Read it HERE in the New York Times
December 9, 2011
Club Kids Are Storming Music Museums
By ALLAN KOZINN
WE critics have long argued vehemently that if major musical institutions hope to be regarded as vital, modern institutions, they must keep their listeners (and performers) in touch with the ideas, trendy or otherwise, that excite the composers of their time. But truth be told, we are a little bipolar on that subject. Though we criticize the big organizations for fostering a museum culture, we actually value the museums they have become.
Our attitude toward the classical canon, after all — and this increasingly applies also to older forms of jazz and pop — is that great music transcends time. If the New York Philharmonic did not regularly give us Beethoven, Brahms and symphonies, we would complain that it had abandoned the conservationist aspect of its charter and lament the disappearance of works that had moved people for decades or centuries.
That tension is not easily resolved. Even a model in which orchestras, chamber groups and opera companies present themselves as museums with substantial contemporary wings has almost insurmountable limitations circumscribing the possibility of hearing much new music. Consider that within the last 50 years Mahler, Shostakovich, Bartok, Sibelius and Copland have all moved from the periphery of the orchestral canon to its center, yet Beethoven, Brahms and company have not fallen out of fashion; and Bach, Haydn and Mozart, long ceded to period-instrument bands, are returning to the modern orchestra repertory. All this at a time when the world of young, inventive and often populist composers is exploding.
These young composers may hold the key to classical music’s future, and the future they create might not be what you expect. Increasingly they have come to consider the machinations of the big-ticket musical organizations — and debates about how to get them to accommodate new music — as beside the point.
Instead of waiting for established ensembles to give them a hearing, they have built an alternative musical universe. Its complex ecology and hierarchy of coolness includes webs of composer-performer collaborations, circuits of preferred concert spaces and an expanding number of record labels: among them, New Amsterdam, Cantaloupe and Tzadik, all composer run and stylistically freewheeling.
This world is centered in New York, though it has counterparts elsewhere. (Reykjavik, Iceland, seems unusually influential at the moment.) It thrives in concert spaces that make a point of informality. Some, like Le Poisson Rouge and the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village and Galapagos in Brooklyn, are like jazz clubs: you can nurse a drink while listening to a performance, but the atmosphere is quiet and focused. Others are hole-in-the-wall funky: on summer nights at the Stone, in the East Village, performers debate whether to turn on a noisy fan or stifle with their listeners. Lately new-music haunts like the Issue Project Room and Roulette have found larger spaces (both in Brooklyn) and the money to pay for them.
Just as crucial, emerging composers have built an enthusiastic, growing audience that, while mostly young, is expanding across age and demographic lines. Perhaps because the music these composers produce is wildly eclectic, dogma free and more likely to have undercurrents of humor than doctrinaire earnestness, it is attracting older music fans who, it turns out, were seeking composers to champion all along but were left cold by the harshness of the serialists and bored by the repetitiveness of the minimalists, and found too few havens between those extremes.
It would be wrong to suggest that the young composers who have created this burgeoning alternative world have no interest in the big institutions. Nor do they disdain the standard repertory. Most would love to have their works performed by major orchestras, and some get lucky: Anna Clyne and Mason Bates were appointed composers in residence at the Chicago Symphony; Nico Muhly will have a work performed at the Metropolitan Opera.
But they have other models too. They attended conservatories and went through the same rigorous training as their predecessors, but they have not inherited their teachers’ battles. For them serialism and Minimalism are equally useful tools in a gestural language that draws on rock, jazz, hip-hop, world music and every reconfiguration of classical language from medieval times through Romanticism. And though there was a time when classical-music students played little but classical music, these musicians have played it all. Today you can hardly find a composer under 40 who did not play in rock bands as a teenager.
Some still have them, but now they include orchestral instruments and computers alongside electric guitars and basses, drums and electronic keyboards. In all this music the timbres, the textures and, often, the energy are those of rock, but the structures, substance and time scales are rooted in classical music. Electric guitars may simmer or wail, and drums may pound, but this is not the stuff of pop hits. When you listen to the Now Ensemble or the amplified, heavily processed string quartet Ethel or groups led by the composers Missy Mazzoli, Du Yun, Judd Greenstein, Caleb Burhans or Bryce Dessner, you inevitably wonder whether you’re hearing a rock band or a chamber group, and whether it matters.
