For a while there, it seemed like "post" would take over the music world. Post-punk and post-rock came along, and embedded themselves in the musical landscape, today accepted as entirely legitimate genres (albeit somewhat vague, in the latter's case). The eighties saw the rise of post-industrial and post-hardcore, and today it's almost impossible to move without coming across increasingly curious terms, including post-disco, post-rap, and post-pop. The term "post-genre" has even developed a niche for itself out there in the internet badlands, seemingly beyond humankind's desire to create limits to its world. Today, "Post" has become an easy short-hand for describing music that inhabits that space outside easy pigeonholing and convenient labelling: in this respect, FatCat's 130701 "post-classical" imprint is appropriately named.
Although it has widely been acknowledged that popular music is becoming increasingly varied, and thus increasingly difficult to categorise, the classical music genre to a certain extent still retains an aura of conservative stuffiness, and of limited experimentation. The Transcendentalists Tour, featuring Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka (pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann) and Jóhann Jóhannsson - three of FatCat's biggest post-classical names - blows such narrow-minded assertions out of the water.
As a concept, it's not the easiest sell. The three artists, although residing on the same imprint and producing what can be broadly described as modern- or post-classical music, are decidedly different musicians. On top of that, the Paris date is the last in a non-stop series of eight dates which has seen them play Amsterdam, Dublin, Manchester, and Berlin. Dustin O'Halloran, first on stage, admits as much when he notes that they've all gone a bit "tired and dreamy".
O'Halloran's gentle music has always embraced the dreamlike, augmented piano studies that combine the pianist's crisp and sure touch with sophisticated strings and electronic brushes. The solitary piano in opener "Opus 43" is like settled frost, crystalline and coruscating, yet it's the fusion between O'Halloran and the four-strong string quartet that delights. Less apparent on the album, the warm rich notes of the cello offset beautifully the limpid and elegant melody and counter melodies of the piano and violins. The glacial "A Great Divide", whose raindrop introduction evokes the epic movement of the polar icecaps, is equally well-judged, the sinuous strength of the cello enveloping the graceful piano and mournful upper-strings. In a live setting the sense of anticipation is heightened: "We Move Lightly", a stand-out on O'Halloran's last full-length proper, "Lumiere", benefits greatly from the tantalising pauses, the preparation of the musicians, the readying of bows. O'Halloran plays on the juxtaposition between tangible and ethereal: his left-hand mooring is fuller in body, the right-hand still delicately exquisite. On the album, the music appears out of nowhere, seemingly from a void beyond the senses. In the flesh, the audience is privy to the musicians' exchange of glances. Crescendos feel all the more intense. The disembodied, wraithlike pauses on CD suddenly become more human, thinking respites for a breathing organism. Elsewhere, reduced instrumentation leads to deeply textured light and dark changes to the score: the flamboyant harpsichord of closer "Fragile N. 4" is replaced by subtle pizzicato strings and amplified bass notes that resonate at the back of the brain.
Hauschka's first appearance on stage - fifteen minutes of fiddling and tinkering with the by-now partly dismantled piano - is telling. Bertelmann's set of prepared piano tunes - culled almost exclusively from his "Salon des Amateurs" release - sits on a decidedly different plane to O'Halloran's emotive studies. The piano often sits in the percussion section of the orchestra, and it's the percussive nature of the instrument that sits at the forefront of Hauschka's set, in which he is more than ably assisted by múm's Finnish member Samuli Kosminen. "Tanzbein" begins as clutch of sounds, more like textures: half of Bertelmann's board has been deadened, the resulting notes playing out liked harmonised thuds. Precarious leaps in scale are soon added, and the whole coalesces into a frantic shuffle, a looping acoustic reconstruction of house music played out in real-time. Trains of thought and fidgety themes drop off and reappear, the product of a quite frankly staggering symbiosis between Bertelmann and Kosminen. The music being played is like watching a scene being built before the audience, scrape by scrape, tone by tone. Kosminen's assured percussion scurries and skitters, Bertelmann's piano eccentric yet mondain. "No Sleep" feels dandyesque and savvy, a living snapshot of a bustling city that descends into full-pelt kerfuffle. Defined by movement, Hauschka's scope is cultured and multifarious but never rudderless: directions change as melodies and sounds come and go, yet it always feels distinctly unified. "Ping" twitches and snaps, Kosminen's visceral rattle and whir a perfect complement to the piano's hypnotic cut and paste melody.
Yet the sound is always a seamless whole. There are no cracks to be found, no moment when the transition jars. "Salon des Amateurs" is cybernetic music, an organic variation on the often distinctly inorganic dance genre. And Bertelmann leans into the piano as if operating on a body: the ripped open instrument gleams, its hammers shuddering as LEDs flicker and wires protrude. Yet the sound feels natural, deserving of attention but never demanding of it, inventive yet never obtrusively so. The mesmeric "Radar", the most overtly trance-like of the album, evokes Insomnia-era Faithless, an echo effect warping the piano board's jittery chords. The intoxication is magnified by the echo's distortive effect, the sound quickly out of sync with the brain's vision of the music. Whereas the human presence in O'Halloran's set increases the connection between audience and music, here Bertelmann's dextrous and stimulating manipulation leaves the onlooker's consciousness detached, no longer able to trust the eyes to interpret and the brain to compute.
After Hauschka's intense and dynamic exhilaration, the sudden incredible stillness of Jóhann Jóhannsson's set is like an ice-cube down the back. Sombre and stark, Jóhannsson prefers the lingering build-up. "They Being Dead Yet Speaketh" melds delicate strings and thickly-set chords to create an unmistakably menacing tone. The sense of anticipation returns, but this time it's one of foreboding, of the darkness that waits. Whilst the previous two performers place a marked emphasis on intimacy; Jóhannsson appears to revel (as much as the near-wordless composer appears to revel in anything) in the epic. The minimal "Flight From The City" is deeply touching, the repeated piano refrain singing out mournfully. "Part 1: IBM 1401 Processing Unit" sweeps grandly, yet the pathetic strings and troubling electronic undercurrent contribute to a profound feeling of sadness, something found in much of Jóhannsson's work. "The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of The World", the high-point in Jóhannsson's grandiose soundtrack "The Miners' Hymns", gradually morphs into thunderous bass piano and majestic chords, backed by a proud marching snare drum. Far-reaching and all-encompassing, it seems to stretch beyond the senses, imposing and overwhelming in its sparse simplicity. His set is arguably more traditional in style, yet there is nevertheless still scope for shock: the opening bars of "Sálfræðingur", with its shuffling near-afro beat, are marked by burst of movement unleashed without warning, whilst the set closer, "Odi Et Amo" (from Jóhannsson's 2002 debut "Englabörn") features a synthesised, disembodied voice that augments the hushed stillness of the auditorium to thoroughly eerie effect.
Perhaps the most significant thing to be said of the artists - and of the imprint itself - is that each of them inhabits his own world (or other-world, in some cases). Although the shared foundation of "classical" music is apparent, the three of them operate in such profoundly different ways and appeal to such profoundly different emotions that precise genres have little relevance here. The "post" in post-classical is however appropriate in one sense: the music on offer tonight exists well beyond any attempts at categorisation, a testament to the artists' masterful and transcending creativity.