Can’t Fight the Feeling

If it were just any old source of pop music criticism that had published a recent piece on the rise of “indie-classical” music, we in the contemporary music racket might throw up our hands and wonder what took them so long to make the observation that most other commentators twigged in 2010. But this isn’t just any source of pop music criticism: It’s Pitchfork.

It doesn’t matter what you think of Pitchfork’s rhapsodic swoons and disdainful shrugs. It doesn’t matter how many spotlights Pitchfork has shone on however many great unsung acts. What matters about Pitchfork is that they gave Travis Morrison’s extraordinary solo debut, the sui generis revelation Travistan, a crippling, spiteful, arithmetically nonsensical score of 0.0: Bold move. No one expects Pitchfork’s tastemakers to know about classical music; that’s a given. But if there’s one thing that Pitchfork should know about, if there’s one criterion by which they should be able to fairly weigh the souls of the past fifteen years’ bands, it’s indie.

People kick that word around a lot: Does it describe a stance toward the market? Does it describe a library of aesthetic referents? Does it describe the way a shirt fits? For me, it’s a useful term in the same way that “New Complexity” is useful: It describes a particular constellation of people, pieces, and aesthetic epistemology. More specifically, it names a historically unique subjectivity that flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s mostly (not by any means entirely) male. In pop music years, they’re a generation younger than the college-rock idols of the 1980s, the Stipes and Westerbergs and Natalie Merchants—and they’re positively salt-and-pepper-templed in comparison with your Vampire Weeks and your Animal Collectors, your Grizzled Bears. They’re like the bacteria that survived whatever cultural antibiotic did away with grunge and what was then, quaintly, called “alternative rock,” leaving only the hardiest strains on Merge, Sub Pop, Barsuk, and Jade Tree: The style-agnosticism— indeed the very impatience with style—of these Malkmuses, Danielses, Leos, Schwarzenbachs, von Bohlens, Bazans, Cawses, and (how naïve we were) Gibbards welcomed punk, hardcore, country, breakbeats, glam, math-rock, etc., into the same vacant urban lot, Edenic but on the cusp of gentrification, to sit in a torn-up couch with a beer and give revivified voice to an essentially new-wave subject position (de-Oedipalized, to borrow from Fred Pfeil) and be earnest and coy and injured, but injured in a wry way and not emo-injured in that vaguely sort of misogynistic way, all at the same time. If we’d known what a proper 21st-century hipster looked like, we’d have seen a whisper of the hipster in these folk heroes, but we wouldn’t have been able to believe that anything about them could have been contrived or pretentious in the slightest. At any rate, this is how I remember indie. They’re the bands whose t-shirts I own.

Can I see myself getting a Victoire t-shirt, a Bang On A Can t-shirt, or a Newspeak t-shirt? I cannot. That we have to describe these ensembles as “classical” illustrates as clearly as anything the inadequacy of the term “classical,” but to describe them as “indie” promises something from them that I know is not to be delivered. On Twitter, composer Marcos Balter defended “indie-classical” precisely because of its vagueness; I’m sympathetic to that point of view, not
least because it helps us move beyond perennial but not very interesting questions about what words mean. I guess my objection to “indie-classical” isn’t so much that I know it to be wrong but rather that I feel it to be wrong, and much of that feeling stems from the affective specificities that characterize “indie.”

13 thoughts on “Can’t Fight the Feeling

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Do we need “urban tribes”? The self-called “indie” guys are the most pedantic beings on Earth. They considered themselves the “music lovers” par excellence and they don’t even know what a diminished seventh is!

    The can’t dig complex music, that’s why “indie” magazines have fought prog-rock (among other types of more elaborated music).

    That word is just a marketing label and a trend (look at their shirts and their big glasses). I think it’s unnecessary to use it in art-music, or as I prefer to say, written tradition music. Let the people of frivolous magazines like Pitchfork use it.

