Song Sommelier has become something of a recent convert (like millions of others) to the world of ‘neo classical’ and what might be reluctantly referred to as ‘relaxing piano music’. Or perhaps nourishing is better word. Anyhow, I had always planned to curate a neo-classical playlist but where to begin, when there are so many already out there? The answer was right there in front of me, my friend and wonderfully talented piano soloist and composer Andrew James Johnson.
Timing being of the essence, Andrew mentioned to me Piano Day was approaching in the calendar (on the 88th day of the year) and that was that, we decided right then we should collaborate on a Piano Day 2019 Playlist, fully curated and sleeve-noted by Andy himself and as ever, embellished by Mick’s unique artwork. Our goal as ever, is that you pay closer attention than usual – why ‘switch-off’ when this music has so much to reveal? Andy’s notes certainly help. And if you must switch off, spend some time staring at Mick’s cover and appreciate that winter is done, and spring is here at last (apologies global listeners your time will come). This really is the soundtrack to renewal.
Piano Day is a worldwide celebration of...you guessed it, the piano! Friday 29th March is the official day, with piano led performances in concert halls, coffee shops, train stations, and even a Treehouse (that’s where I’ll be) showcasing artists from the classical, jazz and world music scene. This year alone you’ll find concerts taking place in London, Paris, Bruges, Prague, Stockholm, reaching as far as California and Columbia! You can go directly to the piano day website for a full list of what’s going on: www.pianoday.org
But this annual event has a slight bias, a vibe, an artistic angle. The brainchild of Piano Day is German composer Nils Frahms, who came up with the concept in 2012. With this playlist we show our appreciation to Nils, who chose Piano Day to happen on the 88th day of the year (the piano has exactly 88 piano keys from the lowest A right up to the very top C - 7 and a bit octaves to be precise.)
Nils Frahm has been at the forefront of contemporary classical music since 2005, and has composed a plethora of albums and EP’s. Although his music is mostly piano based, it vividly incorporates electronic and ambient textures too, as well as analog synthesis reminiscent of Tangerine Dream or early Brian Eno.
Nils’s sonic brand of piano music is the essence of Piano Day, with its biggest proponents making up a small community of artists on the threshold of one of the fastest growing music genres in the world right now. We call this genre ‘Neo-classical’, literally ‘new classical’ - in this context inferring to a return or emulation of, piano compositions from the late 18th and 19th Century piano Oeuvre. The pieces tend to be relatively short, spanning just a few minutes in length, and use conventional harmonic progressions. Think of a Chopin Nocturne or an Eric Satie Gymnopedie and you get somewhat closer to identifying this style. Slow, simple and effective on many levels…relaxation sure, but much more than that.
The majority of 20th century piano composition was dominated by avant-garde composers who wrote in a complex and sophisticated language that few could understand. This music is extremely difficult to play too. Works such as ‘Black Angels’ by George Crumb, the etudes of György Ligeti or the paroxysms of Karl Stockhausen’s ‘Kavierstücke’ are iconic examples, to name but few.
But now classical piano music has come full circle. The influence of film music, pop and rock music (Radiohead for sure), minimalism, electronic, ambient, dance, even world music, have all played a part in creating a new identity and sound palette for the 21st century composer. Wherever you are on the musical spectrum I hope this playlist serves as an enjoyable introduction to the genre and will encourage you to explore the artists, pianists and composers whos music can so transform our mood and soundtrack of lives with passion, intrigue and much-needed reflection.
Nils was onto something...
To celebrate the day, the genre and the piano itself, let’s zoom-in on some of the pieces that make up this playlist. I have chosen to feature both well-known composers, but also lesser known ones too. Of the 52 tracks here, there are five I will discuss in more detail. Read as you listen and do enjoy.
‘Unus Mundus’ by Joep Beving
Currently enjoying a momentous career and hailed as one of the ‘most listened to pianists on the planet’ Joep Beving is top of all the playlists and he deserves to be there. A unique composer with his own sound entirely, Joep doesn't follow the crowd. He’s not always pretty, and often does the unexpected, somehow within a framework of the neo classical idiom. He gives us just enough melody, texture, reflection and emotional fuel to keep his listeners engaged, hypnotized.
‘Unus Mundus’ is one of his latest works and is stunning in its simplicity and innocence, a pastiche work to be sure. I hear touches of Schumman and Debussy, with bit of ‘Moonlight Sonata’ thrown in too. Yet his subtle harmonic progressions are all Joep, beautifully played, irregular and unpredictable and wholly satisfying. Note, the very last piano chord is severely and deliberately out of tune, very di rigour!
‘Time’ by Joe Alexander Shepherd
Joe Alexander Shepherd is a young composer and pianist from York, England. Joe is firmly routed in the melodic side of neo-classicism but you can also hear the delicate textures of ambient synths in the background to create an effuse and ethereal counterpoint to his piano. It’s a reflective, soulful piece revealing a maturity way beyond his years. There are touches of Einaudi in the music and I know Joe is deeply inspired by the Italian maestro.
Ständchen by Franz Schubert (arr. Liszt)
Ständchen (serenade) was composed as a song (Lieder) by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and is one of the few core-classical pieces to be featured on this playlist. I intentionally featured this track because even though it comes from a bygone age it fits in perfectly with the modern style. I almost hope no one will notice…
Schubert is a composer who could have made a fortune from streaming had he been born a mere 200 years later in the age of ‘mood playlists’. He was the master of the miniature piece, with ingenious melodic impulses so perfectly demonstrated in his chamber music, symphonies and piano music. Ständchen is simple yet beguiling, with dark overtones and a secret to keep…underneath the surface bubbles enough tragic human emotion and beauty to make a grown-up weep. This piece is a single example of what this short little bespectacled man can do to you. Be careful if you venture towards the impromptus or late sonatas.
‘Near Light’ by Olafur Arnalds
‘Near Light’ is a beautiful track by veteran neo classical composer Olafur Arnalds. Taken from the Icelandic composer’s most recent album Re:member, this work features ambient looped drums, offering a tender back beat to the melodic piano and cello antiphonal interactions. There is a very mild distortion from an electric guitar, so delicately played one could think it might even be a piano slightly manipulated or played through a vintage guitar amp. Either way, it's a super example of the cinematic side of neo classical composition by a true master. He really knows what he’s doing.
‘Winter’s Heart’ by Andrew James Johnson
Allow me a small liberty by offering one of own compositions as the final piece to discuss. Taken from my debut album, I was lucky enough to have ‘Winter’s Heart’ featured on Spotify’s ‘Peaceful Piano’ playlist.
This music really was inspired by winter, and by Cornwall. The quiet stillness of its landscape is quite unnerving at times, so I was compelled to whisper musical ideas in sympathy. The piece begins gently, undulating like the ocean waves in the distance before slowly building and taking on different textures in the piano. The emotional intensity ebbs and flows with a poignant middle section that for me, reflects true solitude and isolation. The ending is passionate, revealing a desire to find a resolution amidst the constant flow of semi-quavers.
All of these emotions are just the tip of the iceberg of the neo-classical movement. One of the beautiful things about it is that there really are no rules, and the genre is still developing. We are in the embryonic stage of this style and I think the future is bright (if a little fuzzy on the inside) for the composers, pianists and creators who call it home.
Andrew James-Johnson is an up & coming piano soloist and composer. https://www.andrewjamesjohnson.co.uk/