In January of this year, the Sunday Times ran an article entitled ‘Classically strained’ where it attempted a cautious probe into what it called ‘a fresh genre’ – accessible tonal new music produced on independent labels and demonstrating a popular influence on classical structures. The recognition of such a movement in a UK paper compelled me to open the Google floodgates on an already well-established online debate, surrounding the term ‘alt-classical’. It has to be said that, while such a debate might seem well trodden for American music fans, especially New Yorkers, this was a revelation for a Brit straight out of Cambridge, albeit a regular at London’s (not overly popular or renowned) nonclassical nights. The alt-classical paradigm, arguably coined by the equally unknown yet uncannily familiar theorising on Greg Sandow on his blog, can be related to such concurrent terms as ‘post-classical’ or ‘non-pop’, while the Sunday Times seemed to plump for the fairly problematic ‘neo-classical’.

This debate is an absolutely fascinating one to follow from blog to blog, while it depressingly suggests how totally out of touch the UK classical music community is, yet the term – in both its advocacy and its denigration – seems to encompass quite a vast compass of meanings, many of them much in keeping with the biting point’s manifesto, but problematically disparate for such an apparently handy designation (while potentially broad in suggestion, these terms cannot help but recall specialist labels for niche pop sub-styles). The main issues stem from the combination of presentation/industry concerns with musical/compositional concerns, although I would be the first to agree that the two are intrinsically linked. While Sandow and many others have come up with countless ways in which a new classical culture can be improved, and the Sunday Times article hinges on a key one of these – the importance of independent labels – other critiques of ‘alt-classical’ have focused on compositional style and particular stylistic schools.

  • Some early British enthusiasm shown HERE
  • An article from the Washington Post HERE
  • This critical article reveals some of the complexities of the scene’s own expectations around such loaded concepts as ‘cohesion’ and ‘greatness’, and an enduring, quite startling recourse to elitism

Because of the potential breadth of an ‘alt-classical’ movement as an independent, pop-influenced mode of presentation, many different kinds of music could fit happily within its structures. Many American articles have focused on the work of the post-minimalists and ‘totalists’ as employing stylistic aesthetics which can be compared in their populist, accessible fixations to the movement as a presentational idea. Then, there have been articles which have fixed on a particular school of young New York composers who use pop influences, timbres and instruments even more explicitly. However, the Sunday Times included in its rostrum a collection of primarily hyper-tonal Scandinavians, whose work – while often solely utilising ‘classical’ instruments – surely falls much closer to post-rock than to anything even produced by New York totalists. For many of these artists apparently, and here’s where I get a little sceptical, the ‘classical’ or ‘composer’ designation might just be a kind of edifying folly for what could quite reasonably be effective pop music. Claiming it as the new future of classical music precludes any challenge to composers working in a more recognisable classical style (i.e. comfortable with dissonance) to adapt their music to a new ‘alt-classical’ context.

  • Read the Sunday Times article HERE

In the same way, singer-songwriters Corey Dargel and Gabriel Kahane have been scooped up into the argument. While their collaborations with classical ensembles, and their obviously formidable understanding of chamber music, might be held as a very positive example for composers and performers alike, only a very close-minded definition of pop music would necessitate their exclusion from that designation (I would readily describe Dargel as one of my all-time favourite pop artists). Moreover, using Dargel’s, Kahane’s or Matt Marks’s music as an example of a new ‘alt-classical’ movement to be critiqued is hardly fair – their style, while interesting, shouldn’t be representative of a new exciting future for classical music.

  • Some example discussions of these guys: HERE and HERE
  • And an interesting discussion of taking inspiration from pop, with contributions from Marks HERE, and a fascinating and fairly unexpected response from Kahane HERE

Sandow very coherently and convincingly justifies his ‘alt(ernative)-classical’ tag in a NewMusicBox article HERE. He clearly believes that the ‘classical’ label should still stand, and I agree that without some kind of consistency of terminology, there would be no sense that something extant was being reformed or revolutionised, only a total void of connotation and therefore a lack of impetus to continue to find inspiration in orchestral, vocal, chamber and choral forms. But I think there is also something in the arguments that the term ‘classical’, because of what it actually means, will never be totally undestructive, and will never lose all its faint but unshakeable assumptions of prestige. At the same time, the ‘alternative’ label has many things going for it, but it also accepts that this movement is distinct from ‘actual’ classical music (i.e. the mainstream). For me, this would be a kind of admission of defeat, since it closes ‘classical music’ off completely from what should be its requirement to centre around new music and cultural relevance, practically putting a seal on its semantic coffin. Obviously, followers of this movement – as positive as it might continue to seem – must also continue to think critically about the music that it is producing, especially to the extent that it is still indebted to the kind of essentialist aesthetic assumptions which we denounce in our manifesto. If the pop music that is being taken as inspiration is viewed too narrowly, shedding the socio-cultural qualities that make it so appealing to instead skim off its most ‘cultivated’ strains and redeem it by packaging it into an edifying, classical template, the movement will never achieve its populist potential completely. In many ways, it is a great thing that the ‘alt-classical’ scene is already pluralist. It would be a great thing if it became too multifarious to remain under one sole label, because then these new presentation modes would be fully naturalised, and moreover, we wouldn’t risk curtailing the limitless possibilities of a classical music that operated within this culture, possibilities which should rightfully expand way beyond the constraints of the concert hall and its expectations.

  • Finally, another fascinating online debate following a very recent (slightly detractive) New York Times article about ‘A New New York School’, including Nico Muhly, Judd Greenstein and Paul Haas (and Dan Deacon), which is HERE, with intelligent ripostes HERE, and HERE from Greenstein himself
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One Response to Alt-Classical/Post-Classical/Neo-Classical

  1. Doug says:

    Hey, thanks for the link and another blog to put in my RSS reader!

    Six months later, I think the alt-classical label is useful as much as any label is: it helps to identify various people and groups as being of a similar mind in certain cases. It only becomes a problem when the label is mistaken to be the beginning and end of an individual’s identity.

    I mean, many conservatories like to ask in Music History classes the question “was Beethoven a romantic or classical composer?” This helps to identify various aspects of Beethoven’s identity and his place in history. At the same time, the question misses the greater point that Beethoven was a complicated fascinating individual with many diverse qualities. Personally, its more important to consider all of those characteristics than to decide what team he plays on.

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