First nights out

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.

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  1. says

    I’m very happy to finally have a name for the field of expression I am so excited to see emerging. “Alternative Classical” it is, and I think in due time, like “alternative rock” one will have to beg the question “alternative to what?”

  2. says

    I know you don’t really intend this, but by comparing the NY Phil’s repertory to Glenn Branca, you are being rather unfair. Exactly how many of Branca’s works could the Philharmonic play without clearing the stage of the vast majority of the players in the orchestra? I am familiar only with Branca’s guitar works and the things he’s done with his ensemble, and not much of that, but very little of it fits a full orchestra (or any of the natural subsets of the full ensemble), no?

    So wouldn’t a fairer comparison for the Philharmonic be to present-day composers who actually write music that the organization is constituted to play?

    Or would you argue instead that the organization is completely moribund because of its instrumentation and should be abandoned?

    Or that it should change its instrumentation to be more flexible?

    David W. Fenton

    Mainstream classical music institutions need to become part of current culture, and reach out to the younger audience that — as I’ve seen with my own eyes — will come to certain kinds of classical events.

    Sometimes that just means marketing existing concerts differently. I’ve seen concerts at Zankel Hall in New York that could have attracted a wide young audience, if Carnegie Hall could figure out how to rebrand them. (Which couldn’t be done overnight, of course.)

    But it also means that classical music institutions have to become more flexible. The documentary film about Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, “Music From the Inside Out,” showed some exciting non-classical ensembles that the Philly musicians played in. It would do worlds of good for the orchestra to somehow bring these into its concerts.

    Does this mean the Philharmonic should present Branca? Well, obviously that’s a stretch, and an expensive one. I wrote an article years ago for Symphony magazine, in which I set forth how hard it is simply to bring one electric guitar into an orchestra concert. Bringing a hundred of them — well, actually it’s easier, since now you just need normal rock guitarists, rather than specialized players who play electric guitar and also can read the complex guitar parts a composer using an electric guitar in a normal classical piece might write.

    But still the Philharmonic would have to hire so many extra musicians. Think of the benefits, though! One of the glories — and attractions — of orchestral music is the sheer mass of sound. Now the Philharmonic would be showing that this mass of sound can be created in other words. They’d be extending the idea of an orchestra — which, remember, got frozen more than 100 years ago — into the current world. (Louis Andriessen talks about this, by the way. His idea of an orchestra, as he embodies it in his music, is much more flexible than orchestras are now.)

    Lincoln Center, this past summer, presented a huge piece for massed guitars by Rhys Chatham. And I saw a big Branca guitar piece in 2000 (I think), presented outdoors in downtown Manhattan. If the Philharmonic had presented these events, it would have taken some useful steps in rebranding its name, and establishing itself as the kind of organization the new young audience might care about.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    “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.”

    Good quote to put on Facebook.

  4. Jon Hurd says

    All very well said.

    I spent four nights last week at a “George Crumb at 80” festival. The music was beautiful (especially the songbook numbers) and should be a part of any classical repertoire. But unfortunately it is still considered “too out there” by my traditional classical friends. It is going to be a long, slow evolution.

  5. Robert Berger says

    Okay, if the New York Philharmonic’s programming isn’t modern enough for you, can you give me some examples of compsers you’d like to hear at their concerts ?

    In fact, compared to many other orchestras

    in the US and elsewhere, this orchestra’s programming is wildly adventurous. There are many US orchestras that wouldn’t dare to play anything by Messiaen, Carter,Lutoslawski, Tippett,Boulez, Babbitt, Birtwistle or many other important composers .

    The problem is that these composers, and even Schoenberg,Berg and Webern are box office poison. Many concertgoers today would rather be waterboarded than listen to their music at concerts. It’s not the orchestra’s fault, but the sheer conservatism of taste of so many concertgoers. But the NY Phil. has already been playing a lot of music by a wide variety of contemporary composers, of many styles,ranging from avant-garde to conservative neo-romantic, despite the fact that many in the audience don’t like virtually anything new.

    I’m not familiar with Lindberg’s music , but he is in fact Finnish, and not Swedish, but judging by his Swedish name, he is probably part of the ethnically Swedish minority in Finland,as was Sibelius.

