Non-classical: composers breaking down barriers

Making sense of the genre-hopping world of contemporary classical music.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 2 Oct 2012
  • min read
In the field of classical music it often seems as if conserving links with the past eclipses the sense of music-making in the present. Even the label itself – ‘classical’ music - not only suggests some kind of historical remoteness, but almost seems to demand it.

And if this reflects the reality that classical music concerts are still dominated by music composed by people who lived more than two centuries ago, what of the composers working today? Writers of ‘contemporary classical music’ seem automatically trapped in a paradox, between continuity with modes of listening, and with instruments and forms which have existed, in some cases, for centuries.

There is still room, of course, for music of great beauty and power here, but the fortress of high art music has for a long time seemed rather cramped and closed, and it is not surprising that in recent years composers and musicians have experienced the desire to shake it up, break out, or, in some cases, in.

‘Music has always been about communication,’ says Gabriel Prokofiev, one contemporary composer who has gone about breaking down the walls of the classical music institution in more direct ways than most. Being the grandson of the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, one of the best loved figures in early 20th century music, he knows what living inside the institution feels like.

‘From as early as I can remember, I was frequently taken aback by the way in which young musicians and composers seemed primarily to be communicating to a different peer group. The natural thing to do, whatever your age, is to exist within your own time, and it seemed a bit false to me to find so many 20-year-olds writing music, in some ways, tailored to the listening habits of 60-year-olds.’

Prokofiev sees the current situation as an offshoot of contemporary classical music’s having become increasingly enshrined in the academic world. Following the Second World War, as more and more composers sought to make a fresh start for their art, composition turned into a sphere of isolated experimentation, says Prokofiev, something which in his view has stifled and limited it dangerously.

Prokofiev’s answer has been two-pronged. First, in common with many who grew up during the 90s, he is a keen fan of dance music, and is eager to incorporate influences from this into his own music, a practice he sees as continuing the way 19th century composers incorporated popular and folk music into their work. As the composer of the world’s first concerto for turntables and orchestra, premiered at last year’s Proms, this is clearly a badge he wears proudly. Perhaps more controversial, however, is the way Prokofiev has sought to introduce classical and contemporary classical music into different environments, establishing a club night – provocatively called NONCLASSICAL – and, subsequently, a record label of the same name.

‘I do still love going to concerts in traditional venues, but I also know that many people would never think of going to such a place, so you immediately lose that whole group of people. That’s why I’ve sought to use alternative spaces where people are used to going anyway. What’s amazing is, although the environment is much more relaxed than in the concert hall, you really do get silence and focused listening. It’s just that it’s not forced onto them and they’re not so aware of the effort involved to do it. When you put highbrow academic music in a club or something like that, it often connects.’

Kerry Andrew is another young composer who has been attracting notice for her ability to make music that crosses easily between boundaries that once seemed rigid. ‘Boundary-crossing has been there as long as people have been discovering music from other parts of the world. As genres have diversified crazily in the 21st century, cross-genre music has also flourished. Most of my favourite music, from all periods, doesn’t sit comfortably in any one genre.’

Andrew is part of the successful experimental jazz trio Juice. She also won a British Composer Award in 2010 and is currently composer-in-residence at Handel House museum in London. But she hasn’t let this establishment turn affect her. Her latest piece is an ‘open source’ composition for an old fashioned recorder quintet. It is composed in elements which the listener can organise themselves to make their own piece.

Like Prokofiev, Andrew’s success comes off the back of traditional classical music, but the technological advances in music-making software means that many are trying their hand at composing before thinking of studying it.

Tom Hodge graduated in political science before turning to music with a view of writing for the small and big screen. After a few years ‘learning on the job’, writing mostly for adverts, he completed the MA in Composition for Screen offered by the Royal College of Music.

Besides enjoying a successful career as a screen composer, Hodge is an active jazz musician, and is now keen to push the boundaries both of jazz and electronic music, collaborating with the laptop artist Franz Kirmann. ‘When I met Franz I realised that although we came from different music backgrounds we shared lots of common ground,’ he says.

‘We made a studio album as an exploratory collaboration between piano and laptop and then spent a long time trying to work out how to play this quite intricate music live. I was very keen to adopt a certain jazz sensibility to the performance – leaving room for improvisation and for the pieces to evolve from one performance to another.’

