On Modern Composition

Music in review

Timothy Young
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

ROUGH TRADE IS A BRICKS-AND-MORTAR STORE that stayed open during a fallow period of record buying to maintain a vital role in music consumers’ lives. The shop, off Brick Lane in East London, now functions as a prime organizer of musical genres–not simply by slotting CDs and vinyl albums physically into those familiar tiered stadium seating–style bins, but by separating them into genera and species. Musical selections at the store are parsed into thirty-nine different genres, from the antediluvian “Blues,” “Jazz,” “ R&B,” and “Rock-Pop” to the more recent “Industrial,” “Techno,” “Bass & Dubstep,” and branching out to the bizarrely focused “Synthwave,” “Brainfeeder-beats,” and “Sahko-Raster-Mego-Touch” (which, according to descriptions of releases listed under this label, has something to do with “planes of symbolic human activity” and “arrhythmic and punishing drumming”).

The category that probably holds the densest concentration of subforms may well be “Modern Composition,” a name based on the activity of music creation, rather than born of rhetorical affinities or historical nicknames. (Imagine categories such as “Guitar playing” or “Singing with piano accompaniment.”) A scan of the black magic marker labels on the dividers in this section yields Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Beatrice Rana, Ahmed Malek, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Christina Vantzou, and Angèle David-Guillou. The naming of this genre is partially an attempt to break the megalithic hold of “Classical” over anything that is primarily instrumental (aside from rock or jazz) or composed by musicians schooled in historical and analytical modes. Of course, composition happens in all genres of music; what differentiates the category “Modern Composition” from other genres needs considered thought to be teased out.

As soon as we ask about genre distinctions, we confront a fundamental issue: Why do we need them? Music as a form of expression has long experienced the push and pull related to identity. There is value in characterization–it may help a listener find similar works or lead to the discovery of peers–but labels put things in boxes that are often too narrow. What if music awards shows gave prizes simply for “Best Music” rather than dealing them out in categories? I always look forward to the end-of-the-year critics’ summaries that provide shopping lists for new sounds that have failed to hit my radar. The Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll, which ran from 1971 to 2017 (just before that publication ceased) performed the task of genre-dissembling (as was evident in the name of the poll) in a relatively catholic fashion. Even if the top choices tended to skew heavily toward rock and alt-rock, the listings of hundreds of nominees provided a roadmap toward new discoveries for dedicated readers.

Music as a form of expression has long experienced the push and pull related to identity.

The broad expanse of Modern Composition presents more than just an opportunity to debate the rhetoric of genre. It offers multiple varieties of joy. One could start with works that map closely to the classical pattern, such as Anna Clyne’s The Violin (2014, VIA records) or Zoë Keating’s most recent, Snowmelt (2018, 020202 music; listed on iTunes under “Classical Crossover”–a hedging category if there ever was one). Keating contributed a remix track to the 2009 In-C Remixed, in which eighteen approaches were offered toward reimagining Terry Riley’s landmark work from 1964. For a more pop sensibility, listen to Planetarium, a collaborative work by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister, and Sufjan Stevens. Folk-styled singer songwriter Stevens has always brought a symphonic sensibility to his recordings, from “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois” (whose melancholic opening piano chords served as the base of at least two memorable pop songs) to The BQE, a multimedia work celebrating the beloved but decaying New York City expressway.

Nico Muhly, one of the four collaborators on Planetarium, is perhaps the most recognizable face of Modern Composition and a prodigious creator of works for voice ensemble, film, and orchestra. Recently, the New York Metropolitan Opera premiered his adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie. Though his high profile stage projects have failed to gain wide critical approval, his smaller-scale works have been more approachable. Speaks Volumes and I Drink the Air Before Me, two of his early albums (2006 and 2010, Bedroom Community), display the essence of his talent. His recent soundtrack for the television adaptation of Howard’s End (2018, Playground Television UK) is expertly sympathetic to the scenario it accompanies, with gentle strings and piano that refuse to overpower the narrative.

Muhly’s principal label for his solo album releases is Bedroom Community, a collective of musicians based in Iceland. Other members include Sam Amidon (now recording for Nonesuch), who performs moving folk tunes that bridge the past and the present; Ben Frost, who has scored films and choreographic works; and Nadia Sirota, a violist whose recordings of pieces by Judd Greenstein and Donnacha Dennehy, among others, are beautifully realized.

