Overtaken By Alt-Classical

So I finally got around to listening to some of this alt-classical stuff.

I avoided it for years. Honestly, I was terrified of it: Ever since my first butting of heads with Corey Dargel on this very site, I was afraid that I would hear his work and his peers’ and suddenly realize that I had been wasting my time, my effort, as a composer. I’m not being facetious: Many times my cursor hovered over a hyperlink to audio that would have clued me in, but I chickened out every time. However, with each passing week it befit me less and less not to have an opinion on the matter. Earlier today, I grit my teeth against the looming anagnorisis and listened to a few works by Dargel and Matt Marks.

I’ve written here before about the desire that arises when I listen to contemporary music to know in just what respect it really is “contemporary music.” I enjoy this sensation, because it usually leads to a better understanding of not only the piece I’m hearing but also the grain of the era we live in. So: In what respect is Dargel’s “Touch Me Where It Counts,” say, contemporary music?

It’s contemporary music in the sense that it’s a song, and the song is the normative unit of musical product in 2010. But that’s been the case for decades: Indeed, “All Other Sounds (for Brian from Molly),” which Dargel wrote for NMBx’s own Molly Sheridan and her new husband, brought to mind Brian Wilson and Cole Porter, neither of whose oeuvres represents categories of experience unique to the 21st century. (By the way, not everybody gets comparisons to Brian Wilson and Cole Porter. Dargel’s songwriting is even better than it’s cracked up to be.) Furthermore, it’s contemporary music in the sense that it puts contemporary music specialists to work in bringing it to life. Darge’s band on “Touch Me Where It Counts” is none other than ICE, a bona fide new music group. That’s certainly a symptom of contemporary music. Likewise, my understanding is that Matt Marks’s The Little Death, Vol. 1 avails itself of live electronics, although I’m not sure that’s the contextually preferred term: That matches the profile of contemporary music as far as I’m concerned.

This may seem like a plodding and unimaginative way to talk about alt-classical music, but I think it’s worthwhile—if only because at first listen this literature sounds an awful lot like thoughtful, well-crafted pop with electronics and a chamber ensemble instead of guitars. A commenter on one of Joelle Zigman’s recent posts submitted that the term “middlebrow” be applied to alt-classical, and if our job is simply to situate this music relative to “highbrow” and “lowbrow” rep, so be it. However, as pop-song-loving baby-boomers continue to consolidate their grip on power, money, and prestige, the utility of the “brow scale” dwindles every day. If a Rolling Stones ticket costs as much as or more than a Chicago Symphony Orchestra ticket, “highbrow” and “lowbrow” have more to do with what used to be than with what is.

Not to mention that the undialectical shelving of alt-classical “between” pop music and classical music misses, as I think its leading lights would agree, the point: One respect in which alt-classical music most definitely is contemporary music is that its creators insist on it. Corey Dargel could very easily bill himself as a songwriter, period, and swim in the indie-pop waters where his music seems at first blush to belong; Matt Marks could have a thriving career composing for mainstream music theatre. But just as Magritte insisted that this is not a pipe, Dargel and Marks insist (whether or not they would admit it in so many words) that they are composers of contemporary music. Far from a trivial semantic quibble, this insistence is an artistic proposition that has to be taken seriously because it calls into question many of the assumptions under which composers like me toil. Now do you see why I was so frightened?

If you can acknowledge that alt-classical is contemporary music but opt not to produce it yourself, it seems to me that you (and when I say “you” I am of course talking to myself as well) have to do some soul-searching. What does non-alt-classical new music do that alt-classical doesn’t? Are those things important? Most vitally: Am I doing them? Are you? If not, why not?

* * *

Enter the one-of-a-kind world of Schuyler Tsuda’s music over at the New Music Scrapbook this week. Schuyler’s cello solo Kado: The Way of Flowers is an extraordinary introduction to his work. Kado emerged through Schuyler’s very particular compositional process, one that hinges on close collaboration with specific performers and a painstaking, lengthy examination of the instrument itself. His physical understanding of recent and newly invented instrumental practices is no doubt accountable, in part, for his burgeoning international reputation. Don’t miss the interview either—he insisted on using a processor to conceal his true voice.

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10 thoughts on “Overtaken By Alt-Classical

  1. Armando

    You know, the more I get to know music from the alt-classical folks the more I wonder how useful the term is (full disclosure: Anne Midgette put me and my group, Great Noise Ensemble, clearly under the rubrick “alt-classical” in an article she wrote for the Washington Post last fall, although I increasingly fail to see the resemblance other than in our attitude towards the music we perform–not to mention the type of music we perform). I have to wonder if the search for indie-cred is not, as John Adams has famously decried, a bit of a devil’s bargain, sacrificing larger forms in favor of the pop song format.

    What I do admire in alt-classical composers (which, I suppose Great Noise and I do fit into in this way) is the attitude that all music can be and is a valid source of inspiration and that generic (as in “pop,” “classical,” not “trio” or “song”) labels are little more than arbitrary impositions upon a work of art. That can’t be a bad thing.

    Reply
  2. stevetaylor

    Thanks Colin for the thought-provoking post. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, too. Towards the end of his book, Alex Ross writes that a listener unacquainted with Bjork and Golijov might think that Bjork was the avant-garde composer, and Golijov the pop artist. Often the boundaries between two different territories are where new ideas can spring up – that’s what excites me the most about alt-classical.

    Your frankness in admitting your fear is really admirable – but I don’t think you’re as afraid as you say you are. We have a big enough tent to hold everything from complexity and noise to minimalism and pop (and even neo-Romanticism). There are only two kinds of music! But I also think that this is something that has been happening for quite a long time too, back beyond Gershwin, Chopin mazurkas, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Bach quodlibets, parody masses…

    Nice use of anagnorisis, too – my new word for the day!

