Labels

I’ve gotten some pushback for my “Left behind” posts (here, here, and here). (Quite apart from two people on Twitter — Danny Felsenfeld most amusingly — who thought I might be playing off the Christian novels about the Rapture. OK, Danny, I’ll buy into that! There’s going to be a classical music Rapture. Don’t get left behind!)

Some of the pushback is about labelling music, or, rather, labelling alt-classical music. Nobody ever pushed back at me for mentioning serial music, or Baroque music, or Renaissance music, or New Age music, or death metal, or minimalism, or French New Wave movies. But labelling alt-classical music demeans it, said one of my Twitter followers. Why can’t we just call it “classical music”? Why single it out?

One very basic answer might be: How can I ask mainstream classical music institutions to program it, if I can’t say what it is? And another answer, of course, is the one I implicitly gave in the last paragraph. We label other things. So why not alt-classical?

Maybe, I might whisper, the problem really is that I’m rocking the boat and asking for change. But let that be. My wife, Anne Midgette, addressed (in response to comments here) the question of labelling in her blog at the Washington Post, and what she said — about the necessity of labels, as well as their limitations — is well worth reading. She and I only rarely cite each other’s work (too incestuous, and neither of us needs the other to blow our horns). But her blog is terrific, and I think this post sympathetically answers some of the questions that were raised in the comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    Why are people so eager to categorize things musical (and social, and political) while they are happening? The things Anne suggests as musical trends have faded into compositional techniques that have been added to the ingredients available for our various musical soups. Current composers also have the world of traditional music from places very few people in the West had access to before the 1990s, as well as more recorded music by well-known and lesser-known composers than any one person could listen to in 100 lifetimes.

    We can make all kinds of soup that we could never make before.

    The term Alt suggests that the “classical music” a person is talking about is different from the mainstream, but, I have to ask, what is the mainstream? My musical mainstream is also different from your musical mainstream, and it is different from the mainstream of every person reading this comment, as well as every person that isn’t reading this comment.

    “Classical Music” alt and otherwise (whichever version of alt you want to consider currently music an alternative from) is and will always be appreciated by a smaller number of people than pop music, and will never truly appeal to people who do not really listen to music carefully.

    It has always incorporated elements from popular music (which I suppose we could call traditional music), when you consider the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque Period, and, though I hate the term, the Romantic Period. These are all classifications that seem to work because they are grand sweeping generalizations that tie into what we know and what we continue to learn about political, and social history.

    The 20th century is still too close and too complicated to even gather into a general period. The 21st, with its 24-hour everything cycle, is even more complicated.

    So what’s a cultural critic to do? I haven’t a clue.

    So many thoughts here! Thanks, Elaine.

    One thing strikes me. We often say that classical music is for people who listen carefully. But how many people in the standard classical audience — the people, for instance, at concerts by big orchestras, and opera performances by big opera companies — really do listen carefully? Not so many, I’d say, drawing on all kinds of experience with people in these audiences, including formal focus groups and informal but organized discussions with groups from these audiences.

    A lot of people in the classical audience just let the music wash over them, and if you ask them about performance details, they may not have very much to say.

  2. Janis says

    “The 20th century is still too close and too complicated to even gather into a general period.”

    That’s true. What we call classical music wasn’t called that while it was being written. And it’s relatively recently that the Baroque stuff has even been considered part of classical. We have no idea how people will be classifying this stuff in a hundred or three hundred years.

  3. says

    I believe “alt classical” refers to youth, fashion, and attitude rather than any specific musical content. It doesn’t surprise me that music writers are protective of a term that masks their own lack of knowledge about music happening outside of such a small collection of (young) composers.

    For instance, I am personally am baffled that there is zero writing going on in NYC regarding music composed for dance. But I understand, like Elaine says, that I swim in a different stream than many musicians (as well as “cultural critics”). I enjoy some of the music on New Amsterdam (although its relatively traditional to my ears). But I do my own thing.

    So maybe its not the term “alt classical” that’s a problem but instead the presumption that that label can even begin to represent the diversity of compositional voices in NYC and beyond.

    But if you’re talking about a dozen or so composers only (and that’s what it seems like to me…) then that label is just fine.

    Labels are shorthand. As I said, they have their limitations.

    Go back a generation, and look at minimalism. Or, to identify the label as such, look at “minimalism.” For most people, that meant (sigh) Steve Reich and Philip Glass. But for anyone deep into the scene back then, it was far more diverse. There weren’t many composers, at least in and around New York, who sounded like either Reich or Glass, or build their music the same way. Maybe David Borden, who performed with his group Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company.

