Jeff Mills

Portals: Modern Classical

As described in the Portals introductory post,  this series is an attempt to help everyone explore more, maybe point you to something new, or change your mind completely about a specific style of music. It's a once-click down from the article I wrote on ambient music (Neither Scene Nor Heard...) and will likely go through the many styles described in there as the series progresses. Up first, a style that's taking on the old.

I won't be making an attempt at listing the best Modern Classical artists of today; instead, I will be looking at several artists whose influences or style may relate back to classical music, artists that could be considered as defining or even re-defining what we think of as Modern Classical and tracks that have introduced me to, or led me to explore more of this specific style of music. If you're a die-hard Modern Classical fan, then this post will hopefully help you open up to something more, or different. If you're new to the genre, it may be your way in.

To wrap a loose definition around the term Modern Classical, it's often defined as music whose influences stem from early classical music (the classical music you are probably more familiar with), as opposed to rock, pop, folk, jazz etc. 

This article by  Luke Muehlhauser, provided some great in-depth background on Modern Classical music, but I hope to bring a more ambient/electronic lens as a result of my own personal experiences. I do, however, echo his sentiments surrounding the exploration of the genre; it's pointless trying to make you enjoy all types of Modern Classical music, but I do hope you find something you enjoy, can relate to, and ultimately explore further.

I encourage your comments, recommendations, and experiences in the comments below so we can help one-another explore even more.


When I explain to some of my friends or family that I enjoy Modern Classical music, they find it hard to understand. All my years submerged in electronic music - how can I possibly like something like Classical music?! Classical music has connotations of 70-year-old men, dusty record shops with gramophones, or theatres full of tuxedos watching the back of a conductor. Modern Classical and the many artists pioneering it today are breaking new ground, crossing into electronic and ambient music, playing at major festivals, making techno music on the side (or vice-versa), and recruiting a much younger generation of listeners.

Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons - Spring 1. (2012)

Let's start as close to the origins of classical music as possible. Max Richter is one of the best composers of the modern age and for many, responsible for defining Modern Classical music.

Richter will come as no stranger to many of us, and the renowned German/Brit is the epitome of Modern Classical music - forging the gap between the old and the new. In no production is this more apparent or beautiful, as Spring 1, taken from Max's reinterpretation of a classical masterpiece, The Four Seasons by one of Classical music's very own legends, Vivaldi.

Spring 1, combines an emotional, soaring Moog synth which juxtaposes the sharp violins paving the way for the introductory piece of the record. It's the Yin to the Yang, the old parallel to the new, and this electronic addition is the most obvious of elements you'll witness amongst Max's many modern and minimal takes on classical music we've heard in the likes of Memoryhouse and Infra.

Watch a video of the entire concert here and a clip of Spring 1, below with Max on the Moog.


Steve Reich - Six Pianos (1974)

Steve Reich is often talked about in the same vein as Max Richter, both namely responsible for the modern-minimalist movement, but in many respects, Reich may be an easier 'in' for many of us - his variations and experimental approaches are more likely to resonate with you at some point along his 40+ year career. 

His track Electric Counterpoint, for example, the source for samples in The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds, and his most notorious release, Music for 18 Musicians, recently repressed for Record Store Day 2015 and his most celebrated and respected piece to date. 

But it's the 1974 track, Six Pianos which I've chosen to feature here. The repetitive pianos, whilst absent of any obvious emotion we heard in Max Richter's piece, are something I've come to see and respect within performances from the artists of today. The ability to hang an audience on single notes, or these repetitions, for minutes on-end... it takes a special someone to pull that off. 

Ryuichi Sakamoto - Completion (2007) (With Christopher Willits

Ryuichi Sakaomoto is another artist responsible for injecting new life into classical music. His extensive list of collaborators ranges from: ambient and experimental visionaries such as Taylor Deupree, (here playing an experimental set at St Johns for 
Boiler Room)  Fennesz (here combining Fennesz's fuzzy electronics in the classic piano track, Amore) David Byrne (here for The Last Emperor Soundtrack) Alva Noto, (here layering keys amongst the static and glitch of Raster Noton's finest) and the track chosen here alongside Ghostly's ambient star, Christopher Willits, combining textures on

Sakamoto may not be down as your most obvious Modern Classical character, but he's a prime example of an artist pushing the boundaries of what we may have previously deemed classical. Starting as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra and going on to record such infamous piano compositions such as, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (still a big favourite of mine - watch a live recording here), he's brought the piano to the world in as many guises as physically possible.

Nils Frahm - Said And Done (2013) (pictured)

The German is single-handedly responsible for making me fall in love with this type of music all over again and Said And Done is just one example of Modern Classical at its finest. 

