From Bjork to Radiohead, contemporary classical musicians find inspiration in some unlikely places.
Classical music is continually proving its timeless potential, with contemporary breakout genres such as minimalism, as well as rock stars establishing themselves as serious classical musicians on the side of their bands. Though it is not viewed on the same level as modern visual arts or indeed pop music, Professor Stephen Cottrell, head of department of Music at City University London, says that modern classical music is “still important in the way of contemporary literature, contemporary art, contemporary drama”, pointing out that most Western countries “continue to pump large sums of money into it to sustain orchestras and the fabric of classical music.”
Here are 10 essential contemporary classical music artists you need to be listening to.
Alongside his longtime friend Philip Glass, 78 year-old Steve Reich is arguably the godfather of minimal neo-classical music. A true innovator since the 1960s, his use of devices such as tape looping and clapping has inspired not just neo-classical, but music of many genres and pushed them further in terms of instrumental possibility. In an interview with The Guardian, he said: “What my generation did wasn’t a revolution, it was a restoration of harmony and rhythm in a whole new way, but it did bring back those essentials that people wanted, that people craved, but in a way they hadn’t heard.” Works such as ‘Electric Counterpoint’ are as beguiling as they are fascinating.
Though he may not be a household name, American Nico Muhly has worked with contemporary musicians and influential pop artists, from Philip Glass to Bjork. The 33 year-old lives in New York, having studied at the Juilliard School for performing arts. Muhly takes a minimal and diverse approach to his classical music, and some of his works have been performed at the Proms and Carnegie Hall. His piece ‘Gait’ uses individual instruments of the orchestra to express the various forms of animal movement, whereas ‘Drones in Large Cycles’ is more akin to Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works than ‘Carnival of the Animals’.
The 79 year-old Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been writing minimal classical music since the 1970s. His early classical compositions in the 1960s were written in resistance to the Soviet regime in Estonia, his piece ‘Credo’ causing controversy with the atheist regime due to its religious undertones. He managed to retain his job in the Estonia Philharmonic organisation only because there was no-one to replace him. Pärt later developed his own distinct style with ‘Tintinnabuli’ in the 1970’s, which is characterised by two distinct lines – a rising and falling melody, and a harmonising triad, which is a prominent chord in Western music. Much of his music is associated with holy minimalism, a school of minimalism tied to religious influences. Pärt now lives in Germany and continues to compose.
American composer Greenstein creates beat-driven classic music. Despite being ingrained in the classical world, he cut his teeth making hip-hop beats when he was a youngster in New York, which influenced his beat-orientated sound. His classical pieces combine elements of his urban cultural upbringing with a harmonic classical sound, and he has written pieces for both solo performers and ensembles. You can hear his style in pieces such as ‘Four on the Floor’.
Richard Reed Parry
Better known as a member of indie rock band Arcade Fire, 37 year-old Canadian Richard Reed Parry moonlights as a classical musician. His first album, Music for Heart and Breath, was released last year and the music is played on an ensemble of instruments including violins, double bass and piano, paced to the musicians’ heartbeats, each wearing a stethoscope as they play.
Indie rock titans apparently have a knack for classical side projects, none more so than 38 year-old Bryce Dessner from Ohio rock band The National. He works closely with the acclaimed San Francisco string quartet the Kronos Quartet, and has been commissioned to write various compositions ranging from ‘To The Sea’ with British painter Matthew Ritchie for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to curating an upcoming festival at the Barbican. His music also draws upon Philip Glass-influenced minimalism and baroque elements, and some of his more recent works have taken inspiration from unlikely sources, such as the work of Beat writer Jack Kerouac.
Soosan Lolavar is a British-Iranian musician and an ’embedded composer’ at the Southbank Centre, creating works for the newly restored grand organ in the main hall of the Royal Festival Hall. Her British and Iranian heritage inspired the eclectic piece ‘Only Sound Remains’, after she went to Tehran for a month and returned to the UK to work with Farsi-speaking people living in the here. She says: “Like all forms of avant-garde culture, it is about testing the limits of society. Contemporary classical music is often not immediately gratifying or easily digestible and the process of wrestling with its difficulty is an enriching one. Most of the software now used by bedroom DJs and producers across all forms of pop music can be traced back to advances in contemporary classical music.”
Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas is the current director of the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami, Florida, that is that is the only academy in the US that prepares young musicians for symphony orchestras. Tilson Thomas, 70, founded New World Symphony 28 years ago and his ethic as its artistic director, as well as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, has ensured an innovative classical music experience for a new generation.
Michael Gordon is a 58 year-old American artist who founded the Bang on a Can Festival in New York, which showcases contemporary classical music. In the past, the festival has included hours of uninterrupted music. The composer’s music uses an eclectic mix of genres, from jazz to punk rock, and he has also reworked Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Gordon is notable for using other forms of media: for example, in ‘Decasia’, he surrounded the audience with the orchestra and video projections.
No contemporary classical list would be complete without Jonny Greenwood. Like rock musicians Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner, the 43 year-old is best known for being a guitarist in English band Radiohead. Greenwood also has a prolific career as a composer. He has soundtracked films such as There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice with his distinct, eerie string sound and gained the respect of Steve Reich. He has also worked with renowned Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Not bad for one of the best guitarists in contemporary rock.