Melbourne-born musician Andrew Byrne has lived in New York for more than two decades. As a composer and an arts programmer at Carnegie Hall, he has a unique perspective on the arts scene in the city. Beginning today, he will share his thoughts about cultural events and ideas in New York that we hope will be of interest to the readers. His letter from New York will be appearing on the site every month.
Last night I attended a concert as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival on the Upper West side on Manhattan. It was quite an event. The adventurous genre-hopping So Percussion quartet joined forces with the quirky rock duo Buke and Gase for an evening of... Well, it was hard to define exactly what they were playing: was it contemporary classical music or experimental indie rock or something else? Whatever it was the audience lapped it up, whooping and hollering for more. It was not your standard issue new music concert to be sure. And not your standard issue concert audience either.
The Ecstatic Music Festival, which takes place every March at the scrappy Merkin Concert Hall in the shadow of Lincoln Center, is perhaps the most public expression of one of the more interesting musical trends to emerge from New York in the last couple of years. For my first post, I thought I’d introduce you to some of the ideas and figures associated with this development.
Much ink has been spilt (and whatever the equivalent is for online blogs) about this new musical genre sometimes dubbed indie-classical or alt-classical. Predictably artists associated with the movement don’t like to be pigeonholed and vehemently reject such labels. But the name indie-classical (which seems to be the one more commonly used) clearly encapsulates the philosophy behind the music—a melding of indie rock and contemporary classical musical styles.
In the indie-classical world, classical composers draw on the sounds of popular music in their work and often can be heard performing in downtown clubs with their own bands. In the same spirit of outreach, a number of established songwriters and performers in the indie rock scene are gravitating to the classical world. Many have classical training and are now including classical musicians in their acts, writing scores for orchestras, and also appearing in concert halls. The idea of composers finding inspiration in popular music is not a particularly new or revolutionary idea (ask Philip Glass or Meredith Monk about that!) but it is this meeting of minds between indie rock and classical music worlds that is new here.
In addition to the Ecstatic Music Series, other indie-classical performances I have recently seen include Glenn Kotche from Wilco joining composer Missy Mazzoli and her band Victoire in a performance of her new piece Vespers for a New Dark Age; So Percussion performing a new score written for them by Bryce Dessner from The National; indie rockers Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond and Owen Pallett formerly of Final Fantasy, and composer-pianist Nico Muhly perform Death Speaks, a newly commissioned work by composer and co-director of the Bang on a Can collective David Lang. Here is the indie-classical world in a nutshell. Indie rock songwriters composing scores for classical ensembles, composers performing sets with bands, bands playing written music by composers. It’s this cross pollination that defines this new genre.
And the response from the broader classical music community to this new development has been enthusiastic. Would it surprise you to learn that all the activities mentioned in the paragraph above took place in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall? While this music has been emerged from clubs by Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village or Galapagos in Brooklyn, more established institutions have been quick to get on board. And why not? Advantages to embracing the indie-classical scene are obvious. It is like a breath of fresh air—not only creating a more relaxed performance environment but also bringing in new audiences.
So what does the music sound like?
While difficult to generalize, there are a couple of defining features to the indie-classical sound. Firstly, the music is explicitly populist (and I don’t use this term in the loaded sense; instead simply that the aim is to connect with popular music). With static harmonies and an inclination towards rock-n-roll chord progressions, the music belongs firmly in the post-minimalist camp. Spiky atonalism and rhythmic complexity are out. Secondly, reflecting its diverse sources, the music tends to be stylistically eclectic. References to western classical music, pop music, and world music traditions (often in the same piece!) abound.
While the indie-classical scene has been embraced by many in the musical world, some critical voices can be heard.
Justin Davidson, classical music and architecture critic from the New York Magazine and one of the more thoughtful commentators on the music scene in New York, has observed that these artists seem to have nothing to rebel against. He suggests that the act of rejecting the past has energized previous musical innovation. “The new New York School has a healthy distaste for tired conflicts and old campaigns,” he writes in an article in 2011. “Despite their gifts and alertness to the moment, its composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal. What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.”
Another and more unexpected criticism comes from John Adams, whose music has always informed by musical traditions both inside and outside the western classical music world. You would think he’d be completely sympathetic to the aims of the indie-classical school. But not so apparently. In an interview published in the New York Times last year, Adams said, “We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite. People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.” Later on in the article, he continues on the subject of commercialism and marketing in new music, “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.”
(In case you were wondering, Adams’s Pulitzer Prize reference is aimed at composer-performer Caroline Shaw whose Partita won the Pulitzer in 2013. A link to a recording of Shaw’s Partita is below.)
Is Adams just being an old curmudgeon or is there something to his criticism? Does the buzz around this music herald an exciting new development or is it just marketing hype that will soon die down? Only time will tell.
What do you think?
Recording of So Percussion & Buke and Gase concert, Merkin Concert Hall, March 2014
Recordings of other concert in the 2014 Ecstatic Music Festival
Recording of Caroline Shaw’s Partita
A sampling of music from New Sounds, a radio program on WNYC in New York
From Pitchfork, a sympathetic article on the indie-classical movement
An overview of the indie-classic scene in the New York Times
Justin Davidson from New York Magazine
John Adams’s interview in the New York Times.