Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical – Via Pitchfork – LINK
An examination of the ever-melding worlds of indie and classical music.
By Jayson Greene, February 28, 2012
Illustration by Michael Renaud
In January, I saw an unforgettably strange concert at the small NYC theater Le Poisson Rouge. Andrew W.K.– party-rock force of nature and living animated .gif of a David Lee Roth jump-kick– shared the stage, or jostled maniacally for it, with the Calder Quartet.
The quartet opened with the glacial, half-hour-long piece “Cadenza on the Night Plain” by minimalist composer Terry Riley. So it was like cold water to the face, then, when Andrew W.K. lunged out afterwards, even if we all knew he was coming. He plunked himself down at a grand piano, fumbled through some jokingly botched Bach, and then launched into what the program called “Spontaneous Piano Improvisations”: something like Scott Joplin rags after several hundred lines of blow. He conscripted the Calder Quartet to provide back-up arrangements to several of his songs from I Get Wet, during the choruses of which we were invited to make silly animal noises. The proceedings concluded with a solemn observance of John Cage’s “4’33″”.
The concert was a hilarious, confounding experience– a half-joke, though it was impossible to say for sure which half. Who was the concert for? Was the intention to trick the W.K. faithful into soaking up some Terry Riley? Or was the idea to let loose a fire hose of bad manners on the modern-classical crowd?
In fact, it was neither. The unlikely partnership represented something fascinatingly close to “business as usual” for the small, but steadily growing, indie-classical scene. Groups like the Calder Quartet, which perform alongside W.K. (or Airborne Toxic Event or the National) as often as they play recitals of Brahms and Bartók, are increasingly common. Contemporary-classical ensembles like yMusic, meanwhile, carry around stamped-up genre passports bearing collaborations with Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, and Sufjan Stevens alongside more conventional modern-classical fare. Rock musicians such as Jonny Greenwood, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark pen full-fledged classical compositions, and no one bats an eye. For anyone trying to sort through genres to assign team jerseys, it’s a mess, and often a glorious one.
This development has been fascinating, puzzling, frustrating, and heartening to watch from the unique vantage point of New York City, where places like Le Poisson Rouge have built themselves up by serving as the crossroads for all this activity. Over the past decade, indie-classical has grown past the point where it’s some miraculous new fruit on pop culture’s Big Tree. It’s a high-functioning cottage industry now, complete with its own roster of independent labels (New Amsterdam, Innova, Cantaloupe, Bedroom Community), familiar names (Nico Muhly, Hauschka, Owen Pallett, and Missy Mazzoli of Victoire, to name a highly visible few) and a round-the-clock PR department. Moments like Joanna Newsom’s 2007 concert with the Brooklyn Philharmonic used to feel rare. Now, something like it seems to come along every month.
It certainly hasn’t always been this way: it used to be that composers mixing rock and classical, or inventing new forms– minimalists like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young, composer-collectives like Bang on a Can, experimental improvisers like John Zorn– operated like revolutionaries, staging concerts in hot, cramped basements for a dozen friends while the larger classical music industry continued unabated above them. But what used to be called the Downtown NYC scene has gentrified, much like actual Downtown New York: David Lang, one-third of Bang on a Can, won a Pulitzer several years ago. Carnegie Hall now clamors for Steve Reich premieres. Philip Glass is, well, Philip Glass.
Born of these advances, the new generation is pouring in: eager, collaborative, as invested in indie rock as they are in the nuts-and-bolts arcana of composition. Lately, it’s become hard to even tell an indie rock musician and a composer apart. Take Tyondai Braxton, for example, who left his innovative rock group Battles to explore wilder, weirder pastures with his solo album Central Market. Or Owen Pallett, who makes dense, ambitious, highly unclassifiable singer-songwriter records as often as he arranges strings for more traditional bands. This scene is resourceful, optimistic, and building on the best lessons their teachers gave them. Stick together. Do as many different things as you feel like. Don’t worry about big organizations. Make it happen yourself.
The music these younger artists are producing thus far, however, bears few of the pointy, manifesto-ish edges of their forebears. Downtown NYC’s seminal pieces often bore the pressurized marks of the politicized time in which they were made, a contentious moment in which nearly every composition also made an implicit argument for what kind of music was OK to write. But the biggest distinguishing mark of the indie-classical scene is its lack of distinguishing marks. This is music that does not have to argue for its very right to exist, which means its free to drift into dreamy cul-de-sacs, to explore drift and texture, to smear the borders of form. These artists can record albums without having to pause to consider the implications.
This freedom has enormous advantages as well as small, nagging drawbacks. Contemporary classical, in all its forms, has now moved its way closer to the center of the cultural conversation than at any point in decades. The tent of indie-classical has grown to the point, in fact, where there is almost as much dross populating the sphere as there is excellence. On my best days, I see the kind of development I desperately yearned for while attending another orchestral concert where the energy flickered like a dying bulb: a Petri dish of eclectic interests, swarming with potential. On my more cynical days, I see a group of talented musicians who are endlessly congratulating themselves for existing, turning out fairly interchangeable, faceless music that often dissolves into dulcet murmuring on contact.
When I spoke to the three founding members of Bang on a Can last year, on the occasion of their label Cantaloupe’s tenth anniversary, Julia Wolfe reflected on the downsides of finally being surrounded by like minds after years of fighting and isolation. “We’re really lucky that times have changed,” she said. “But there was something interesting about being in that difficult time, the severity of early minimalism, especially. It was so radical. The early works of Reich, and Glass, and the work Meredith Monk was doing– there was an incredible excitement then about tearing things down and building them up. It wasn’t as friendly of a time. I think people felt much more isolated. Now, from indie-rock guys writing for the concert hall to the concert hall writing for indie rock bands, it’s very open and much more liberating. But there’s something to be said for the tension, too.”
The challenge for indie-classical, then, is the same one indie-rock faced down over the last decade: If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse. So it goes with indie-classical: the scene has grown to the point where a guided tour is necessary.
Below, you’ll find a brief aerial view of what you’ve been missing– five records resourceful enough to throw off their own sparks. Also, listen to an indie-classical playlist at Spotify.