Features 13 March 2020

The new generation of genre-defying musicians

From Sgt. Pepper to Nigel Kennedy, the classical-pop crossover is nothing new in the music world. But today's generation of musicians are going a step further by refusing to recognise genre at all, and instead seeing where the mood takes them - and their audiences

Words by Laura Barton

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The city of Cork, in the south west of Ireland, is a small city, an island city, a place known for its port and its ‘crubeens’. The latter – boiled, battered and fried pigs’ trotters – is a maverick dish that captures the rebellious streak that has long run through Cork’s politics and culture.

It’s a vibe that is reflected in the typically free-spirited festival of music, art, dance, theatre and conversation that’s held in the city every two years. Sounds from a Safe Harbour’s latest incarnation in September ran across some 30 venues, featuring big-draw acts such as Feist and Damien Rice. Alongside them came more eclectic performances — the European premiere of Spiritual America by North Carolina composer William Brittelle, for instance, which blends dissonant electric guitars with chamber orchestra and choir; and a suite of contemporary, minimalist, loosely classical works by composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke.

Irish singer songwriter Damien Rice
Damien Rice
Thom Yorke performing in Milan, Italy
Thom Yorke

The latter – presented as a work entitled Don’t Fear the Light – was performed by the Labeque Sisters, hailed by The New York Times as ‘the best piano duo in front of an audience today’, Bryce Dessner, better known as the guitarist with Grammy-winning American band The National, and David Chalmin. Dessner is, along with Mary Hickson – a gamelan-playing, Cork-born creative director who had previously rescued the city’s Opera House from the brink of financial collapse – the creative force behind the festival, which they founded in 2015. The essence of its eclectic programming is, Dessner says, ‘to see what happens when you allow musicians to interact and work and collaborate outside of a [traditional] basic restrictive idea’.

Such a philosophy captures the trend for a cross-pollination of musical genres — and most particularly the melding of classical with rock and electronica – that has exerted a quiet force over the music industry in recent years. It’s there in the flourishing of labels such as Erased Tapes, PRAH and Mercury KX, in the mainstream success of electronic-classical artists such as Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds and Hannah Peel, and the popularity of BBC Radio 3’s experimental show, Late Junction, which this year held its own two-day festival in East London. Far from echoing previous rock-and-classical collisions, such as Nigel Kennedy covering Hendrix or The Doors, this is more of a musical intertwining, a story of audiences as open to a string concerto as they are to a four-piece band, and musicians who move effortlessly between rock stadium and classical composition.

Sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque
Sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque
The Dream House Quartet, who premiered Don't Fear The Light
The Dream House Quartet, who premiered Don't Fear The Light

Dessner’s own musical background is similarly diverse. Playing in a number of rock bands from his teens, he studied classical guitar and composition at Yale, continuing his classical work while The National took root and flourished. Ask him what he is working on at the moment (while The National tour their eighth album) and he’ll tell you about the piece he has written for the Sydney Dance Company to be played by the Australian String Quartet (it will tour the world next year); his collaboration with alt-folk artist Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the contemporary music group, Eighth Blackbird; the imminent release of a recording of his string works by the German chamber orchestra Ensemble Resonanz; and the score he has just composed for the Netflix series The Two Popes.

Dessner and his twin brother Aaron (also a founding member of The National) grew up in Cincinnati ‘fairly oblivious to some of the issues surrounding genre or any notion of what music was popular or not, or how popular it was,’ he recalls. ‘I remember making tapes of my dad’s Beatles vinyl and my sister’s punk records and listening to classical music and John Fahey.’ He liked REM, Steve Reich, the Pixies and the Grateful Dead with equal passion. ‘We essentially approached all music with a sense of discovery and free association.’ It was shortly after he finished graduate school, in the early days of The National, that he met Reich, Glass and the Bang on a Can collective. ‘Things started to merge into the more diverse creative universe I now am part of,’ he says. He was performing and recording with Reich and Glass around the same time The National were recording Alligator and Boxer. ‘Songs like Fake Empire, for instance, show a very clear influence from them,’ he suggests.

Today, the old genre boundaries are increasingly irrelevant. ‘The world of composition and contemporary music, and the more popular music sphere, are not as separate as some people may imagine,’ he says. ‘In New York especially, musicians collaborate across the spectrum.’ A few years ago Dessner relocated from Brooklyn to Paris, and today his music takes him to a huge variety of places. ‘I can work with an orchestra in Prague and the next week a string quartet in Paris, and the week after Youth Chorus in Brooklyn,’ he says. ‘It’s fascinating to be able to communicate through a score on a fairly deep level quite quickly with musicians you might never have met, and collaborate with artists from different cultures and perspectives.’