    But Meredith Monk? Laurie Anderson? Tom Johnson? Malcolm Goldstein? Phill Niblock? Philip Corner? Pauline Oliveros? To name just a very few composers from that scene. (And, fine, Oliveros wasn’t in NY, but she certainly fit in when she came to town and did a performance.) Very different from each other, and none of them like Reich or Glass. And yet Tom (Johnson) wrote very beautifully about how minimalism was a good word for the defining musical ethos of the scene. And by using the term as he used it, you didn’t wash out the diversity of what was going on. But you could see things that a lot of diverse people had in common. And, for that matter, that they had in common with many visual artists of the time.

    So in that way the label was very helpful, though by nature imprecise. Same thing now, I think.

  4. says

    Clarification. Greg, I don’t mean to insinuate that you or Anne lack knowledge of musical happenings outside of the “alt classical” scene you describe. Although, composing is what I do and there are HUNDREDS of musicians and “scenes” that I am completely ignorant of. And I’ve been in NYC for almost 12 years now!

    That’s OK, Chris. I won’t speak for Anne, but I’m in the same position you are. I’m in no position to speak for everything that’s going on, given how much of it there is.

  5. says

    Greg, I feel your pain on the “we need to call it something” front. But I have to say that in reading through all the commentary here and over in Anne’s space, I’m with Ian in the “alt-classical makes my eyeballs bleed” and so I’ve been trying to come up with a rational explanation for why.

    Here’s what I’ve got: Rather than indicating work that escapes the usual concert hall MO and reconnects with society in a relevant way, it makes it sound lame. I know! Rather than riding the cool cutting edge, it implies to me that the participants arrived years late to a party they were not invited to and had no real interest in attending. When I hear “alt-classical”–the word, not the music–I think of awkward, awful, SNL-style interpretations of everything that’s happening. I see composers focused more on the ideals of Pitchfork celebrity than the creation of interesting music, and that’s not fair to (or an accurate description of) the real work that’s actually being written. Yoking music with the alt-classical label feels like boundary pushing out of the Adam Lambert camp, when I’d think we’d at least be aiming for House of Gaga.

    Fair enough, Molly.

    But then what would you call what’s going on? In all its variety. There really is something new in the air, or has been for quite a while. And as far as I’m concerned, it includes (see my latest post) Rene Jacobs conducting Mozart, which maybe stretches “alt-classical” past its breaking point. (Or maybe elucidates it, on the other hand.)

    I can add that not everyone has your experience — your ennui, I might say — with the Pitchfork scene, so the term may not affect others as it affects you.

    And out in the classical music mainstream — and believe me, everyone, it’s very easy to define that in practice; just spend some time with (picking a name almost at random) Todd Reynolds, and then spend some time with the top people at a major music school — out in the classical music mainstream, alt-classical seems to have a definite meaning. It tells the people there, and rather forcefully, I’ve found, that there’s something happening that they can’t not call classical music, but which isn’t remotely like what they’re used to. Which is a useful thing for those few letters (plus hyphen) to convey.

  6. says

    I think there are factions on either side of the pop/classical divide who would just as soon see genre borders torn down as they would the coinage of a niche label to better suit them stylistically.

    I think Shara Worden of the band My Brightest Diamond summed up the general disillusionment with labels when I interviewed her a few months ago. I asked her how much she actively thought about incorporating her classical performance and composition training in her songwriting. She said that, at first, she had been highly conscious of the fact that she was attempting to blend two seemingly disparate traditions, but that she had since stopped caring about doing anything other than making music. (Interestingly, since then, her orchestrations and arrangements have become even more intricate.)

    Still, I think for many, the “music is music” approach is never really going to cut it. But, as long as labels are necessary (and they probably always will be), I think “alt-classical” is as good as any.

  7. Andy Buelow says

    As the son of a composer and as one who has been an administrator and marketer of orchestral classical music for 20 years, I think “alt-classical” is as reasonable a term for the musical phenomenon it describes as any other term I have heard.

    The number of people getting hot and bothered over this label certainly shows that its proponents have the same tendency towards taking themselves too seriously as their classical predecessors. You rarely hear or heard “alternative rock” artists, “heavy metal” bands, “acid jazz” musicians or others on the “pop” side of the equation wasting energy fretting over the labels applied to their music.

