4:04 pm Mar. 15, 2012
"It's annoying to have people call you 'The Establishment' when it is 3 a.m. and you've spent 2 hours schlepping an amp home after a show." That's what Judd Greenstein Tweeted from his phone after another long night spent in service of the music and media series he curates, the Ecstatic Music Festival, having its final four shows this month.
The 3 a.m. evening began as the debut of collaborative work between the Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson and Wildbirds & Peacedrums' Mariam Wallentin, also Swedish. It was the seventh of eleven events in the festival, which brings together musicians working between the pop and classical worlds, presented for the second year by the Kaufman Center at Merkin Hall, just across the street from the Lincoln Center complex. The next concert is downtown legend Rhys Chatham and Brooklyn endurance-psych-rockers Oneida this Saturday.
It had been a long night in the hotel bar after the gig, where Mikael Karlsson's incredible posse of fans, friends, and musicians ambled between floors with champagne buckets and half eaten roast beef sandwiches in hand. Karlsson has a degree in composition from the Aaron Copland School of Music and a Skrillex side-shave. (Neither seems an affection: the dude is a seriously great composer and way, way goth.) One of his friends wore a tux for no reason.
The musicians were hungry but there was no food, just cocktails and chatter about the dire world they live in where the term “indie classical” makes them hated by all who would understand it, and excluded from the much bigger pond of those who don't: those of the “establishment classical” world, where there are bigger gigs, money, and audiences. The enemy takes a certain shape: Ravel, or rather those who would ever program or hear “Bolero” again, again, and again.
Each night of the Ecstatic Music Festival is a gamble that Greenstein set into play almost a year preceding, matching composers, ensembles, and approachable folks from the pop realm and new music together for collaboration. The risk is that the meeting could result in disaster as easily as delight, and Greenstein spends a lot of worry time on matchmaking. Once he commissions the works he can only coach so far.
“One problem is that they might not have a language for bridging the gap: notated, non-notated, or different approaches,” or that they might not be able to work through the inevitable moment of confusion speaking in these second languages might entail.
He anticipates the sincerity of desire he sees in his artists to work and work together, lest the work go the bad old way of pop/classical “crossover”: arrangements-only style baroque pop, or pop gone complexity for its own sake of prog. (Remember S&M? Symphony and Metallica? Yeah, like that.)
The collaborative process always invites potential for entirely new kinds of train wrecks and bad fusion as well, as evidenced in series' last show, a dull cycle of works by the Books' Nick Zammuto and composer/So Percussionist Jason Treuting. Treuting's focus on rhythm and experimentalism only augmented the almost empty signifiers that constitute Zammuto's infernal decade-long insistence on facile attempts at humor through nostalgic sampling and instructional text recitation. It was certainly new, but a new type of bad.
The Swedes were more successful, their arrangements and original compositions utilizing Wallentin's brilliant, husky voice and Karlsson's electronic-tinged, texture-obsessed works for small ensembles to serve their mutual dark spiritual sympathies. The first half of the concert split Karlsson's works and Wallentin's songs. Karlsson's solo flute piece called “Nasty Fucker” used a variety of subtle effects on signals from several microphones, including one at the musician's mouth, to augment the physicality of performances, and was followed by taut fleshing out of the big skeleton that is the original version of Wildbirds & Peacedrums' “Doubt/Hope."
The second half was the full collaboration: a song cycle called “The Spirit & The Cloud.” The song cycle seems a natural fit for a such first step experiments: ambitious enough to extend an idea over a multi-part composition, but each composition unique and short enough to resemble a more harmonically ambitious version of a song. That prog and avant rock and other art-into-pop genres have been calling their long-form works song cycles since the '60s makes the conceptual leap less difficult too. The two musicians seemed equally careful and capable in each section, and the only strange thing about the performance was Wallentin's propensity, when singing, to swing and sway using gestures close to Bollywood dance, helping to keep time with the less rhythmically pronounced small ensemble where she might be used to having drums in her band.
The feeling of the after-party was that of true glee at a job well done. People talked about new works and ideas and opportunities as they do when there is a positive charge between them. Greenstein sat with William Brittelle, one of the other composers with whom he runs a label, New Amsterdam Records, and service non-profit, New Amsterdam Presents, and accepted his champagne flute from Karlsson with a bit of embarrassment. This gilded moment might explain why he was defending himself on Twitter to no one in particular in the middle of the night on the way home. In general, the always-on new music hustler Greenstein plays both defense and offense for the next generation of independently-oriented classically-trained composers and performers and certainly doesn't want to be seen as part of the money crowd.
Greenstein is just one more of the rapidly growing constellation of performers, presenters, labels, and other small institutions in this field, with Brooklyn, mainly, as its home and the city as its stage: the Wordless Music Series, Roulette, the Calder Quartet, BAM's last few years of programming, Le Poisson Rouge, The Stone and many others. Each is rather explicitly staking a claim against institutionalism, such as Wordless Music's mission statement that they seek “to demonstrate that the various boundaries and genre distinctions segregating music today—popular and classical; uptown and downtown; high art and low—are artificial constructions in need of dismantling.
(How this intersects with, or does not intersect with events like Jay-Z's full orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Beyonce's full bands, Janelle Monae's orchestral leanings and other elements of Black avant-pop use of classical instruments is another, completely needed article). These artists and groups bear a distinct resemblance to the downtown scene of the '60s and '70s in their desire to move outside large institutions while their music and attitudes are not nearly as anti-art.
