(Editors Note: The introduction to this article has been edited to highlight the fact that this is purely an introduction to the genre which takes into account only a handful of what is a vast, broad and rich musical movement which continues to evolve).
This list has been put together bearing the new listener in mind – one that is fresh to the genre and needs some introduction to some of it’s key composers.
The Twenty-Four Contemporary Pieces For Solo Piano book includes a decent portion of these composers – browse the collection here for more information.
The list (and playlist) below will give you a quick starting point to exploring some of the more recently emerged composers and also the composers who (arguably) began the movement in the mid-1970s.
Who: Philip Glass is one of the forerunners of Minimalism alongside Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young. Hugely influential New York powerhouse, prolific with no signs of slowing down.
Style: “Music with repetitive structures” – nowadays he distances himself from the minimalism tag, associating himself more heavily with ‘true’ classical music. However, he’s dabbled in numerous forms of music such as opera, electronic music and organ music.
What To Listen To: ‘Einstein On The Beach‘ ; ‘Koyaanisqatsi’; ‘Candyman’; ‘Orphée’; ‘Etudes’; ‘Metamorphosis’
Who: Post-minimalist German-British composer strongly influenced by punk and popular music styles along with classical. Co-founder of Piano Circus who perform/get commissioned pieces by Glass, Reich, Brian Eno, Arvo Part, etc.
Style: Prolific, multi-style writing for ballet, screen, opera, stage, orchestra, piano.. etc. Tons of different styles adopted from dance to folky tinged pop. Think a classical composer who digs on a bunch of genres which are nothing to do with classical music and you’ll be close. Heavily cinematic stuff too.
What To Listen to: ‘Memoryhouse’; ‘In the Møde’; ‘Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons’
Who: New York based composer/wunderkind/chamber orchestra superfan who has collaborated with Grizzly Bear to “Bonnie” Prince Billy to Antony And The Johnsons to Philip Glass. Most well known score was the Alan Ginsberg biopic ‘Kill Your Darlings’ starring Daniel Radcliffe. Also helped arrange/pen the Usher smash ‘Climax’ with Diplo. (Whoa).
Style: Not particularly genre specific – again, like Richter, Muhly is classically trained but this doesn’t necessarily bleed into his different projects. He has a classical way of looking at music without it dictating a particular sound – it’s what makes him so interesting as an artist or composer. Lots of experimental music featuring voice, notably his album ‘Drones’ which garnered high praise among critics.
What to listen to: ‘Kill Your Darlings’; ‘An Outrage’; ‘Drones’; ‘Climax’; (he’s incredibly prolific so there’s too much to really mention to do this justice).
Who: One half of A Winged Victory For The Sullen (along with ex Sparklehorse/Stars Of The Lid guitarist Adam Wiltzy) Emmy award-winning O’Halloran is a self-taught, atmospheric solo pianist from Los Angeles. Most famously, along with his work with AWVFTS, scored the ‘Transparent’ soundtrack (for which he won an Emmy). Very bright things on the horizon for O’Halloran after his 6 Music Prom appearance earlier this year and multiple soundtracks and scores recently commissioned to him.
Style: Trying to avoid cliché here – the music O’Halloran creates is all at once accessible, captivating and powerfully cinematic. Often gentle, slow progressing and hypnotic.
What to listen to: ‘Lumiere’; ‘Breathe In’ (soundtrack); ‘Transparent’
Who: Italian contemporary classical deity whose recordings and sheet music have enormous and far reaching appeal – selling out 14,000 seats at Blenheim Palace as though it wasn’t even really a thing. Trained at the Conservatoria Verdi in Milan and with awards aplenty under his belt he is a composer to be reckoned with.
Style: Influenced heavily by pop, rock, folk, world music and classical the resulting style of many of his pieces is ambient piano music with a meditative, serene feel to it. Introspective and soothing with heavy emphasis placed on repeated melodic patterns.
What to listen to: ‘In A Time Lapse’; ‘The Water Diviner’ (soundtrack); ‘This Is England’ (soundtrack)
Who: Volke Bertellmen (aka Hauschka) is a virtuosic, experimental composer and performer whose performances are well known for their use of implements on the strings of the piano (including … a vibrator). The effect this has is that the piano becomes a bespoke instrument subject to the whims of Hauschka and creates a totally unique sound which adds to his stunning compositions. This is known as a ‘prepared piano’.
Style: You can tell when you listen to Hausckha that he’s been heavily influenced by hip-hop, the rhythm sits front and center as he uses the piano and various attachments as a way of creating a rhythmic instrument using the hammers. This being said, he’s also a great melody writer and creates haunting tunes along with using some electronic instruments and loop stations.
What to listen to: ‘Abandoned City’; ‘Prepared Piano’, ‘The Boy’ (soundtrack)
Who: Electronic tinkerer and piano experimentalist du jour, Nils Frahm has been working on encapsulating young people’s ears for the past 7 years or so. He’s a skateboarder turned electronic musician turned neo-classical musician who plays epic compositions with a panache and excitement which sits as comfortably in dance festivals as it does concert halls.
Style: Electronic, epic, dainty piano music which soars and undulates with an emotive drive.
What to listen to: ‘Felt’; ”Spaces’; ‘-solo-‘
Who: British composer with an enormously varied audience from his work across many genres. Proms commissions, works for Ballet and Contemporary dance, film and TV scores. His orchestral arrangements of White Stripes Aluminium Album used in McGregor dance piece.
Style: Individual, rhythmic, melodic, driving
What to listen to: ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’; ‘Hunky Dory’ Fools’ paradise Path of Miracles
9.Richard Reed Parry
Who: Most well known for being the guitarist in indie stadium rockers and Grammy Award Winners Arcade Fire. RRP is a multi-instrumentalist who composed ‘Music For Heart And Breath’ which was his first piece for orchestra. Associated with Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly and a whole host of other artists who are a ‘part’ of a movement of composers breathing new life into contemporary classical composition.
Style: Serene, delicate and pensive contemporary classical music which feels meditative and a pinch chaotic. Comparisons have been made to French composer Messiaen.
What to listen to: ‘Music For Heart and Breath’
Who: New York/Paris based composer, arranger, instrumentalist and curator who also happens to be the guitarist in Grammy Award-nominated band The National. Is currently a composer-in-residence at Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, has built a solid reputation as a composer who draws on folk music along with Baroque. Collaborations aplenty with a number of the best leading lights in today’s contemporary classical music scene such as Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird.
Style: Sombre, lively, rhythmic and experimental, Dessner draws on a huge depth of experience which his music reflects.
What to listen to: ‘St. Carolyn By The Sea’; ‘Murder Ballades’; ‘Music For Wood And Strings’; ‘Aheym’