What is Happening Now IV – “Indie Classical”

The Indie Classical generation is basically the wave of American post-minimal composers who are beginning to emerge now. For these guys, the economic landscape is different, even, from what it was for the Bang on a Can composers. On the plus side, they’ve got the internet as a medium to disseminate their music and a network of artsy-fartsy bars that are now hosting Classical music. On the negative side, it’s become even more difficult to actually get paid to compose, since there are fewer big institutions spending money on it.

I don’t actually have as much music to push for this segment, since I don’t know that many of these guys. I’m not really on the bleeding edge! But there are a few that I can confidently cite as people worth knowing.

Jefferson Friedman

Jefferson Friedman writes in an expressive and slightly thorny language that sometimes reminds me of Julia Wolfe. So far he has gained recognition for his string quartets.

One reason why I want to show this clip in particular is that it highlights the preeminent venue for this kind of stuff in New York City – Le Poisson Rouge. This is a club in the West Village that is dedicated to “mixing it up” by booking rock, avant-garde jazz, and classical music. I must say it’s pretty fun to be able to drink a beer and listen to a string quartet.

(Direct Link)

Friedman’s quartets are recorded on the New Amsterdam record label, which seems to be the strongest proponent of this generation’s music.

Label Page Ariama Archivmusik Amazon MP3 Amazon CD iTunes eMusic

Other small clubs and art spaces in that program contemporary classical music (and which may or may not have beer) include Roulette, The Stone, Galapagos Art Space, and Issue Project Room.

Nico Muhly

While Nico Muhly at age 31 is definitely in this generation, it’s almost unfair to call him “indie,” because he’s really quite successful and well-connected. Having studied at Juilliard and worked for a while as an assistant to Phillip Glass, he has no problem getting commissions from big ensembles, and he even has an opera forthcoming at the Met.

However, he has also made a series of intimate chamber works that rely on backing tracks that are crafted in the studio – these seem to really go to the heart of the internet-driven music culture. The piece I want to feature is It Goes Without Saying, which has a very interesting orchestration. The main instrument is clarinet, which is overdubbed a few times. The surging and throbbing accompaniment is provided by cello, harmonium (which is a kind of portable organ) and celeste, with the addition of a few percussionists tapping on random things (e.g. clicking two rocks together.) Thus, how the thing was produced becomes an inseparable part of the piece – you are pretty much guaranteed not to hear this combination of sounds anywhere else.

(Direct Link)

You can get this and a few other similar chamber works on Speaks Volumes. It’s pretty good.

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Missy Mazzoli

One page from the do-it-yourself playbook is “start a band.” Reich, Glass, Michael Gordon, and Michael Nyman have all done this. Recently, classical performers have begun to do it as well, often moonlighting with a group that plays original music that is more like rock or jazz. New music violinist Caleb Burhans has itsnotyouitsme, and the trio So Percussion alternate between playing other people’s music and their own electronica-inspired stuff. Nico Muhly even plays folk-rock gigs with his friend Sam Amidon and other cohorts.

Composer Missy Mazzoli has made waves with a band called Victoire, which features all female musicians on keyboards, clarinet, violin, and double bass. This stuff really blurs the lines between rock and classical music.

(Direct Link)

Their debut is called Cathedral City.

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Missy is not just about Victoire, though. She’s written for orchestra, string quartet, and even has an opera based on the life of Isabelle Eberhardt called Songs from the Uproar. You can stream all of this stuff from her web page. I’m pretty confident that she’ll soon be as big as Nico.

Post-Post Modernism (or The End of Smarty-Pants Music)

So, the indie classical generation really do represent one strand of “what is happening now” in classical music. In some ways it’s a lot like the Bang on a Can generation. But I do think the signature difference is the end of the self-consciousness that characterized the 80s and 90s – back then new music often made an aesthetic argument of some kind, juxtaposing different kinds of music or going for some kind of conceptual extreme. These guys grew up with that stuff and take these clashes for granted (like the erasure of the dividing line between classical music and rock.)

Thus, pieces really don’t show off a conceptual underpinning like they used to. Instead, I would say that composers today are in search of a new authenticity and an intimate connection with their audience. But this trend (if it even is one) is obviously not going to be evident in every work by every composer!

Spillover: IDM (Intelligent Dance Music)

Since composers are blurring the lines between classical music and the stuff outside the concert hall, it makes sense that some people on the other side are trying to incorporate more structure into their work, to appeal to the same sense of complexity, texture, and large-scale organization. One area that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two decades is music made entirely (or almost entirely) on computers. My current favorite is Kieran Hebden, who makes music under the name Four Tet.

(Direct Link)

More Spillover: Post-Rock

Post-Rock basically means rock bands that want to make music that doesn’t quite sound like rock. This stuff is usually pretty gloomy and “serious” in tone, and often has the epic scale of symphonic music. I’ll pick this track by the Scottish group Mogwai as an example.

(Direct Link)

More Spillover: Band-Geek Pop Stars

This is actually a very pronounced trend in the popular music of the past decade or so — the incorporation of acoustic instruments into an otherwise straightforward pop or rock format. Violins, french horns, and even harps frequently share the stage with electric guitars and drum kits. I suspect this is in part the result of a very successful music education industry in the United States. Rock stars are no longer anti-social misfits who take the stage barely knowing how to play their instruments — they are the kids who grew up in suburban high schools and were deeply involved in their band or chorus.

My example is going to be Sufjan Stevens, who rose to moderate fame with Illinoise, a collection of slightly eccentric, folkish tunes about The Prairie State. This record is tricked out with strings, brass, woodwinds, the whole nine yards.

(Direct Link)

In his high-school years Sufjan was at The Interlochen Academy studying oboe (!) and creative writing. Total band geek. I rest my case.

Now, in a sense I’m acknowledging this last “overflow” category under protest, in that I don’t think pop music with lots of acoustic instruments is always going to have that much in common with classical music. It’s not necessarily trying to do the same thing – its goal is usually to create an atmosphere of fun and to deliver a clever text. But, every now and then somebody crafts a tune that would stand up nicely alongside some chamber music. There is even a series here in New York called Wordless Music that presents concerts that are half classical, half indie rock.

We are not done!

Even though I’ve brought this series of posts up to the present, there are several interesting streams of music that I’ve just ignored. It’s not all post-minimalism out there! So, we’ve got at least two or three more posts ahead of us.

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