    Which composers should the Philharmonic present? I’d start with some of the wildly successful composers in New York, who work partly or wholly outside the classical mainstream. Nico Muhly, Derek Bermel, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, Gabe Kahane. Steve Reich. And Sufjan Stevens, who’s made a successful leap from indie rock into classical music. And Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist whose big classical piece, commissioned by the BBC (where he was composer in residence), is one of the best new classical works I’ve heard in years.

    There is, in actual fact, a young audience that comes to concerts with composers like these on the program. These concerts are, emphatically, not box office poison.

    Dumb of me to get Lindberg’s nationality wrong. Thanks for setting me right.

  6. Glinkus Meerkat says

    Hey Greg,

    Does it ever occur to you that a lot of people find this modern so-called “music” to be… shit?

    Boulez doesn’t even deserve to be called a composer. What the hell is it he’s putting together? Who wants to listen to that nonsense?

  7. Ryan Walsh says

    Actually Glenn has written more than a few symphonies for full orchestras- and many of his other works could be readily transposed for different instrumentation. whether or not the philharmonic would be willing or able to do that is, maybe, up for more debate. the material is there, though. if the Boston Pops wanted to cover The Ascension, I’d be in the 1st row…. but i’m admittedly biased in this matter.

  8. Eric Lin says

    Actually, Magnus Lindberg, when on top form, is quite magnificent. He’s certainly not writing in an idiom from 1910…Cantigas, the Clarinet Concerto, and Fresco are all awesome pieces. And he is in fact Finnish, an old school buddy of both Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

    The LA Phil and a bunch of other orchestras have been programming Lindberg’s music for a long time. NYPhil is catching the late, late, late train.

    Glinkus, I like Boulez’s music. And some of Schoenberg. So by dismissing someone’s work so completely, you’re not just expressing your own dislike of it, but also dismissing (and dissing) people who do like it. I think Boulez has a number of gems…Sur Incises or the orchestrated Notations. I also think there are a few duds…but I understand not everyone’s going to like it. You’re entitled to your dislike of something…but don’t be so mean.

    Dumb of me, as I said in response to another comment, to get Lindberg’s nationality wrong.

    And I’m exaggerating when I say his music sounds like it comes from 1910. It’s peppier than that, with some more contemporary elements. But — as his new piece, Expo, played at the opening Philharmonic concert this season shows — Second Vienna School modernism still lies (heavily, I think) over his work. Nobody would mistake that piece for Schoenberg, but no one who knows the modernist tradition could fail to catch the strong smell of Schoenberg in it. It was a curiously clumsy piece, trying to sound like a celebration, but tripping over the air of seriousness and heavy complexity of detail that modernist composers think they can’t do without.

  9. billy says

    You are wildly off about Magnus Lindberg (who is, as everyone has said, Finnish). His more high-modern works like Kraft and Action-Situation-Signification sound nothing like Second Viennese School music, and the gorgeous Clarinet Concerto is new music in the best sense. The NY Phil commission was on the conservative side, but so what? A great orchestral piece by a talented composer writing in a modern idiom.

    Reaction to that piece seems to depend on what kind of new music anyone takes as the norm. One friend of mine, thoroughly steeped in alternative classical things, thought my label for Lindberg was exactly right.

    I hear Second Vienna School melodic contours even in the middle of Lindberg’s more current-sounding stuff. And if we’re to take the new piece at the Philharmonic opening as any example, then clearly Lindberg has one foot heavily placed in old-fashioned modernism. Obviously this was a piece written now, and certainly not in 1910. But equally obviously, to me and others, it had a lot of 1910-like orthodoxy hanging over its head.

  10. Tom Hartley says

    I’m glad folks like Schoenberg, who either can’t or don’t want to play according to the established rules, can invent their own rules and accomplish great things. But while Schoenberg’s bizarre methods worked perfectly for him and his friends, they’re not necessarily right for everyone. The problem with the last 100 years of “serious” music is that Schoenberg’s methods became the new orthodoxy and all music pre-Schoenberg was now supposed to be obsolete. Imagine if, after the publication of Finnegans Wake, all “serious” novelists decided they had to write this way, and those who didn’t were labeled conservatives and marginalized? Or what if all pianists had to play like Thelonious Monk? The decades and decades of teaching the twelve-tone row as the only legitimate method of modern composition makes as much sense as learning to play piano the Thelonious way.