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  3. Joyfulgirl

    I was afraid that I would hear his work and his peers’ and suddenly realize that I had been wasting my time, my effort, as a composer.

    I definitely feel you on that one, Colin.

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  4. buck_mcdaniel

    I think you should have examined composers such as Nico Muhly more closely, as they are the ones that are a much better synthesis of ‘alt-classical’, whatever that could possibly mean.

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  5. RBonotto

    good article
    Thanks for the interesting post, Colin. I do prefer to use Dennis Bathory-Kitsz’s term ‘NonPop’ for anything that’s not specifically pop music, though. Alt-classical sounds too much like an internet chat group to me.

    The only quibble I have in the article is this: “If a Rolling Stones ticket costs as much as or more than a Chicago Symphony Orchestra ticket, “highbrow” and “lowbrow” have more to do with what used to be than with what is.”

    I’m probably not alone in feeling that your ability to pay for a ticket is a criterion of ‘highbrow’ — that is, if ‘highbrow’ is an indication of the content of the music itself. (If you meant it at all ironically, I apologize for it going over my head.)

    It’s a truism that these generalizations don’t really work, but as a form of shorthand they’re too useful to dispense with. Still, in a few of his books on music Nicholas Tawa infers that the disappearance of a ‘middlebrow’ nonpop music that stretches to all classes (I always think of the ‘Zampa’ or ‘The Secret of Susanna’ Overtures as an example of the kind of music that has a tune to settle in the audience, and which even Pops Orchestras no longer play) has been one of the factors in the musty view of our orchestras today. (Yeah, I know what Sandow writes. I’ve never thought much of it.)

    Yes, I know that I should say ‘contemporary music’ as well, being a composer. But there’s certainly room for both of them. That the audience has changed is mainly due to orchestras’ guiding lights not really understanding the past.

    I’m not suggesting that we put composers through what Smetana had to go through — at one of his operas between acts they featured a bear performing tricks and a one-legged dancer — but there is a middle (or middlebrow) way; and having pop music mushily played by a contemptuous orchestra is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

    Sorry for wandering from the subject…

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  6. c.cerrone

    I feel like I’m not alone in my desire to shoot a firey arrow in the face of the next person who uses the obscenely overhyped phrases “alt-classical” or “indie-classical.”

    “>Judd Greenstein propagating the term).

    Maybe that’s the toll of history — atonal, minimalism, post-minimalism, European avant-garde — no one who creates this kind of music likes these phrases. But there they are. And they’re not without use. Most of the people represented by New Amsterdam do fall into a certain category that can be characterized by a few specific elements — tonal harmonies, the influence of minimalism, rock, and jazz, the use of instruments from both the rock and classical world.

    That being said, there’s a world of difference between the artists in each of the aforementioned categories. It’s pretty simple minded to say Berg sounds exactly like Webern; so why bother trying to lump together Corey and Matt. Is it too much to ask of the world to judge people on their merits? I think some of the projects that New Amsterdam does are great; some are terrible. Maybe it’s time for people to start being a little bit less critical about genres and a little bit more critical about individual artists (yes, talking to you members of the press; yes I’m talking to you Colin Holter for writing such a silly article; stop worrying about whether or not it’s “contemporary” music; it’s not just a silly question, it’s uninteresting).

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  7. pgblu

    Just riffing on the question of why ‘alt-classical’ composers don’t call themselves songwriters, if I may. This is going to sound a bit provocative, but I’d like to just see a response from people who are more affirmative of the genre than I am.

    Calling oneself a composer opens up other grant opportunities and other kinds of caché which are unavailable to songwriters. One also has access to musicians of a different (and I do not say ‘higher’) calibre. To put it a different way, there are Meet the Composer grants. There are no Meet the Songwriter grants.

    New music is a big tent and should be a bigger tent — we’re all in it together, after all — but I do think the question of distinguishing between songwriters and composers is at least as much about economics and politics as about musical content.

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  8. philmusic

    “..there are Meet the Composer grants. There are no Meet the Songwriter grants…”

    I think this is true but there is an exception New Music Theater. Songs no – song cycles and theater works yes.

    Not to mention that many grants and awards are strictly style centric or the gatekeepers who would commission anything as long as its not atonal.

    Phil Fried No sonic prejudice Phil’s page

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  9. juddgreenstein

    c.cerrone – there’s a significant difference between my use of “indie classical” in the interview you cite and the way in which the “alt-classical” term is used, here and elsewhere. Colin Holter, and most other writers on the subject, use both terms (and others) to describe the sound of the music in question. I use it to describe the approach to disseminating that music, and framing it for potential audiences.

    The reason I like the term “indie classical” is that it contains a horizontal and vertical component — the “vertical” axis of our connection to the classical tradition, and the “horizontal” axis of our connection to other independent musics and musicians. As I go on to say in the interview with Hilary, “indie classical” is specifically not about the sound of the music that I am, or anyone else is, making. I’m also not talking about any one specific organization (NewAm, for example) as being the sole representational body of the “indie classical” approach. Rather, the term refers to an ethos, a spirit of doing-it-yourself and controlling the production chain of our artistic output, in response to the generally hierarchical and highly limited/limiting world of classical/contemporary music in which our art has historically been presented. Some of us, though by no means all of us, who are operating along these lines are doing so in tandem. Perhaps that makes this a “scene”, in one sense of the term. Perhaps it doesn’t.

    I’ve had enough fights over semantics to be convinced of their pointlessness; these debates are inward-looking and only stand to further obscure the relationships we form between our music and the outside world of potential listeners. Either way, I do tend to share your distaste for heavy-handed in/out genre descriptions (of the kind that you seemed to think I was making), though perhaps not with the hostility that you seem to feel.

    Reply

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