Greenstein is a passionate user and defender of the term “indie classical” as he understands it: a declaration of economic independence from the major institutions that have spaces and promote art music. “The downtown is a network that is an institution too, and certain networks support certain types of music. I feel that it's important to divorce ourselves from any fealty to those networks,” he says.
“Indie” to him is not oppositional or confrontational, but rather a productive solution to the “classical music is dying” trope that he and his generation has inherited (as have several prior generations before them).
“It's like the beginning of Dawn of the Dead," Greenstein said later in a phone interview. "The movie starts and it takes a few minutes to realize 'I just have to accept that one of the premises of this movie is that everyone is kind of okay with the fact that there are zombies everywhere. That's not what's weird, what's weird is the specific circumstances that they're in.' It feels a little bit like that."
Into that waking reality, “indie classical” is just “stepping aside and doing what needs to be done,” and in this case it doesn't require aiming for those Ravel programmers.
It is a term to unite musicians who have made difficult choices, not necessarily “difficult” music: “It's people who have not gone on the easiest path of their training, either school or performance," Greenstein said. "These people are all prioritizing fulfilling their specific visions. People throw around the word 'uncompromising' a lot, art that is not conventionally friendly to audiences.
“Usually in my world that means 'abrasive,' but for us that also means you wind of up in a world of music where you pay for your own productions and there's not a lot of institutional support for what you're doing, it's not in the academic world, or particularly popular. The only reason you end up in that world is you found something you feel you have to do.”
It means building infrastructure: labels, production companies, booking agents. The result is that it can be rather bare bones, D.I.Y. And you have to break down your own gear after the show and lug amps at 3 a.m.
But Greenstein recognizes that the scene still involves privilege other musicians might not have access to, such as major commissions and grants, and the point is not to create a rule book, but rather how to break down expectations for who and what “should” reap rewards.
“The thought was that there is an audience for this music [traditional classical music], and that audience should be larger, but wasn't, and that no one should change the approach to the way its produced and disseminated. I'm not interested in 'should;' I am interested in reaching people where they are. So 'indie' is independence from following the limited tracks available to use as composer and performers from the classical world, and it opens dialogue with other 'indie' worlds where a lot of our musicians do work anyway.”
The term “indie” is, of course, horrifically fraught. The pop world has had a long discussion over the meaning of the term, which appeared in the '80s from the British (see Wendy Fonarow's excellent book Empire of Dirt for more on this) to the United States in the '90s as an economic descriptor, or as Fonarow writes, a moral-ethical worldview, or "ideology." That ethic was shared by enough and as alike of musicians to become associated with an aesthetic, which is where the trouble really began. The last decade places like Pitchfork, among others, have fought a border war over the term, while it appears to have crossed over, sold out, or become meaningless in its rampant misapplication. And “classical,” well, no one wants that rich man's burden, which is why composers since the '60s have been calling it new music, contemporary classical, living composers, or just anything else except that word.
Even though cultural hierarchy isn't exactly the point of the term, the employment of it does show both fields' incredible paranoia about transgressing class boundaries. It seems the only thing classical music people love to talk about more than death of classical music is the invasion of it by the pop masses, and the only thing indie people love to talk more about the irrelevance of the term is the movement of it towards middlebrow acceptability. So like a gossip monger, Greenstein got everyone talking about each other.
Which is one of his many jobs, along with label owner/tour organizer/ensemble director/teacher/grad student/composer. Nearly everyone who works in this music has such a slash-filled resume, a calendar overfull of rehearsals and recordings for which they are paid little, and likely a load of debt from the decade of training they got to be at the top of their profession.
Take for example the Swedes' violist for the Ecstatic Music concert, Nadia Sirota, who is in yMusic, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), teaches at the Manhattan School of music, has a solo project, runs a weekly internet radio show on Q2, performs in ensembles and for bands. She, and Greenstein are just two more creative, well-educated working-class of musicians dedicated to a life for their work, although no one would call them bohemians, because a lot of people resent the self-selected poor, especially ones who work in the arts.
Which is why the recent Pitchfork article on indie classical, even if it is good press in general, is considered a bad look for the term. Conflating highly institutionalized musicians like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who may have sonically influenced the new generation but who at this point are much more entrenched within the establishment music world is wrongheaded, Greenstein and others say. It shifts “indie” from cultural context to aesthetic, threatening to realign a movement or scene based on a politics to one that fits more neatly into prescribed sound-based genres. Don't try to hear the relationship between late-period Schnittke and Karlsson, they ask, but understand the similarity between Bang on a Can and Merge Records.
It's a hard thing to ask an audience to understand, and harder thing to get them to care about. Punk's hardcore succeeded in making questions of production integral to the constitution of the community, so everyone understood not just the aesthetic good but the moral good of their participation in the audience. Wordless Music's Ronen Givony comes from this hardcore community, and Greenstein's lament about lugging amps sounds more like the words of a D.I.Y. lifer than of a living composer. Perhaps it's time for yet another name change. What it would gain in clarity of position it would lose in associative richness for those curious, but still on the outside. But that's the trouble with “indie”—the bird we put on things to charm strangers.
Or perhaps in time, with the continual, frank discussion of musicianship, promotion, curation, and composition itself as labor, an ethically-minded new music audience will form, whatever they want to call themselves. In the class war that is music, Ecstatic Music Festival is one of the places where they hope to show there is nothing wrong with meeting in the middle.
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