For a while, I have been afraid to write this. I respect all of these artists, and some of them are even inspirations to me. Therefore, before any assumptions get made, I want to be clear on what this article’s purpose is. I am not suggesting contemporary classical music is bad, nor am I suggesting it is worse than previous periods of classical music. I am merely criticizing a trend that I dislike about the genre.
The way I see it, contemporary classical music takes advantage of us in a few ways. These composers love using the piano, and the string section. They love using very basic chord progressions. Lastly, they love to emphasize minimality – some of these composers are arguably minimalists just as much as they are “contemporary classical.” Why do I feel like this is cheating? The short answer is that I feel like they could be doing more – these are often classically-trained musicians and composers, with many talents, but they stick to a very small toolkit in order, I suspect, to appeal to more people. The long answer is as follows:
There has undoubtedly been a lot of research into why people like the sound of the piano and of stringed instruments, but not having looked into it too much myself, I’d argue that it is because all of these instruments are polyphonic; they are capable of playing a chord. One person is able to be more expressive on a piano than they would be able to do as a lone brass instrument player. It is the same with stringed instruments, although they will often come in groups (as a string quartet, for example), because hey, people love harmonization. There is a reason the piano has permeated nearly every genre in the world, and the tuba has not been as successful.
What I find, indeed, is that contemporary classical music will often ONLY use a piano, or ONLY use a string section (of some size), or use both. Take I Giorni, by Ludovico Einaudi, for example. While you’re at it, notice our favorite chord progression during the main portion of the song, because I am about to get to that. The song is ordinarily played on the piano alone, but when given the opportunity to make the song more “passionate” with orchestral backing, we get just the string section. There are a lot of pianists in contemporary classical music (as I suppose there have always been a lot of pianists in all eras of classical music), and they just do not seem to want any brass or woodwinds cluttering up their emotional soundscape. But isn’t it only as emotional as it is because they’re purposely using the piano and strings? It’s not like you can’t have a powerful song with a full orchestra. Without going too much further, I’ll just share some more examples so you can get a feel of what these guys do: Nils Frahm, Giovanni Allevi, (seems like he uses everything BUT brass and woodwinds in this one). Again, these are all great songs, but I just can’t say how much of the “greatness” is due to instrument choice as opposed to the music itself.
Speaking of the music itself, as you probably noticed in all of the songs so far, but especially I Giorni, not many tremendous liberties are taken when it comes to chord usage. It only gets more ridiculous. Listen to Colori, by Fabrizio Paterlini. By around 3:31 into that song, we have entered Blink-182 territory. I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s a bad song by any means, but it is fair to say that it is not the most creative song ever written, and there is no box that Paterlini went outside of to think this one up. All the same, I’d expect a lot of people would actually fall in love with contemporary classical music by hearing this, because it’s hard to mess up a time-tested progression, and he’s done a good job.
Another, more interesting case is the relatively common chord progression used by Max Richter on his song On the Nature of Daylight. This song was the crown jewel of the exemplary soundtrack to the film “Shutter Island” (although it was incidentally written much earlier), and any time I hear it used in media, it always “works.” While we’re on the subject, I also recommend listening to this terrific mix of the song by Robbie Robertson.
Richter wrote a great song, and it is very passionate, and perhaps that is why it reminds me of a song of Ólafur Arnalds’ called (you should hear the story behind that one). Or it could be that Arnalds utilizes the same progression, albeit with different timing. I have no idea which one of the two songs is better – I like them both. But this happens too often in contemporary classical music. It seems like they find the chords that work, and those are the songs that become the “greatest hits” by that artist. It can get predictable and boring, as with any other genre that capitalizes on a few well-known progressions.
Of course, the last problem I have with contemporary classical music is that even beyond the fact that they restrict their chord choices to a few very popular ones, they rarely do anything that surprises you within the bounds that they’ve set (for an example of someone who doesn’t have this problem, see Hauschka). I mean, listen to H in New England, by Max Richter. Admittedly, Richter IS one of the self-stated minimalists of classical music, but what was accomplished in this song? Again, I can’t call it a bad song, but it certainly isn’t a very good one, especially given the skills at his disposal.
A particularly odd case I found involves River Flows In You, by Yiruma. By the way, I’d like to remind anyone who is going to call me on the “pianists are not the same thing as classical composers” issue that Yiruma is considered a classical artist whether you like it or not. This is what contemporary classical music – at least in the mainstream – has become. A guy went on So You Think You Can Dance in 2012 using River Flows In You as his music, and from what I gather (I could be wrong about this), Fox didn’t want to pay for the rights to use the song on TV, so they commissioned Patrick Griffin to write a legally-acceptable copy of the song. We got Shadow Bird as a result. While I recognize that the song was designed to be a copy (and if it wasn’t, that’s all the more damning), it is absurd to me that you can get two different songs to sound so identical. More specifically, it is absurd that CLASSICAL MUSICIANS can have this problem; of course this is a situation that happens frequently in pop music.
There are a couple of conclusions to be drawn, here. The first is that well-known contemporary classical artists these days aren’t doing a whole hell of a lot to distinguish themselves musically. They are, in truth, writing pop songs with pianos and string sections. It’s probably safe to say that they could do better. The second is that if YOU want to be a well-known contemporary classical composer, you’re probably going to want to get used to writing pop-punk tracks masquerading as aristocratic from behind the grand piano.