Consider the career of Jonny Greenwood, who when not playing lead guitar and keyboards for Radiohead, collaborates with the London Contemporary Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, among others, and writes acclaimed soundtracks for films such as There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread. Or think of the solo work by multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry – known first as a member of Canadian group Arcade Fire, in 2011 he released his first work for orchestra, Music For Heart and Breath. Then there is cellist Oliver Coates, the profoundly creative mind behind many of the most affecting cello parts in contemporary music. Coates graduated with the highest mark ever granted by the Royal Academy of Music. Since then he has worked with Radiohead, Massive Attack, London Contemporary Orchestra, and Sigur Rós, and on a variety of projects with the British composer Mica Levi, including her score for Under the Skin. He has been artist in residence at London’s Southbank, performed with David Lynch at this year’s Manchester International Festival, and has also released several solo recordings, including 2016’s Upstepping, for which he manipulated the sound of his cello to echo the garage music he listened to on London’s pirate radio stations in the 90s.

The old genre boundaries are increasingly irrelevant

Like Dessner, Coates is not interested in notions of genre (he’ll namecheck The Cure, Shostakovich and Stephen King as equally important influences). ‘I look for overwhelming textures which I think will envelop people in the field of sound. At the moment I like heavy, rich sounds which are saturated and colourful. I enjoy combining sounds like cello with heavy distortion and pitch alteration effects.’ Those huge rock show sound systems Coates encountered on tour with Yorke brought a particular joy, ‘because I’m interested in the revelation of sounds which overwhelm the listener,’ he explains. ‘And the darkness of drawing people in with long cello melodies in combination with slowly evolving synth sounds or field recordings.’

This autumn sees the second album from Scottish composer Anna Meredith. A former junior fellow at the Royal College of Music, in 2008 Meredith came to wider attention when she wrote a piece called Froms for the Last Night of the Proms, and in 2016 her ecstatic and hugely innovative debut record, Varmints, was awarded Scottish Album of the Year. When we speak she has just played ‘one of the best gigs we’ve done’ in Helsinki, to a crowd of ‘very civilised 50- and 60-year-olds’ who began the evening sitting down but by the end were up and dancing. This is the essence of Meredith’s music — its irresistible cacophony, its joyous and unlikely swell of impulse and instrumentation: tuba, synths, loops, drums; a sound that works across concert halls and club venues alike.

‘I try not to adapt stuff too much,’ she says. ‘I feel through sheer bloody- mindedness I know what sort of thing is going to work.’ She prefers standing gigs, because there is more of a connection between the audience and herself, up on stage bouncing about. But even at a seated gig, where people wait in reverential silence, ‘I’ll chat and make people feel comfortable,’ she says. She shudders as she recalls the pop gigs where ‘people have come out before we’ve played and told the audience “OK, we’ve got a classical performer next so you all need to be quiet…”

‘It’s people making an original thing. It’s not a band, it’s not a classical performance, it’s people looking for new ways to explore their sound whether through electronics or flute – or if you want to have an oboe in your band, who gives a shit?’ She laughs as she recalls a headline early in her career: “Composer ditches Mozart for Eminem”. It’s not as binary as that.’ She is still writing orchestral compositions and still as influenced by George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys as she ever was, and in that co-mingling of styles she feels there lies something magical. ‘Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore,’ she says. ‘Really, what is the drama? I worry about a lot of things, but I’m not worried about whether the music I write is appropriate to the genre. Who cares?’

David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon from the new music collective, Bang on a Can
David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon from the new music collective, Bang on a Can

Genre-defying musical capitals

Reykjavik “is always a place where surprising things happen” says Bryce Dessner. “There are so many unbelievably talented people working together.”

Among them: Composers Daníel Bjarnason and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, the visual artist Ragnar Kjartansson, Jonsi and Kjartan from Sigur Rós, and sisters Gyda and Kristín Valtýsdóttir. Beloved by Anna Meredith, Helsinki is also a musical destination for Dessner for events like the Flow Festival, Musica Nova, which is run by [German conductor] André de Ridder, and The Helsinki Festival. “Artists like the violinist Pekka Kuusito and the composer/ conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen are completely on their own in their approach to programming and performing.”

On a larger, institutional level, Paris is also enjoying a new burst of musical innovation. “Venues like the Philharmonie de Paris are very much part of a cultural renaissance where all kinds of exciting new collaborations are happening,” Dessner says. Meanwhile, for Oliver Coates, one of the most exciting music destinations is Hong Kong where he recently played an outdoor show “with a Butoh dancer, cello and digital piano samples”.

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