Column – Modern Classics: The rise of rock star composers

francesmacdonald
Anyone can play guitar, sung Radiohead, but can anyone compose symphonies? With a recent swathe of rock and pop musicians turning their hand at more classical composition, the lines between the two seemingly disparate genres look as if they are starting to blur.

The release of Francis MacDonald’s Music for String Quartet, Piano And Celeste at the tail end of last month – his own compositions of “minimalist” classical music – seems an oddity for a man largely known for banging the drums in Scottish indie rockers Teenage Fanclub. What’s more MacDonald’s album debuted at Number 16 in Classic FM’s chart, suggesting his efforts have been accepted as more than just side project folly.

In fact despite all the traditional distance-keeping, crossovers between these musical worlds are increasingly more than just toe-dipping exercisers. Outside his day job in The National Bryce Dessner channels most of his creativity in classical music, while Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – who has classical work includes scores for films like There Will Be Blood – is amassing a body of work that proves he’s not merely winging it.

The likes of Roger Waters, Sufjan Stevens and Paul McCartney have also swapped rock stages for the classical concert halls, while contemporary composer Ólafur Arnalds started his musical life drumming in an hardcore band in Iceland. Indeed he believes “a new modern classical scene” has been emerging over the last few years that, taking influence from avant garde masters such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, is experimental in its neo-classicist outlook. That, in theory, leaves much more room for rock stars with the right attitude and talent to join in alongside the likes of new composers like Max Richter among others.

Jonny Greenwood has worked with Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and has performed Reich’s Electric Counterpoint live, while Reich returned the favour with his Radiohead-influenced opus Radio Rewrite in 2012.

Arguably rock music is a well defined and possibly restricted form by its nature, while contemporary classical’s more experimental extreme allows for a wider set of possibilities. Dessner explained to Drowned In Sound that his second life as a classical musician allows him to do more ambitious things creatively, and that rock songs have an immediacy that classical compositions do not. Working in both worlds satisfied all his creative horizons. “It’s a really healthy counterpoint to rock songs, which tend to have an economy about them, and a stripped down immediacy,” he explained” That’s really important, and classical musicians can learn a lot from rock songs and from rock musicians.”

Classical creativity allows for artists like MacDonald and Dessner to go beyond their day job, giving them the ability to both occupy a traditional band role and an alternative creative space involving less collaboration and more self-reflection.

In the past pop musicians’ classical adventures have been dismissed as vanity projects – musicians, classical or pop, still always had egos after all – but with the creative possibilities and the broader visions that this new wave of artists possess, not to mention the positive reaction they’ve received from fans on both sides of the divide, it seems the worlds of classical and rock are only going to get closer together.
Sam Warner @samjwarner