  8. Janis says

    I have to admit, I tend to think the same way about alt-classical in that it makes me wince a bit. I think it’s a term that brings to mind the cool, hipster, vegan in-crowd that perhaps is believed to be the people to whom this music “should” appeal rather than the music itself. It’s alternative! You eat sushi and imported wine while you listen to it, instead of Pabst and burgers. (Caveat: I LOVE sushi and imported wine. I could freaking live on it, mercury and sulfites be damned.)

    Then again, I tend to prefer the competing term “prog-classical,” just because as I’ve said before in this blog’s comments — since I can’t keep from repeating myself — it strikes me as a parallel genre to prog-rock more than anything else. Pushing musical boundaries, deliberately experimental, and perfect to appeal more to other musicians and tinkerers than to a general audience. This whole movement really isn’t new, not at all. It’s happened before, and the recognition of this would help understand what’s going on. This is NOT new under the sun.

    Take a look at the types of people who listened to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and early Genesis and you’ll see the way to market to the prog-classical audience. Then again, since that movement is around thirty years old, CAN those marketing methods even be applied anymore … ?

    At any rate, I guess I’m agreeing that the term isn’t really bringing to mind the music so much as an assumption that youth, fashion, and attitude will determine who is more likely to listen to it. And I have to admit that it sounds a bit to me like a hopeful wish that all the “cool, edgy” kids will be the ones who like it best. I’m also positing that the term prog-classical might be more useful in helping people realize that this movement has happened before, and that useful insights can be gained from realizing this.

  9. Janis says

    Short addendum: The fact that the term prog-classical brings to mind the parallel with prog-rock is, I think, an important antidote to an easy trap: the belief that what composers in this genre are doing is Totally New!!!!!

    Completely Unheard of Before!!!!!

    We’re Breaking Totally New Ground!!!!!

    Never Before Seen By The Eyes Of Humanity!!!!

    We’re Going Places NO ONE HAS EVER BEEN BEFORE!!!

    No you aren’t, and yes they have.

    I think this awareness — that what Greg calls “alt-classical” is breaking ground, but in ways that it has been broken before — is not only a vital part of understanding what this type of music is … but it’s an important antidote to what can be a common mistake of arrogance, to believe that whatever is new to rhetorical-you is new to the universe in general. There’s a tendency for people to want to imagine that they are so revolutionary and radical that no one could possibly have done what they are doing right now. This tendency is usually wrong.

  10. says

    As a young musician working in a variety of contexts, I’d like to share some thoughts on the issues brought up in this wide-ranging discussion:

    1) I’ve followed as much of the “Left Behind” articles and commentary as I can, and I still have not come across any mention of why we’re engaged in this discussion at all, i.e. why do we feel this proselytizing mission to bring audiences young and old into this particular brand of music, and why is it such an immediate project?

    As such questions like: “How can I ask mainstream classical music institutions to program it, if I can’t say what it is?” leave me wondering why should we ask Mainstream Classical Music Institutions to program it at all? Isn’t it perhaps healthier for the music itself if enterprising young musicians figure out a way of making it happen outside the big institutions?

    2) I have, to a certain extent, given up on Mr. Sandow’s line of thinking altogether, and rather embraced a different approach: as I see it, the most interesting musical conversation today is taking place in another arena, and if I want to be a part of that conversation, it is my responsibility to go to that arena rather than trying to convince all the participants to come into mine. This is something that very few in the ‘classical’ world seem willing to do.

    If a young, academy-trained musician wants to survive at all today (especially if he wants to survive outside the academy), it is essential that he have access to a variety of musical platforms and arenas, both for practical reasons (i.e. to make a living) and for promotional reasons: witness the untold success of the musical polyglot Nico Muhly, whose success lies not only in the fact that he possesses a musical language that incorporates many influences and allows him a tremendous versatility of contexts, but also in that he has ingeniously cultivated a public persona that fulfills his audience’s expectations of what a versatile musician should be.

    3) Though much has been made in this discussion of comparisons between music and film/painting/performance art (as it logically would be), I notice a distinct lack of comparison with writing, particularly literature. This strikes me as odd, given that writing is precisely what composers do, and it is often the very thing that distinguishes them from their counterparts in popular music. I recently wrote a blog post with some thoughts on this subject which readers may find pertinent:

    http://www.willcwhite.com/2009/11/yet-another-quote/

    4) If we accept that the current predicaments of Large Classical Institutions and New Classical Music are intertwined (and frankly, from my experience, I find that they are two totally separate worlds with totally separate aims and problems), then I would argue that it is Composers who got us into this mess and Composers who are the only ones that can get us out of it. It is an oft-retold story of how our compositional forebears alienated audiences and created an incredibly insular musical discussion; I would add that in so doing, they ceded the visceral power, the innate drama, and the Big Message of their art form to other media (most notably film).