The track features three parts which repeatedly sends shivers down my spine. First, the sustained keys - I've seen Nils tease out the audience with this section for what seems like hours on end. Second, this (sometimes aggressive) playing eases into the track's gentle melody, which oozes with melancholy. Until third, the keys are once again pounded with such significance you wonder if Nils is even human - head down, beads of sweat breaking across his brow, arms drawn across the stage... and then it hooks you.

Spaces, his 2014 release, was without a doubt my favourite album of the year and whilst pieces like Said And Done are strictly piano, Nils continues to push the boundaries with his modern take on classical music, combining vintage synthesizers, custom piano builds (the largest piano in the world), dub-remixes for Jon Hopkins, his very own Piano Dayand more recently debuting a motion-picture soundtrack for Victoria.

The below video isn't of Said And Done, because to single-out this track amongst Nil's performances wouldn't do it justice, but if you're familiar with Nils, you probably already know the track. If you're new to Nils, then watch the below and have your mind and ears blown. 

Said And Done begins at around 17 minutes.

Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott - Verses - The Chopin Project (2015)

I found the following Youtube comment on one of Ólafur Arnald's videos for his recent Chopin project: "Chopin published the 3rd Sonata in 1844, Arnald's published this is 2015 ... There's 171 years of music in this 4 minute video"...

Just like Nils, Ólafur has been one of the biggest and most talented stars to emerge from this music style, bringing the pure beauty of a piano to the masses of people who now flock to his concerts and shows globally. Quotes like the above really put the gravitas of Modern Classical into context, and go to show that good music never really goes away - it just gets reinterpreted, sampled or built upon for new audiences who are willing to listen and learn. 

Ólafur began his career in a Heavy Metal band and to this day consistently reminds us of the power behind a composition. He integrates powerful vocals in For Now I Am Winter, writes music for Broadchurch, combines classical elements with dance music as Kiasmos, and here, with Alice Sara Ottreinterprets the legendary Polish virtuoso Pianist, Chopin.

Dustin O'Halloran - A Great Divide (2011)

This entire article could go on to feature many of the stars grown by the brilliant Erased Tapes label. From Germany's Nils Frahm, to Olafur Arnalds' early works, and Portland's Peter Broderick, to more recent label additions such as "the fastest pianist in the world"; Lubomyr Melynk, veteran composer Michael Price and the soaring beauty of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. The latter of which, formed of Adam Wiltzie (of Stars Of The Lid fame) and self-taught pianist Dustin O'Halloran

Dustin's release Vorleben, on the brilliant Sonic Pieces record label in 2011, seemed to be a defining piece for the American pianist and label alike. The Berlin based collective, now synonymous with some of the very best modern-classical music, housed early Nils Frahm albums such as Wintermusik in 2009, Otto A Totland's short and minimalist album, Pinô, and the Norwegian dark-ambient pairing, Deaf Center.  Despite playing a modest part of this well-respected label's growth, it's Dustin's work as one half of A Winged Victory For The Sullen which has propelled him, and in many respects, Modern Classical music, forward. 

Whether you prefer your piano blanketed in ambience alongside slow riffs from Adam Wiltzie in AWVFTS (read a live review here), or more classical compositions from Dustin's individual work, productions such as A Great Divide highlight just how accomplished this man is, alone or accompanied. 

Ben Woods - Fond Of You (2014)

Diving deeper into this particular style, I have a long list of ambient artists that could be seen as having Modern Classical influences. I'll create a separate Portals specifically for those artists, and they'll likely creep-in when I focus on Soundtracks, or dive into ambient music specifically, but for now I wanted to just keep it to one track and mention a few should you want to be eased into this softly-lit world. 

Strictly speaking, ambient music tends to go one of two ways for me. Either electronic, synthesized sounds, accentuated by samples or analog instruments. Or, where Modern Classical is concerned, instrumentalists adding textures, or even playing textures through piano, strings or guitar. Sometimes they're classically trained, or as I've learned, in many instances have no training whatsoever, and have simply mastered programs like Ableton. 

There's a whole world of these talented pianists, cellists, guitarists, and violinists that form the back-bone of much of the ambient music we hear today. They deserve to be credited with opening our ears to the powerful and evocative styles behind Modern Classical music; be it hidden amongst textures, or in Ben Woods' case, playing the lead role in the beautiful track, Fond Of You.

This more ambient focused approach can also be found in the likes of: Helios, Brambles, Halo, Hior Chronik, Jacaszek, Arc Of Doves, and when leaning more towards soundtrack styles: Bruno SanfilippoRhian Sheehan, Levi Patel and Luke Howard to name just a few to get you started... Expect more to come on this particular style of music in another Portals.

