Dan on ‘Unclassifiable Music’

An unsatisfying ineffectual explanation as to how I came to deeply appreciate ‘Unclassifiable’ music.

Keith Kenniff aka Goldmund & Helios

As regular readers of Assistant blog will know, it is around this time each year that Jonathan shares with us all his albums of the year. This year he preludes the list with a compilation from previous years, perhaps so we can spot patterns forming or perhaps to throw us off the scent. Each year too he asks people he knows for their lists – this year has been no exception.

It was with Jonathan’s annual request in mind that I sat down determined to come up with my ten best albums of 2010 and the reasons why they made my list. However, in truth over the last couple of years I have listened to far fewer albums than at any point in my adult life. Making a list this year has been the hardest yet as due to my harsh economic micro-climate, (leading to less speculative buys and less gig going), my continued falling out of love with ‘indie’ and my failure to read the music press, I’ve bought and listened to comparatively very little. Compared with Jonathan I’ve hardly kept up with this year’s releases at all. Why would I want to write a shoddy list, in comparison to his more comprehensive effort?

So, thinking of my list dilemma, and worrying that I didn’t think I really had a top ten album list this year without including – and therefore defending – a couple of albums that I found disappointing, it occurred to me that I am at a musical crossroads. That in my 32nd year the music that had filtered through to me was hard to classify. I am in an unclassifiable musical quandary – just what is all this stuff I’ve spent the last couple of years listening to?

Well, in short, most I suppose is described as ‘pop-classical’, ‘neo-classical’, or ‘experimental classical’. iTunes, normally so helpful in these matters, often just suggests, appropriately, ‘unclassifiable’.

Though I had been drawn to such music, perhaps unwittingly, in the form of the Penguin Café Orchestra (New Age, according to iTunes) as long ago as my university days, it was not until about three years ago that I first heard of and started listening to the Anglo German composer Max Richter.

I found his soundtrack-esque work imaginative, instantly likeable, absorbing and moving. With continued listening and more buys (as with getting into any new genre of music) I found myself drawn down a corridor off which were doors marked Hauschka, Goldmund, Library Tapes, Nils Frahm, North Sea Radio Orchestra, Olafur Arnalds, Yann Tiersen and the prolific and versatile Peter Broderick, amongst many others. These artists all share a largely classical outlook, though a student of classical music may for all I know easily dismiss them all as ‘pop’. Some, like Richter and Hauschka, have classical backgrounds, but their music contains definite traces of contemporary rhythms and melodies with some pop sensitivities.

It’s these qualities that probably make them accessible to people like me with very little knowledge of the classical music world. It’s not to say these artists cannot challenge and confront you; in fact the majority of this music would certainly be considered challenging to those used to the Indie/Rock/Folk/Pop which until recently I had been listening to. Library Tapes tracks frequently descend into noise. Similarly, so do Tape and Christopher Bissonnette tracks. Yann Tiersen can mix the jollity that made him known to millions through the Amelie soundtrack with despair and wretched emotion – as demonstrated on his last album.

It’s not that I am trying to trumpet my liking for such artists as evidence that I have grown or matured past my previous likes. It’s just where my likes are right now and I don’t really know why. It may be because I am more and more interested in film-making and these artists are almost all soundtrack writers. Max Richter has scored the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir, Goldmund lends his work to numerous commercials and Hauschka’s music can be heard throughout BBC4’s Germany season of programmes. Perhaps it’s not a good thing? Maybe I’ve cornered my tastes and there’s need for a break out. Maybe I’m just getting old?

So no Top 10 from me this year. I could maybe scrap together seven or so. Not all would be from the above category (whatever it’s called) but a fair proportion would be. Here, instead, is a short introduction to the ‘Unclassifiables’ to get those unfamiliar familiar, and some links to examples of their work;

Dan’s insufficient guide to music he can’t classify

Goldmund is a US pianist based in Portland Oregon. His name is Keith Kenniff and he has also released material under the name Helios. Under his Goldmund guise, Mr Keniff produces sparse and often beautiful piano pieces. His work can be found all over the place and there’s a high probability you’ve heard at least some in commercials and on film soundtracks. From the albums I own of his, ‘Threnody’ is a nice example of his work.

Hauschka is a German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann. His music is less sparse than Goldmund’s. He seems to like to push the boundaries of the piano and when performing live he sticks knives and musical instruments into his piano to extract differing sounds. The result is often the sound of a rattling piano – but a jolly one. He enjoyed international success with his 2008 album Ferndorf which included the tracks ‘Heimat’ and the excellent ‘Schönes Mädchen’. Hauschka’s latest album is onto more classical territory, it’s called Foreign Landscapes and I’m lucky enough to have a vinyl copy – this is its splendid opening track.

Nils Frahm is another German. I know little about him other than I heard him on Radio 3’s Late Junction programme one evening and jotted down his name. He’s released sparse amounts of material from what I can tell but I did manage to pick up a limited release on CD called Wintermusik. This is an EP of apparently improvised piano music made for his family at Christmas that he was told he should release to non family members. It’s quite beautiful. I know that Thom Yorke is a fan as he directed people from the Radiohead site to a video I made to accompany the track ‘Ambre’. Had I known this would happen I think I would’ve made a better effort.

Ólafur Arnalds is not German, I repeat not German. He is from Iceland and by his efforts is single-handedly reversing the Icelandic international trade deficit. Iceland of course is it seems a country with more musicians per head of population than any other. The fact however that two thirds sound just like latter-day more poppy Sigur Ros does put a dampener on things a little. Mr Arnalds thankfully does not fall into this bracket. He is primarily a pianist though can turn electric if he likes and throw in loops, samples and glitches. Check out this wonderful video to the track ‘Ljósið’.

Click here to access a Spotify playlist which collects together a number of beautiful, unclassifiable songs by the above artists. Details below.


  1. Liz Howard

    Great stuff – can’t wait to hear the Spotify playlist.

  2. This is doubly good. Good as in normally good but also good because I like the music. Queued it up in Spotify. I wonder what it is about Germans that makes them make this zort of thing.

  3. Paul Lloyd

    Dan, be interested, having read this and noted your lack of awareness of conventional classical music, to hear what you think of:

    Erik Satie.
    Chopin’s Nocturnes
    John Cage’s piano music.
    Valentin Silvestrov.

    Think you’d like.

    For more contemporary alternatives, try: Richard Skelton, A Broken Consort, Markus Fischer and Sylvain Chaveau.

  4. Dan

    Thanks for the comments all!

    Paul, though I’ve heard of John Cage and of course Chopin I know hardly any of their work and would be in trouble if asked to even identify let alone give an opinion.

    I could’ve included a mention to Philip Glass in the above article. I was recently given a DVD of the film ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ which Glass scored and it reminded me of his output and his influence on the ‘Unclassifiables’.

    Of your other suggestions I only have music by Sylvain Chaveau (the albums Nuage and Nuage [Les Mains d'Andrea]). That was a real oversight actually and I should’ve mentioned him as earlier this year was listening to him quite a bit. I love the track ‘Le Tunnel’.

    Many thanks for the other suggestions though! Will look them up today.

  5. Anonymous

    Dan? Or someone? If I went out to get one minimalist/classical/experimental CD this weekend, what should I get. Interest peaked by this but don’t have spotify.

  6. Igor

    Yes, Ólafur is not German, definitely. What is wrong is that it is not German? :-)


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