Who Cares If You Call It Indie Classical?

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.

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8 thoughts on “Who Cares If You Call It Indie Classical?

  1. Dean Rosenthal

    My understanding is that “indie-classical” is a self-described term applied by New Amsterdam Records to its work in the creative arts. While it is clear that much attention has been paid to this genre, mainly becaus of the quality of the work, the entrepreneurial spirit of the artists, and the marketing of the brand, the music is on the whole–and there is a lot of it–actually accessible to audiences whom otherwise would not be interested in “classical” music. It is time to move on in the debate and focus on the extraordinary multiplicity of classical and contemporary musics in our time.

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  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    I’m not against pop influences, but the term “indie” is unbearable. Is like a trend, a manierism. I dislike it because it comes from an urban tribe that rejects music with a certain degree of sophistication because is “uncool”. So, for them Morrissey is cool, but King Crimson (and all of prog-rock) is uncool.

    Besides, what is “classical”? A term we use for the so-called “Classical period” of the 1700s. Is pedantic to use that word for the music of today.

    Let the composers be themselves, and as you wisely said: “obedient to your muse”.

    A personal opinion, of course. Again, an interesting article, Isaac, congrats!

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  3. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Isaac, thanks for this article. You are smart to aim at the musical qualities of this genre, however it looks like the cultural significance is pretty unavoidable.

    Whenever a genre comes to the spotlight, or the same group of composers starts cropping up everywhere, it’s important to ask why. To say nothing of the quality, I can’t help but suspect that a large reason “indie-classical” as garnered so much attention is simply that it is such a large movement. Compared to other styles or groups of composers, IC has a large number of members and a substantial audience. This has been argued before, but I have to repeat the suspicion that IC is inherently tied to NYC. This style could likely have only evolved in New York, while only New York could so effectively support a burgeoning movement. No, there is no NYC conspiracy to usurp all contemporary music, as some would imply. But the city is better culturally positioned than others to bolster any artists who catch a foothold there.

    As for musical elements, I would add a general aversion and specific attitude toward extended techniques. From my listening (and admittedly no listening will be accurately representative), IC’s use of extended techniques is to create moments of “uncertainty,” or to distend an otherwise comfortable musical phrase.

    But we should also compare IC to other large movements. Integral serialism is defined by compositional method; minimalism (in its truest Reich-Riley-Glass sense) is an attitude toward listening and its connection to musical development. Perhaps IC’s modus operandi is, as you put it, the fine line between “appreciation and appropriation” with attention given to minimalism and pop as potential sources? Just a thought. Thanks for this article!

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  4. Dustin Soiseth

    Nice piece, Isaac. This is thorny issue worthy of discussion, though in the end I suspect that it will only be resolved by some future textbook author when we’re all dead.

    For me there’s a practical element to this, too. An all-encompasing term for describing this kind of music sure would be useful for promotion, especially when dealing with people that aren’t familiar with this scene. I really don’t care for “indie-classical”, but it get’s the point across better than “new music”, “contemporary classical” or other similarly unsatisfactory labels.

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  5. Phil Fried

    I agree that there is a certain anxiety in the term “alt-classical.”
    This draws a distinction away from “new music”
    So for example; why not alt-new music?

    In any event the light classics must be allowed to reinvent themselves.
    The problem is that “light” as in “new music light” would seem a pejorative.

    Reply
  6. Keith Murphy

    Like Nico, I find the “indie” label problematic, but not for any reasons I have heard mentioned. My beef is that the term “indie” means (or at least did at one point mean) independent, as in pop music not mass-produced by the major labels, or, in film, meaning movies not produced by major studios. While there is arguably a sort of “indie aesthetic” in the pop music realm and in cinema, the category is so stylistically broad that it has little meaning as a genre per se. In pop and film, “indie” is really telling you what it ISN’T: it’s not produced by large corporate entities, and therefore it’s audience doesn’t expect the same formulaic, profit-driven slick commercial product. Doesn’t virtually all contemporary classical fit this description? (For that matter, doesn’t virtually the entire classical repertoire from any era fit this description?)

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  7. Phil Fried

    “indie” is really telling you what it ISN’T: it’s not produced by large corporate entities…

    If you include in your definition of “large corporate entities” institutions such as universities, as I do, then the exact opposite is true.

    Reply

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