Christina Vantzou - VHS

I wanted to represent a few different styles throughout this post and Christina Vantzou's VHS does just that. Her experimental and omnidirectional take on Classical music is a refreshing and bold approach to reconstructing music. 

I was lucky enough to witness Christina at Substrata Festival a few years back, where she orchestrated a specially commissioned string-quartet, dancing around on stage bare-footed, her artistic qualities were evident, as are they in VHS, with its haunting 
instruments and hypnotic accompanying video.

Instead of crafting extended, complicated compositions, Christina can be found creating minimal, experimental stories, often focusing on string instruments, but as with VHS, combining a multitude of different approaches, tones, and emotions. 

Christina's albums on Kranky also provide the perfect entry point to explore a further multitude of artists that touch the Modern Classical realm; throughout her self-released remix albums No1 and No2. Loscil, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Koen Holtkamp, ISAN, and Dustin O'Halloran are just a few artists who stepped up to reinterpret her works.

My favourite track of Christina's may actually be Going backwards to recover that which was left behindbut VHS provides a slightly different perspective to the music featured here. If you're in need of more experimental artists that have their own non-traditional approach, I'd also recommend Hauschka, whose prepared piano is an absolute spectacle. 

Jeff Mills & The Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra (2005)

You may be aware of Aphex Twin's Remote Orchestra? It received mixed reviews, but his intentions were never faulted and at the very least it gave birth to this rather beautiful remix of Rhubarb. The idea of controlling a 48 piece string section and a 24 strong choir by remote control, using a host of electronics, midi controllers, and remote visual cues wasn't RDJ's finest moment, but it was a stroke of genius, going one step further than anyone else looking to smash down any musical boundaries.

For the techno enthusiasts amongst us you may also remember Carl Craig stepping up in front of Les Siècles Orchestra - another great example of two musical worlds colliding. Or earlier in 2005, another techno legend, Jeff Mills, playing alongside The Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra.

For anybody my age growing up listening to electronic music, it's easy to recognise the classical elements or instruments in techno tracks; the piano leads of early house music, the Strings Of Life we came to recognize, but it's extremely hard to imagine them ever becoming so apparent. That is, until you witness the natural harmony between electronic musicians on stage backed by a 909 and fronted by an Orchestra. It's hard to not fall in love with what the likes of Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, and Aphex Twin have done for music across the board - irrespective of genre. 

The integration of classical instruments and the world of techno/electronic music can also be flipped completely on its head. From electronic music integrating classical, to classical music mimicking electronic. 

Irrespective of genre or label, these reinterpretations of early electronic music over the past few years have opened up my eyes to how powerful string, wood, and brass instruments can be, even without a kick-drum. In the same way I witnessed Jeff Mills and Carl Craig on stage in-front of an Orchestra, playing some of my all-time favourite tracks in a completely different manner; these performances gave me a whole new-found respect for anybody mastering these instruments.

Alarm Will Sound took on Aphex Twin with their version of Blue Calx (coming the closest to matching RDJ's original), but The Williams Fairey Brass Band may just be your favourite find of the article. Covering early 90's acid-house tracks from 808 State, The KLF, and A Guy Called Gerald, if this doesn't make you want to seek out the potential of a Trombone, then I don't know what will...

Moby - God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters (1995)

Lastly, something you probably weren't expecting: a track that cut straight through a plethora of electronic music during its most celebrated age, a CD full of rave music, a track that many people wouldn't consider Modern Classical, yet if played live would probably be one of the greatest performances of our times without the need for any electronic instruments at all.

God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters by Moby may be boxed as ambient, soundtrack or just simply instrumental, but it has all the elements of an epic orchestral performance. If you ever doubted the use of classical instruments, strings or piano in music, then this track could be your way in, as it was for me back in 1995.

I'm not sure if Moby has ever played this live with an orchestra but there's an amazing similarity between this song and many of the artists mentioned in this article. Moby gets a hard-rap nowadays, but he gets my nod for somehow producing one of the best instrumental tracks in the past twenty years and for being one of the very first people to make me think,"Wow. The strings and piano in this are really something, I wonder what else is similar?"...


Portals Episode 1: Modern Classical d/l


01. Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons - Spring 0 & 1
02. Nils Frahm - Said And Done.
03. Willits & Sakamoto - Completion
04. Dustin O'Halloran - A Great Divide
05. Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott - Verses
06. Christina Vantzou - VHS
07. Ben Woods - Fond Of You
08. Jeff Mills & The Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra - Imagine (Blue Potential Version)
09. Moby - God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters
10. Steve Reich - Six Pianos