For Hodge, the desire to experiment is less a conscious artistic choice, more a natural extension of today’s listening habits, fed by new technology and the constant availability of all different kinds of music. ‘Playlists on the internet, iPods on shuffle, following disparate YouTube links, podcasts, film soundtracks – whether we like it or not our listening is always being taken to new and surprising areas and is bound to be reflected in the choices of music-makers.’

David Toop, a well known writer on experimental music, hip-hop and sound art, as well as a musician, has been working at the boundaries of music and art as long as he can remember. His latest project is an opera on the subject of the painter Dora Maar. One of his main struggles has been with the word ‘opera’ itself.

‘If you call a work an “opera” then it sets off all sorts of triggers, both good and bad. My attitude was that I was extremely interested in the staging of voices and sound but my idea of what that might imply was more informed by Japanese Noh, Korean Pansori or the nocturnal ceremonies I recorded in Amazonas in the 70s than it was by Puccini.’

For Toop, though, the desire to experiment is nothing new, and part of the problem is that for many the heyday of experimentalism – such as in John Cage’s use of silence, everyday objects and randomly-generated sound patterns in his music – is part of a musical avant-garde which has itself become something of a historical category.

Cage’s music is particularly prominent this year because 2012 marks the centenary of the composer’s birth. However, the celebrations are only partly welcome, in Toop’s view, because they eclipse the genuinely contemporary work that has been done for a long time in these kinds of experimental fields, but which still goes unnoticed by non-specialists.

Toop’s opera received its premiere in Aldeburgh in Suffolk this September, as part of a cutting edge festival called Faster than Sound. Though allied to the more established Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Benjamin Britten after the war as a crucible for local musical culture, the organisers of Faster than Sound have sought to create a space in which developments in music, sound and the visual arts can find a mutually conducive environment and audience.

Among the works performed there this autumn is Richard Baker’s chamber composition Gaming. Unlike most of the figures encountered here, Baker is what many would think of as a traditional concert composer, whose work makes most sense in traditional concert hall environments. But like the others, experimentation and freeing up the hidden musical potential of instruments and other objects form a key part of his thinking. For Gaming, Baker developed unusual preparations to modify the sounds made by the piano, marimba and cello (played pizzicato throughout) so that the instruments sound very similar – approximating to a kind of metallic, percussive sound redolent of an electronic thumb piano.

‘This was my way of making a connection between two apparently disparate things - Nijinsky’s choreography for Debussy’s Jeux and early 80s electronic games,’ he explains. ‘It’s a great sound in itself, but it also makes the instruments seem constrained, as though the full range of expressive possibilities are unavailable. This echoes the very small, stylized gestures that Nijinsky developed for his three dancers, which barely registered on the large set.’

The aim is that the poetic idea behind the piece should coincide with the music’s sonic surface; itself a traditional motivation but one which conspires to further push our ideas about musical materials. Baker’s interest in connecting the tightly controlled environments of contemporary classical composition with forms of play, too, have interesting resonances nowadays, when games of one kind or another are assuming an increasingly dominant role in adult culture.

Claudia Molitor is another composer anchored in the contemporary classical tradition, but whose interest lies in less with breaking down borders between music and visual art. Her work, which often concentrates on modifying the sounds of traditional instruments, using sounds made by everyday objects, or incorporating senses beyond the eye and ear is performed both in galleries, experimental and virtual spaces, as well as in traditional concert hall settings.

‘The desire to experiment is nothing new. If you think how excited Bach was at developments in keyboard instruments, or Beethoven was with the new extra low notes on the pianos of his day. The orchestral instruments that seem so conventional now, once they were new and composers always rushed to fill the creative vacuum created by their new potential. The same is true of electronics. It’s just the same desire to use current technology to cross the boundaries of what music currently is.’

‘It is true that it’s hard today because the idea of music as an art form is so dominated by the past. But what’s exciting about now is the scale of the opportunity for composers and artists. Everything is much more accepted on its own terms than before.’


Claim for performances at small venues: If you perform a composition, written by yourself, in a small venue, you could be due a payment. This counts for any genre of music, so if you are playing a gig in your local pub, a jazz recital in a club or performing your classical piece at a music society, you should make a claim. PRS members can visit for more information.