I’ve been pondering the reasons why the composers I call alt-classical seem to strike a nerve with the new young audience I keep talking about. It’s not just because these composers sometimes write music with a pop-like beat. First, the pop-like beat might not be steady, and might just pop up here and there.
I got some insight into that, I thought, when I heard a piece by Glenn Kotche, called Snap, at a performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars at the University of Maryland last weekend. Kotche is the drummer in Wilco, but he’s also a free-jazz improviser and a composer, so his music can get complicated. And Snap is complicated. It’s based on classic R&B songs recorded by the Stax label in the 1960s. (I’m lucky enough to have the nine-CD boxed set of all that label’s singles, swag from my days as a pop music critic. The quality is strikingly high.)
But Kotche doesn’t even come close to imitating any of the songs. Instead, he picks them apart, finding rhythms and textures he likes, and then putting those (often in fragments) into a new piece that’s put together like classical music. Which means, in this case, that it’s an abstract construction, changing constantly, full of complexities and surprises, without any trace of a tune or the generally simple construction that we’d find in the original songs. Well, for one brief momen there’s something that sounds like it’s descended from a Stax guitar solo, refracted into something not very Stax-like. Similarly, there’s a brief Stax-descended bit played on the sax.
But these are over almost before they start. The one thing clearly descended from the Stax originals that we hear throughout the piece is the rhythm. It’s much more detailed than the rhythm in any Stax song, but it’s got the same propulsive feel, along with a Stax-like backbeat. I’m not sure that anyone who didn’t know how the piece was built would identify the rhythm as Stax, but someone who knows where it comes from will most likely hear the connection right away.
Or, to put it differently, Snap has Stax in its DNA. It evolved from Stax, the way we humans evolved from a common ancestor we share with fish. Which then means, first, that if you don’t feel the way Stax rhythms go, you can’t play Kotche’s piece with anything like the right rhythmic drive. And, conversely, if you’re heard all your life the kind of rhythms Stax was full of — which basically means if you’ve heard pop music all your life — you might well feel some kinship with this piece, even if you’re not used to music constructed out of things that change so quickly.
I’m sliding here over the tricky question of how many kinds of pop/rock/hiphop/country/R&B/house/techno/Latin rhythms there are — not that I couldn’t name many more genres — and how many of them any casual pop fan might feel easy with. I’ll just assume for the moment that most of us in this culture know what a rhythm with a backbeat is, and that we feel comfortable when we hear one.
But then there are pieces without any audible beat, or even any audible pulse, that still seem to share some equivalent kind of DNA. I’m thinking now of two percussion pieces — “Descarga,” by Marcos Balter, and “raingutter,” by Michael Early — that.I heard when the Nonclassical record label from London held a club night at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. These pieces sounded fully classical. No trace of any R&B beat. But somehow they seemed to have some kind of pop beat, or, more subtly, the feel of some kind of pop beat, in their DNA.
So here’s a theory. Feel free to shoot it full of holes. My theory is that music in our culture, after rock & roll broke out, developed a backbeat. When you clap or snap your fingers, you do it on the offbeats. Pretty much all our pop music for two generations now has had that feeling. But before that Western music had a very different feel — when you clap to it, you clap on the beat.
New classical music, once modernism hit, grew more complex, and when you get to composers after World War II, like Boulez or Stockhausen or Carter, you might not have a steady pulse at all. But still the inner feel — the rhythmic flow that’s in the music’s DNA — is that you’re clapping on the beat. But now it’s possible — now that popular culture has become, simply, culture — to find classical pieces that don’t throb with a steady pulse, but still have an inner feel that derives from a backbeat, so that if it were possible to snap your fingers to these pieces, you’d do it on the offbeats.
This music sounds instantly comfortable to anyone prepared to accept something complex in music, whether they’re used to classical music or not. Music with on-beats in its DNA doesn’t sound as comfortable. If this is really true, we now can understand one big thing that the many forms of alt-classical music (from minimalist works with a steady pulse to fragmented percussion pieces with no audible pulse at all) have in common, and we understand why an audience steeped in pop culture responds to them.
And we also understand why modernist works from the classical mainstream — well, from the hyper-intellectual new music monastery that clings to a corner of the mainstream — don’t immediately touch the alt-classical audience. Even though, as I’ve said before, this audience is the only one I’ve ever seen open-minded enough to accept solidly on-beat driven modernist works, even if they don’t have anything familiar in their DNA. Which makes this audience pretty special, though it doesn’t mean we could just program pieces by Boulez or Matthias Pintscher, and expect the new audience to show up.