blue Notebooks.

Max Richter – “On the Nature of Daylight”

Composed for string quartet, the music immediately strikes you with its aching beauty and clear structure. The album itself is inspired by Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks and even features some readings by the actress Tilda Swinton. Richter describes his style as “post-classical,” something that is very evident in his most recent project, a “re-composing” of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. In this fascinating project, Richter re-forms the original score—purists beware—and updates it to suit our modern earns. The most striking examples are these dance club renditions, taken from Vivaldi’s original “Spring 1” and “Autumn 3“. The full performance of this work, along with another of his albums, Infra, can be found here, live at the Poisson Rouge in New York:

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi's Four Seasons – Tito Muñoz/Daniel Hope/Ensemble LPR

Some other musicians have bridged the divide, composing music in both popular and classical genres. Bryce Dessner is a guitarist and songwriter for the very popular sad-rock band The National but spent his early days studying classical Guitar at Yale and rubbing elbows with composers like Steve Reich. Dessner, along with his twin brother Aaron, are the primary songwriters for The National and their style is often marked by pulsating and structured rhythmic undercurrents, much like Reich’s own compositions. However, he also composes stand-alone classical works, with a collection of his music for string quartet performed by the Kronos Quartet just having been released. The title track “Aheym” is a bracing composition, pulsing with exciting, nervous energy from start to finish. Not as straight forward as a rock song, but just as bracing.

The National – “Don't Swallow the Cap”

Kronos Quartet With Bryce Dessner – “Aheym”

Canada too has been lending its voice to this trend. The Canadian Opera Company in Toronto has announced that their first main stage production of an original Canadian opera in more than a decade will be composed by Rufus Wainwright. The opera, titled Hadrian, will premiere in 2018 and is a revolutionary move not only because of the reappearance of homegrown Canadian opera on our country’s most prominent stage, but because they chose someone from outside the genre to compose the work. Wainwright does have past experience with classical composition, composing an opera entitled Prima Donna in 2009, however he lends his talents primarily to his other life as a singer-songwriter (as a quick aside, I feel the need to note that Calgary Opera has been quietly and successfully commissioning new Canadian operas for a number of years now). This will not only bring new life to the genre itself but likely to the audience attending the production as well, since the scope of his popularity will reach far beyond the usual classical-oriented audience.

New York City Opera – Prima Donna by Rufus Wainwright at Works & Process at the Guggenheim

In a similar vein to the Canadian Opera Company project is a recording released in 2011 by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, From Here on Out, featuring some unlikely composers and spearheaded by their innovative and adventurous music director Edwin Outwater. The disc features compositions by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Arcade fire multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, and genre-hopping composer Nico Muhly. The disc is a breath of fresh air, especially in the world of orchestral classical recordings. Much like the Dessner track “Aheym,” the music is captivating and pulls you in with rhythmic energy and satisfying harmonies. The project even grabbed the attention of American media, something that is, not surprisingly, often difficult for most Canadian symphony orchestras.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself that classical music isn’t quite your thing, these musicians and groups may be a good place to start. The music is complex without being complicated and accessible without being trite. Who knows, it could just get you on to Beethoven, Brahms, and Berio someday.

– Nathan Schmidt

The National Music Centre Mailing List

Subscribe to receive news, updates and special promotions.