    All of the people I have referenced — Schoenberg, Monk, Joyce — are artistic heroes of mine. It is orthodoxy, not innovation, that I condemn.

  11. Tamas says

    Hi Greg,

    This discussion is interesting because it features the two points where I disagree with your ideas on new music:

    1. You say that Nico Muhly, Derek Bermel, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and Gabe Kahane are “wildly successful composers”. Do you have some data to support this? One of my main problems with your views is that you seem to assume that alt classical music is wildly successful among young people, or at least it will become wildly successful as soon as they get to know it. But the music of Gordon, Lang and Wolfe has been around for 15 years now, readily available to anyone who wanted to hear it. Are people really interested in it? Of course I have no reliable data, but here are some Amazon Mp3 album sales ranks:

    David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion: 21,534

    Nico Muhly, Mothertounge: 22,709

    Derek Bermel, Voices: 96,345

    Michael Gordon, Purgatorio: 168,845

    The Music of Magnus Lindberg: 5,347

    John Adams, Dr. Atomic Symphony/Guide To Strange Places: 405

    My fear is that alt classical is not capable of gaining considerable popularity – in fact, it might have lost popularity in the past 20 years, if you think of the wildly successful Glass and Kronos Quartet albums of the 80s and 90s. I would be very happy if you could convince me of the opposite.

    2. You criticize Magnus Lindberg’s music because it has “a strong smell of Schoenberg”. I am surprised at this because your blog suggests that you are a fan of current indie music. Now, as far as I can see, some of the best current indie music has a strong smell of Velvet Underground, early Bowie etc. Does that mean that it is not really new music? Or having a Bowie smell is OK, while having a Schoenberg smell is not?

  12. billy says

    Also, I think Lindberg is coming out of a modernist tradition that looks less to Schoenberg and more to Debussy and Sibelius. I can’t remember who said it, I think Alex Ross, that a lot of European composers today are looking more to Debussy and Sibelius as models than the previous Schoenberg/Stravinsky dichotomy.

  13. Janis says

    I don’t think alt-classical functions within classical music at all, really — every time you bring it up, you link it to something outside of classical music. That indicates that it’s not a little self-contained kernel within something else, but a linkage between classical music and other more modern forms of artistic expression. For example, you say that you listened to alt-stuff music while films were running, while a lot (certainly not all) classical music has a tendency to be performed standing on its own. Nothing happened on stage while I listened to the ACO tear into some Haydn. They just played it, and the music stood as its own end product. Happily, it was great, and they really tore into it so it was also very vivacious and a hell of a lot of fun to watch as well as hear.

    But a lot of this alt-stuff you talk about seems to need supporting inputs from other places. Watch this film while you listen to it (with the implication that otherwise, you’ll have no clue wtf’s going on). Read this description of what the composer did with the arrangement of the piano keyboard before he wrote this thing down. This other composer dropped St. Jude valves and arterial stents inside this piano before playing it as his personal statement on medical technology, or whatever. And so on. All music generally needs a context of some form, but a lot of standard classical seems to be presented independently, while the alt-stuff really does need context pretty badly. That may be why when I listen to even Stravinsky, my brain seems to think of it as “movie music,” in that even when I listen to it on its own, my head insists that it’s meant to be accompanied by something else that I’m not seeing. I like it okay, but it seems to wander a bit too much, so my brain assumes that there must be another part of the experience that I’m not getting that was meant to give it some form of direction.

    Three things:

    1) Not all classical is entirely standalone, as opera more than proves. And understanding the context in which any piece was written can make it a bit deeper and more beautiful.

    2) Mixing media is often a good thing, since mixing experiences can result in something more powerful and interesting.

    3) It’s not automatically a good thing when you expect the added stuff to do too much artistic heavy lifting. For example, I can tell you that I’m going to make a politically incisive art experience reflecting the US’s melting-pot nature in a stew. I can write about it, talk about it, explain it to you, and it’ll be really cool and clever … but if in the end I’m mixing Italian sausage, whipped cream, pierogis, ketchup, and scotch, the end result is still going to taste like ass.

    Ultimately, the ear is the final arbiter, and while mixing media (like in film scores) can be a good thing, in the end it’s music. Like the food-as-performance-art example, it can be sincerely meant, clever, insightful, and very deep, but if the end product tastes like crap, it’s still a failure.

