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Jóhann Jóhannsson: ‘Post-classical, punk and pigeonholes’

The award-winning Jóhann Jóhannsson and others discuss the rise and rise of post-classical music. Theo Hooper takes notes…

One night in May 2011, in a church in Brighton, a local record label hosted an evening of ‘post-classical’ music. Playing live were German pianists Max Richter and Hauschka, American musician Dustin O’Halloran, and a documentary was screened about England’s north-eastern mining communities, scored by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (pictured above). At the end of the night, the congregation rose from the hard pews and buzzed around the merchandise stall, eager to buy CDs, posters, and get autographs from the performers.

Fast-forward a few years, and Jóhannsson is a world-renowned Oscar-nominated artist lined up to score the Blade Runner sequel; Max Richter has topped the iTunes charts with his version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; and post-classical music regularly features across film, TV and radio, and has had its own night at the Proms.

It’s almost like a punk moment for classical music

So what exactly is it? Dave Howell, the boss of numerically-named record label 130701 – which hosted that evening in Brighton – can explain: “It’s the use of classical instrumentation in adventurous, non-traditional ways, often including electronic elements,” he says. “A lot of the artists don’t have classical training. Jóhann and Dustin started out in indie-rock bands.

“And there’s a generation of younger classical musicians who grew up listening to a wide range of genres,” he adds. “It’s a meeting point of people coming from different angles, and it’s almost like a punk moment for classical music. It’s exciting.”

A diverse roster of influences has certainly been key for Jóhann Jóhannsson, and borne out in a varied, prolific career. His work includes an album scored for brass ensemble and electronic drones, a suite for string orchestra and an old IBM computer, and his Golden Globe-winning soundtrack to The Theory of Everything.

“Growing up I liked classical music, the Baroque and Romantic periods especially,” Jóhannsson says. “But I also listened to bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Blood Valentine, and lots of ’90s electronic music. Obviously Minimalism was also a great influence, people like Michael Nyman, Philip Glass [below]… I’m interested in anything that fills me with wonder and delight.”

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‘Indie-classical,’ ‘neo-classical’ – various tags have been applied to the genre, but ‘post-classical’ seems to have stuck. Yet in common with many artists through the ages, Jóhannsson has little interest in being pigeonholed.

“There’s points of references some of us have in common, but it has no real consequence for me,” he explains. “I’ve nothing against people bracketing us together, but I also reserve the right to do something completely different.”

Experimentation, pushing boundaries, ‘doing something different’ is very much a part of post-classical’s DNA. Recent releases on 130701 include a debut album from Polish artist Resina, who creates new worlds from the cello, and Canadian opera singer Ian William Craig, whose compositions fuse vocals with dramatic, synthesized soundscapes. Other specialized labels like Erased Tapes and Type put out similarly innovative, unorthodox material.

The scene is also a live draw. Go see Hauschka and you’ll be entertained by his ‘prepared piano’, the instrument restyled with ping pong balls or vibrators placed on the strings, and fed through electronic effects. At 2015’s 6 Music Prom, soloist Nils Frahm teamed up with ambient duo A Winged Victory for The Sullen to create something akin to a ‘seated rave’, with a contemporary dance troupe adding visual flavour.

Leaps in digital technology over the last two decades has made a lot of this music possible, intuitive, inexpensive software and hardware enabling musicians to easily explore new pastures. With some of its roots in the melting pot of ’90s dance and electronica, post-classical is a genre that has cultivated its own audience.

“There’s definitely a generational aspect,” says Howell. “Lots of ’90s clubs had ambient rooms, that played open, chilled-out sounds. If you went through all that, it’s natural you can find something in post-classical.

“And at a certain age you’ve gone beyond clubbing or going to full-on rock gigs. You want to find music that is less intense.”

If you went through the ’90s clubbing scene, it’s natural you can find something in post-classical

But perhaps it’s not just middle-aged clubbers who are the target market. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s new album, Orphée, a haunting, beautiful piece of work combining atmospheric orchestration with snatches of short-wave radio, is being released on Deutsche Grammophon – the iconic German label that has stood for all things classical since recorded music began. With such establishment backing, the world of post-classical is only going to get bigger.

“It’s a label with a tremendous history, but they are also forging new paths within their wheelhouse,” says Jóhannsson. “They want to present new music to their audience, and get more younger people listening to classical. It feels like a very good home for me.”

Orphée by Jóhann Jóhannsson is out now on Deutsche Grammophon
130701.com
www.erasedtapes.com

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