The support of a label is crucial for artists who cross genres. One label that is having a broad reach within the borders of Modern Composition is Erased Tapes. Founded in 2007 by Thor Robert Raths, a German architecture student living in London, it has grown over the past decade to become a major distributor for new sounds. Now home to around twenty musicians and ensembles, Erased Tapes offered for its first release an EP, Vermeer, by Rival Consoles, an act that bounces between club-ready electronica and introspective ambient. The electronica vibe is maintained by label mates the British Expeditionary Force (not to be confused with another B.E.F.: the British Electric Foundation, the forefathers of programmed post-punk pop). The online radio station offers a selection of hour-long episodes deejayed by Erased Tapes artists that focus on label mates but weave in other contemporary musicians. It’s a great way to discover new music.

The standard-bearers for modern composition on the Erased Tapes label are a pair of young innovators who are creating impressive work and expanding its listening base. Ólafur Arnalds was one of the first artists to sign to Erased Tapes. Barely in his twenties, Arnalds had been playing drums for local Icelandic bands when a couple of electronic compositions he contributed to a 2014 album by the German metal band Antigone caught the notice of Raths. Arnalds was steeped in music from an early age, but without a clear goal of becoming a composer. In a 2008 interview for, he explained that “what I hate about the classical scene is how closed it is. So much of it is modernist composers writing music that no one understands apart from other modern composers.” If his goal has been to bring a sense of chamber music to an audience that perceives a barrier to entry into traditional classical music, he is surely one of the hardest-working and most successful composers in the field.

Arnalds’s output on Erased Tapes shows his growth year by year, beginning with a pair of EPs, Eulogy for Evolution (2007) and Variations of Static (2008), which show off his deft touch with string arrangements, through his first proper full-length album, … and they have escaped the weight of darkness (2010), and on to the record that widened his listening base, For Now I Am Winter (2013, Mercury KX), which featured his first collaborations with the Icelandic singer Arnór Dan Arnarson. But the real jump to popular recognition came with his work on the soundtracks for the British crime series Broadchurch, which gave the police procedural a sonic grounding.

Re: Member (2018, Mercury KX), Arnalds’s latest release, is a suite of twelve tracks that was anticipated with various degrees of eagerness owing to the news that Arnalds had composed the songs using STRATUS, a software algorithm he wrote with the musician and computer scientist Halldór Eldjárn. When STRATUS is engaged, Arnalds’s playing on a piano activates random feedback on two parallel keyboards, creating songs that are co-composed through artificial intelligence, and thus difficult to perform the same way twice. The results, rather than being a discordant racket, like quite a few of Arnalds’s forebears in early experimental electronic music, are well formed and melodically stable. If anything, they sound a bit too perfect. The simple joy of Arnalds’s earlier work gets lost in the grand sweep of his recent songs. But pieces such as “ypsilon” or “partial,” with its slow-building layers of electronics and strings, show that the gambit can produce results worth playing on repeat.

The album features cover artwork that is also generated by an algorithm, further expanding the intent of Arnalds’s project. Now that much of Top 40 pop music is created in studios by producers, engineers, and studio musicians in jam-bands, the role and the identity of a songwriter, let alone a composer, are in flux. Maybe Arnalds is trying to demonstrate the positive results of using digital technological tools–summoning the happy soul within the ever-evolving machine, an attempt to humanize computer-generated music on par with what Alison Moyet did in the early 1980s when she anchored the chilly synths of Vince Clarke with a voice that was deeply, red-bloodedly human. While successful within the contours of the proposed experiment, Re: Member at times feels too firmly fileable under “New Age,” with several tracks sounding ready to be optioned for yoga and meditation compilations. Arnalds has such wide-ranging talents, it would be good to hear him forsake the easily anodyne and return to the moving beauty of his earliest compositions.

Arnalds’s frequent collaborator and label mate on Erased Tapes, Nils Frahm, is another artist who is redefining the landscape of modern classical music. A skilled pianist, he took the approach of “prepared piano,” an avant-garde technique pioneered by John Cage, to a broad audience with his 2011 album Felt, named for his preferred material for pianoforte intervention. But two years before this breakthrough, his 2009 album, The Bells (Kning Disks and Erased Tapes), established him as a bright innovator. With stunning tracks such as “Said and Done” and “Small Me,” Frahm made his mark. His 2013 compilation of live performances, Spaces (Erased Tapes), saw him enlarging on his earlier work. He expanded “Said and Done” to more than three times its original length and twinned it with the hypnotic “Says.” The two tracks are so strong they should be labeled in the fashion of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed: “This Record Should Be Played Loud.” “Hammers” is equally forceful and “Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone” can be heard as the meeting point between Cage and Simon Jeffes of Penguin Café Orchestra.

