So the term “indie classical” seems to be ascending in popularity, along with the requisite hand-wringing about what it means, whether or not it’s a good thing, and whether or not it’s even worth thinking about. In particular, this article by Harriet Cunningham in the Sydney Morning Herald set off some entertaining conversation on Twitter*, including a plea from one of the composers discussed in the article, Nico Muhly:
(When pressed on the matter, Mr. Muhly admitted, “It’s a theoretical peeing of oneself.”)
This is certainly not the first time in history composers have rejected the labels applied to them (just ask John Adams or Steve Reich, or Debussy or Schoenberg for that matter). But to some people, there does seem to be something uniquely distressing about this label. A common complaint is that it describes cultural practices—a certain DIY aesthetic and entrepreneurial spirit—rather than musical qualities.
As a result, I thought it would be interesting to try and outline what some of the musical qualities of the so-called indie classical movement might look like. I do believe that there is an aesthetic at work, though it’s rarely talked about explicitly. Keep in mind that this is all very tentative; fair warning that there will be some gross generalizations and other dubious ideas open to revision.
1) Pop. Probably the most obvious characteristic of indie classical is that some influence from pop, rock, and/or minimalism is encouraged. In fact, at this point it seems almost obligatory for a composer to also be a DJ, or a member of a rock band, or something similar. At the same time, too much influence in one direction is discouraged, lest it tip the scales in favor of one genre or another.
2) Optimism. Consequently, indie classical rejects the traditional distinction between “high culture” and “low culture” in music. In this, it follows in the footsteps of polystylists like John Zorn, Alfred Schnittke, and William Bolcom, but here the focus is on integration, not juxtaposition. There’s an implied belief that it’s possible to “transcend” genres and the old classist assumptions that come with them. In general, this is a positive and hopeful project, and the music seems to reflect this optimism, favoring clear, clean, and immediate sonic gestures. Anything too fussy or overly elaborate is out. That’s not to say that it’s incapable of expressing darker emotions or complicated ideas, but somehow, a triumphal message always seems to prevail.
3) Privilege. At the same time, I’m not sure that the old classist baggage can be jettisoned so easily. In its resistance to clear genre identifiers, indie classical also reflects a fear of being labeled, which is in essence a musical embodiment of a cultural anxiety. It’s a little like hipsterdom in this way; people are quick to apply the term to others but less likely to apply it to themselves. In contrast to Milton Babbitt’s idea of the composer as specialist, indie classical composers believe that by rising above genre they can effectively communicate to anyone. By taking bits and pieces from genres without belonging to a genre, indie classical music shrewdly toes the line between appreciation and appropriation. And yet, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s still produced and consumed by a very specific audience. As a consequence, it’s more than a little bit willfully oblivious of its position of privilege.
I suppose I circled back again to discussing cultural practices instead of musical qualities, but as you can probably tell, I find them to be inextricably linked. On a final note, I should mention that many of the composers and performers I’ve talked to about this find any discussion of genre labels to be inimical to their working habits, and I’m certainly sympathetic to that perspective. Above all, you have to be obedient to your muse.
*Thanks to Jen Wang, Will Robin, Maura Lafferty, Ben Phelps, Nat Evans, Colin Wambsgans, David Dies, Meerenai Shim and Chris Kallmyer for their contributions to the conversation, which helped immensely as I worked to articulate my own thoughts on the matter.