I played a concert in Münster with Piano Interrupted a little while back. Everything went swimmingly and at the end our host came out to thank us and said something along the lines of: "I'm not sure how to describe the music we just heard or what genre it was, but it was really beautiful." (I say 'something along the lines of' because my German is far from perfect)
And so I resolved to write a blog about the mess of genre definitions created by adding one charming little prefix such as 'post', 'alt', 'non' or 'un', then a hyphen, and following it with the word 'classical', and I enlisted Monique Recknagel from Sonic Pieces and one of my label mates on Denovali, Poppy Ackroyd, for help.
Everyone has their own version of "prefix hyphen classical." For me it is that enormous melting pot where minimalism, film score, groove-based jazz, electronica, post-rock and certain bits of pop music all collide. For Poppy, it is a rather more focused connection between two sources: a classical sensibility and an electronic one. "My music is I suppose a logical mix of the classical music I studied and the more electronic music that I have been listening to for the last 15 years."
But trying to define things is a different matter altogether.
"I had no idea that there was seemingly similar music being created when I started to seriously compose a few years ago. My inspiration came from collaborations with artists and dancers rather than from being influenced by other musicians. I am not at all thinking of the style of music I am writing during the process. It is a direct expression of me and I hope that people will like it but it is not trying to be anything more than what it is or to fit in with anything else."
And this is of course exactly how it should be. All you can and should do is write the music that you feel. Being a part of a broad wave of new music in any genre is invigorating, but trying to define that wave, especially for the artist, makes little difference. I feel sure it was always thus.
The 'prefix hyphen classical' movement often seems to link (or even stem from combining) rigorous classical training with our digital-age ears.
"There are a lot of young people who are studying classical music and listening to something a bit different. There is so much music easily available now that people's tastes are becoming much more eclectic and open minded which is wonderful." (Poppy Ackroyd)
But with my music enthusiast hat on, I can understand why people search for a definition. We all like a point of reference. Some would even say it is part of the human disposition to categorise things.
Monique Recknagel acknowledges it as an 'unfortunate' necessity:
"It's essential to communicate, promote and sell records. Genres help press, distributors and shops to describe music and therefore give the potential listener some kind of information about what to expect from a record."
Sonic Pieces has releases by Nils Frahm, Hauschka, Greg Haines and Dustin O'Halloran to name just a small handful- all of whom potentially fall into our 'genre that shall not be named.' So of course I asked Monique specifically to put a name to it.
After much struggle, she navigated past any dangerous hyphenated words and plumped for "contemporary classical music, a lot of piano and strings, often played in a more experimental way, some electronica, in general rather quiet music." with the extensive caveat that
"no matter how hard I try I usually end up being unsatisfied and feel that my conversational partner still doesn't know what kind of music I'm releasing. I think a reason for this is that a lot of the music falls between the cracks, which at the same time is also the reason that this music appears most appealing to me."In other words, the label becomes the genre.
"Maybe in the end it's also the label that represents a genre, and I believe that labels have a certain responsibility towards the audience with what they release. It's important to be selective and develop a label sound that is recognisable and challenging at the same time. "
Indeed a recent review from Experimedia of Piano Interrupted's debut album stated: "In many ways, Two by Four is the sound of Denovali captured into one concise album." For the reviewer of our album, the genre was Denovali.
Standard practice for me if I am seeking out new music is to pick an artist that I like and then listen to other artists from the same record label. Sonic Pieces is a good example, as is Erased Tapes. In jazz, ECM immediately jumps to mind, or equally labels like Traum and Ghostly in the electronica world.
As a parting thought, I offered up the suggestion that this new music might be considered a 'film score to the imagination.' And this idea certainly seemed to resonate. This deeply-uncategorisable, between-the-cracks, prefix-hyphen-classical music, is in Poppy's words just like "a score for a film that exists only in your mind."
And that is adequate enough genre description for me.
I have just discovered that online debate is fierce when it comes to one particularly thorny term: indie-classical.
Unsurprisingly much of it was focused around everyone's favourite (but violently reluctant) indie-classical poster-boy Nico Muhly, who sums up his position beautifully: "I have an opera at the MET. It does not get any less indie than that."
Follow Tom Hodge on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tom_hodge