Modern classical? Post-classical? Neo-classical? Nobody quite knows or agrees upon what to call it. But a wave of a contemporary music rooted in classical music tropes, sounds and traditions (whilst enmeshed with new technologies, sounds and sensibilities) is well and truly breaking. And somehow – partly through chance, part design – we’ve found ourselves somewhere near its centre.
Over the past 15 years the label I’ve been curating, 130701, has put out some of the biggest names and most important releases in the genre – working with pianist / composers Max Richter, Johann Johannsson, Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. Whilst our own output has been far from prolific, we’ve seen the area grow from just a handful of isolated artists, a small number of promoters and supporters at press and radio, to become – over the past four or five years – a burgeoning force of significant cultural impact.
It’s increasingly been used as a staple sound backing adverts, TV and radio programmes, and soundtracking film and dance performances. And now artists like Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and Johann Johannsson are regularly playing festivals and selling out big cultural spaces over coordinated tours. It has become a properly-connected, ever-visible genre, with sussed record stores racking it in its own section. Press and radio are affording it ample coverage. The films it soundtracks are moving from art house to mainstream Hollywood. And all the while it’s been growing its own audience, it’s simultaneously grown its creative base, with new artists and labels increasingly appearing.
Fifteen years ago, none of this seemed possible. 130701 was founded as an imprint of the FatCat label back on 13th July 2001 (13/07/01). We set it up purely for the release of the first album by Set Fire To Flames (an offshoot project of post-rock outfit Godspeed you black emperor!), which – amongst its numerous dazzling angles – just happened to include a string quartet and brass players. There was nothing lined up beyond that release, no preconceived plan for 130701 to become what it has. If you’d told me back in 2001 that we’d be existing as propagators of some new form of classical music and that such a scene might even be in vibrant existence, I’d have laughed at you. Yet here we are.
130701 evolved as it did, particularly at the start, largely due to luck and some incredible things – initially Set Fire To Flames, Max Richter, Sylvain Chauveau – finding their own way to us. Maybe having the kind of deeply varied and adventurous catalogue FatCat had, particularly back in the early ‘00s, helped lead people towards us. People – like Max and SFTF – who were mining the gaps and the slippery, uncharted spaces between things. Once Sylvain and Max were in place on the roster, the idea of a label identity rooted in classical instrumentation (piano, strings, brass, winds, etc) yet exploring territory outside the traditional classical context (engaging with electronic and digital technologies; with non-classical instrumentation, sounds and approaches) seemed to make sense as a proposition, and became a basic orienting concept for 130701. These weren’t the first artists to be taking this approach, and we weren’t the first label to support such artists. But I believe we were the first to do so exclusively.
I’d had no background in or previous experience working with ‘classical’ music. It was – and largely still is – alien territory to me; a place coloured by preconceptions of class values and instrumental virtuosity, tied up in trappings and language that felt remote and academic and a part of the older establishment. It felt rule-bound, stuffy and rigid and I disliked that whole issue of power and control between the orchestra and conductor. I think my dad used to play odd bits like Holst’s ‘Planets’ Suite’, and a few random classical samplers. But to a working class kid just discovering the thrilling raw immediacy, rule-breaking energy and inclusiveness of punk and electronic pop, it felt like something preserved and detached, from another century, which I suppose is what it was.
Whilst a number of those preconceptions have melted away as I’ve grown older and more open, I freely admit my knowledge of classical music remains paltry. I don’t think I owned an orchestral album until I was nearly 30. I guess I started to take my first kind of interest in composed music in my later teens through its appearance on film scores like Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ and ’2001′, or Michael Nyman’s luminous work for Peter Greenaway. And through following up on references I’d seen in the music press to stuff like Satie’s ‘Gymnopodies’, Arvo Part, John Cage. The first contemporary revelation I had was via a Kentucky-based band called Rachel’s, who were signed to a US hardcore punk label in the ’90s, yet doing this amazing hybrid chamber music. No-one really talks about that band, but they totally foreshadowed what’s been happening.
After finishing art college and moving to Bristol in the early ’90s, my appetite for exploring music expanded massively, and became increasingly inquisitive and diversified. Fired up by what was happening in electronica, early post-rock and drum and bass, I was writing a fanzine, ‘Obsessive Eye’ – which ended up getting me the job at FatCat – and just continually buzzing on chasing down links to discover new musics.
