New Simplicities: On The Trickle-Down Of Pop And Soundtrack Aesthetics In Contemporary Classical Music

The phrase “new simplicities” occurred to me over the past few months while listening to the tuneful, accessible musics of Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm, Max Richter, and (even, briefly) Ludovico Einaudi. Much of this music is for piano or at least features piano, cycles through a few repeating chords, and lies on the gentler end of the musical affect spectrum. Some people call it “post-minimalist” classical music–an appropriate label considering how it uses repetition and situates itself squarely in the tonal realm. But the music reflects other influences too, including ambient, film scores, and, inescapably, pop. In fact, to my ear the chord structures of these pieces sound like traces from popular songs, as if, to riff on Mendelssohn, they were once songs with words and are now songs without. Here are some examples:

Listen to Arnolds’ “Þú Ert Jörðin” for piano, strings, and a beguiling electronic lead sound. (This piece has been streamed 20 million times on Spotify by the way.)

and his “Near Light” (12 million Spotify streams)

Listen to Frahm’s piano piece “Amber” (21 million streams)

Listen to Arnalds’ and Frahm’s “Life Story”–a collaboration in which the piano sounds are gentle, muted, and ringing, blurring the notes into one seamless chord wash.

Listen to Richter’s “Written On The Sky” (10 million streams)

And finally, listen to Einaudi’s “Nuvole bianche” (36 million streams).

It’s interesting to use these musics to think through our cultural moment. Painting with broad, generalizing strokes, Why are the musics so popular and what does their popularity say about our listening and what we’re listening for today? The answer has something to do with the way the pieces gesture towards a particular kind of emotionality bordering on sentimentality–as if the musics are designed expressly to make you feel stuff and have the sense that many others feel just as you do. Also, the popularity of these pieces is unthinkable without our collective exposure to the ways music has been used in film, TV, and advertising over the past century. This use of music to support other media in turn connects to a long history of European classical music and the various ways it has gone about encoding feeling over the centuries. In other words, part of the reason these musics work is that we’ve been thoroughly enculturated to respond to their tonal language, whether we want to or not. That being said, some of it is excellent.

Anyway, zooming out to the bigger picture. Consider an idea and an image: it is as if these musics have a pre-mediated sound–as if they were intended all along not as listening objects but as soundtracks to be woven into our lives. It’s the perfect music for our era of the quantified self watching itself–sounds to soundtrack our faces looking into screens and seeing their own reflections, always seeking connection, reaching out, almost touching, but trapped in digital cells of our own making.

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