As humans we love to label things, and to find the right boxes in which things can sit. This is often particularly true for us music nerds. I remember the days of record stores, where things were firmly in different zones and classical music was kept behind a hushed glass door.
One of the dividends of our digital world is that if you can now open yourself to the riches of the web and don’t have to just stick to what you know - you can now discover bits of music you love in genres you may not have thought you even liked. This new fluidity in our listening habits has combined with a fluidity of expression to mean that many artists are now breaking down the boundaries of genres to make music that can be all kinds of things and appeal to all kinds of people.
So, when on the 13 July 2001 13071 Records was formed, there was no given name for the kind of music they subsequently began to issue - records from the likes of Max Richter, Johann Johannsson and Hauschka. ‘Modern Classical’, ‘Post Classical’, and ‘Indie Classical’ are some of the terms used by critics to describe music that has increased in popularity in recent years. Artists such as Ólafur Arnalds, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Nico Muhley and the whole Bedroom Community in Iceland, Nils Frahm, A Winged Victory for the Sullen have been creating music that is hard to classify but has found a huge audience. 13071 have been joined by labels such as Erased Tapes and Mercury KX, the latter a major label imprint dedicated to this music. A couple of years ago the BBC Proms included a concert featuring Nils Frahm and music duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and Ólafur Arnalds sold out his show at the Royal Albert Hall recently in minutes. On Radio 3 in 2015 we broadcast the world premiere performance of Max Richter’s ambitious eight-hour epic ‘Sleep’ live from the Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room in London – it was quite an experience for all who were there and listening on the radio.
So what is this music that so excites and yet slips from our classifying grasp? What’s so great about it is its eclecticism. Ólafur Arnalds ‘Island Songs’ for example, contains music recorded in various towns in Iceland - everything from rhythmic poetry and the sounds of a church organ to the voice of Of Monsters and Men vocalist Nana Brynfis Hilmarsdóttir singing in a lighthouse. Slow-building melody and natural sounds are combined with everything from choirs, strings and a muffled prepared piano to create exquisite works. From a different tradition, Canadian folk songwriter Jonas Bonetta has combined field recordings and piano, cello and violin to create a sound portrait of Fogo, an island off the coast of Newfoundland, on a forthcoming album ‘All this Here’.
So you can see as we discuss this music there are an enormous variety of starting and end points encompassing exquisite miniaturism and minimalism to bold and powerful statements such as Valgeir Sigurðsson’s ‘Draumaland’ or Max Richter’s aforementioned ‘Sleep’. It resonates with audiences who are not afraid to commit to a long and ‘lean forward’ listen. It sometimes crosses with classical alongside so many other musical forms. It is meeting a need for musical ambition and audiences who want a space to think and are not afraid of long form. This music shows that open minds can produce exciting, exploratory, genre-fluid works that find an appreciative and intelligent audience, whose listening reflects the serious musical intent. Maybe this music is best regarded as ‘unclassified’. The message is, forget about your desire to categorise, and just listen.