    If composers seek to reclaim both Audiences and Institutions, then their first task should be to re-embrace these fundamental musical values, the values that make the music of Brahms and Sibelius a more potent listening experience than the music of most contemporary composers. Composers must do this with the risk – nay, the assurance – of being branded ‘old-fashioned’, but it’s possible that we have to move ‘backward’ before we can move forward in a more productive direction.

    It’s also possible to come up with something that is both incredibly moving and extremely contemporary at the same time – listen to the harmonies in the last minute or so of Björk’s “Mouth’s Cradle” – they are as potent, visceral, and complex as anything in Ravel – leaving us with about 100 years worth of catching up to do :)

  11. Eric L says

    William:

    I think the ‘why’ is and has already been implicitly answered. Something needs to change–for the survival of the genre. Nico is a great example…Greg has brought up that example many, many times. But Nico, as interesting as he is, can’t be the only model. I do agree that composers have largely ceded the ‘public persona’ role, something that’s very important in our media-conscious world. The image these days? The professor. Not a very interesting image when MANY classical composers seem to fit that image.

    I think the writing/literature model is useful, but like all comparisons with other art forms, it falls short. You don’t need performers to disseminate your writing. It goes straight to the audience. That’s a giant leap from one to the other. Also, a lot of composers are increasingly thinking about their music in popular music terms. Lots of classical composers are making/writing album-length pieces and caring deeply about how it’s mixed, produced etc. You’re at once extolling the virtues of Nico Muhly but then claiming that what composers are doing is closer to writing than popular music? I’m a bit confused.

    I also am not 100% convinced with your ‘return to older forms.’ You’re implicitly saying we need to return to more tonal music. But plenty of composers have tried that, in the neo-Romantic vein for several decades now. It hasn’t worked. Most (not all) are just writing watered-down versions of older styles. Audience members aren’t convinced. I don’t buy that Xenakis is less interesting or emotional than many of the new neo-romantics. In fact, I find it exactly the opposite. Tetora is incredibly heartbreaking and nostalgic.

    Again, I don’t think there’s a one-step solution. I think it’s a combination of culture, education, the music being composed, media/public persona (or lack thereof), the tyranny of academia etc. It’s a mixture of all the above factors and many more.

    In any case, you make some interesting and provocative points. But I don’t think it’s that easy. Presentation is a big part of it too–so don’t discount that. Like it or not, it’s not all about the music.

  12. Eric L says

    (an aside: Is it bad that I’m still thinking about these issues as I’m trying to enjoy the food on the table, as I’m playing board games and Halo with my cousins AND as I’m trying to watch the game on TV?)

    Anyway, another point worth thinking about. William, you brought up the fact that we may “have to move ‘backward’ before we can move forward in a more productive direction.”

    There is an inherent post-Romantic desire for composers to ‘come up with an original voice,’ often at the expense of expressiveness. It’s better to push the boundaries of theory, performance, philosophy, musical language they say. You have to be original. You have to find your own voice. We sort of except that as the standard.

    I often have non-composer friends who ask me why no composers write write pieces like Beethoven. I often have to think a while before I answer. It usually comes down to: “But as artists we need to come up with something original.” That seems silly…but that’s the elephant in the room.

    Sure, we can all go back and write neo-romanticish music, with little trace of the personality of the composer. That’s fine. We have to abandon the idea of the composers as an original creator, the whole ‘voice’ thing and so on and so forth. If we can collectively accept the composer as a craftsman rather than the romantic hero, then perhaps we can get there.

    I’m not sure we want to…but it’s worth pondering.

    About why composers don’t write music “like Beethoven.”

    There’s a very sly Borges story, about a writer who sets out to write Don Quixote at the beginning of the 20th century. Not his own Don Quixote, but the Cervantes original, word for word. And not by copying it, but by putting himself into a frame of mind in which Cervantes’s words naturally occur to him. (Borges puts it all a lot better, of course.)

    So he succeeds. Or at least he spontaneously writes a few Cervantes passages. Word for word the same.

    And then Borges embarks on a critique. He examines the Cervantes original. “An unremarkable example of 17th century writing,” he says, or words to that effect. “These are the thoughts that anyone would have had back then.”

    Then he quotes the 20th century writer. And critiques him. “Remarkable! How extraordinary that anyone living in our time would think such things.”