A polished composer like Jefferson Friedman can have it both ways. Having poured his stylistically wide-ranging thoughts into his string quartets, he happily allowed the electronica group Matmos to remix them, adding beats and other sounds, and cutting and pasting musical lines. Several of these composers have the D.J.-remix-mash-up culture of post-1980s pop in their blood.
This scene was not suddenly created from nothing. If you pick at its fabric, you will find strands stretching back to the late 1960s, when Minimalists and avant-gardists began forming bands and giving loft concerts, and when European art-rock bands like Tangerine Dream, Gong, Faust and Henry Cow began exploring unusual (for rock) meters, harmonies, textures and structures.
You see its origins in the late 1970s, when the Kronos Quartet began its long, iconoclastic run in San Francisco, while in New York, Rhys Chatham began writing serious pieces for electric guitars, and Glenn Branca became better known for his guitar symphonies than for his work with his No Wave rock band, the Theoretical Girls. Its early rumblings inspired a blossoming of lively avant-garde festivals in the late 1980s and early 1990s: among them, the composer-run Bang on a Can and MATA festivals, as well as Next Wave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Serious Fun! at Lincoln Center.
This movement — still nameless, though it is sometimes called alt-classical — has really reached critical mass only in the last five years or so. Its economic muscle remains untested: packing a few hundred listeners into a club is one thing, but could that audience fill Avery Fisher Hall night after night? Does it want to? Part of this world’s charm, after all, is its intimacy and informality, and its inexpensive tickets.
Yet when Carnegie Hall has presented concerts aimed at this crowd’s tastes, usually in the small but technologically up-to-date Zankel Hall, the seats have been filled. Seats were also filled when Alarm Will Sound and other groups played at Alice Tully Hall recently and when Adrian Utley, of the British band Portishead, and Will Gregory, of the electronica duo Goldfrapp, performed a new chamber-rock film score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” as part of the White Light Festival last month, in the same hall.
That Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall are hoping to tap this market suggests that the mainstream musical world sees its potential. So do the conventional classical ensembles (the Emerson Quartet, Orpheus) and soloists (the pianist Hélène Grimaud, the operatic tenor Joseph Calleja) who have recently migrated to clubs for record-release parties — a practice borrowed from the pop world by way of labels like New Amsterdam — or simply to trawl for a new audience.
The major institutions would no doubt love to tap into this world’s energy, audience and of-the-moment cachet. But to do so they would have to rethink their repertories, ticket prices and performance styles radically, and it seems unlikely that their existing audiences and donors would stand for that.
That said, some organizations have nothing to lose. New York City Opera, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra, all venerable institutions that have fallen on hard times, are experimenting with genre-crossing orchestras and seeking new performance spaces. Whether they survive will tell us a lot about the power of this new approach and what it can mean for classical music generally.
But it may mean nothing for classical music. Perhaps instead of being a shot in the arm, this movement will lead to an epochal splintering in which composers in the new style continue doing what they are doing now: making artistic choices that draw as much on nonclassical influences as on classical ones and writing for ensembles that use computers, amplification, sound processing and non-Western instruments. This world may break away from traditional classical music much the way jazz split from blues in the 1920s; rock blossomed from rhythm and blues, country and soul in the 1950s; and hip-hop arose from within pop in the 1980s.
There is no reason the two worlds could not remain porous. But in that case today’s orchestras would embrace their museum aspect wholeheartedly and become extensions of the period-instrument world, specializing in music written during the 19th and 20th centuries. Composers receiving their training now, and listening to jazz, rock, hip-hop and world music in their spare time, would write for new, amplified or partly electronic ensembles.
It is not a matter of whether this is a good development or a bad one; it is evolution in action. And if nothing else, it should afford a respite of several decades before we read hand-wringing reports about the graying of the Issue Project Room audience.