Sotto Voce (or None at All): Instrumental Indie Music for Your Listening Pleasure

As a fan of classical music and especially 21st Century classical, I am often drawn towards pieces of music that incorporate symphonic elements and/or employ the minimalist and cross-genre experimentation of contemporary composers such as John Cage, Phillip Glass  (yes, he is related to Ira), and Steve Reich as well as the fabulous Kronos Quartet.  Therefore, it was with great pleasure that I fancied across this interesting article on the emergence of the newly termed sub-genre of “Indie-Classical”.  The article is an interesting read, but the highlight is the playlist (click here), which should provide some music for working, reading, and writing.

Of course, I also began to reflect on my own favorite albums and/or bands that I/one could classify under the “indie-classical” category.  So, below is a list of records that I would argue are essential listening in the newly dubbed “indie-classical” sub-genre.  As always, if you’d prefer to listen rather than read, here is a Playlist.  (Please note, the playlist contains all the artists referenced below with the exception of Papa M plus some additional tracks.)  I’d love to hear about your favorite indie-classical or indie-instrumental records as well.

Imagine the sound of the modern world coming to a complete halt, as though for a brief period in time there was nothing but space and silence.  Infuse into this abandoned canvas a luscious composition of electric guitars, strings, and a growing drumbeat.  Then, all of a sudden, as though a dial on the radio had been flipped, voices and sounds familiar begin to creep in and the sounds collide multiply and interweave into a crazy crescendo.  If you can see and hear that, then you will begin to understand and adore this band. On a related note, this Canadian ensemble might be one of the most talented and phenomenal set of musicians I have ever seen perform.  (To sample Lift Your Skinny Wrists…. go here (Yanqui is on the playlist) and don’t forget to catch them live at P’fork 2012 this summer!)

Rarely am I at a loss for words to describe a musician and album but I feel as though Four Tet exists at the edge of music and the most difficult of the set to categorize.  Of all the bands/musicians listed here, Four Tet might easily be my favorite of the bunch because he incorporates so many different styles of music into his oeuvre.  Known more as a DJ and mix-master, Pause is a work of pure bliss and euphoria, a sort of trip down aural nirvana.  Blending eastern string arrangements, traditional and East-African inspired percussion, and the steady interplay between  musical pauses and unrelenting synthesizer back-beats, this album is a series of gorgeous reveries through misty mountains in a far away land and treks into a strange and luminous world of aural layers.  (Not surprisingly, Four Tet remixed a composition by one of the composers referenced above, Steve Reich — listen here.)   Next Stop:  Four Tet’s Everything is Ecstatic.

  • Explosions in the Sky – all of a sudden I miss everyone

Although Take Care, Take Care might be the more up-beat and pop-friendly (well as “pop” as instrumental music can be), all of a sudden . . . incorporates both the euphoria and melancholy that is so characteristic of this Texas quartet.  Following in the vein of Godspeed, Explosions records tend to begin with a filmic tempo, mellow, pensive, and peaceful, and then as if the sky had been rent, they pour forth thunderous and blistering guitar medleys.  Next Stop:  Explosions’ Take Care, Take Care.

I happened across this band back when I was heading to Japan for the year.  The Lemon of Pink is a modern symphony of sultry and repetitive downtempo electronic beats combined with the vocal traffic and overheard conversations of modern life.  It is at once all too familiar and disarmingly new and different.  In so many ways, this album encapsulated my experiences in Osaka, Japan, a city and country all too superficially familiar but on further inspection revealed a constant and exciting barrage of new sights and sounds. Next Stop: The Books’ The Way Out.

  • Mogwai – Happy Songs for Happy People

Don’t let the title fool you, this collection of instrumental songs is far from jovial in any sense of the word – other than in the euphoria you might feel of great musicianship.  For a band that uses a sparing amount of lyrics or vocals in their music, these Scottish rockers tend to have a really sardonic approach to titling both albums and songs.  Although the hardcore Mogwai fans out there will most likely “vehemently” disagree with me on this choice from their catalog, I adore this record in part because it feels like a true journey from dirge-like darkness to melodic mirthful* meandering.  (*as mirthful as sulking Scots can get)  Next Stop:  Mogwai’s Come On Die Young  and Rock Action.

  • Tortoise – It’s All Around You

All the Tortoise records are amazing in their own right.  This one, though, is far and away the most “accessible” and upbeat of the bunch.  Given that many of the records, I’ve recommended here tends towards the more morose and melancholic sound of silence, I thought I’d add some sunshine.  There is a celebratory and playful quality to this record that makes it almost dance-y in nature.  Also, if you have the opportunity to see these guys live, please run, don’t walk because they feature one of the best drummers and drum sections in contemporary rock music.  Next Stop:  Tortoise’s Standards.

  • Papa M – Live from A Shark Cage

This was the first “instrumental” indie record I ever heard and it still resonates today as much as it did in the four walls of the dorm room I inhabited on 17 Young Orchard Street my junior year of college.  If there is such a thing as “lo-fi electronic music”, then this is it.  I couldn’t find any streams of this record (it’s about 14 years old, which in the internet age makes this a dinosaur of an album) but you can hear samples here.

For your reference, the additional albums on the playlist include, Battles Gloss Drop, Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack to There Will Be Blood and Sigur Ros’ Takk – unless you know Icelandic this is effectively an instrumental record.  (I adore Sigur Ros and will discuss them more at some later date I’m sure.)

Over and out for now…


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