  13. Ian says

    “Here’s what I’ve got: Rather than indicating work that escapes the usual concert hall MO and reconnects with society in a relevant way, it makes it sound lame”- yes, I agree Eric.

    As an under-30 in music (so one of those young audiences everyone wants), “alt-classical” is a giant red flag that middle aged administrators are trying to be cool. Who cares if Nico Muhly (the alt-classical poster boy, amirite?) listens to Bjork? All I’m going to care about is what’s being performed for my cost of admission. You can dress it up in as many labels as you like but, and I say this with absolute affection, classical music- that is a string quartet performing to an audience with or without turntable soloist- is dorky.

    Administrators may be stunned that a classically trained musicians is also into the house scene or waifish Icelandic singers but we’re not.

  14. says

    Perhaps it takes being over 30 to recognize that what Beethoven did in his string quartets speaks to a deeply human part of the human soul. I have heard performances of Beethoven that I would consider dorky, I suppose (though “dorky” is not the operative word I use to describe the way someone might perform something), but the music itself is anything and everything but dorky.

    Why is writing music that might be considered Romantic (whatever that is–the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century were so rich with unique music that I can’t categorize anything anymore) going back? Why does a composer have to search for an individual voice? We all have our own musical personalities, and as composers we have or own musical voices. I can no more change my musical voice than I can change my height.

    By the way, when people ask me what kind of music I write, I tell them that it is lyrical and enharmonic. Perhaps we should think in more personal terms about individual composers. String quartets = dorky? I don’t think that tells me anything about anything.

  15. Jack says

    Greg – I’m in full agreement with Molly and the others, for all the reasons already given. Alt-classical just sounds like it’s trying too hard to be hip. Seriously, if a saw a program marketed under that label, it would just say to me “Avoid” in the strongest terms. I say this a someone who really has a lot of time for new music, and find myself in frequent agreement that there lies the future.

    Can we just call the broader genre contemporary, and let the sub-genres define themselves (electronic, cross-over, etc etc)?

  16. says

    Alternative rock was the alternative to arena rock, more emo and introspective, less quote-unquote masculine.

    Alt-country is country that goes back to basics, and is the alternative to shiny country like Shania Twain.

    What is alt-classical the alternative of? Orchestral concerts? String quartets? Serialism? Minimalism? You’ve got to account for the other alts- consciously setting themselves apart from a prevailing trend, or style with this naming business. The alt-classical composers you cite don’t do that; witness Nico Muhly raving about both John Adams and Pierre Boulez, along with English plainchant. Corey Dargel writes art songs, but with electronics, and with live instruments when he’s able and it feels right. Mason Bates isn’t, I don’t think, trying to strike a blow against a ban on electronica in the concert hall with his works, he’s simply trying something out which seems like a good idea and hasn’t been tried yet. So, I’d go for something neutral with these folks: call it New Amsterdam, the record label which seems to be laying down most of this music, or Big Ears, since it borrows from everywhere without prioritizing anything specific, and consistently. Unless, of course, there’s a conscious and well-articulated rebellion these composers are undertaking.

  17. Steve Soderberg says

    I took a break over Thanksgiving week to get some actual productive work done in my personal time. So I really have read all this only this morning.

    Wow.

    There is no way I am wading into this “discussion”(“Never look at the brass; it just encourages them”). But it did cause me to ask: How in the world did this happen?? So I went back to re-read Greg’s original blog “Long Overdue” at http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2009/11/long_overdue.html. Everything was fine at first. Congratulations to the Chicago Symphony for their two composer appointments. Nice words about the composers. Links to places where you can get samples of their music. And then the sentence “So let me get contentious here.” And so it starts all over again.

    How anyone can take what ought to have been a simple informational heads up to readers and a gracious congratulations to two deserving young composers and one of history’s great orchestras who hired them, and turn it into a self-indulgent rant will forever remain a mystery to me. You can’t lay this one on “those who misunderstand” you. This was your choice. You could have just stopped after your approving comments about Bates and Clyne. But you couldn’t leave it alone.

  18. Janis says

    “Alternative rock was the alternative to arena rock, more emo and introspective, less quote-unquote masculine.”

    Quick reply: This strikes me as very strange since, from what I recall, one of the major accusations flung out against melodic arena rock was precisely that it was LESS masculine. Journey and Styx were consistently denigrated for making “music for chicks,” “music safe for your grandmother to listen to,” and being “girly-bands.” Particularly under the strong influence of each group’s (brilliant but unashamedly sappy) lead vocalist, both of which were put down with the ultimate rock insult: “Chicks dig him.”

