Last week I went to my first concerts this season, all from the part of the music world I’ve been calling alternative classical. David Lang, one of the Bang on a Can composers (and Pulitzer prizewinner), with a program of films set to his compositions, at the Museum of Modern Art (all this in New York)…Nico Muhly, Doveman, and Sam Amidon at the Miller Theater…and Glenn Branca at Le Poisson Rouge.
David’s pieces were very severe, some of them, and the films equally so. Elevated was the longest. Relentless music, like bells tolling doom, that kept playing while the film showed us shots of New York in past decades. Almost as if an asteroid had hit, and New York was extinguished. Now we were seeing its happier days, knowing that they would decisively end.
The simplest and (for me) most affecting piece — film and music — was Heroin, David’s rewrite of the Velvet Underground song. Lyrics intact, music new, for voice and solo cello. The film so lovely, so still. People lying in bed. Are they high? Or should we look at them through the prism of Ellen Willis’s famous reaction to the power of the original song (I’m paraphrasing): “You don’t know whether to run and save Lou Reed, or else plunge the needle into your own vein.” A great moment in rock criticism. Were the people in bed overcome like that? Not knowing what they should do?
Nico Muhly, composer; Doveman, singer-songwriter; Sam Amidon, banjo player and folksinger. Inadequate labels. How is someone just a “composer” when he writes string arrangements for pop bands and performs with such sweeping force onstage? How is someone a “singer-songwriter” when his singing proves — at least to me — that the last thing you need, as a singer, is voice. Not when you’ve got soul and can make the notes happen, even with no voice.
And how is someone a “folksinger” when one thing he does is emit primal cries, as if he were howling to gods unknown on a hillside in Arkansas, maybe in 1935?
And how can all of these people be labelled, when they fuse what they do, and go onstage together? One thing I loved was how cooperative they were, Muhly and Doveman playing the piano whenever they felt like it, separately or together, and then doing other things. At one point Muhly brushed Doveman’s hair, the amplified sound of that becoming part of the music.
Throughout I heard streams of music coming together. Classical music — Steve Reich, Ligeti, back through Stravinsky, and then before that everyone else, Haydn and Mozart, present perhaps the way Dufay might be present in Wagner. Pop music, folk music — too many people to name, to ancient folk screamers to R. Kelly, the Band (one song had a sound in the bass — though not the bassline — of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the Band’s version.
All this, coming together, as if genre didn’t matter. That’s one reason it’s alternative classical. We get musical traits from classical music, and an openness to anything that comes from the classical avant-garde, but without old classical instruments or classical sounds, or (most of all) the culture of classical music, the silence, the reverence, the scent of the past.
Glenn Branca, ironically, had the strongest past scent. I first heard his music for (mostly) electric guitars and drums, back in the ’80s, when it was so new and strong it swept me away. Of course, at LPR he couldn’t have 100 guitars, as he has in his symphonies, and had (or some number like that) when I heard him last, between the World Trade Center towers, obviously before 9/11. (A pang of nostalgia and history. I heard him now on 9/11 — my way, I think, of marking the anniversary.)
But the music was strong, and sat, vollume-wise, just on the good side of hearing loss. And it hadn’t changed since the ’80s. Nor had Glenn. More nostalgia. The shock of the once-new, coming from the then-shocking insert of rock into classical music…the presence (as the electric guitar music builds from the simplest repeated elements) of minimalism, as the unavoidable dominant style…those things still lived in the music, put into it back in the ’80s, and still ringing out with full ’80s force.
What I liked most: Knowing that much of the music resides in the overtones, listening not to the notes the guitars played, but to the cloud of sound above and around those notes, hearing sound like a dark gray stone wall, pitted and fissured, with new fissures showing up every few moments. That’s not the ’80s. That’s timeless.
Meanwhile, back in the classical world (not alternative) — people are programming what passes for new music. Look at the NY Philharmonic. Messiaen on the opening gala, along with their new composer in residence, Magnus Lindberg, a
Swedish Finnish modernist [very dumb mistake on my part; many thanks to the commenters who pointed it out], which means he’s a Swedish composer writing in a style that, broadly speaking (and whatever may have been added to it since) was new around 1910. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by too much. To check on myself, I’m listening to Lindberg’s cello concerto, which, in its sound, really did plunge me back into the Second Vienna School — 1910, in other words s– with updated footnotes. Old stuff, though very well done. Likewise some of Lindberg’s piano music.)
I don’t want to single the Philharmonic out here, and in fact if I were taking an orthodox view, I’d praise them for doing new music, not just on an opening gala (new music, in the past, has been excluded from opening galas, by leaving out the new piece on the first subscription series, and reinstating it only for concerts after the opening).
But I don’t take the orthodox view. I think what the Philharmonic and other mainstream classical music groups do, when they feature new music, is 30 years out of date. What’s currently new is what I heard on my first nights out. Except Glenn Branca, who’s 20 years old. But the style he represents hasn’t yet entered the classical world. The classical music world is free to do whatever it wants, but to call their new music sallies even remotely new — no matter how new they might be to the classical audience — is like living in a time warp.
Footnote: Someone is likely to say that alternative classical music is just something that — however interesting, however much I might like it — lies outside the true classical music world. I’m sure people said that about Schoenberg in 1910. And, for that matter, in 1940!
I’m also sure I haven’t helped this perception by giving alt-classical a special name. But the perception is wrong. Alternative classical music, in its new-music branch, might function as its own little world within the larger classical umbrella. (As if, by the way, Elliott Carter didn’t largely function the same way. For all his mainstream acclaim, he hardly has a mainstream following.) But if David Lang wins a Pulitzer, and Nico Muhly is being played this year by the NY Philharmonic’s new music ensemble (and if he has a commission from the Metropolitan Opera) then obviously alternative classical music has started, at the very least, to enter the mainstream.
But this is the wrong way to look at it — counting mainstream scalps, looking to the Pulitzer Prize or the Met Opera for authority to deem alternative classical music truly classical. Better to look at the other arts. In visual art and in literature, it’s hardly remarkable to see people with this kind of artistic profile accepted as part of the mainstream. What particularly happens, in this artistic profile, is an embrace of popular culture, which leads to a strong strain of popular culture in the work these artists do.That’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of alternative classical music, which mostly divide it from new music in the classical mainstream.
But, as I’ve said, in other arts, an embrace of popular culture is exactly where the newest work largely is. So in that respect, alternative classical music is exactly where new
classical music actually is, even if, in the mainstream world, a piece by an old composer like Messiaen (no disrespect to him!) passes as something new, when it shows up on an opening gala at a major orchestra.
In classical music, a Schoenberg festival would be something daring, that felt very new. At a museum, a show of work by Kandinsky — Schoenberg’s friend, who developed abstract painting at the same time that Schoenberg developed atonal music — would be classic art.
I should praise the Philharmonic, though, come to think of it. With such small steps do we eventually reach the future. I hope they’ll forgive me, Allan Gilbert included, if I keep pointing out how far they still have to go.