The breakdown of boundaries between classical music’s hallowed spaces and the rest of music isn’t a new thing. After all, techno and electronica artists have taken influence from experimentalists like Stockhausen, Reich and Xenakis from the very start, and prog rock, soul, disco, jazz and movie soundtracks have all brought complex orchestrations into pop culture consciousness for decades too. There have always been composers and instrumentalists, like Harry Partch, Arthur Russell, Meredith Monk and Charlemagne Palestine who existed somewhere in between the standard categories – but these were exceptions that proved the distinctness of the different musical worlds.
Image Credit: Gabriel Prokofiev
It’s really this century that the traffic between pop, underground, and the concert halls and academies of “high culture” really started to grow exponentially, though. In 2001, the electronica and experimental label FatCat set up their 130701 imprint, releasing composers like Max Richter. The NonClassical label was founded by Gabriel Prokofiev – grandson of the great Sergei – in 2004, and the same year, WARP Records teamed up with the London Sinfonietta to perform works by artists like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin. In 2006, the world’s oldest record label Deutsche Grammophon launched its Recomposed series for which electronic artists reworked classical pieces – The Erased Tapes label was founded the following year, helping bring major crossover artists like Nils Frahm, A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Ólafur Arnalds to global attention.
By the mid 2010s, this interzone had broken well into the mainstream. A tipping point came in 2015 when DJ Mary Anne Hobbs curated a BBC Prom Concert featuring Frahm and AWVftS, bringing them into the figurative heart of the classical establishment. And still today the popularity of exploratory orchestral music continues to spread: as we noted on Mixtape last year, the immersive world of “prestige TV” box set soundtracks is altering people’s listening habits and acclimatising them to sounds and ideas formerly thought of as avant-garde.
Image Credit: Gabriel Prokofiev
Still the question remains, though: what do you call it? It’s now perfectly normal for artists to incorporate classical and avant-garde composition and playing into alternative rock, electronica, ambient and club styles. And a listen to BBC Radio 3 – the heart of the classical establishment in many ways – shows that folk, blues, jazz and experimental sounds are now absorbed easily into their programming: a regular “Classical Mixtape” even showing how classical and related sounds can be treated as part of DJ culture.
A few key releases coming up this summer epitomise this. One of this year’s best albums is Será que ahora podremos entendernos (“Will we be able to understand each other now?”) by Guatemalan cellist / singer / producer Mabe Fratti, which happily flows across all these boundaries. Gabriel Prokofiev’s upcoming BREAKING SCREENS with Moscow’s OpenSoundOrchestra moves effortlessly from romantic string themes to glitchy grime. Another cellist, Lucy Railton – who has released in the past on the connoisseurs’ techno label Modern Love – has Subaerial, an album of extraordinary, intense improvisations with organist Kit Downes, on the way.
Image Credit: Lucy Railton & Kit Downes Duo #2 © Cristina Marx & Alex Bonney
Equally remarkable is Earth Mothers by Clair – who despite many years in the Glasgow music scene only began making music herself last year as a therapeutic act in lockdown, but despite zero training has somehow managed to channel a long and deep history of minimalism, electronica and ritual sound-making. And even more of a latecomer to music is Frances Shelley, the 71 year old musician who only started composing in her 60s, whose Songs of Possibility captures a dreamy mood bordering on the new age.
Where exactly these glorious records fit among the traditional categories of rock, jazz, electronic music and so forth – let alone classical – is unclear. They are all being released on indie labels, promoted and consumed in the same way as any other alternative music, after all, but there isn’t really a name for what they are. But then maybe that is simply illustrative of the nature of this cultural era: maybe the way we access music in the digital world is increasingly pushing us beyond genre as such, which could certainly explain the increasing lack of any need for a co-sign from “the classical world” to release music like this. Maybe there doesn’t need to be a name for it at all. But the musically curious will, of course, continue to map influences and categorise their collections. So with that in mind, we invite you to try our latest playlist and ask yourself ... “But is it Classical?”
Cover Image: Lucy Railton & Kit Downes Duo #1 © Alex Bonney
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs