View From the East: Naming Names

Greg Sandow

We might wish that music spoke for itself, and that we didn’t need special genre names to identify it.

But that’s not how the world works. You ask someone what music they like. “Jazz,” they say, and you know what they mean, and whether you like jazz, too. So if they want you to go hear music with them, you more or less know if you want to. If you need more data, you can ask more questions. “What kind of jazz?” you inquire. “Smooth jazz,” they say, and all at once you discover that you have other plans.

And then (getting serious again) there’s another refinement: People who really love music will have their own fluid subcategories, which leapfrog genres. Robert Johnson and Maria Callas, a blues singer and an opera diva, belong for me—along with John Cage—in a bin you won’t find in any record store, called “Musical Truth.”

But then people disagree on deeper judgments like these, so again the official genres are useful, just to help us understand what we’re all talking about. Opera, jazz, blues, reggae—we know what these are, more or less, just as we know minimalism, atonal music, microtonal music, and new tonal music. Approximations, those expressions, but still we know what we mean.

And I’m raising these questions for a reason: I think we might need another term for what we talk about here. Our genre, obviously, is “new music”—but what does that mean? The words themselves don’t say very much. There are all kinds of new music—new salsa, new merengue, new Christian rap, new Mariah Carey remixes. Which “new music” do we mean?

Well, new classical music, I guess. But now imagine a conversation I might have with someone from outside our field whom I meet at a party. “What do you do?” I’m asked. “Well, among other things, I write a column about new music.” “What kind of new music?” “New classical music”—at which point the conversation might stop dead, as I’ve often enough seen conversations do when I mention classical music at parties. Sometimes, of course, I might get questions, like “You mean there really is new classical music?” or, more helpfully, “What’s new classical music like?”

Though, come to think of it, the first question is really more helpful. “What’s new classical music like?” I might be asked, and I stand there helplessly, blabbering “Well, many things…”—and then I’m all too tempted to switch into lecture mode, as I try to cover all the various waterfronts where new classical music, in all its varieties, is found. At least if I’m asked (in tones of appropriate disbelief) if new classical music really exists, I can jump right into the heart of the question by saying, “Right! Classical music is really old and stuffy. New stuff exists, but a lot of it is on the fringes, because it doesn’t feel classical at all. And that’s why I like it so much.”

Which brings up an important question about what we ourselves mean by “new music.” There’s another term for what classical composers write—”contemporary music.” Remember that? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think we hear those words much any more. But back in the ‘80s, when I first wrote about music, they had a distinct connotation. They carried the smell—the reek, maybe—of the concert hall, and especially of the small “contemporary music” concerts we all used to go to, where most of the music was atonal and thorny, and most of the audience was made up of composers and their students. The very words “contemporary music” used to put me on edge; my body would stiffen, protecting itself in advance, retreating from the chore of going to the concert, listening, and, not least, pretending that something important had been going on (a pretense I little by little abandoned).

Which is not, by the way, to say that I didn’t sometimes hear fabulous music at these events. That didn’t often happen, but then I don’t often hear fabulous performances of standard classical repertoire, either. The laws of probability always tilt away from musical truth. The problem with contemporary music events wasn’t so much their music as their airlessness, their prevailing mood of duty and cutthroat ambition, and their lack of musical joy. You’d never go to one of these concerts and come out saying, “Wow, these people really love music.”

“New music,” though, was something else. Again it’s maybe just me, but back then I thought this term (used mainly downtown) suggested something livelier than “contemporary music. “New music” concerts weren’t very classical. They weren’t held in concert halls and might feature improvisation, or new ways of making sounds, or performance art. Styles varied widely. You never knew what to expect, and the audience—which for large events included artists from many fields outside music—seemed intrigued or even excited by what was going on. Joy wasn’t rare at all (as you’ll see if you read through Tom Johnson’s collection of his ‘70s and ‘80s new music columns from The Village Voice).

I’m glad, then, that “new music”—the expression, at least—seems to have swept “contemporary music” away. By saying “new music,” we seem to expect variety, freedom, and delight because we don’t think our music has to sound or feel classical. Or, to put it more simply, we think our music might actually interest both us and a whole new audience that’s certainly out there, ready to like what we do.

And for that new audience, we might well need a new term. I guess I’m talking now about marketing. But what’s wrong with that? From the commercial world we’ve gotten the notion that marketing has to be cheap and dishonest, but we’re wrong. Marketing, at bottom, is just the art of describing what you’re about, finding the people who might be interested, and making sure they hear about you. And one thing that stops us from doing that, or at least makes it more difficult, is the lack of any evocative name for what we’re offering.

