My yellow notebook #1 – Neoclassicism



A phenomenon whose content assumes a form and spreads outwards, both in the media and the public response to it, i.e. one that evolves into an exploitable topic, needs a handle, a term on which everyone can agree. Expressionism, existentialism, eclecticism – you know what I am talking about.

In the world of music, it used to be very much the same, things were relatively clear: like a periodic table, a distinction was made at the very top layer between serious music to the left and light music to the right, with numerous layers of these main categories broken down into various epochs and styles to denote each individual sub-category. In classical music the second row is made up of ancient music, renaissance, baroque, classic, romantic, late romantic, impressionism, modern, new (or contemporary) music. All well and good.


The difficulties began at the end of the 1980s and have now come to a peak. What happened was the dissolution (but not overthrow!) of certainties and fixed categories at political, social, economic and artistic levels, all of which are ultimately derived from the western dogma of unlimited progress and belief in their superiority. But out of the ashes a new certainty has arisen: the age of linear growth in quality is over. We have reached limits. The sclerotic dogma of unlimited progress is now only kept alive in quantitative terms.


Classical music has a problem. It is the musical address and quality seal for advanced culture. The avantgarde movements in the 20th century saw themselves as the continuation of uninterrupted progress and celebrated the shock, the unique and the entirely new (Tilman Baumgärtel, “Schleifen”, 2015). So it is not surprising that classical music from let’s say 1960 to today has been termed “new music” or “contemporary music”.

When studying composition at the Berlin University of the Arts I was requested to work on new music. Stockhausen, Nono, Lachenmann! (I like all three because what they did was extremely interesting, inspiring and carried their own unique signature.) I set myself the same target. I wanted to explore my own kind of new music. But I had the feeling that there was nothing more to be done in the field of (classical) new music. NEWER THAN NEW was simply impossible. CONTEMPORARY composition, on the other hand, did seem feasible: drawing on the deep well of history and letting it speak in contemporary styles using modern production techniques from the most progressive pop cultures.

By contrast, simply presenting ancient music in the garb of new music was too formal for me (good expositions, clever references to accepted compositions; making music that sounds new but actually isn’t, at best just another sound experiment like thousands of others) and also rigidly demarcated into “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.

I had something else in mind. Repetitive and melodic, and primarily electronic was what I was after. Not undemanding, but simple, with a clarity of form. My classical ideals were Glass and Reich, both treated derogatively at the university as “pop musicians” and not to be taken seriously (from which it is no surprise that my other idols, such as Kraftwerk or Giorgio Moroder, were viewed by my teachers and masters as unbelievable rubbish…). In addition, I rebelled against the principle of conformity that defined the path to having a career as a classical composer:

  1. a) Make “pleasant music” within the coordinates of new music (i.e. the more formally “unpleasant”, the better).
    b) Work hard on fitting into the entourage of your professor so you could swim in his wake.
    c) Use this avenue to gain access to the holy system of subventions, consisting of competitions, prizes, scholarships and contracts for compositions.

There was nothing I wanted more than an alternative classical music scene. But the only thing that came close to what I was looking for lay in the subcultures of pop music. And so it turned out. At the end of the 1980s I found my niche right at the heart of the nascent Berlin techno scene: a young composer with classical music training equipped with analogue synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers. The rest is history.


If you had to find a familiar and accepted genre to label the musical landscape which I am about to present to the public, i.e. a term under which you could pigeonhole my musical material, then it would have to be: neoclassicism

In the PR machine, neoclassicism is described as something like, “musicians and composers who nowadays successfully experiment with a mix of serious and light music – often on the piano and frequently with a considerable array of technology. Not all have a classical background. But they all combine classical compositional elements with modern ideas and production methods and are therefore right on the pulse of contemporary trends.” Yeah! Moreover: “This music sounds cool and uncomplicated. (…) The heart of neoclassical music beats for feel-good accessible sounds – coupled with a lot of bass, typical for the clubbing scene.” (freely translated excerpt from Bettina Jech, copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion, June 2016)

Tobias Ruderer (“Die neueste Form der Gebrauchsmusik nennt sich Neoklassik. Spur einer Regression” in VAN dated 29 July 2015) listens a bit closer: “Between Chopin projects, minimal epigones and sound designers, a new genre has arisen. In its basic form, all that is needed are a few arpeggios on the piano and a nice young man.” Ouch, that description fits me better than this one: “No one can object to all of this, the experimenting, design, a relaxed discourse with new music. But, who dares to talk of the incessant rounds of the same harmonies, from A minor to F major, A minor to F major and on and on? They create the hard, unquestioned framework on which the artisan arranges his sounds: a bit rough here, a bit distorted there.”

In his piece for “ZEIT online”, a contemporary magazine, Volker Schmidt is more pointed in his criticism of his own trade: “Art columnists love it: tough guys and cool indie types who focus their energies on making music that bears a remote resemblance to Bach and Mozart, Eric Satie or, at least, Steve Reich,” thereby establishing a foundation for his liking for the genre by describing the current situation of the classical music scene: “In the ivory tower of classical music they like to claim they are just wanting to win a new audience for their music. Yet many residents of that ivory tower anxiously paper over all the cracks through which what they fear most might penetrate – the (allegedly) trivial. Yet there is hardly anything more trivial than nostalgic purism. (…) Thankfully, most musicians that now have to tolerate being described as neo-classical just do what good musicians always did: they keep their mind and ears open for influences from all corners. The enthusiasm for classicism from the independent scene could mean that the word has spread. Finally, genres that were once firmly in the domain of classical music have now become ordinary musical material that creatives can play around with, without being looked down on. (…) Not everything that results is original. (…) However, there are fantastic results from totally different corners.”


So, is Harald Blüchel “neo-classical” or not? “Neo-classicism, post-rock, modern classical, indie classical. Artists don’t have to allocate themselves to any particular genre. However, they can’t prevent their listeners from creating maps of the (music) scene that they then use to communicate with each other.” (Tobias Ruderer).

That is true. And I couldn’t change this even if I wanted to. What is the point of investing my energy in a battle of terminology, just to argue about why I shouldn’t be pigeonholed under a particular term? And the fact that an increasing number of mediocre, marketable fashion items are shoved into this spectrum over the course of time, is just how it is, so to say.

At any rate, there are musicians in the neoclassical genre whose music I really love. In today’s world there are related approaches in terms of perspective, attitude, expression and form, issues that we can reflect upon and interpret musically – contemporary music that is identifiable among the vast cosmos of classical music which want to expand that cosmos today.

By writing these texts, I am attempting to deliberate on the motivation behind my music and make it understandable. More to the point, I would be overjoyed if people can hear my music. As directly as possible. When I play it live. That is the next step, which is about to come. I am busy preparing myself for it.