21st century classical: An interview with Moderna Records

Moderna artist Simon P. Castonguay aka Tambour at the Cabaret Lion d’Or, Montreal

by Mike G, November 2019

Want to explain modern classical to somebody? Try this: “We’re here to trace a line from electronic sound designers to classical composers, connecting them through the realms of ambient and cinematic music”. This is the simple, eloquent manifesto of Montreal-based Moderna Records. I spoke with founder/manager Évolène Lüthi and label co-manager Nick Hyatt to learn more about one of the genre’s most formidable labels.

AMG: I’ve never visited Canada and I’m curious about Montreal’s modern music scene. Can you paint me the picture?

Évo: It’s quite a thriving music scene, both in the quality and diversity. There are so many factors that contribute – low rent, a societal commitment to arts and culture, physical density and architecture. We have a multilingual and multicultural environment with concurrent scenes in French and English as well as a number of other languages and cultures, and a large number of universities.

It really is a hub where you can go out any night of the week and see two dozen shows of different genres. There is a very strong DIY component, as well as a commitment to making experimental and underground music.

Moderna founder Évolène Lüthi

AMG: What were you doing before you ran a record label? Did Moderna happen by accident, or design?

Évo: I guess it was a coherent continuity from my previous fields of study: cinema, communications, sound engineering. I had a certain vision and a desire to put together a platform that’s audio-visually distinctive, innovative.

AMG: How do artists come to be on your label? Are they all people you know or are referred to, or do you encourage demo submissions?

Évo: Such a mix here, it’s hard to say.

We do absolutely receive demos and recommendations from artists and musicians, and I also spend a lot of time searching and recruiting. I listen to a very large amount of music to see who inspires me. I share my favourites with my business partner Nick, and together we decide who excites us and is a good fit for where we’re at and where we’re going.

AMG: Some of your artists like Tambour and Jacob David are very fond of a “prepared piano” sound where they stick things in the instrument to alter or attenuate the tones. That goes way back to John Cage but it seems to be very much in vogue at the moment among mod classical and ambient musicians. Any thoughts?

Évo: Hmm, this is interesting. I don’t quite associate the felt piano movement with the prepared piano of Cage or Hauschka, perhaps due to the sonic aesthetic. But it is true that both involve augmenting the piano’s sonic palette with objects as you mention here.

I can say that I was first attracted to piano music upon hearing the ‘felt’ sound of Keith Kenniff and Chilly Gonzales, back in 2004-05. I guess it has to do with a warm mood and a sense of proximity to the pianist that is somehow diminished when listening to more standard piano recordings. Close miking is such an important aspect of this style of recording, which helps bring us closer while capturing the inner mechanical artefacts of the instrument. Nils Frahm certainly helped to popularise this sound, and his music has inspired a lot of people in the scene, but for me it’s strange as he’s not my entry point or reference.

Either way, I think it’s clear that this treatment of the piano has really opened up a mellow and inviting sonic world that people are still quite excited about.

Italian composer and Moderna artist Ed Carlson (piano) at Montreal’s Casa del Popolo

AMG: I love your manifesto: “We’re here to trace a line from electronic sound designers to classical composers, connecting them through the realms of ambient and cinematic music.” Do you ever need to explain to people what modern classical is, or do listeners and journalists get it now?

Évo: Thanks. I have to say that we definitely have some trouble here at times.

Some people get it of course, but most people in North America tend to label our music as neo-classical. It’s not a label that we’re crazy about.  I mean, there is a movement from the 1950s that received this moniker, composers like Stravinsky and Hindemith, and we’re certainly not in that sphere. So we try to describe it to each person in terms they’re familiar with. Meaning our definition is always changing (laughs).

AMG: I think it was Philip Glass who once said that classical music training can shackle a musician for life with its formality and rules. Does modern classical set them free? Do you think the freedom it allows is an attraction for artists from a classical background?

Évo: I’ll let my partner Nick take this one as he is classically trained.

Nick: I think Glass is right to a point, though I don’t think it’s the music itself that has rules. I believe it’s natural human behaviour to try to label and categorise things, and music is no different. We need to understand and control something in order to feel safe.

In this sense, we have developed rules by which music should and shouldn’t be written. At the moment, popular music forms are going through the same process as classical forms, being institutionalised. There’s a big current of pop music theory in graduate schools.

So this being said, I think that musicians often do feel shackled by their training. I was for a time. But if we’re able to find our voices outside of institutions, we can rewrite these rules or change our relationship to them. I think the modern classical scene is so special because we are seeing people from various backgrounds – and amount of training – make such spectacular music. It’s so nice to see us shed that barrier to access and create a more inclusive scene, where people can enter as they are.

Nick Hyatt, Moderna’s co-manager and also a classically-trained musician

AMG: I’m curious what role music notation plays in this zone your artists work in, between classical and new music. Say a non-trained artist from an electronic background creates a piece and needs a few string players. Would a quartet ever learn their parts by ear, or is sheet music always needed?

Évo: That’s a good question and from our experience it is case by case.

When hiring session players, I believe most artists do notate their parts. An exception here on our roster is Tambour, who has worked with string players collaboratively to create their parts which has included some by-ear work. When working more collectively with string players, there are some people who write and improvise together, in which case the process may bypass notation entirely. It’s pretty cool to see the different methods people are using to collaborate.

AMG: I think the visual designs on Moderna releases are really striking. There is no single style but they all leave something to the imagination, they provoke questions. What’s your approach to creating artwork for your releases?

Évo: There was an initial, strong desire for ‘aesthetic’ consistency that has sort of played out through our releases. Geometry and minimal fashion was and still is definitely my thing.

But maturity has brought a sense of desire to also accommodate artists’ personal vision for their musical creation. We’ve found that a collaborative approach often leads to a visual victory, so we try to navigate between our brand aesthetic and an openness to each artist’s tastes.

Danish composer Jacob David at the Cabaret Lion d’Or, Montreal

AMG: The business model for music labels has changed a lot with the digital age. How does small label navigate it all? Any tips you can offer others?

Évo: This is so hard to say, we feel like we’re still figuring it out on the go.

We try our best to be open and curious in our search for music and musicians as well as be rigorous. We invest ourselves in each release, so it’s important to be excited about the music. We aim to work with good people. To us music and art making is about far more than just the product, and so it’s important to build relationships and to enjoy the people we’re collaborating with. We are open to new trends and realities, and creative and adaptable in our practices. We listen carefully. And ultimately, we aim to be putting beauty into the world.

Those are some of our core tenants in this crazy world, if that can be of any help to anyone. Perhaps the biggest thing we’ve learned is that no one really has the answers, or at least for long. It’s super humbling, and we do our best to ask questions and share the knowledge or best practices we have acquired. So we’d say don’t be shy to reach out to peers for help, trust your instincts, and take risks.


New to Moderna? Try these

  • TAMBOUR – Chapitre I (2015) and Chapitre II (2016)
  • ED CARLSEN – The Journey Tapes (2016)
  • VARIOUS – Intervals (2018)
  • TOM ADAMS – Particles (2019)


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