What we need, especially, is a name that puts us far from the classical concert hall. Our problem was described wonderfully to me in an e-mail from Cory Schwarz, a composer in New York, who has a post-rock band (his term for it), and who read a piece I wrote about new music in SYMPHONY magazine, the publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League. (I called classical music a “cultural backwater,” because new work is so marginal in the classical music mainstream.) Among much else, he wrote:

There is an audience for [new music]. I have many friends in and around Brooklyn with very modern tastes in music and [who] listen to some pretty crazy things even by my standards. And there is good new music out there. However, what these “hip young Brooklynites” are listening to isn’t modern classical. It’s post-rock and art rock. Groups like Tortoise and Sigur Ros and Mogwai and Godspeed you! black emperor do very well.

All of my friends who I get to listen to Stravinsky and Lutoslawski and Varese and Bartok et al. enjoy it very much. What gives then? Product positioning. Classical music is unhip. But what does that mean? First, it takes place in a very stuffy atmosphere with some very stuffy patrons. Venue. Also, it is presented as an elitist undertaking and even modern composers don’t shed that very well. (Except for maybe Rouse and definitely Zorn). Image. Which is probably the biggest problem.

So how do we tell people what our image really ought to be—that if they came to our concerts (the ones, anyway, that don’t still smell like “contemporary music”) they’d feel right at home? Not with any term like “new music.” It doesn’t tell them anything. Worse, they’re already hearing new music. Why do they need ours?

We need another term, and I’ll suggest “alternative classical.” For me, it has two virtues. First, it ‘fesses up to our classical heritage. That’s not a bad thing, because classical music still has—and deserves to have—artistic prestige. Even people who think it’s stuffy will largely agree that there’s something artistic going on (or at least that something artistic ought to be going on). So we gain some points by saying we’re classical. (Besides, it’s the truth.)

And by saying we’re “alternative,” we offer two useful thoughts. First, that we’re not mainstream; that we’re thoughtful, interesting, maybe even hip. (More truth.) And second, that we’ve rung some fascinating changes on classical music (which is also very true). For anyone who already thinks classical music has some value, or at least might have, if it’s shorn of all its concert airlessness, that’s a double plus, because now we’re classical, but also interesting. Two points for us.

The third advantage, finally—though it’s implied in the last paragraph—is that the term “alternative” already circulates. People know it, so we’re hooking into something that’s already there. We don’t have to create a fresh image of our own, though we gradually can do that, as people get used to “alternative classical,” and start to pin their own experiences to it.

Kyle Gann, I know, likes the term “post-classical,” and certainly I don’t object. In fact, when I ran “alternative classical” by Cory Schwarz, he came back with “post-classical” himself, though whether on his own initiative or because he’d heard it elsewhere, I don’t know:

Alt. classical could work definitely and how about “new orchestral music,” and “modern chamber music,” placed with the proper ensembles. Or “post-classical music,” because as we know that was just one epoch. Also, audiences LOVE to see “American music” in titles to things.

For me, “post-classical” might not be specific enough. Of course it means something that comes after classical music, and replaces it, but what is that, exactly? “Alternative” at least suggests something like the music our target audience already likes. On the other hand, Cory Schwarz thinks lots of terms would work—the more the better! And to really know what’s best (if any one thing would be), we’d have to do market studies, to find what terms the people we’d like to reach respond to. Speculating on our own can’t tell us very much.

But at least we should start this discussion. Am I right to say “new music” isn’t helpful in reaching wider audiences? What term would be better—”post-classical,” “alternative classical,” or something completely different?


Cory had some other ideas worth passing on. I’ll just quote them, without any comment:

There is a viable audience for “classical” music if it is modern enough. Even in concert halls with huge orchestras. It just has to be promoted and grants and commissions must be given to young composers based upon facets of their work that are seen as progressive and not just tolerable. I’ve seen it. A program with Zappa and Ives almost sold out Carnegie Hall and I’ve seen The Soldier’s Tale (which will always be modern) billed with a Rouse piece and a young Spanish composer whose name I can’t recall. But, to court this new audience there has to be immense organization. New music festivals and the like.

And there is a huge audience for modern chamber music. Promote certain ensembles in clubs. I’ve seen the Kronos Quartet sell out Joe’s Pub as well as the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Also the Knitting Factory is always open to new music and can hold 200 young people who are usually very open minded. Another good promoting strategy is to bill crossover concerts in big halls. Tap in to a new fanbase. Say, “Modern American Music at Carnegie,” and book Bill Frisell with an orchestra playing Ives, Rouse, and maybe Strav’s Agon. Call something “Modern Abstractions,” and book Sigur Ros and/or Radiohead and/or Mogwai and have an orchestra play Lutoslawski’s Third and Druckman‘s Aureole. Or maybe, “Odd Times—Then and Now.” Book Tortoise with a chamber ensemble and a string quartet playing The Soldier’s Tale, and Beethoven‘s Grosse Fugue. Stuff like that would work I think, and always remember that any jazz or rock artist will ALWAYS want to play Carnegie Hall even for a much reduced rate.