    At the time, the power-chord driven ballads generated by DeYoung and Perry were out-and-out derided — sometimes by other members of their respective bands — for being too syrupy. They still are in a lot of circles. Tommy Shaw once introduced a DeYoung-free concert by playing the opening chords of “Babe” and then smashing his guitar apart on stage to show that he’d sooner die than play that song. Neal Schon refused to participate in the recording of “Open Arms” because the sap quotient irked him so badly. In both cases, audiences didn’t give a damn and the songs went platinum including among male fans.

    Now, these are both brilliant musicians, and there is a strong case to be made that, as with the Police, the intra-group tension between members with varying visions of what the bands should be was a huge part of what created the vibrancy of their music. But with the exception of bands like Def Leppard and Van Halen, 80s melodic arena rock was anything but masculine, and usually got pinned to the cork for it.

    I still remember being somewhat amused when listening to an early Journey song recorded just at the end of their tenure as a four-piece instrumental band with lyrics that ran something like, “I got to have that b*tch now,” and laughing at the fact that that was probably the one and only time that the word “bitch” ever came out of Perry’s mouth while singing. :-) And he was pelted by critics for effectively writing music that he wouldn’t mind his mother listening to.

    Every era has its hypermasculine music, I suppose. I’ve also known too many emo hipsters to imagine that that music is less masculine … Those guys can be pretty misogynist.

  19. says

    Alt-classical is a term with some utility, because when you use it, the reader pretty much understands what you’re talking about.

    It’s true that a better term could be generated

    for a particular set of music within that term, and that this would be a preferable development.

    Yet until such self-generated terms become pervasive enough for us all to have a dialogue about them, then your term will do fine.

    It all comes back to dialogue, in a way. If those who create new music wish to label it differently, then it’s a form of conversation with the audience and the critics to devise those labels. Part of converting music back from a “received (lifeless) canon from on high” to a ‘vibrant discussion of a living art” will be this exchange of ideas about what a new music intends to be, and how it should be described.

    Music should be more read/write. If we are to have listeners that love the new music, they will love it better with words to describe it.

    Granted that your “alt” word is limiting, in is way–but you don’t propose it as a “be all and end all”, but as a placeholder or bookmark.

    Do we need a better set of labels? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that new music, like the 999th name of God, should go with appellation.

    It really comes to one of 2 choices–either folks are out to have some interminable debate of interest only to academics about how to label music, or we escape debate, apply the labels at hand, and then correct/change them as better words arise.

    The key, to me, is to avoid the elitism of

    “this music, more than any other, is a special case, defying label”. I see you as using your label to escape this trap, until a better etymological escape is found.

  20. Janis says

    “Why is writing music that might be considered Romantic going back? Why does a composer have to search for an individual voice?”

    I’m going to say something ungenerous:

    Because these aren’t pieces of music, they’re doctoral theses. Emotionally, intellectually, and functionally.

    Seriously. This is a form of music that is highly academic and often grant-supported. In that world, the standard requirement for a thesis is that it go in a direction that no one has gone before. If any member of your doctoral committee in any discipline from medieval English lit to bioinformatics can show that you’ve done something that’s been done before, it is a point off of your chances of defending successfully.

    This is music written with that ethic in mind, almost with the assumption that some form of intellectual copyright exists in perpetuity. It means that over time, as music expands and as each composer is accepted to have completely owned his or her territory (which prevents their work from really developing and moving forward), the ones who come up behind are expected to fill in the increasingly disjoint and narrow gaps. It’s a very thesis-driven ethic for a very academic and grant-driven form of music, and the artistic result is a field of composers standing crowded cheek by jowl with one another and running in place.

    This doesn’t seem to have happened in the sciences academically, but for the arts, it appears to be the result.

  21. Eric L says

    The irony of course, is that most doctoral dissertations in composition don’t really accomplish the ‘original’ part. They’re usually really boring imitations of things that were in fashion 15-20 years ago–or whatever the 50-year-old dissertation committee chair remember as being hip during his student days.

    The real invention is happening with working musicians, working composers. Not the academics.

    What’s the last doctoral dissertation that’s considered a modern classic? That’s right. You can’t name any.

  22. Janis says

    What’s worrying is the possibility that “working” composers are still approaching things with the academic framework in mind, of having to be “original” when all that means is breaking previous unbroken ground instead of learning how to evolve with what’s behind you. Making something flourish involves a lot more tending and work than just the initial pass with the plow. One person can’t create a completely new approach to music; it’s like one person speaking a language. Unless a community develops behind it, it doesn’t exist.