    Anyhow, I’m not sure where I’m headed with this. Just that a lot (but not all) classical music is often presented as standalone while alt-classical seems to function more as the musical side of a mixed-media experiment a lot of times so I don’t think it’s a “subset” of anything. And that I think a lot of alt-classical can sometimes rely a little too much on context and forget not to make something that just sounds bad. Music is an auditory art. If it needs more scaffolding from the other senses, it’s not just music anymore than a film score is a complete musical experience.

    Just rambling …

  14. says

    I was very interested to come across your NewMusicBox column on ‘alternative classical’ as a genre, and to read this blog. When asked, I generally describe myself as a classically-trained singer with an alternative disposition. Like many musicians today, I am working on the challenge of bringing ‘classical’ music back into the fabric of our society. To this end, the composer and hurdy-gurdy player Stevie Wishart and I have set up an organization called Music Relevant. Our aim is to bring what we have been calling new ‘classical’ music into different areas of everyday life ( Intent on choosing a venue other than a concert hall, we performed Stevie’s work ‘Europa’ at a performing arts house in Brussels last May. You can hear an audio sample of ‘Europa’ via this link :

    Stevie’s music fits in for the most part with how you describe ‘alternative classical’. My question is whether, as you say in this blog, an embracing of popular culture is ‘one of the distinguishing characteristics of alternative classical music’. Stevie’s music is atmospheric and evocative. It is influenced by early music, and often incorporates improvisation. Yet the sound is modern and unique, as a result both of her use of harmonies and of her choice of instrument combination. While it is not out of the question that a future work of hers will be based on a David Bowie song, it’s not this element of popular culture that for me brings her work inside the alternative classical as described in your column. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  15. Stan Cording says

    You covered a lot a territory and that makes it difficult to respond in a brief comment, but in no particular order:

    1. Yes, Magnus Lindberg’s “Expo” had the smell (or “stink” depending on one’s attitude) of the Second Viennese School. But it also actually sounded composed, and not merely “constructed”, or “assembled”, which is, thankfully I think, part of the new trend in classical music and an encouraging sign.

    2. Maybe I’m misinterpreting your description of “alternative classical”, but it sounds a awful lot like collage to me, which is hardly a new technique, let alone a new music. The first time I heard John Zorn doing collage, I enjoyed it very much, but it was old before the concert was over.

    3. Or, other times, I think you are saying “alternative classical” employs source material, whether texture, melody, harmony, or instrumentation, that is already familiar to a younger audience, a sort of youth-oriented pop-subset of world music. I can think of many composers that would have no problem doing that, especially for a commission. (Think of Mozart doing variations on what we call “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”.) But is that a “style”? A technique? Maybe. And let me get this straight, the people who’s music embraces pop source material are original and new, but Lindberg, whose music has elements that remind you of a different well-defined style, but didn’t quote anybody, is old hat?

    4. I didn’t have the impression that the N Y Phil was presenting Messiaen’s “Poemes pour Mi” as new music. I understand full well, how music that is 73 years old could be considered “new” given the typical repertoire of symphonic orchestras. Yet, the fact that they did actually include new music would indicate that they recognize the difference. I found it a wonderful reminder of how fresh and original Messiaen was before he adopted (and then extended) the Second Viennese School tradition.

    5. I may be exaggerating your argument, but you seem to say that new music is only new if it is written in the newest of the new traditions. The problems with that are obvious, so I’m pretty sure that’s *not* your position, but I’d love to hear some elaboration that makes it clear exactly where your position differs from that. I take it, from what you say here at least, that a “classical” music that incorporated elements of Country, or Rap, or New Age, or any other mainstream popular culture music would be a “better” classic music. I’m not convinced it would appeal to either group, let alone both. Wouldn’t it end up being an even narrower sub-sub-culture?

  16. says

    Whereas to my ears, the performance of the Messiaen (with Renee Fleming) was completely unbound when it came to the sort of close minded conventions in “classical” music that you write about. Or any conventions for that matter!

    If you have to tell someone you are “indie” anything chances are you’re just posing. Or afraid of just being yourself.

    It’s kind of like Vanilla Ice telling everyone he’s from “the street.”

    Ahhhhh. Heroin! Just say no, kids!

    Chris Becker


    Wildly Successful at 41 :)