Neo-classical music takes the best bits of classical music, minimalism, electronica and experimental rock and mixes them up into a delicious sound-salad. The piano has played a central role in this musical movement, lending it’s wide expressive and tonal palette to a host of iconic albums.
And so ZoneOut took on the difficult task of choosing 10 essential albums that feature the piano. Keep calm, and listen to neo-classical piano.
1. Joep Beving – Prehension (2017)
Dutch pianist Joep Beving’s 2017 album Prehension begins with a still, pulsing tone on the piano. Soon after the wistful, Beatles-esque melody drifts in – like soft clouds coasting across a clear sky.
From start to finish Prehension is full of peaceful, intimate, and remarkably catchy melodies, performed entirely on solo piano. The rousing encore ‘Hanging D’ brings the album to a close.
2. Olafur Arnalds – re:member (2018)
re:member, the 2018 album by Olafur Arnalds, may well be the Iceland composer’s magnum opus. Integral to the album are Olafur’s unique STRATUS pianos – a pair of algorithmically-controlled upright pianos that produce ‘swarms’ of ambient sound. Truly a feat of musical creativity and technology.
And if you’re stuck inside making music (rather than just listening to it) check out Olafur’s STRATUS virtual instrument – produced in collaboration with Spitfire Audio.
3. Ludovico Einaudi – Seven Days Walking (2019)
Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi is known as the godfather of neo-classical music. For his 2019 album Seven Days Walking, Einaudi was inspired by the subtle variations of his daily walks to escape the studio.
And so Seven Days Walking was recorded not once – but seven times! Each version, or ‘Day’, is performed with its own subtle and touching variations on the core musical themes. It is a monumental concept that equates to six hour of music – the perfect ‘longplay’ experience for a day at home.
4. Max Richter – The Blue Notebooks (2003)
Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks is a product of its time. Produced years before ‘neo-classical’ had coalesced as a musical movement, the album was Richter’s response to the war in Iraq, and features spoken word readings by actress Tilda Swinton.
This album contains some of Richter’s best-known music for the piano: including ‘Vladimir’s Blues’, ‘Written On The Sky’ and ‘A Catalogue of Afternoons’. However these subtle and intimate piano moments are best experienced in their proper context, as sparkling jewels on Max’s emotional and immersive album.
5. Nat Bartsch – Forever, And No Time At All (2018)
Australian pianist Nat Bartsch composed Forever, And No Time At All as a personal response to becoming a mother. Intended to be enjoyed by parents and young children together, the music is quiet, peaceful, and dreamlike.
Nat’s piano is quietly augmented by the celesta – an obscure 19th century keyboard instrument in which the hammers strike metal plates (unlike a piano, which has strings). Throughout the album the celesta creates a meditative, bell-like resonance.
6. Luke Howard – Two & One (2014)
Australian composer Luke Howard is not one to shy away from tugging at the heartstrings, and Two & One contains some of his most sensitive works for piano. A lo-fi, vinyl-hiss provides the ‘film grain’ to the album’s sonic palette, supporting the subtle, minimalist compositions.
Distant, otherworldly, and melancholic, Two & One is the perfect choice for a rainy day spent gazing out the window, reminiscing about life before the lockdown.
7. Poppy Ackroyd – Resolve (2018)
English pianist and composer Poppy Ackroyd treats the piano more like a drum kit, with a driving, mesmerising forwards momentum throughout the entire album. On the aptly named ‘Trains’, the listener is surrounded by urgent piano arpeggios and dramatic strings. Throughout the album the sound of the piano being struck, plucked, hit, and generally mistreated form part of the tonal pallette – chopped and sampled into a brand new percussion instrument. This album will get you moving.
8. Sophie Hutchings – Scattered On the Wind (2020)
Sydney-sider Sophie Hutchings brings a sense mystery to this list. Rolling arpeggios wash in and out like waves on a (currently off limits) New South Wales shore.
There is something particularly organic about Hutchings’ music. One gets the sense that this is real music, happening right now. And if you are stuck inside and feel like a breath of fresh air, Hutchings’ music might be the next best thing.
9. Jean Michel-Blais – Matthias & Maxime (2019)
French music is known for its romance – apparently this extends to French Canada as well. This quality is on show in the soundtrack to indie film Matthias & Maxime by Quebecois pianist and composer Jean Michel-Blais.
Michel-Blais clearly reached into his soul when composing this soundtrack largely for solo piano (with some environmental sounds thrown in for good measure). The sense of place and drama is heightened by the inclusion of two short ‘skits’ – excerpts of dialogue from the film. These are, of course, spoken in French – objectively the most romantic of all languages.
10. Nils Frahm – Felt (2011)
One of the defining characteristics of neo-classical music is the use of environmental sounds. Quite opposed to the studio perfection of many traditional classical recordings, neo-classical artists have embraced the sound of pedals moving, keys clacking, the performers breathing. Even the sound of air itself can be creatively and emotionally deployed. And no artist captures the sound of air quite like Nils Frahm.
Frahm’s 2011 album Felt (named after the fabric pianists use to dampen the sound of their instrument) is so full of environmental sound that you might be tempted to check your speakers are working properly! Never fear – you are being intentionally pulled into Frahm’s sound world, perhaps never to return…