Frahm’s most recent release is All Melody (2018, Erased Tapes), the result of work done in his dream studio, part of the legendary East German state radio complex now named Funkhaus. As Arnalds does on his latest album, Frahm plays it pretty gently on this group of twelve tracks. Several feature strong piano melody lines, while others are built on loping rhythms, such as “Human Range,” which features strings and a trumpet reminiscent of Jon Hassell’s. “Forever Changeless,” “Fundamental Values,” and “Harm Hymn” are more traditional keyboard tracks, the first two performed on piano, the third on organ. A trio of longer pieces, each more than nine minutes in length, “Sunson,” “All Melody,” and “#2” are of a genre that Frahm is fond of creating–mini-symphonies constructed from layers of electronic beats, blips, brief looped melodies, and shimmering washes of vivid, joyful sound. They are all entrancing, though they begin to encroach on the territory of early 1990s bands like the Orb or, minus the insistent thumping, Enigma. All Melody is a fine work overall, though the cleverness that was evident early on in Frahm’s performances has been replaced by some generic gambits–choruses oohing and aahing, loops that never quite resolve into the promised major chord lift, piano works that are far too short to register deeply in memory. If only he could turn away from the need for technological embellishments and return to what Rackstraw Downes calls “the high exigency, small-audience art object.”

Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds share the spotlight in a series of collaborations they created that highlight their strengths and see them challenging each other to play more freely. On Loon (2015, Erased Tapes), they create five tracks of electronic beats and melodies that have solid stature, and on Trance Friends (2016, Erased Tapes), recorded selections from an all-night performance, the pair are at their best, responding to and embellishing each other’s improvisations. Though one track raises the distortion and volume levels a bit high, most of the tracks sound like a next-generation Keith Jarrett concert.

Listeners who are intrigued by the various musical gestures of Arnalds and Frahm–the new classical, electronic, experimental–will find satisfaction in another form of expression they have both pursued. Each of these composers has curated a volume in Late Night Tales, the compilation album series (“Music and tales worth staying up for”) that sits head and shoulders above its imitators. Beginning with Fila Brazilia’s turn in 2001 and continuing through thirty-six installments through the end of 2018, the label has invited talented artists and remixers to envision a soundtrack for the after-after party, a wee-hours mix of standards, obscure tracks, and cover versions. Several albums finish with spoken-word pieces–a story or short essay read by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, David Shrigley, and Paul Morley.

Ólafur Arnalds’s contribution from 2016 featured Hjaltalín, Samaris (both bands from Iceland), Koreless, James Blake (a British singer who has created a singular vocal style), and Julianna Barwick, whose electronic soundscapes merit close listening. The cover version (practically a required task for anyone making a Late Night Tales mix), a take on “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, is rendered by Arnór Dan Arnarson as an elegy, rather than as a coy accusation of betrayal. The closing track is a story by Anam Sufi, “Undone,” read by the actor David Tennant, a piece of tight verbal economy: “Hold me like you would a photograph. From the edges, and lightly.”

Nils Frahm’s version of Late Night Tales, from 2015, is even better. Curious and varied, it provides a lesson in deep listening. The range of Frahm’s choices demands that the audience pay particularly close attention to catch the sympathies and resonances he locates between tracks such as Gene Autry’s “You’re the Only Star in My Blue Heaven” (extended and altered by Frahm) and Boards of Canada’s “In a Beautiful Place out in the Country.” The most remarkable of his intercuts proceeds from Dinu Lipatti’s “O Herr Bleibet Meine Freunde” to Colin Stetson’s “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man” to Penguin Café Orchestra’s “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter” to Nina Simone’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” It’s what used to be called mind-blowing–challenging the first time it is heard, but revealing connections among these juxtapositions with further listening. The cover version here is Frahm’s take on John Cage’s 4′33″–not a joke at all, but rather an act of contemplation. Frahm faced a piano in silence and began to play … and created something new and beautiful. Cillian Murphy closes the mix with a masterful reading of the playwright Enda Walsh’s “In the Morning.”

Timothy Young is curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Beinecke Library at Yale University. His recent work includes the edited volume Story Time: Essays on the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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