Whilst writing the fanzine, I was reading Michael Nyman’s book ‘Experimental Music’ and digging into stuff like Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, to that whole mid-century minimalist school of Reich, Riley, Glass, and Adams. After getting the gig at FatCat once the record shop closed and the label was started, that kind of polymorphic diversity I’d been chasing felt perfectly natural. I was tuned enough to work comfortably across – and in the gaps between – a wide range of genres.
We were putting out the kind of progressive techno and electronica everyone probably expected from
the days of the shop (Grain, Insync, Funkstorung,etc) alongside a pile of post-rock bands, singer-songwriters, and a whole bunch of left-field noise and improv. One of the best things about working at FatCat at that time was that we’d all come from different musical backgrounds and everyone was continually feeding one another new things. It was an accelerated musical education. The ears were open. So when things like Max and Sylvain came along, artists whose own music had that sense of openness and exploration, the ground was already fertile and it just felt like natural expansion.
Looking back, you can sense the first stirrings of something in the water in the late 90s / early 00s – Sylvain Chauveau, Aphex Twin’s prepared piano stuff on ‘Drukqs’. Odd little things like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s collaborations with Alva Noto and Fennesz, or Taylor Deupree’s with Kenneth Kirschner. With Richter, Hauschka, Goldmund, Johann and others drawing more and more attention, it picked up massively in the latter 00s, with savvy labels like Erased Tapes, Type, Bedroom Community and others entering the fray and bringing through a host of new artists. The increasing surge has been led by some brilliant, very well-received records; with some highly compelling live performers like Hauschka and Nils Frahm; with its music being increasingly synchronised on film, tv, radio, so becoming an increasingly audible part of the cultural soundscape.
There’s perhaps also been a generational thing where people reach a certain age and start slowing down or looking for different angles. It’s no huge leap from the chillout rooms of old rave clubs and the attendant boom of ambient music to an acceptance of the new sounds found in much of this new music. Or from the keyed energy of the club’s main rooms to the propulsive piano and electronic rhythms of Frahm or Hauschka’s more rousing sets. The kind of sets that never fail to grip an audience. Until we hit the point in the past year or so where Frahm sells out the Albert Hall, composers like Johann, Olafur and Dustin are consistently winning or nominated for prestigious film gongs, and Max Richter is a guest on BBC TV’s Breakfast Time show and having an entire 8-hour performance broadcast on Radio 3.
Whenever any band or scene starts to blow up and get wider recognition you’ll inevitably witness an influx of new artists picking up the baton and a dynamic of flocking and blanding. Until recently, I used to get maybe 2 or 3 demos a month into 130701. Nowadays I’m getting 4 or 5 every day. Disappointingly, they mostly all sound like variations of an increasingly-obvious and narrowed generic template - chiselling off all the irregularities until what you end up is in danger of becoming a swamped and over-comfy scene of people making fairly predictable music, with just a few people pushing the edges.
So the popular conception of ‘post-classical’ is reduced down to piano and a chamber quarter with some textural electronics, field recording or sampled narrative tacked on, making an approximation of the kind of melodic progression you might hear on Max Richter or Olafur Arnalds. And some of that might be fine enough but it’s never going to be the thing that I’m looking for.
Regardless of the genre, I’ve always found myself most drawn to the less populist angles and those progressive, adventurous maverick artists who’ve found their own particular niches and approaches. And who do so with that heightened sense of integrity you get from following your own powerful, unique sense of vision. Perfect illustrations of that can be heard in those exemplars we’ve worked with like Johann, Hauschka, Sylvain, Max, Ian William Craig or Resina. And beyond to a genuinely broad continuum that arcs from the likes of Arthur Russell, Harry Partch, Henry Flynt, Morton Feldman, the minimalists through to diverse current practitioners like Richard Skelton, Colin Stetson, Laura Cannell, Hildur Gudnadottir, Lubomyr Melnyck, William Basinski, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Maarja Nuut, Claire M Singer, and on to an even newer, more heavily digital wing of people like Maxwell Sterling, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Daniel Wohl, Mica Levi and Oliver Coates – artists who are bringing in some angle of classical into a much more fractured and molten, digitally mediated modern sound and sensibility. This is all stuff that defies easy generic classification. For me, that’s always where the real action is.