    And again, I might be too ungenerous here. But that whole “shut in the ivory tower” mindset seems like a problem in general — and while it’s at its worst in academic settings, it just grows there before being unleashed on the world at large. :-)

  23. Janis says

    Still mulling since I never shut up:

    This is all making me think that the demand for “originality” in art is a huge problem, actually. It’s not like a patent system, for pete’s sake, where one person gets to file as the first person to invent something, and then everyone else can do what they want with it as long as they follow some basic rules and give credit or money. That works fine for technology, but it’s a death sentence for art. Artists never invent anything. They reinvent and rediscover. People are still writing movies and books about pairs of people in love who are prevented from getting together due to their families hating on one another; just because Shakespeare did it doesn’t mean it’s still not relevant to viewers who want a fresh take on a story that even the Bard ripped off from somebody else. Cavepeople were probably telling that one to each other over roasted mammoth.

    Art is not supposed to be entirely original. It’s not supposed to be treated like patenting a new invention. When you do that, you crowd people out. And that causes art to grow increasingly stilted, and its creators to get increasingly frustrated.

    Think about it. It’s like a dance competition where no one can put their foot where anyone else has put one before. The first people to dance have a massive advantage; they can make a totally natural dance. Then, the next people have a challenge, but perhaps a fun one — to create a dance that looks natural that links together the parts of the floor that weren’t touched by the first couple.

    By the time you get to the seventeenth couple, they are screwed. Those poor slobs are stuck attempting to weave together a bunch of crevices and millimeter-sized fragments into something that looks like a dance. They are likely to start going in some extremely strange and hard-to-follow directions because they have no choice. If the rules say you need to put your foot in places no one has ever put a foot before, they are stuck with bits, bobs, and fragments. The eighteenth couple is even worse off. By that time, you’ve got people hopping on one toenail and insisting that it counts as “dance.”

    This is why copyright dies after a period of time, to let artists plow under the stuff that came before and start over on the same plot of land. A fallow field lies fallow only so it can be used again in the future. It doesn’t lie fallow forever. That’s not the point of a fallow field.

    A little originality is a nice thing, like garlic to cooking or method to acting. A little bit of it is needed to give a bite to something, a spark of life. But no art is ever totally original, and if it were, there would be no grand movements of anything, where people took something done by someone else and pushed it forward. Imagine if no one had ever written an opera after Iacopo Peri because they had to do something “original.”

    This doesn’t even start to address the fact that “original” is a term subject to some serious interpretation. I might prefer the term “unfamiliarity.”

  24. Fred lomenzo says

    Nicely put Janice. Another comparison might be for an “original” author to start creating new words for his novel since the normal vocabulary has been used so often, or perhaps repeating words or phrases page after page ( the “minimalist novel” ). Perhaps possibly they just do not have the talent, or are just not willing to spend the time needed to create a true work of art. Yet they still would like to be a famous author.

  25. Eric L says

    I’ve agreed with almost everything you’ve stated so far Janis, but I think you’ve constructed a straw man with your concern over ‘the emphasis on originality.’ I don’t think anyone but the most delusional have ever claimed to be 100% original. Schoenberg always maintained that he was building off the increased chromaticism of Wagner, and always saw himself as part of the Teutonic tradition. Debussy, as original as he was, was nonetheless influenced by Eastern music as well as certain elements of the French tradition. And despite all the fire and brimstone talk from Boulez, he was himself a descendant of the multiple traditions–on one hand, the Germanic 12-tone lineage and on the other hand, the lush French sound of Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen.

    I also don’t agree that ‘unfamiliarity’ is better or more accurate a term. ‘Unfamiliarity’ implies that we’re only rediscovering; everything is there already and there’s no invention. I think that’s highly misleading. Take a band like Radiohead–I know, what an all-time I’m Classical but hip choice. They have a sound that undeniably ‘new’ for their time. It simply could not have existed in Bach’s time. Or Wagner. Or even Stravinsky. It’s a distinct sound that could only have come about in GB in the 1990s and is specific to the talents and backgrounds of its members.

    So originality can’t really be forced. But it’s also not quite ‘either you have it or you don’t.’ Rather, it’s a matter of circumstance and chance and depends on the coming together of culture, current technology, fads etc. One certainly doesn’t just sit down and say “I’m going to be original.” There’s too much beyond our control and frankly, we just have to write (for those composers out there) what we can, what we know, and add some spirit of discovery and experimentation (with the broadest definition) and hope for the best.