    Reply
  2. Claire

    Not to be nit-picky, but I believe you mean “Animal Collective” (not Animal Collectors) and “Grizzly Bear” (not Grizzled Bear).

    Reply
    1. robd

      …and, indeed, Vampire Weekend, which would lead one to assume (along, of course, with Colin’s pretty obvious grasp of the subject matter) that these slight alterations are intentional…

      Reply
      1. Claire

        In the original, Vampire Weekend was not altered. I see he has since altered it.

        Nor am I convinced of his ‘pretty obvious grasp’ of his subject matter.

        Reply
        1. Alexandra Gardner

          Claire – the alterations were my (the editor’s) doing, not Colin’s. He originally had the names altered, and I changed Vampire Weeks to Vampire Weekend…and then changed it back when I realized his alterations were indeed intentional. So it would be me whose grasp of the subject matter you should question! ;-)

          Reply
  3. chris s

    Ah who cares what Pitchfork thinks? I mean somewhere else Travis got or will get a rave and a 10+++.

    Most commercial music criticism seems to come more and more from people who have no experience of a wide range of musics and show no interest in learning something about how music works. Finally, some that do sometimes fail to recognize music ed is an ONGOING process. Even us musicians get stuck in our own circle of tastes. For example, the rap which I listen to once in while basically is from early 90’s and beforehand. I try to break out of that – but as I am not much of a rap lover anyway, it is especially difficult to find anything after the early 90’s I return to.

    But Pitchfork? Pfft.

    Reply
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  5. Marcos Balter

    Nice discussion, Colin. I usually stay away from public forum discussions involving other composers because of the tone they usually acquire along the way (more on that below), but I feel compelled to better justify my tweet that you’ve quoted here.

    Labeling any art scene is a PR move, not a true representation of any artistic school or tendencies, I think we all get that. And, any PR-related labeling will almost surely be at least partially inaccurate given the fact generalization is one of the main PR tools. That on top of the fact we live in THE country of loaded words; I truly believe there isn’t a single term that would not offend/exclude/confuse/concern someone.

    Though I completely get your preconceptions of the term “indie,” I still like the true root of the term: independent from the mainstream scene (even so there might be overlaps), and primarily self-produced, distributed, and promoted. So, no, I don’t have any problem with the label per se, and I think that’s an issue that is much more marketing-related than artistically-based. I agree with the comment above that any music being made now is part of an ongoing process still subjected to many possible detours and outcomes. It’s utterly silly to try to crystalize art on the making. I also think the “scene” usually identified by that label is made of very different sorts of artists. If it sometimes seems to portray a certain aesthetic uniformity via creative symbiosis (and, what “scene,”, here or across the pond, doesn’t, really?), it also contains many artists pursuing truly individualistic endeavors. Not that either type is “better” than the other, but calling it uniform is a huge stretch. All that said, if articles like the Pitchfork one, this one, or any other mention to Indie Classical makes someone listen to music they wouldn’t otherwise, what is the problem with or harm caused by that?