I can totally understand artists’ complaints and discomfort with being tagged with genre labels. But I also understand – especially in these times where we are absolutely swamped with music – how some basic navigational aids might be necessary and useful. From pretty early on, we started using the term ‘post-classical’ just as a way to give some kind of ballpark delineation to what territory we were in. It’s not perfect and I’ve never thought that deeply about it, but it’s stuck. And to my mind, it’s as broad a term as you could want it to be. Whatever you wish to call it, this wide new music has largely broken down that sense of stuffiness and rigidity I felt in classical music, made it more porous and open to exchange and immersion in the world of modern electronic and experimental sound. When it’s good, it can be thrilling, mesmerising, loaded with beauty or utterly aching with meaning. It can feel as vital and expressively emotive as any other modern music. It blends the immersive pleasure and textural playfulness that you find in so much modern music with the wide acoustic instrumental richness, melodic beauty and power of the piano and different orchestral/ instrumental arrangements.
I can’t say where this whole thing is headed or how long it will sustain itself. Whether any of this will make any kind of impression in proper / more academic classical circles. Whether the wave can continue its momentum, or get bogged down and stagnate in a swamp or leak out in a series of intriguing new tributaries.
But for the moment there are some amazing records being released; some incredible soundtrack work hitting the screens, some amazing live shows, and a range of really interesting ideas and exchanges being floated about. The wellspring is showing no signs of drying up anytime soon.
IAN WILLIAM CRAIG
Ian is a classically-trained vocalist, with a stunning voice, but who processes that gift through customised reel-to-reel tape decks, and other electronics. I really love that kind of push and pull between the anchoring beauty of his voice and melody and the dissolution of the processing, eating at the edges, peeling surfaces away, threatening to erase the whole. He’s a kind of archetypal 130701 act for me – someone working with heightened powers, doing something set apart from everyone else.
Resina is a Polish cellist who pushes the instrument into new places, using improvisation and loops. I’d been looking to orient the label away from the piano a little bit, to try and expand our scope, and Ian and Resina do that perfectly. It’s a really lovely album but I think, like Hauschka, her music really comes alive when you hear it played live, when you see it performed. Her live show is just so forceful and cleverly conceived and just stunning visually – almost complete darkness with a hazer and just a single spot on her and this big circular back-projected film above her. There’s something really primal and organic in her playing and the way her part-improvised pieces are animated.
Max sort of fell into our laps back in 2003 or 2004, and we released 5 albums with him between 2004 – 2012. I don’t think anyone was expecting the level of success we’d see with Max, but he was always a total pleasure to work with, and the success he’s seeing is hugely deserved. It was fantastic working with someone who had such a clear vision and a strong conceptual base and whose work extended outwards to other forms like the installation work, the ballet, the chamber opera, all the film scores he was involved in. He’s someone I share a lot of similar cultural interests with.
Whilst he’s now on City Slang, Volker was a key 130701 signing – someone who was genuinely experimental in his use of the piano (totally undermining how it was supposed to be played and opening up all these extra tactile and percussive possibilities for it) and who was always trying to expand what he did from album to album, both in searching out concepts and in seeking to collaborate with different people. He’s a stunning live artist and I think that’s where most people get hooked into his work – when you can actually feel the viscerally of his playing and see all the theatre of the preparation such as the ping pong balls bouncing around, the bottle tops and gaffer tape and vibrators he pulls out of the pianos guts.
Olivier is our most recent signing, though he’s also someone I’ve known for nearly 20 years. He was one of the first people ever to send a demo into FatCat and we released 2 albums with his band project, Ensemble. He’s got a great ear for sound and in layering material to a point where melody starts t blur into something richer / deeper. He’s collaborated with Björk in the past and I’m excited about his debut which is due early next year.
Dave Howell from 130701.
Having begun life on 13th July 2001 (hence the label’s superficially cryptic name) for the release of the first Set Fire To Flames record ‘Sings Reign Rebuilder’, the pioneering 130701 imprint was ahead of the curve. Growing to encompass a hugely influential, high quality stable of artists operating at the cutting edge of the modern classical genre, 130701 has come to embody incredibly graceful and evocative music with a huge emotional weight. 103702 Twitter Instagram