Third Rock from the Sun

Last week, I attended virtually all of Tonic’s three-night Full Force, dubbed a festival of “new rock complexity.” Knowing full well that I can’t be completely objective about the event here—on the first night one of the bands, Capital M, performed a piece I had written for them—I won’t write a review here. (I don’t believe in “reviews” anyway, but there’s no need to re-stitch old threads.) However, I still feel compelled to write something about this marathon that managed to capture so much of my concert-going attention.

The premise of the festival was to highlight the ever porous boundary between rock and, for lack of anyone’s better term, contemporary classical music. But as exciting and as new as much of this music sounded, is this really a new idea? The genre names “progressive rock” and “art rock,” monikers as polemical and arguably as meaningless as “classical,” have been with us for over 35 years at this point, as has a lot of great music that has fallen under both headings.

Guitarist Kevin Gallagher, the festival’s organizer and frontman for a band called Electric Kompany, made a compelling case for this new generation of cross-fertilization to be even deeper: frequently citing the “c” word (e.g. composer) in his comments as MC throughout the festival and by showcasing his own group, which was simultaneously a rock band (instrumentation, volume, demeanor) and a new music chamber ensemble (commissioned works, premieres). Indeed, many of the bands that were part of this festival followed a regimen that is exactly the same as that of a new music ensemble: performers perched in front of music stands reading from completely notated scores, no improvisation, the all-familiar new music concert ritual of non-performing composers in the audience standing up for a brief acknowledgement after their pieces are played, etc.

But, if you closed your eyes during the entire gig or were listening to a recording instead of the live performance, would you know whether you were listening to rock or “new music”? Well, yes and no. The members of Time of Orchids always rocked (as did their audience) even though they sounded like they’ve probably done time with Webern and Feldman. Perhaps they had just spent time with equally off-kilter rockers like Captain Beefheart or Pere Ubu. On the other hand, David T. Little’s Newspeak, which sports instrumentation reminiscent of the Bang on a Can All-Stars (clarinet, cello, keyboard, electric guitar, mallet percussion, and drums), played rock-infused compositions that to my ears would have sounded equally at home at Merkin Concert Hall or Miller Theatre. Then again, they probably wouldn’t have been welcome in either venue 35 years ago.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the boundaries are clearly more porous than ever before, but the very existence of such a festival might ultimately prove that those boundaries still exist.

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