    Now, I also think most of us know the *true* issue at hand is perhaps peripheral at surface level but in reality crucial while understanding the polemic around the term Indie Classical. It’s much broader than the term or even the “scene” itself, and it is perhaps not even that related to new music solely, but also to the harsh reality of the field and its impact on its members. I’m constantly saddened by the tone this discussion usually takes – though happy to see it’s not the case here! -, always going back to a certain “why-does-s/he-keeps-getting-so-much-attention” or “this-is-bad-because-it’s-not-my-way” attitude that seem to pervade most new music topics nowadays. And, most of this kind of criticism comes from (gasp!) other composers, usually motivated by (…I’m already bracing myself for the backlash, but it needs to be said…) professional jealousy. While I believe it’s almost impossible to refute there is a huge dose of that in this topic, that usually remains unspoken, mostly out of fear of confrontation. That is just plain sad, and absolutely unbecoming from true new music advocates. This mindset is an unnecessarily divide in a community (or what should be one) that already fights for crumbs and, let’s face it, is not really that visible – and, I’m including endeavors regarded as highly successful by concert music standards! – outside very specific niches. And, it’s worth mentioning this ghetto reality we’ve inherited is greatly fueled by our own divisiveness. Sure, we all have our likes and dislikes. But, I don’t believe anybody should publicly vociferate theirs as indisputable truths, especially if in clearly malicious, mean-spirited, non-constructive ways, as it seems to abound in new music forums and social media interactions. That, to me, only demonstrates two things: lack of artistic confidence (“for me to look good, someone needs to look bad”), a lack of, well, intelligence. Even past “enfants terribles” such as Boulez and Glass have moved away from this dated and annoying behavior, so let us all leave the berets and black turtlenecks where they belong: in the past. When we all finally start treating each other as colleagues rather than “the competition,” stop promoting “gang fights,” truly listen to all kinds of music (even the ones that may not resonate with ours, or, as I call them, my “musical vegetables,” good for you even if they might “taste bad”), and start discussing music-making in non-competitive ways, that’s the day we’ll start having intelligent discussions that merit extensive (and hopefully respectful) debates and may lead to interesting aesthetic conversations. The rest is not debating, it’s Fox-News-style bullying, and I will forever refuse to take part on that.

    Reply
  6. Colin Holter

    Thanks for the comments, everybody.

    Marcos: I’m glad you decided to swing by. It’s hard to argue with any of what you’ve said; I’ve written as much myself in the past. I wonder, though, what’s happening to the line between a composer’s “professional” writings in program notes, on Twitter, etc. – which I agree are optimally very positive toward other composers and kinds of music (if only by omission) – and that same composer’s analytical or critical writings of the sort that might appear in a journal – which have an intellectual responsibility not to pull any punches. I don’t have an answer for this yet.

    Reply
  7. Stuart Wolferman

    In quick defense of the use of these (usually murky and often useless) labels we give genres/scenes: I don’t think they are “PR moves” really, though having something brief and to the point is useful to market something. I think audiences like to discuss what they are hearing. We like to experience it together (whether live or via Twitter). And we need some fast way to compartmentalize something and sort of narrow the field when describing an artist or art form. It can be loose. The looser the better, as far as I’m concerned.

    Of course as a musician, the worst question is “what type of music do you play.” But, honestly, it’s a difficult question for a publicist too. It’s a hard question, at least for most of the music I find interesting. But it’s handy to have something shorter than a paragraph to say. To me it doesn’t matter what the name is (indie-classical seems mostly appropriate to me) as long as serves as a signpost for a curious listener.

    Reply
  8. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Marcos and Colin- Thanks both for your comments, and for the original post behind this thread.

    My personal objection to labels is not strong, but my feeling is that if a composer chooses to apply him-/herself to a particular category, the result is one of pigeonholing the music. It is probably fair to call my music “atonal” (ignoring the times when it’s not), or “Feldmanesque” (due to my predilection for extended forms and swaths of quiet, despite my many short and fast pieces), but these don’t generalize about my sound– they simply generalize my output by identifying the average– median– category and exploiting it.

    So label away, but perhaps give something more concrete (especially for those people who feel unable to approach art with a label attached). Call it “instrumental chamber music in miniature form” or something similar.

    As for Pitchfork: I stopped reading them a long time ago when they poo-pooed Sufjan Stevens for abandoning his “acoustic, indie singer-songwriting roots” in favor of a “chamber pop” aesthetic. Fair enough, but the #1 job of a reviewer is to have a more nuanced sense of music and language than to result to categorical dismissals of genre and stylistic affiliations. As far as I’m concerned, I have no reason to expect Pitchfork’s ears to be any more subtle and sophisticated than their attitudes and words. I don’t trust them to review classical music, but nor do I trust them to review any music.

    Reply
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