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?
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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.