The New Classical: how the next generation of composers and labels is challenging classical music’s status quo

The classical establishment may be forced to recognise contemporary composers for its own survival

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The Independent Culture

“What happens in the space where genres, sounds and ideas collide?” asked the Barbican when it invited the German pianist and composer Nils Frahm to put together a weekend of music in July.

Here’s what happened: Frahm’s show sold out in minutes. The event was heralded by BBC radio DJ Gilles Peterson, who invited Frahm to join him on his Saturday show. The Guardian printed a huge profile. Even Resident Advisor, the online electronic music community, went along to review, acknowledging Frahm’s crossover appeal among DJs and club devotees. 

One thing didn’t happen. “Not one reviewer from the classical press came,” said Harriet Moss, creative director of a new contemporary classical record label called Cognitive Shift. “Partly because they don’t know where to put it.”

The classical establishment may soon have to figure out where to put contemporary composers, if only for its own survival.

Classical contemporary has been weaving its way into the mainstream for the best part of a decade thanks to high-profile supporters like Mary Anne Hobbs, the BBC radio DJ. She brought Frahm to a new audience when she premiered “Says” on her show in 2013 and watched a global audience mirror her own emotional response to the track. 

“That one track became a global touchstone, it’s had more than one million listens on Soundcloud,” she said. When Hobbs wanted to convince Bob Shennan, the Head of BBC Music, to do a contemporary classical prom, she sent him that song. “He went for it in a heartbeat,” she said and, sure enough, Frahm and some of his peers performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 2015 in an evening “exploring the borderlands of classical music”.

Hobbs calls Frahm “the Skepta of his genre”. Like Skepta has done for grime, Frahm has introduced a new audience to his music. Through him, listeners have discovered a generation of classically trained artists who are breaking out of the constraints of practice rooms and concert halls.

Stephen Bass, co-founder of the independent record label Moshi Moshi, set up an imprint called PRAH in 2013 to support these kinds of artists.

The idea came after he went to a party on Abbey Road for a big classical label and realised that publishers in this world were recording the same stable of classical works over and over again. “It seemed ridiculous! How does it even exist?” he said. 

When Bass looked at his hard drive, it was full of free music that he no longer found satisfying: “We’re in a world where you get all this music, almost too much of it, you’re not sure what you want to listen to. PRAH started to support the idea of slower music, not in terms of tempo but in listening habits, because sometimes the music you work at is more satisfying.”

PRAH’s rising star, the cellist Oliver Coates, surprised a packed tent of early risers at Green Man festival. His solo show turned Radiohead samples and Boards of Canada songs upside down with loop pedals and lots of reverb. “I felt comfortable there, like I was landing,” Coates said a few days later.

It's important to me that I don't know what kind of musician I am

Oliver Coates

He described a lifetime of listening to and playing contemporary music as an escape from his classical training; “from playing [Saint-Saens] ‘The Swan’ or whatever – which I will always love doing forever”. The classical establishment rewarded his studies with an award for young artist of the year in 2011, but his contemporary output has not always been well received. A Guardian classical review gave him a measly two stars for an experimental concert “with no real meat” in 2015. 

But Coates doesn’t care whether he is considered classical or not. “It’s important to me that I don’t know what kind of musician I am,” he said.

His thoughts are echoed by Roger Goula, a classically trained Spanish guitarist who has just released an album called Overview Effect, which mixes live strings and electronics. “The album is a sort of commission,” he said, referring to the classical tradition of commissioning an artist to write for an occasion.

“The idea behind it was to remain truthful to who I am as a composer and be honest with the material. The material should tell me what the album is and who I am now.”

The commission came from label Cognitive Shift, which launched in April 2016. “Roger makes my favourite type of music but there’s little of it about. It’s either an electronic album with some strings on it or a classical album with some electronics, but that can be a little contrived,” said label founder Bob McDade. “We wanted to to fill the gap with artists genuinely between the two.”

The cellist and composer Oliver Coates (Moshi Moshi)

Goula premiered his album with two shows: one at the Servant’s Jazz Quarters in Dalston and another upstairs at Foyles bookstore in London, where people lounged on the floor cradling drinks. It had taken him six months to work out how to play the music live and he was rewarded by thoughtful listeners in informal spaces.

“The live element is a huge part of it,” said Sofia Ilyas, founder of Float PR, whose clients include Coates and Frahm. “People want to see someone play.” 

That’s a lifeline for concert venue programmers like Chris Sharp, who booked Frahm’s event at the Barbican. Sharp, who used to work for independent label 4AD, realised some time ago that there was a sound emerging that took its cues from formal music but shared the spirit of Warp artists working with electronics. 

“I realised there was a growing audience of people who grew up on club music who were used to listening to music for timbre and texture, rather than vocals, who were listening to music for the experience, who could graduate from Aphex Twin to this. That’s taken a long time, maybe 10 years,” he said.

Booking this kind of music is part of the audience strategy at the Barbican. Big concert venues are beginning to recognise that they must attract the next generation of serious concert-goers to survive. “With the absence of music education in schools, where is the audience for Brahms in 30 years’ time? Demographically, that’s an ageing audience. It makes sense for us to broaden the scope of what concert music is,” Sharp said.

Contemporary classical may finally cross over when minimalist composers who have long been working “at the borders”, like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, are no longer around to perform their own works, making space for a new generation.

Eventually the minimalists, along with young artists like Frahm, Coates and Goula, may exist purely as part of the classical publishing business, where old work is performed and recorded over and over again. Or perhaps they will all be welcomed into a new world of classical music, where living composers are considered with as much seriousness as dead ones.

In the meantime, as labels and venues gather to support composers taking their experimental work to stages, the cracks in the walls will grow.