    But I assure you, originality does exist. I maintain the bigger problem in academic music is NOT the desire to be original. But rather, to much conformity. And for a long time, conformity meant modernism. It’s changing…slowly for sure. But it’s changing.

  26. Janis says

    Eric — not a problem at all. If it’s a strawman argument, then let’s break out the marshmallows and torch it. :-)

  27. says

    “Meredith Monk? Laurie Anderson? Tom Johnson? Malcolm Goldstein? Phill Niblock? Philip Corner? Pauline Oliveros?”

    You know what’s weird, Greg? I was just reading the essay on Jon Hassell and Anthony Davis from the new collection of Robert Palmer’s writings, and earlier today I had Joseph Phillips Numinous CD on “replay,” and I realized that the composers you named above (as well as Reich and Glass) are all influenced in some way or another by jazz as well as improvised music from around the world. But the composers you keep naming as the new “alt classical” (it’s significant that Palmer repeatedly uses the term “new classical music” in relation to Hassell and Davis’ music) don’t seem to be in dialogue with or utilizing techniques from jazz or other African American musical forms.

    I’m seeing some back and forth here on this thread about “rock” and “alt rock” and “stadium rock” but I don’t get the sense that anyone here (except Greg) can really talk about rock and roll’s roots and development in the same way they might discuss…well, Mozart and “classical” music. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Although I think it might be an important point if indeed you want to really back up this idea that what’s “in the air” is classical music that takes its cues from rock and roll.

    But back to my first point, is jazz and improvised music a part of the “alt classical scene”? Or are these idioms with techniques that are just not a part of the vernacular of the handful of young (all young…) composers you name?

  28. Eric L says

    I won’t try to start spewing stuff about ‘alt-rock’ or ‘stadium rock.’ This isn’t really the forum for it. It’s about Classical music, and should really remain so. All I’ll say is that the people at New Am Records (a big part of the alt-classical scene)–i.e. Bill Brittelle and Judd Greenstein know their rock and pop music very, very well. Judd in fact, is writing his dissertation of hip-hop. As with Jazz, surely you’ve heard of Darcy James Argue, who’s been making some waves in the jazz scene–also a New Am artist.

    In any case, many (I’m not comfortable saying ‘most’ since I do know several ‘classical-only nerd’ exceptions) classically-trained young composers know their vernacular. It’s difficult not to be. We grew up listening to it. Knowing one’s Mozart and Beethoven doesn’t prevent one from knowing other music.

  29. says

    “It’s about Classical music, and should really remain so.”

    What I want to bring in to the discussion is the possibility that the people Greg and I guess you consider “alt classical” write music that does not utilize jazz or improvisation. Which is fine – I’m not implying you or the half dozen people we keep naming over and over again are ignorant of music. In fact, rereading what I wrote, it’s clear that’s a leap you made.

    Please see Greg’s reply to my earlier comment where he rolled off the name of several NY based composers who write music that is clearly inspired by and in dialogue with jazz and utilize improvisation. Are they, in fact, considered (if I’m following all of this…) an influence on today’s “alt classical” movement.

    Do you define “classical” or “new classical” or “alt classical” as music that doesn’t involve jazz or improvisation? Where do you draw the line? And are several composers here in NYC then left out of this notion of a “scene” or “something new in the air” as a result of these lines that are drawn?

    I’m just asking. These questions might help to refine Greg’s thesis a bit.

  30. says

    “As with Jazz, surely you’ve heard of Darcy James Argue, who’s been making some waves in the jazz scene–also a New Am artist.”

    Yes. I’ve also heard of, listen to, and work with lots of other musicians who are not on New Amsterdam’s roster.

    I’ve enjoyed some of the music I’ve bought from New Amsterdam, but the music that moves and inspires me seems to be people outside of the “alt classical” scene as you and Greg define it.

    Which is fine. Except when writers (and artists) don’t present a more complete picture of our musical landscape. Robert Palmer was writing about all of this back in the mid 70′s, okay? I just want to offer my perspective (from the point of view of an active composer here in NYC by way of New Orleans and Ohio).

    I also want to point out that reading Palmer’s essay about Jon Hassell and Anthony Davis (both still very active in NYC and abroad) sort of rattled me as I hadn’t considered jazz and improvisation in my initial post to this conversation. Which shows you how conditioned we become when discussing music “classical” or otherwise. And labels unfortunately help to condition us (in a bad way) imho.

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