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Ryan Manchester » 2010 » April

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Archive for April, 2010

The Alt-Classical Debate

April 29th, 2010

There is a fantastic conversation going on about the relevance about the new  “alt-classical” genre.  For anyone unacquainted with this term, it is a broad categorization of integrating “pop” sounds,( i.e. rock influenced chord progressions, or in extreme cases, drum machines creating beats) in the context of classical music. By classical music, it is meant that the music is created and performed by classically trained composers and performers.

Some compelling posts have been circulating the internet lately, among the most notable are Matt Marks, Brian Sacawa, and the 8th Blackbird blog.  All three have made poignant observations, but what I will address here is the notion of alt-classical being a real movement in the classical scene.

A few years ago when group such as Alarm Will SoundRed Light New Music, ICE, and 8th Blackbird were just getting started, their vision was (and still is) innovative and had the promise of bringing about real change in concert music. By taking music by renown composers and exceptionally talented emerging composers and playing in venues outside of a traditional concert hall setting, it was not surprising how well received these programs were.  These groups (among others) sparked a shift in music presentation and created new outlets (and hope!) for emerging composers.  Unfortunately, like most innovative ideas, this performance model has been exploited by an ever-increasing amount of groups.  The unfortunate thing mentioned is that the quality of programs suffer from either low-caliber composers on the program or the performances themselves are lackluster and downright boring.  It is in this dangerous realm where the label “alt-classical” resides.  Not in that pop influences are cropping up in music by our generation raised on popular culture, but in the lazy approach to either composing or performing, or in some cases both!

Matt Marks makes the suggestion that alt-classical is without context:

Now a single song on a pop album or a single 5-10 minute pop-style alt-classical piece tends not to be the equal of a major classical work, in terms of complexity – or: stuff goin’ on. But as part of a larger work it can be similarly complex and cohesive, even if the other songs/pieces are not utilizing similar themes and/or contributing to a grand architecture in the classical sense. Where Gabriel and I agree is that many of these new alt-classical works fall short of being great works of art. But in my opinion it’s that they fall short of achieving the deepness and complexity of pop music, for two main reasons: the lack of  audio production as a major component and the lack of context as a part of an album or larger work.

I agree on the basic comparison Matt makes here, but like a solid pop track, a single alt-classical work should be able to stand on its own without a larger context.  For example, one of my favorite albums has been Boxer by The National. This album has everything that makes a pop album great: single songs that need no context, but are given one through the musical construction of the album as well as the production value.

My main problem with the alt-classical label and what it represents is low quality and amateur writing/playing that seems to have infiltrated what could be a real movement. I’m not talking about hobbyists either, these guys/gals are graduates of some of the top music schools, so why is the music so sloppy?   Integrating pop components in classical music is logical in this day as classical music has made its way into pop music by groups such as Radiohead, Bjork, and others. In fact, I would argue that the classical influence on these artists is what makes them great, so conversely, shouldn’t having pop music masterfully interwoven into a new concert music piece work in a similar manner?

The answer is yes, these areas should be mutually influential on each other to make great art, but the problem lies in the lack of vision on the part of the creator. So, are there examples of well executed integration between these disparate elements? To quote Matt Marks again:

…recent large-scale works that blur the line between pop and classical and are incredibly complex and meticulously organized. Examples that come to mind are: David T. Little‘s Soldier Songs, Corey Dargel‘s pop-album/song-cycle hybrids, Ted Hearne‘s Katrina Ballads…

These guys do a masterful job blending genres and if alt-classical is going anywhere meaningful, I hope more composers that posses real skill will emerge, but for now, this new genre is inundated undiscerning ears and poorly organized works and programs.

NCP Listening Party

April 12th, 2010

sns2 I am featured on a compilation CD of emerging NY composers.

Nouveau Classical Project is hosting the event at the Nabi Gallery in Manhattan.

This will be an exciting opportunity not only to meet other emerging composers, but also engage in audience interaction about my featured piece. I am not sure which piece they will feature. The best way to find out will be by attending for a modest pre-sale price of $15.

The event opens at 6:30, with composer introductions at 7:30, and the party goes until 9:00.

Did I mention the open bar?

Purchase tickets here.

Thoughts on Aesthetics

April 3rd, 2010

Recently, I had coffee with Benn Rasmussen, Company Director of the innovative Ephemerui dance company. We talked about many things from yoga to the creative process in approaching dance and music. One of the things that stuck with me was our discussion on the creative time line and the consequences it displays in the artists’ work.

Artists constantly (for good reason) work on tight time schedules, meeting deadlines for grants, commissions, etc. while believing that they are exerting their will on time and the work itself. Countless hours are spent in the creative process until a final product is unveiled at a premiere or opening, but the work seems uninspired, or worse, contrived.  After Benn and I discussed the possibilities of the cause of such mediocrity in the current generation of emerging artists, Benn was reminded of something Meredith Monk had told him about her creative process.

It is no secret that Ms. Monk rarely does commissions.  It seems the current count of commissions she has accepted over her entire career rests around four or five.  She explained the reason is because the artist is then working on someone else’s deadline. Not to mention she does not believe in “made to order art.” Benn clarified that Ms. Monk does not even work on her own deadlines, but the project’s deadline.  Meaning that she spends the time getting to know the project so that it takes on a life of its own within the creative process, and after working diligently on the project, it reveals to her what it will be ultimately.

Upon first hearing this remark, I was somewhat skeptical.  But when the creative process is dissected, how many times does a piece reveal itself to the creator? In my case, as I’m sure in many artists’ experiences, once taking a step back to simply examine what I’ve written, the piece is speaking.  Most recently, through observation, it was revealed to me that an entire section of music must be discarded.  This was not easy.  I had worked for hours trying to perfect this particular section, so naturally, I wanted to do what I could to save it, but it was killing the piece as a whole.  Once this was revealed, I had no other choice, but to throw out that section.  Completely throwing out music is not how I typically work, and I believe this marks a new sensitivity in me as a composer. I only hope that this new perspective will last.

Benn shared a similar story and offered that these moments in themselves do not make anyone an artist, but the ability to put ego on hold and release attachment to the object/section in order to make that kind of decision makes the artist.  Not many artists can afford to work this way both in regards to time and money because art has become so commercialized and the competition to the few prestigious commissions and prizes is fierce.  If we as artists could only put our egos on hold and focus on our art, we could channel that precious perceptiveness of people like Meredith Monk,  the artistic world would greatly benefit from the rejection of mediocrity.  Until then, festivals, residencies, and commissions will be flooded with commercialized, uninspired hobbyists that pose as artists.